Immigration Social Justice

For You Were Strangers…

How fitting. My last official public statement as the CCAR Chief Executive was about protection for the immigrant and the refugee.

I say “How fitting” because my own family’s history is one of flight and immigration.

My sister Karen and I are children of immigrants–our mom fled from Dortmund and our dad immigrated to the States from Vienna. One of our uncles would have been, by today’s standards, an “illegal” immigrant. Our great-grandmother was forced to return from the safety of America to Germany and died in a Concentration Camp.

Our parents saw great opportunities in this country for themselves and for their children—both of whom, to their great surprise, became rabbis!

There is no ambiguity in my world. I am alive because somebody stood up for my parents.

For many of us, such stories are part of our family’s histories. We retell them, and we will never forget them. Today, again, people are arriving in our country, seeking to fulfill for themselves the American dream that we were so blessed to be able to realize for ourselves.

As we grew up in our parents’ home, we were aware that voting was a privilege.  We had come to this country as immigrants. We became Americans. And we were proud to participate in American democracy.   

Sadly enough, on Thursday, we saw the Supreme Court betray its responsibility to protect the right of all people to participate in American democracy. The Supreme Court’s recent ruling allowed for the continued practice of gerrymandering, which means that some people’s voices in our country go unheard. As Justice Kagan said “Part of the court’s role in that system [of government] is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections.”

For decades, the Reform Rabbinate–in partnership with courageous lay leadership, our cantorial colleagues, other Jewish professionals, and our interfaith clergy partners–has led the Jewish community in our shared efforts to protect the immigrant, and the right of all citizens to participate in our government.

Today, we–as Reform Jews, and, often, as children of immigrants and refugees–stand for immigrants and refugees of this generation. We raise our voices for all those who suffer from hate and discrimination, whether it’s because of their country of origin, gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, or any other aspect of their identity. Today we look to the next generation of leadership in Reform Jewish life. As Rabbi Hara Person begins her work as the new CCAR Chief Executive, and a new generation of rabbis enters their rabbinates, I am confident that we, as Reform Jews and as children of immigrants, will remain at the forefront of the battle for our values as Jews and as Americans – without any ambiguity.

Rabbi Steve Fox is the Chief Executive Emeritus of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.


Confidentiality in the Ethics Process

What is confidentiality in the CCAR ethics process, and how does it differ from other settings, such as pastoral counseling? Recently, several people—rabbis, participants in ethics cases, members of congregations—have asked questions about the nature of confidentiality in the CCAR ethics process. In particular, several asked whether the names of complainants, victims or witnesses are ever made public. The short answer is no: CCAR does not disclose publicly the names of complainants, victims or witnesses.

Confidentiality is often assumed to be a blanket non-disclosure.  But in different settings, confidentiality means different things.  For example, in a pastoral counseling setting, confidentiality goes to the heart of the congregant’s expectation of privacy between the congregant and the rabbi (or minister).  In fact, that privacy even is recognized in the law as a “priest-penitent privilege” that prevents disclosure of those conversations except in special circumstances.   

The goal of the CCAR process is to help rabbis and communities achieve their aspirational values that reflect the very best of the rabbinate and the community, including sacred and safe communities with rabbis who live up to their highest moral values. Confidentiality in the ethics process is designed to achieve these goals and allow an ethics committee to do its work in a way that is fair, protective, and safe. (As I have written about in other settings, the CCAR ethics process is an ecclesiastical process, not analogous to a legal trial court.)

The CCAR ethics process is one in which the CCAR determines if a rabbi has violated the Code of Ethics.  Someone (an individual or a congregation) begins the process by filing a complaint with the CCAR against a rabbi. Then, the rabbi responds to the complaint, and the process moves forward.  At this point, the process is confidential out of respect for the privacy and reputation of everyone connected to it—parties, witnesses, victims, and potential victims. But it is not secret. 

There’s an important difference.  “Secret” means that nothing is shared and everything is out of the public eye. By contrast, a “confidential” process is one in which information gathered during the process is not broadly disseminated except to others involved in the process so that the Ethics Committee can do its work to determine if a rabbi violated the Code of Ethics. 

To achieve our goals, the CCAR does not publicly identify victims, witnesses or complainants at any stage in the process.  We continue to respect their request for privacy throughout the process and even after it is concluded.

However, adjudications of Code violations that lead to public censure, suspension or expulsion of a rabbi are not kept confidential. In fact, these actions are publicly disclosed on the CCAR website.  

The Code explicitly dictates what information must be disclosed and to whom.  To begin the process, “complaints must be written and include the names of all parties involved.”  (VI.B.1.) The complaint is shared with the rabbi.  Thus, the names of the parties—the complainant and the rabbi—are disclosed to one another and to the Ethics Committee from the outset of a complaint.

While the CCAR Ethics process is ongoing, we ask that everyone connected to it honor the confidentiality of the process.  Confidentiality better assures that the parties and witnesses will provide information and the victims feel they have a safe place to share their experiences.

