Rabbinic Reflections

Rabbi Gerald Serotta on 50 Years as a Reform Rabbi, Hillel Leader, Activist, and Bridge-Builder

I was born in Miami, Florida in 1946. Schools, lunch counters, and bathrooms at downtown department stores were as segregated as elsewhere in the South, with signs on the bathrooms (and drinking fountains) designating them as “White” and “Colored.” My family and my synagogue, Temple Israel of Greater Miami, co-founded by my grandparents in the mid 1920s, were deeply involved in the struggles for integration, social justice, and voting rights. Our TIFTY youth group did voter registration in the Liberty City Black ghetto in Miami, paralleling the efforts of the Mississippi summer volunteers in 1963. These issues and causes were discussed at the Seder table and at Shabbat services. We were also involved as a family and synagogue community in later struggles for justice and equality for women, for the LGBT community, farmworkers, and Haitian refugees, as well as in active opposition to the Vietnam War in particular, and militarism in general.   

These same values inspired me to become a rabbi and to continue to express my Jewish identity in the way I was taught and raised. At HUC-JIR, I led protests from day one—against an unfeeling attitude toward rabbinical students and required enrollment in the military chaplaincy—and in favor of curricular reform and the first year in Israel program. As an intern in the office of the Reform Movement’s Social Action Commission, I wrote curricula for camps and schools on the theme of Judaism and the Indo China War and Organizing Your Synagogue for Anti-war Activity. 

While living in Jerusalem between 1970 and 1972, part-time as a grad student and part-time working as a journalist, I became exposed to the issues of social justice there, both internal to Israeli society and between Israel and the Palestinians living in the recently occupied West Bank and Gaza. While there, I worked on preservation of the delicate environment and urban scale of Jerusalem. I was one of the key organizers of the Action Committee for a Beautiful Jerusalem (Vaad Peulah L’maan Yerushalaim Yafah), which prevented or altered many development plans in the area of West Jerusalem, preserving the open space that become Gan HaPaamon (Liberty Bell Park). 

From my work travels on the West Bank, it became clear to me that there were two peoples living in Eretz Yisrael and that self-determination for one required self-determination for the other. From that time to the present, I have organized in support of mutual recognition of the right to self-determination for both peoples (Jewish and Palestinian,) helping to initiate Breira, New Jewish Agenda, and Rabbis for Human Rights-NA (now T’ruah,) each of them advocating for human rights in both the US and Israel/Palestine. I served as the founding chair of the RHR-NA Board for eight years until 2010. I am now working to build support for the joint Israeli-Palestinian organization A Land for All (Eretz L’kulam). 

Most of my professional career (28 years) was spent in Hillel work on campus. While in Hillel, I led efforts to form a union to protect the rights of Hillel workers. I next served for eight years as an associate rabbi in Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Later I worked part-time as the spiritual leader of a small independent congregation, and simultaneously, worked as the executive director of a new non-profit, Clergy beyond Borders. Before retiring in 2020, I continued to do work in promoting interfaith harmony through six years as executive director of the Interfaith Council of Metropolitan Washington. 

I continued to be as involved as I could with other progressive Jewish organizing efforts. I played a role in the early stages to create Jews United for Justice (in DC), and Jewish Fund for Justice (founded in DC and ultimately a national organization that became Bend the Arc), and Friends of Peace Now that later became Americans for Peace Now.    

I have essentially been doing what I was taught and raised to do by my family, especially my mother, who was a devoted activist her entire life, serving on the National Commission for Social Action. She supported every effort to aid the vulnerable and to liberate oppressed groups locally, nationally, and internationally. I was also influenced by many rabbis (including Temple Israel’s Rabbi Joseph Narot, z”l) and ministers such as Martin Luther King Jr. and William Sloane Coffin. I have never wavered that this is the core of my spiritual identity as a Jew as well as my calling as a rabbi. 

 Rabbi Gerald Serotta 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.