Categories
CCAR Convention Rabbinic Reflections

Healing, Restoring, and Renewing: Rabbi Lewis Kamrass’ CCAR Convention 2022 Sermon

The 133rd annual Convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis was held March 27-30, 2022 in San Diego, where 300 Reform rabbis gathered in person with several hundred online. Here, we share CCAR President Rabbi Lewis Kamrass’ powerful, moving sermon addressing the Reform rabbinate.


In Masechet B’rachot, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught: One who sees his friend after thirty or more days have passed recites “Blessed is the Eternal One who has kept us alive, sustained us and brought us to this time” (B’rachot 58b). Commentators have debated whether it should be recited if some correspondence or conversation took place in the interim. But as I look at each of you gathered here, 350 rabbis, joined together for the first time in three years, and those of you joining us virtually, with the most genuine sentiment I say,

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ, מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה  

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, shehecheyanu v’kyimanu v’higianu lazman hazeh! It is so renewing for us to be together again: studying, praying, laughing, learning, debating, and probing questions of meaning. Perhaps now more than ever, we understand the wonder and the joy of being together as colleagues. 

After two years of isolation, of weddings and b’nai mitzvah without guests, of Zoom holidays and classes, of services led with only a camera or a screen before us, and of funerals with no one present to comfort the mourner, I would suggest that on the heels of a pandemic, we feel depleted, not simply because of endless redesigning of our work, but also because we were deprived of the renewing spirit of community found in serving others in person. Now, at this gathering, our thoughtful study or the simple conversations in the hallway or over a meal will have even greater resonance for us, as we seek to replenish and be restored. 

To be restored—that is very much what Torah speaks to this week, in Parashat Tazria. While some would say it is that portion that only a dermatologist can love, perhaps these instructions of priestly leadership may also bring heightened meaning to us at this time. For we have known the residual effects of isolation from a plague, of being separated from community. And we rabbis now sense what the ancient priests must have felt: the exhausting responsibility of keeping those isolated in contact, reassured that they would be reconnected to community, that the צרעת tzara’at would pass, that all might be restored.  

But of course, even in being restored, nothing can be exactly as it once was. Because we are not the same as we once were. And neither is our world. Since we were last together, we have experienced massive disruption in our work, in our families, and in the larger world. We have known tzara’at of the fabric of society. Consider for a moment a quick review of the last two years: the first pandemic of our lives, widespread illness and death, a threat to democracy, racial tension, rejection of past injustice, the rise of nationalism and antisemitism, terror aimed at synagogues and even our brave colleagues, a war that threatens Europe and brings with it an unparalleled refugee crisis, and so much more. Chaos is the backdrop that drapes our daily lives. Our tzara’at is disruption that afflicts the order in which we once labored.  

These headlines of our day deeply impact our lives. Our tradition teaches that a tzara’at is not only to the affected patch of skin, but extends to the thoughts and the emotions, the fears and the hopes of everyone it touches. Our congregations, schools, Hillels, chaplaincies, and communities are not immune from this. As rabbis, we keenly feel the cultural pressure of skepticism of authority, polarization and the diminished value of giving others the benefit of the doubt. Further, the contemporary plague of disruption has touched every individual. There is widespread vulnerability and fragility. Frustration or anger bubbles up too easily. Relationships are frayed.  And for so many, mental health concerns proliferate. 

Our Torah enumerates the job description of the priest to examine and decree the tzara’at, the affliction. The procedures are detailed with the uncomplicated clarity of an instruction book. Yet, if we place ourselves in the shoes of the priests, we can imagine what might have been in their hearts as they carried out their tasks. More than making a simple pronouncement of tzara’at, that priest stood face to face with the afflicted, looking into their eyes. That priest saw the anxiety and fear of the afflicted person, the disruption to their lives and to their family that isolation brought, the pleading uncertainty written upon their faces. And what they saw there had to unsettle the priests, who, after all, accompanied the afflicted both to isolation and subsequently to their return to the community.  

We rabbis stand in the shoes of the ancient priests in our contemporary cultural affliction, the tzara’at of disruption. With tender care and sometimes with heavy hearts, each day we have the privilege to look into the eyes of our people.  And we stare in the mirror, seeing reflected in our own eyes our moments of deep and revealing thoughts. Colleagues, we are all מצורע m’tzora—afflicted with the plague and its ensuing dislocation. So many of us have struggled through the added demands and the lengthened hours, and received the frustrations of those we serve, even as we experience our own. The lesion of disruption has shaken us with our own vulnerability. We are burdened with self-doubt, overwhelmed by the demands, and seeking to balance so much in our lives when even the ground beneath us feels unsure. With our high expectations of self, we wonder if we are up to the enormity and complexity of the task.   