Yet asking someone, such as a complainant or victim or rabbi, to respect the confidentiality of the process certainly does not mean that people, especially victims, should not talk with their immediate family or close friends about what they have experienced, and it does not prevent anyone from seeking spiritual, emotional, or professional support.  We know that can be of importance to a person’s health and healing.

When it comes to complainants, witnesses, and victims, we may also need to protect them from fear of retaliation or humiliation in some instances.  As written by one of the leaders in the field of clergy misconduct,  “shooting the messenger is a common response to the revelation of unethical conduct.” (Is Nothing Sacred, Marie Fortune) This concern is another reason why we do not disclose publicly the names of the complainants, victims or witnesses.

The CCAR process continues to evolve and improve over time with the input of many people, including those of the rabbis, complainants, and victims themselves.  We especially are proud that lay leaders have joined with rabbis in the ethics process:  on the Ethics Committee which receives complaints and adjudicates; on Fact Gathering Teams, which gather information from complainants, rabbis, and witnesses; on the Ethics Board of Appeals, which hears appeals from an adjudication; and on the Ethics Process Review Committee, which proposes changes to the Code of Ethics.

CCAR members aspire to exhibit the very best of the rabbinic tradition.  The Ethics Code and process reflect those aspirations.

Rabbi Steven A. Fox is the Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

General CCAR

What is Unique About the CCAR Ethics Code

The CCAR Code of Ethics is an “ecclesiastical” system, based on religious principles and our lived experience and shared expectations as rabbis.  The Code has among its goals maintaining safe and sacred communities served by rabbis who live up to the highest moral values.  When a rabbi fails to do so, the Code provides a process to address the needs of the community, any possible victims, the rabbi’s family, and the broader Jewish community.  The system of T’shuvah, Rehabilitation and Counseling is designed for a rabbi’s possible return to health and wholeness, and we hope to rabbinic service.

As conversations take hold in the national media of how companies are responding to allegations of misbehavior, it’s important to take a step back and recognize the way our obligations align and differ from those of other environments. The Human Resources/legal (HR) system is designed to moderate the employer/employee relationship.  Civil law sets out the substance of the law and the procedures that must be followed.   To protect the employer and employee, that system is aimed at a different set of issues: It addresses the rights of an employee to certain protections and processes when employers take action to discipline employees. Rabbis and congregations are in direct contract with one another, and the congregation makes HR/legal decisions like any other employer. CCAR is not the employer of Rabbis.  CCAR is an association of member Rabbis, whose members have agreed to the Code of Ethics and the processes under it.

The HR/ legal system is normally limited by the specific charge brought against an individual.  It is a system that is rooted in law, facts, circumstances, and, importantly, the ability to prove or deflect the proof of wrongdoing.  In that system, an individual can use all procedures and techniques allowed by the law, even to bar evidence that may prove wrongdoing.

The CCAR Ethics system, on the other hand, is rooted in the Code of Ethics to which all rabbis agree to abide and to which we hold one another accountable, even when there is no legal violation.  Unlike some HR/legal processes, we take into consideration all information that the Ethics Committee learns from all possible sources.  We are not limited by the admissibility of evidence in law.  Further, the rabbi cannot limit the outcome of a case by trying to manipulate the evidence as can occur in the civil law.   Also, we are not limited to the “four corners of the complaint” (i.e. only that which is alleged to have happened). We look at the issues and behavior.  For example, if a complaint comes in that alleges that a rabbi created a hostile work environment due to an anger management issue, and in the course of that it is discovered that there was also sexual misconduct, the CCAR can proceed to investigate and adjudicate the discovered issues.

Our system allows us determine whether an individual remains fit for the rabbinate and capable of serving a congregation or organization or individuals.

The Code of Ethics goes to personal failings, personal boundaries that guide relationships, and ways in which we regulate prudent human behavior.  What follows are two examples, one dealing with sexual boundaries, and one with money.

This first example, a sexual boundary violation under the Code of Ethics has a wide breadth, and can include anything from inappropriate language to a consensual extramarital affair to sexual abuse (some of which fall outside of a HR/legal system). Let’s look at the issue of “consent”.  Let’s say, hypothetically, there is a male/female relationship.  In most legal and HR cases, if an individual consents to a relationship, the allegations made by the victim of harassment will usually end.  In that system, the showing of consent can absolve the purported perpetrator.   However, in our system, consent does not end charges of sexual boundary violation by a rabbi.  Thus, for example, even in a “consensual” relationship, if either party is married, it will be a violation of the Code of Ethics by the rabbi.  We look at many issues of the dynamic of a relationship between a rabbi and a lay person, including abuse of power, real and symbolic authority, and other behaviors which, even if they are “legally” consensual, might still exploit the vulnerability of a victim or compromise the moral integrity of a rabbi.

