Rabbinic Reflections

Rabbi Robert Kravitz on His 50-Year Rabbinic Career Spanning Fargo, Phoenix, Civil Rights, and Chaplaincy

I never planned to be a rabbi; it just sort of happened. One day I was a Connecticut-born college student studying radio, TV, and film at Syracuse, the next day I was driving to Cincinnati. I did conduct Hillel’s Shabbat services, studied voice as an elective in the conservatory, had a successful audition with the Hillel Choir, then a three-year cantorial position at a nearby Conservative synagogue.

Finally, I was on to HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, as a trial. I told Syracuse to hold my slot in their Masters in Rehabilitation Counseling for two years: if HUC-JIR didn’t work out, I’d be back.

Two years became three, and then halfway through my fourth year I’d had it with studying, lectures, tests, etc. As if by a miracle, a rabbi in Milwaukee was going on an Israeli sabbatical and needed a full-time fill-in. I was ready. For more than six months I became a “full-time rabbi” of a significant Reform congregation.

I learned more than I was able to teach. I even officiated a huge wedding ceremony that, were it not for a wonderful congregant who was a judge, would have been a disaster. I never knew of the ordination requirement with the state. The judge did. In the last days before the ceremony he arranged with the CCAR to provide “licensure” for that one day and that one ceremony. Wisconsin was satisfied that I was “ordained.”

Following my Plum Street Temple ordination, I joined a small New York Conservative shul that had interviewed in Cincinnati. During my three plus years there, I became the spokesperson for the Auburn Interfaith Ministries and with support from the CCAR Committee on Cults, kept Rev. Moon from opening his seminary.

My wife-to-be was a “gift” from a colleague. At the Cincinnati CCAR Convention, he slipped me a card with her name and phone number, and said, “Call her, I think you’ll like her.” We married in Syracuse and moved to Georgia, to a liberal Conservative shul. During that decade’s hostage crisis, I stood on the synagogue steps at noon weekly, sounding shofar as my colleagues rang their church bells. Our daughter was born in Macon. My wife and I alternated “shifts.” I was at the synagogue days (also at Mercer University) and my wife worked ICU-CCU at night.

Given the chance to develop a Reform congregation in suburban Atlanta, we relocated. It was very part-time, so I accepted the full-time position of assistant director for American Jewish Committee, Southeast. There I had the privilege of meeting President Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter and working with Andrew Young and others in national Black leadership. I also taught in Atlanta’s Hebrew High School.

When our son was born, we needed a more stable situation. I was told by the CCAR’s Director of Placement that having served smaller, solo congregations would preclude my ascent into larger ones. I was eager to accept a solid Reform pulpit in Fargo, North Dakota. Their leadership was a group of socially conscious, internationally involved, Reform Jews. They also instituted a monthly Shabbat visitation for me with the Grand Forks synagogue. I was appointed adjunct faculty at NDSU. Following my relationship with the USAF in Georgia, I continued as a chaplain to the Air Force at bases in Grand Forks and Minot.

In 1987, the American Jewish Committee invited me to leave the pulpit and open their Phoenix-Southwest office. Civil rights and community relations were my expertise. For twenty years, I elevated AJC to be the Jewish community’s voice. During the Gulf war, the local NBC TV station brought its remote truck to my home so we could do interpretative cutaways from the network.

Phoenix allowed me to stand with state leadership connecting the Jewish community to the Martin Luther King Jr. Civil Rights holiday effort, the formation of Sky Harbor Interfaith Airport Chaplaincy, and the creation of the FBI Citizens’ Academies. I was twice appointed as chairman of the Phoenix Human Relations Commission and developed the Arizona Interfaith Movement. Simultaneously, I officiated for a chavurah during High Holy Days and the chagim. Currently, I am employed part-time as coordinator of the twenty-seven hospital chaplaincy of Jewish Family & Children’s Service.

During my decades in Arizona, I have volunteered as a police chaplain with the City of Phoenix, the AZ DPS/Highway Patrol, and the City of Scottsdale. For fifteen years, I’ve written a community newspaper column and serve on the regional ADL board.

Plaques, trophies, and awards fill my home. My rabbinic adventure has encompassed several careers, positively effecting Jewish communities in at least four states.

Rabbi Robert Kravitz is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and more of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2024.