Now colleagues, as I look into your eyes, this I know: like the ancient rabbis before us and the priests before them, we are up to the task. We are the ones to rise to the moment, because this is the moment to which we have been called. But neither you nor I can do this alone. How much we need to turn to our colleagues with the vulnerable and searching questions of the heart, to help us clarify the direction we seek. We need to discover our strength not in appearing to stand tall through the storm, but in offering a generous hand to lift one another up to this moment. Even rabbis need a rabbi. So let us look to one another to comfort, challenge, teach, and guide us. And we need our Conference as well, not only for resources or knowledge, but for wisdom, strength, support, and care. Along with our volunteer leadership, our extraordinary and compassionate professionals—led by our rabbi, Hara Person—are endeavoring to shape a CCAR that is ever more responsive to those urgent needs of the rabbinic soul. And we look to you to help us do so. We all need to be kinder to one another, to give the benefit of the doubt, and to shape a nourishing environment of understanding and care. That is what a rabbinic chevra is at its essence. So, in these days together here and in the year that unfolds, let us be deeply honest and boldly vulnerable with one another, and let us respond with an equal generous measure of kindness and caring. In an age where k’vod harav כבוד הרב is devalued, we must elevate that fundamental principle within our own discourse. 

And colleagues, as our people in the wilderness relied upon the priests, our people today need us more than ever. I can assure you: that need will only grow. If we are to restore our people to faith in the bedrock strength of our tradition and in the comforting care of community, we will need more rabbis in every venue of rabbinic leadership. So, as I did last year, now even more urgently do I sound the warning that we are not raising up enough disciples. It has always been the rabbi who has identified and inspired Jews to become rabbis and to assure our future. We dare not wait for a young person to come to us to ask about the rabbinate, or we will leave Jewish life starved for leadership and strength. The crisis is upon us now, not for the next generation, but now and for the next years before us. We must look past the urgency of today’s many problems that confront us, to the longer horizon in which we lead and serve, for you and I are the solution to this looming crisis. We should engage in rabbinic קירוב keiruv (outreach), with our personal invitation to those we find promising. In this moment, reflect and consider those people to whom you could turn: promising teens, college students, young adults, and those in engaged in Jewish life in our communities. Initiate conversations. Invite them to enter a life of unparalleled meaning. We secure the future of Jewish life not only by our teaching and our deeds, but in the disciples that we inspire and invite to join us. Our history, our community, and our faith hold us accountable to that. 

In the rabbinic midrash of Sifra, (Parashat Nega’im 4:4) the text interprets the words לכל מראה עיני הכהן l’chol mareih einei hacohen (Leviticus 13:12) to mean that the priests could only carry out the sacred task if their vision was undiminished and their sight was undimmed. While the midrash meant blindness or visual impairment, I would suggest a different interpretation, that the priest could not serve the proper leadership role with a diminished sense of purpose.  And neither can we. 

So let us renew that in ourselves. Yes, our world is not the same as when we last gathered, nor are our daily tasks. But our role remains steadfast and clear. This beacon of light and faith still shines undimmed as our steadfast vision: I believe that the destiny of Jewish life is in our hands as rabbis. I believe that as rabbis we must restore ourselves, so that we might restore hope, clarity, vision, and resolve to every corner of our work and to every set of eyes into which we peer. I believe in the undiminished promise and meaning of what we rabbis do. I believe in our impact: in the teaching that can inspire, the word fitly spoken with a person we counsel or comfort at a bedside, or in what someone remembers years later of that moment in which we guided them. From all that I see, more than ever, I believe in what rabbis do, who we are, and to what we aspire. And I believe in us. For we are meaning makers. Our words, our wisdom, and our work can be enduring. And we would do well to remember that, all of us, especially at this moment in time. 

To the disruptive tzara’at of our day, may we bring healing. Let us begin with restoring ourselves, turning to one another, reconnecting to a chevra that inspires us with energy, learning, and support. Let us reconnect our people to that reservoir of meaning so desperately needed in their lives. Let us move beyond the exhaustion of the day to embrace the invigorating responsibility of shaping tomorrow. It is that courageous leadership that rabbis have always been called to do, especially in uncertain times.  

For colleagues, we are not simply employees with job descriptions in organizations or congregations. As rabbis, we are “builders of our people,” “restorers of the breach,” and the priests who look into the faces of others and who see reflected in their eyes the divine image.  We are the guardians of Jewish life and guardians of its light. So together, let us walk with confidence and courage toward that light to restore what we were ordained to do. Amen. 