The second example is financial.  In a legal system, when there are allegations of financial mismanagement or a diversion of funds, evidence must rise to the level of proof of the actual diversion.  In our system, the Code of Ethics provides that even an “appearance” of financial misconduct can constitute a violation.  This goes to the issues of imprudence.  We seek to protect the integrity of the rabbinate, or a rabbi’s discretionary fund, and even the intent of the donor.  This applies even if there is no legal diversion.

The CCAR Ethics Code is a complaint driven system—someone must bring a complaint against a rabbi to start the process.  The Ethics Committee first determines if there is sufficient evidence to adjudicate immediately.  For example, in a situation where a rabbi acknowledges the truth of the allegations and admits his/her violation of the Code of Ethic, the Ethics Committee can adjudicate. Or, if the Committee has questions, it can look further. If there is not sufficient information to adjudicate, the Ethics Committee appoints a Fact Gathering Team who will meet with the complainant, rabbi, and other potential witnesses such as congregational leaders, spouses, congregants, and others.  Once sufficient information is obtained to adjudicate, the Fact Gathering Team refers the matter back to the Ethics Committee for adjudication.  If the rabbi is found in violation of the Code, the rabbi then has thirty days to appeal.   Notice of the adjudication of a Censure, Suspension or Expulsion is sent to the rabbi, the victim, and the rabbi’s congregation or organizational supervisor.

Unlike an HR setting, the CCAR does not have the power to remove a rabbi from his or her rabbinic position.  If a rabbi appears to be a “serious danger to others”, the Ethics Committee will notify the rabbi’s supervisor or congregational President and “urge that the rabbi be removed from rabbinic function prior to the investigation.”

Only after adjudication can the CCAR place restrictions on a rabbi prohibiting him/her from functioning as a rabbi in the community.  Again, here we have a limitation also.  The CCAR does not have the power to defrock a rabbi.  If the rabbi resigns from the CCAR (leading to an expulsion) the rabbi can independently hang out a shingle and seek rabbinic employment. For that reason, we prefer to suspend rabbis rather than expel them, because while suspended they remain accountable to our ethics code. If, however, a Rabbi refuses to cooperate or resigns rather than follow the Ethics process, that Rabbi is expelled and the expulsion will be announced.   Lastly, even after a rabbi completes a rehabilitation process, notice of Censure, Suspension and Expulsion is given to a prospective employer.

Importantly, lay leaders join with rabbis on the CCAR ethics committees:  the Ethics Committee (which receives complaints and adjudicates), the Ethics Appeals Board (which hears appeals from an adjudication) and the Ethics Process Review Committee (which proposes changes to the Ethics Code).  Lay leaders also are on the fact gathering teams that investigate complaints.

As we deal with any painful issue of rabbinic misconduct,  it is important to distinguish between what the CCAR Code of Ethics is and what it cannot be. Clearly, the Code of Ethics is not a legal document written by a group of lawyers trying to protect employees and the employer, whose relationships ends when an employee is terminated or leaves. Rather, the Code of Ethics is a system of rabbinic accountability to which we, as rabbis and members of the CCAR, have voluntarily agreed to live by in order to uphold the highest ideals of Jewish ethics. In this task we will continue to persevere.

Rabbi Steven A. Fox is the Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. 

Israel News Rabbis Reform Judaism

Our Colleagues in Israel: Rabbi-ing Under Fire

“There was a siren as we readied for Chupa… and after breaking the glass the sirens sent us back to the shelter…”

 “I am gripped with fear for my son in Gaza, yet I must serve the needs of my community members too…”

 “Our Oneg Shabbat was filled with emotion – we give spiritual power to one another…”

 “Can you imagine? We need to move our 700 children from summer camp into a shelter and yet our work is to stay calm…”

 “Our Beit Knesset became the Gan (preschool) because it is closer to the shelter…”

 “Our society is more united than ever…. And we must not allow the extremist groups to define us…”

 “I am distressed over the loss of human life on both sides…. I know many Palestinians in my work… Hamas holds these people as hostages.”

 “Many of my community feels isolated, alone… one of us being strong helps another be strong…”

 “We move from funeral to shiva to shelters….”

 “I will not thank you for coming to Israel this week. What you are doing is a Mitzvah and we do not thank someone for doing a Mitzvah…”

CCAR Rabbis with MARAM colleagues in Tel Aviv.

It is impossible to capture in writing the emotions of the many people with whom we engaged during the CCAR’s Israel Solidarity Mission this past week, let alone the voices of our Rabbinic colleagues serving in Israel. It was a moving moment to simply sit with the Rabbis of MARAM – the Council of Progressive Rabbis in Israel –who are also members of the CCAR, and to listen to their stories.

Serving as a Reform Rabbi in Israel presents its own unique set of challenges for sure. Yet, like rabbis in North America and throughout the world, our Israeli colleagues regularly serve as teachers of Torah, religious leaders, pastoral guides, community organizers, fundraisers, and advocates for a just society that includes pluralistic voices and the right to practice Judaism as Progressive Jews.

But these past few weeks our Israeli colleagues have had to reach deep within themselves in ways that few of us in North American have ever experienced. They must rely upon their own spiritual and emotional anchors to find the strength to serve as rabbis to their congregations, communities and Israelis in general. They are caring for those who run to shelters, who fear for their children and grandchildren on the front lines, and are concerned for the future of their country, even as carry their own worries and fears.

Israeli Reform Rabbis serve as leaders in building sacred and safe communities Israeli society; in established locations in Tel Aviv, Modiin, Jerusalem, and Haifa, as well as emerging towns like S’derot, Ashkelon, G’dera and more. They lead the way in creating an Israeli society based upon Jewish values through Jewish education that extends far beyond the Hebrew language to the essential teachings of Jewish tradition; by creating holy places where men and women are equal in ritual matters and daily living; by welcoming new Jews into their community through their conversation and beit din; and importantly by educating the next generation of Israelis in the meaning and practice of Judaism.

And in these challenging weeks these rabbis provide the religious spiritual and emotional leadership that will enable Israel to move past this war as a healthy and fulfilled society.

The Israeli Reform Rabbinate is making significant strides in the religious life of Israel, and we must all commend our seminary, Hebrew Union College, Jerusalem, for its visionary work ordaining Reform Rabbis in Israel. Once ordained, these rabbis are members of MARAM, which continues to support, encourage, unite, and empower these rabbis as leaders in Israeli society. Of course, MARAM plays a significant role in this work, especially in cultivating new Reform communities throughout Israel and in partnership with the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ).

CCAR with Rabbis Kinneret Shiryon and Nir Barkin at  Kehillat Yotzma in Modi'in.
CCAR with Rabbis Kinneret Shiryon and Nir Barkin and some of their members at Kehillat Yotzma in Modi’in.

Amidst all this, it comes down to the human side of the rabbinate and our rabbis. Last week, we sat with Rabbi Nir Barkin and Rabbi Kinneret Shiryon to study texts.  With Kinneret we studied the Akedah, looking at through poems of Yehudah Amichai and relating it to the current situation in Israel.  Kinneret spoke of her own tremendous fear for her son who had just been called up to serve in Gaza as a reserve soldier.  With Nir we studied about Tisha B’av and were challenged by him to rethink the meaning of the Tisha B’av. During our study session, Nir revealed that their middle child, Omri, was somewhere in Gaza, and that they had gone days without hearing from him. (See what Nir wrote about this experience at Rabbi Nir Barkin Relates His Experience as the Father of a Soldier). A few hours after saying goodbye to Nir, we learned that Omri’s unit had come under attack and suffered devastating losses with three people killed and fifteen injured. Omri survived, others did not. Within hours it was Shabbat; a Shabbat for Nir’s congregation and community, but not a Shabbat of Shalom for Nir, his wife Anat, their family, friends and country.

Israel News Rabbis Reform Judaism

A View from Mount Herzl: CCAR Israel Solidarity Trip

We began at Mt Herzl this morning, the third day of the CCAR Emergency Mission of support for Israel. Mt Herzl is the military cemetery of the State of Israel where men and women killed in defense of Israel lie side by side whether they were new to the army or a high-ranking career soldier.

We slowly made our way through the cemetery stopping at places such as the grave of Michael Levin, one of those now known as a Lone Soldier. We soon made our way to the row of new graves of solders buried this past week including perhaps the name best known to those of us in North America, Max Steinberg.

photo 2Standing in front of the mounds of earth forming these graves (not yet formally marked except for that of Max) I was suddenly overwhelmed with a deep sadness as I realized that we were standing on the strip of dirt where the next row of graves would soon be dug. Moments later a group of young soldiers came walking into the cemetery, fresh in their uniforms, youthful in their faces and the ways in which they moved. Who among them might be next? Do they even think that way? They soon left the cemetery far more quiet than when they had entered.

I must admit that I do not know if this emotional moment and other experiences this week have pushed me more “to the right or to the left” about Israel and the current war it faces.

Certainly we have seen first hand that Israel cannot tolerate Hamas in Gaza indiscriminately firing missiles into Israel’s civilian population and digging attack tunnels from which it can carry out acts of terror against Israel’s men, women and children. As we visited S’derot in the south of Israel, in view of the Gaza border, talking to Israelis of all ages we could hear in their voices their anxiety after living with years of unanswered rockets; we learned of Kibbutzim abandoned by all but a few; we shared some of that fear as we too were forced into shelters as the sirens sounded in Ashkelon and later in Tel Aviv.

We have also heard first hand from Israelis who share their anguish about the civilians killed in Gaza, Palestinians used by Hamas as human shields to protect its military headquarters, rocket launchers and fighters. For example, we saw a Rueters’ film of Hamas terrorists grabbing children off the streets to protect themselves as the moved into positions. A number of our speakers and friends have referred to Golda Meir’s remarks to Anwar Sadat more than 40 years ago that “We can forgive you for killing our sons. But we will never forgive you for making us kill yours.”