Rabbi Lewis Kamrass is President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and Senior Rabbi of Isaac M. Wise Temple of Cincinnati, Ohio, where he has spent his entire rabbinate.

Categories
CCAR Convention Convention

Celebrating Joys, Sorrows & Deepening My Faith: Rabbi Paul (Shaul) Feinberg on 50 Years in the Rabbinate

My rabbinate in North America and Israel has given me opportunities to share in the joys and the sorrows of others. Moreover it has enabled me to learn and teach our religious heritage. My rabbinate has helped me to deepen my faith in God; my family, my teachers, and colleagues have guided me in this path.

In 1981, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion invited me to join the faculty of the Jerusalem School and thus enabled us to make aliyah. I became an integral part of the developing narrative of our people, while strengthening the Reform Movement in Israel.

For three decades, I engaged with students in their quest to develop religious leadership wherever they were to serve. During these years, my rabbinate facilitated my travels throughout the world to teach Judaism, Israel, and education. All along I was deepening my own religious faith, refining the understanding of Judaism as an ever changing way of life. My rabbinate continues to connect me with former students, now colleagues and leaders, in their own communities.

In all facets of my rabbinate, education has been a key empowering factor of living the values of tikkun olam b’malchut Shaddai. As Tania always says, the Jewish community begins at home; in this spirit we are grateful to see our children teaching their children values they hold dear as each one of them continues on her or his own path.

My credo is shlichut—being on a mission which as a parent and as a rabbi continues to unfold to this day.

Today, fifty years from our Ordination is a milestone, even as we remember dearest friends and classmates who have gone to their Eternal Rest.

“This is the day the Eternal has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu v’higianu laz’maan hazeh.


Rabbi Paul (Shaul) Feinberg is celebrating 50 years in the Reform Rabbinate.

We look forward to celebrating 50- and 51-year rabbis when we come together online at CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, 2021. CCAR Convention 2021 will strengthen us spiritually, emotionally, and professionally, bringing us together at a time when we need it more than ever. CCAR rabbis can register here.

Categories
CCAR Convention

My 50-Year Learning Journey: A Rabbinic Evolution, by Rabbi Richard J. Birnholz

The African proverb: it takes a village to raise a child pretty much describes my 50-year rabbinic career because of all the people who helped me get here.

My classmates were the first to rescue me when I arrived at HUC-JIR. Though New York City was only a few thousand miles from Austin, Texas, I felt like I had been dropped into an alien world. But my new classmates, all from the northeast, helped me find housing and jobs, welcomed me into their parent’s homes, showed me where to find Hebrew textbooks on the Lower East Side, and then spent five years explaining the meaning of course work that was totally foreign to my classical Reform, southern mindset.

Meanwhile Dr. Cohen and Dr. Borowitz z”l helped my HUC-JIR transition in significant ways. By teaching about power politics, Dr. Cohen helped me differentiate between the political and the spiritual in Jewish texts. This distinction made the “sacred pronouncements” in the texts more believable because I could finally understand theological narratives in their historical context. I think my students over the years appreciated this insight as much as I did.

The “God question” was also an early stumbling block to my rabbinic career, but here Dr. Borowitz z”l came to my aid. His existentialist explanation of knowing God in moments when we let God in, as opposed to having to prove God as a concept, immediately resonated with me. I liked the Buberian notion that personally experiencing God’s presence, despite the existential risk involved, was “proof” enough that God is real. This paradigm has been one of the most valuable accessories in my rabbinic tool kit.

Fortune further unexpectedly shined on me when I reached out to Rabbi Harry Danziger while navigating my assistantship at Temple Israel in Memphis. Harry had preceded me there, and, in addition to having been loved by all, was known for his extraordinary wisdom. Harry quickly became my friend and career-long mentor. He gave me sage advice and at a critical time in my rabbinate. He said two things: First, a rabbi’s greatest gift to people comes from just being there for them. The words and prayers are important, but a rabbi’s spiritual presence says more than words ever can. Second, if you first give your congregants time to feel comfortable with you, the rest of your time with them will take care of itself. This advice has served me well whenever I have moved or launched a new initiative. Harry was teaching Relational Judaism long before it became popular.