IMG_7966At the same time, it has been made clear from those we have met with – from Members of Knesset to military strategists, from older people to younger people, from rabbis to mall employees – that living at war cannot continue. Many say that the real subject of discussion has to be “what’s next.”

What’s next? A two state solution remains the most viable option, with an empowered Palestinian Authority controlling not just the West Bank but, as Shimon Peres reportedly said today, also back in control of Gaza in place of Hamas. At this moment, press such as the NY Times reports that this is a moment when other Arab countries may be ripe for such a push: “Egypt has led a new coalition of Arab states — including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan — that has effectively lined up with Israel in its fight against Hamas.”

It has been nearly 40 years since my classmates and I were first year rabbinic students in Jerusalem. I hope and pray that it is not another 40 years before peace comes to this land and that the graves on Mount Herzl are for significant political and Zionist leaders only, not for the young Israelis whose lives are cut down far too young.

Rabbi Steven A. Fox is the Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinic leadership organization of Reform Judaism. The CCAR consists of 2,000 Rabbis in North American, Israel and throughout the world who lead more than 1.5 millions Jews in all walks of life in congregations, community settings, universities, chaplaincies and even the U.S. military.

News Rabbis Social Justice

Rabbinic Leadership – Fifty Years Ago and Today

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the historic arrest of CCAR rabbis in St. Augustine, Florida, where they traveled at the request of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. This talk, inspired by the moral leadership of this group, was originally presented as a sermon on Shabbat B’haalot’cha, June 6, 2014, to a Joint Board Meeting of the CCAR, URJ, HUC-JIR, along with the members of the Cincinnati Reform community who joined together for Shabbat.

Fifty years ago this month, Rabbi Israel Dresner was attending the CCAR Annual Convention when he received a telegram from his friend the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We need you down here with as many rabbis as you can bring with you!”

Sixteen rabbis, along with Al Vorspan, director of the Religious Action Center, then a newly formed joint enterprise of the UAHC (URJ) and the CCAR, proceeded to St. Augustine, Florida. Why did they respond to Dr. King’s call? In the words of our seventeen leaders[1]:

“We came because we … could not pass by the opportunity to achieve a moral goal by moral means…

Leadership at its core has a moral quality – as exemplified by these seventeen Reform Leaders.

How do we act as moral leaders? Rabbi Charles Mantenband, a rabbi little known to most, had served in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where my wife Vicki grew up (and in other communities). Active in the Civil Rights Movement, in 1964 he laid out a four step agenda for leadership with what he called an “innocent rhyming device”:   “aware, care, dare, share.” The Rabbi explained: Aware is to “be informed”; Care is to “indicate your concern”; “Dare is to “take risks”; and Share is to “give of yourself.”[2]

Aware is to be informed.

To be informed requires a lifetime commitment to ongoing education and an awareness of the world in which we live.

For our rabbis, anchored in Torah, it also means learning new leadership skills that involve strategic thinking, organizational management, financial sustainability, and community-building.

For our lay leaders, anchored in our contemporary society and business models, it also means learning Torah and the Jewish values that guide our work.

In addition, to be aware and informed requires self-awareness. In this regard, we model ourselves on Moses, as it says in this week’s Torah portion: Moses was a very humble leader, more so than any other human being on earth (Numbers 12:3). In today’s contemporary language, we would say that we as rabbis and as lay leaders must practice tzimtzum. The contraction of the self to make room for other people and for God in leadership.

Care is to indicate your concern for others.

Why, our commentators asked, is it so praiseworthy that the Torah portion emphasized in the opening verses that Aaron lit the lamps as God had commanded? Because Aaron in his new elevated, superior role retained his humility and still adhered to the customary practice of the people without deviating.

Midrash notes that Aaron was a man of the people. He did not separate from his community but stayed amongst them and with them: When there was a conflict between two people he “would not rest” until he returned them to friendship. When someone did not know how to pray, Aaron became that person’s teacher. If, according to Midrash, someone did not understand Torah, Aaron would explain it.[3]

Today as leaders we strive to model Aaron’s attention to the uniqueness of each individual as we build caring, welcoming, and inclusive communities.

And our concern is not limited to just our local community, but also to groups of people who have been cut off from the community, disenfranchised, or denied their rights. Throughout our history as a rabbinic leadership organization, the CCAR has championed the fundamental principle that every person has been created in God’s image, is entitled to dignity and equality and respect. For that reason, the CCAR this week joined as a plaintiff in a Federal lawsuit that challenges North Carolina’s law banning same-sex marriage. (That law violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of the right of individuals and congregations to freely practice our religion.)

To care is to act upon our concern.

safe_image.phpDare is to take risks.

Leading to a new future is not easy; it involves taking risks; it may involve failure as well as success. It does not always make one popular. And as we know, our people can complain. As it says in the Torah portion, the people took to complain bitterly about their transition. And discontent can spread quickly. Torah teaches that Moses quickly heard the people weeping, every clan, and at the entry of every tent (Numbers 11:1-10).

Today’s leaders must have the capacity to live with such complaints. In contemporary terminology, our leaders must learn to live with disruption, to hold it in our hands, to manage and lead through that disruption to new beginnings.[4]

Share is to give of yourself.

This weekend, leaders of the CCAR, HUC-JIR, and the URJ will have the opportunity to explore what calls each of you to leadership, what you are willing to share of yourself as you take responsibility.

We also acknowledge that shared leadership is a historic Jewish value. Moses himself cries out that he could not “carry all these people by myself.” God told him to create an advisory board of seventy elders (Numbers 11:16).

Shared leadership is not always easy. Certainly, as we look to the future, the qualities of leadership between rabbinic and professional leaders, on the one hand, and lay leadership, on the other, overlap. But each has unique roles in our organizations. In the Torah portion, Moses stations the 70 leaders around the tent; perhaps the first indication of strategically placed leadership. Each person with his or her own unique role, just as Moses and Aaron too had special roles.

But, at the same time, the Torah’s reference to Eldad and Medad, reminds us that all people have the potential for leadership. As Moses declared: “If only all God’s people were prophets; that the Eternal put the divine spirit upon all of them” (Numbers 11:29).

As we look to the future of Jewish leadership in North America and throughout the world, we hope and we pray that God will put the divine spirit upon each and every one of you, every one of us, who will lead the Reform Movement into its new future.

Rabbi Steven A. Fox is the Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.  

[1] The seventeen include: Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, Rabbi Balfour Brickner, Rabbi Israel Dresner, Rabbi Daniel Fogel, Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein, Rabbi Joel Goor, Rabbi Joseph Herzog, Rabbi Norman Hirsh, Rabbi Leon Jick, Rabbi Richard Levy, Rabbi Eugene Lipman, Rabbi Michael Robinson, Rabbi B.T. Rubenstein, Rabbi Murray Saltzman, Rabbi Allen Secher, Rabbi Clyde T. Sills, and Mr. Albert Vorspan.

[2] The full text of Rabbi Mantenband’s presentation can be found in the CCAR Yearbook, 1964.

[3] Rashi and others have observed that Torah commends Aaron for adhering to the customary practice without deviation. There is a good explanation of this, as well as the commentary of Rabbi Meir at Premishlan, in Abraham Torsky’s Living Each Week commentary on this particular Torah portion.

[4] Also, we hear a great deal today about entrepreneurship in the Jewish community and that rabbis themselves must be entrepreneurs. In the 19th century, Richard Cantillon first defined an entrepreneur as a “bearer of risk”.

Ethics General CCAR News Rabbis

Immigration Reform: A Renewed Call to Action

potsdam01Immigration is an age old topic that we as Jews have been considering from the beginnings of our history.  Welcoming the stranger is not a new concept for us.  We know that the Torah commands us “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 2:20).  For Jews in particular, we understand and empathize with “welcome the stranger” as we are a people oft denied basic liberties throughout our history in the Diaspora.

Now fast-forward thousands of years.  Many of you, like me, are the children of immigrants who came to this country as strangers.  My parents fled a war-torn Europe that offered them no hope; that sought to take their lives because they were Jews.   America for our parents was the Goldeneh Medina, a place of that offered them a new life with economic and religious opportunity.   Growing up, we always heard the stories that helped us know that the United States was a beacon of light and hope to them, as it was to generations who arrived before them and as it must be in the future.

While the waves of European immigrants faced their own trials immigrating to this country, and far too many have been turned away, there is no doubt how blessed we are that the United States opened its borders to European refugees.   And we remember those who fought the battle to open the doors of immigration which at times were closed, as well as our relatives and others turned away because of quotes and other restrictions

Today, the U.S. immigration system is broken.  We turn away or kick out those who can help build our intellectual, economic and social infrastructure; we IMG_3829criminalize those who seek a better life and deprive them of basic liberties; we subject far too many to policies and enforcement that are unfair and demeaning.  And, bottom line, we do not effectively prevent unauthorized immigration.

Our core values push us to fight for the right of the immigrant to be treated fairly and justly.  The Reform Rabbinate has for years pushed for a comprehensive approach: improve border security and immigration law enforcement, provide for a just and fair path to citizenship for those in the country without legal documentation, provide basic protections for workers, and be inclusive of LGBT families.

These are not new concepts.  For nearly 100 years, the CCAR has “urged our nations to keep the gates of the republic open” (CCAR Resolution, 1920).  In 2006, the Reform Rabbinate again declared that the CCAR:

  • Affirms that the United States is a nation of laws, to be enforced and respected to maintain a civil society. At the same time, we expect that — especially in a Constitutional republic founded on principles of human dignity — the laws must be both just and equitable.
  • Applauds and supports our nation’s leaders who call for comprehensive immigration reform, which would include a guest worker program and a path to earned legalization.
  • Commits itself to advocacy for an immigration law that improves border security, provides for guest workers, and for a “just and fair path to citizenship.”

The time is now for action – a unique opportunity in our society.  This week the Reform Rabbinate is taking concrete steps forward.  In the next few days and weeks, you will hear much more about Immigration Reform from the CCAR as we initiate Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, a joint project of the Reform Movement’s social justice initiatives: the Justice and Peace Committee of the CCAR, the Religious Action Center, and Just Congregations.   Reform Rabbis will receive support so to take action as individuals; involve community members (congregants and other constituents); engage and partner with the broader community; and, lead publicly and support the leadership of others.

The important work of Rabbis Organizing Rabbis offers the opportunity to unite the collective strength of the Reform Rabbinate – and the communities we lead — to unite on this truly important issue. The time has come press President Obama and Congress to pass meaningful immigration reform. I urge you to join in this important cause.


General CCAR News Prayer Reform Judaism

An Interfaith Prayer for an Interfaith Crowd

Rabbis Steve Foster & Steve Fox at the National Prayer Service 2013
Rabbis Steve Foster & Steve Fox
at the National Prayer Service 2013


This week I attended the National Prayer Service in the Washington National Cathedral on the day after the Inauguration. The service was beautiful and moving, a dignified end to a whirlwind of parades and inaugural galas.  However, as we sat in the pews of the National Cathedral, with its soaring vaulting and stained-glass windows, I couldn’t help my mind from racing with questions around the issue as to whether a national prayer service is appropriate?

Can you gather together a room full of rabbis, priests, pastors and imams to actually pray together for a national leader?  Are we being disingenuous to sit together in a church as prayers are offered for our country that do not reflect our own beliefs?  Can we pray together without leaving each other out?  Does prayer even belong in a national setting?

On the National Cathedral website, the spokeswoman of the Presidential Inaugural Committee said, “President Obama’s own faith has played an integral role in his life, his commitment to service and his presidency, and this important tradition will celebrate the values and diversity that make us strong”.

That statement, and for that matter most of the press covering the National Prayer Service, seems to mix a multitude of issues.  President Obama, a person of faith, wants to worship in his “own faith” with his ministers in his tradition; so, how do we respect his tradition?   How do the faith leaders of the National Prayer Service decide on appropriate prayer to respect Mr. Obama’s traditions, while still “celebrating the values and diversity that make us strong”?

The issue of appropriate prayer in interfaith settings has been the subject of discussion recently among CCAR members, with colleagues and scholars sharing many thoughts on all sides of the questions:

Do we try and find a common prayer?  Or do we pray in parallel, each along the lines of our own traditions? 


For me the answer is simple—we each pray in our own tradition.  The opportunity to gather with religious people of many faiths in the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul (the National Cathedral’s actual name) requires us to open our ears, minds and hearts to respect someone else’s tradition, to allow each to pray in his/her own way, and to appreciate the celebration of diversity and inclusiveness.  The success of inclusivity at the National Prayer Service from the diverse group of clergy and other religious leaders comes from the commitment to gather together in support of something harmonious and peaceful.

In this instance, as President Obama’s tradition involves his belief in Jesus, we respect this tradition and do not expect him and his clergy to expunge the name of Jesus from their prayers, just as we do not expect clergy of other faiths to pray from our traditions.  When there is a Jewish president, the rabbis leading the service should expect and deliver the same—a service guided in Jewish tradition, with clarity as to our expectations of other clergy.

You can call it a National Prayer Service or a joint prayer service or whatever you like.  But as each of us sit in the National Cathedral or in our churches, or synagogues, or mosques, or even in our own living rooms, we each invoke our own prayers in our hearts to guide President Obama through his second term.

General CCAR News Reform Judaism

Faith in America’s Future Includes Our Faith.

Inauguration 2013
Inauguration 2013

I was honored today to represent the CCAR at the Inauguration of Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States of America, as he was sworn in for his second term.  Words cannot really describe the experience of viewing the ceremony with my own eyes – and the experience was at certain times surprisingly emotional. It was quite moving to watch Mr. Obama, his family, and the representatives of the American government walk through this ritual with all of the pageantry that has developed since the inauguration was moved to January back in 1933.  But even before the ceremony began, the crowd in our area burst into spontaneous cheering as Tuskegee Airmen walked by us to their seats.  Once the program began, speakers honored the legacy of great Americans from the founders of the Republic to Dr. Martin Luther King.  It was touching when entertainers of several generations including James Taylor, Kelly Clarkson and Beyoncé sang American patriotic songs and a Cuban-American poet, Richard Blanco, shared his work.

All morning I was struck by the confluence of old and new; the diversity of America’s population as represented by the people all around us; our country’s history and legacy intersecting with our need as a nation to be reenergized and rejuvenated.

As honored and humbled as I was to receive the Presidential Inaugural Committee’s invitation, I know that the invitation was actually meant for the 2,000 rabbis of the CCAR, the rabbis who lead Reform Jewish life in North America and other places around the world.

Each invite I have received from the White House for a briefing or a meeting with key leadership or even for the Chanukah celebration serves as an important

With Newark Mayor Corey Booker at Inauguration 2013
With Newark Mayor Corey Booker at Inauguration 2013

recognition of the key leadership role that Reform Rabbis play in American Jewish life.  The arrival of that White House envelope on my desk means that the United States Government has recognized CCAR members as thought leaders and community builders in all aspects of the Jewish community, in every major Jewish organization, and on the ground working with their community members from all walks of life every single day. The honor bestowed upon CCAR Rabbis who were present today is one of the many ways in which CCAR Rabbis reinforce our roles as intermediaries between policy makers in Washington and our congregations and communities.

The theme of the 2013 Inauguration was “Faith in America’s Future”.   Most people will understand this to mean that President Obama’s second term should be looked forward to with “faith” (i.e., hope).  I believe “faith” has a secondary meaning for us as Jews.  If you interpret the word “faith” as do many of our rabbis and their community members (i.e., religion, culture, spirituality or the like), then my invitation to the inauguration as a CCAR representative makes perfect sense.  Faith in America includes our Jewish Faith.

As we send President Obama into his second term with our heartfelt prayers, we should each take this moment to reenergize and rejuvenate, as we move forward to face our the challenges of our communities with a faith that is grounded in tradition, while at the same time inclusive and forward looking.

Ethics General CCAR News Reform Judaism Statements

Arming Rabbis? Not in My Time, I Pray.

Yes, I have fired a gun on more than one occasion; most recently at a training range on a Kibbutz in Israel* in 2009 and early on as a teenager at target practice with a friend and his dad.  The experiences unnerved me; the echoing boom, the kick of the weapon and even more, the thought that the gun I fired, no matter how small, had the potential to take a human life.

Mourning in Newtown, CT
Mourning in Newtown, CT

My limited experience with weapons affirms for me the sentiments I have been hearing these past two weeks from my colleagues, friends and so many grieving families across the nation.  Guns are far too easy to use — and misuse — and we must continue to demand from Congress reasonable regulations for guns and assault weapons.

The “solution” suggested last week by the NRA- placing armed guards in schools- is beyond absurd. Even since Newtown there have been other mass shootings, including in a church, to which Gail Collins of the NY Times said in context of the NRA’s comment, “We will await the next grand plan for arming ministers.”

Not in my time, I pray- may we not see armed ministers, rabbis or school security guards.

For decades the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) has decried “the power of the NRA in controlling the debate on gun control” (2000) and called upon “the U.S. Congress to eschew the support of the NRA and to vote their support of stringent gun-control legislation”(1987).

Our resolution has not changed; we continue to support meaningful gun control legislation that will stem these senseless episodes of mass violence.  In the CCAR’s recent public statement about the Newtown shootings, we expressed our condolences to whose who suffered losses, sympathies for those wounded, and fear that the NRA will continue to thwart not just legislation, but even conversation, about the need to stop the gun violence.

But expressing these feelings is not enough.

Reform Rabbis who are on the front lines of Jewish communal life can join together, and with clergy of other faiths, to advocate in support of meaningful gun control nationwide and in their own communities- (studies indicate that “states with strong gun laws and low rates of gun ownership had far lower rates of firearm-related death”).  At the CCAR we remain committed to providing rabbis with resources on ways that they may advocate and organize, such as in partnership with Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center.

Importantly, the CCAR also provides our rabbis personal support and resources as their communities turn to them for religious and pastoral comfort in time of tragedy.  Our volunteer Rabbis on Call and Rabbinic Hotline, as well as CCAR’s Rabbinic Staff, support rabbis who themselves offer prayer and comfort to their communities.  We also provide resources grounded in Jewish text, theology, and philosophy on subjects ranging from the sanctity of life to the abhorrence of violence.

Our rabbis also benefit from the strength of partnership.  At the end of last week, the CCAR joined forces with the Rabbinical Assembly (the Conservative Rabbis), and the Religious Action Center to provide hundreds of rabbis the opportunity to learn from other leaders in our faith; including one of our rabbis who is serving Newtown as the Director of Spiritual Care at Danbury Hospital; a rabbi and advocate for Faiths United Against Gun Violence; and from the Executive Director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

In the CCAR’s latest statement, we expressed our understanding that comprehensive laws cannot stop all gun violence.  But we must continue to act in the words of our tradition: “one who saves one life saves a whole world.”

*Important footnote:  As to the incorrect statements made last week by the pro-gun lobby, Israel is actually a country with strict control over weapons in the civilian population.