At Beth Israel Congregation in Jackson, Mississippi, congregants helped me refine my curriculum-building skills. They met with me once a month to develop lessons for a seventh through ninth grade, three-year, rotating religious school program. I introduced raw ideas and they massaged them into effective lesson plans until we felt they would work. And they did. I won the NATE Samuel Kaminker Memorial Curriculum Award for Outstanding Informal Education as a result, but my congregants deserve much of the credit for the cooperative effort. Best of all, I learned the value of partnering with lay leadership, which was particularly important in Jackson for another reason. I went there near the end of the Civil Rights struggle when the Jewish community still faced attacks from the Klan. I quickly learned that I had to coordinate my pronouncements with the best interests of the congregation lest I put my congregants at risk. This collaborative mindset then carried over into my rabbinate as a whole and has reaped benefits I never could have anticipated.

My introduction to Congregation Schaarai Zedek in Tampa came by way of a behind the scenes recommendation from another classmate. It has been the gift that keeps giving. My congregants here opened their hearts to Donna and our family from day one. They gave us a forever home, where we could feel appreciated, supported, and loved.

To put it bluntly, I had no idea how to lead a large congregation. My leadership saw this and decided to patiently teach me, skill by skill, with each new president and executive committee adding a new one. 

And then my lay leaders did something even more important. By providing a safe environment in which failure was an acceptable option, I learned to do the same for my expanding team and for all my congregants. My leaders though never spoke of failure. They referred instead to “accepting people and outcomes.” I adopted this phrase and attitude and am convinced that using it widely became the “secret sauce” propelling our growth.

It took me a full 50 years to grow into my rabbinate and I am incredibly grateful for the “village” that made my evolution possible.


Rabbi Richard J. Birnholz serves as Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Schaarai Zedek in Tampa, Florida. He is celebrating 50 years in the Reform Rabbinate.

We look forward to celebrating 50- and 51-year rabbis when we come together online at CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, 2021. CCAR Convention 2021 will strengthen us spiritually, emotionally, and professionally, bringing us together at a time when we need it more than ever. CCAR rabbis can register here.

Categories
CCAR Convention Convention

A Scholarly Rabbinic Career: Rabbi Roy Furman on His 50 Years in the Rabbinate

During my years at HUC-JIR, my expectations of a future rabbinate were vague, at best. What 50 years after ordination actually held were beyond what I could then have imagined. It would certainly prove to be a multifaceted rabbinate, one which extended the boundaries of how I would be a rabbi and what sort of congregation I would serve. It has been an interesting journey to say the least. 

That journey first took me to Los Angeles where I served as Hillel director on the campus of the University of Southern California. There I immersed myself in the creative challenges and rewards of working with students developing a vibrant campus Jewish community. Four years later, I decided to enhance my counseling skills by studying for and obtaining an MSW, followed by another four years practicing clinical social work at Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. 

By the ten-year mark after HUC-JIR, I sought congregational work for the first time, moving with my wife to Portland, Oregon to work with a small, participatory, egalitarian, and very spiritual chavurah. The five years with that community were my idea of rabbinic heaven. I would still be there, I imagine, if my wife did not need to relocate to pursue her academic aspirations.

If Chicago did not readily yield to my rabbinic needs and aspirations, it did provide me with the opportunity to work with a gay and lesbian community, with a suburban congregation in an assistant rabbinical position, and another two years as interim rabbi for a large Reconstructionist shul.

Through the years, I took great pleasure in doing scholarly work, including PhD studies in ancient Judaism and early Christianity. Having served as a rabbi on a college campus, at Jewish family service, with a chavurah, and with three Chicago-based Jewish communities, I now entered the academic part of my rabbinic journey. Some twenty-three years after ordination, I began teaching comparative religions and Jewish studies at DePaul University, an adjunct position I held for twenty years, along with part-time work as campus rabbi. 

At the forty-sixth year post ordination mark, I entered a year-long training program in clinical pastoral education and continued working as a chaplain in an acute hospital setting until the Spring of 2020 and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And through all of these years, my rabbinate has been expanded and enriched through interactions with Jews in congregations, both old and newly emerging, in Russia, Germany, Poland, Spain, France, Chile, and Morocco.

From the time I left HUC-JIR until the present, I have been active as a leader, facilitator, and member of chavurot and minyanim. That aspect of my journey reflects much of what has come to be important and meaningful for me as a rabbi and as a Jew, as I have met, taught, counseled, comforted, andlearned from many, many wonderful people along the way. I continue to write divrei Torah for my minyan, study Hasidic and Mussar literature with Rabbi Richard Hirsh, my long-time chevruta and dear brother-in-law, and to be challenged by the likes of Maimonides, Heschel, Buber,  Hartman, and the Baal Shem Tov.


Rabbi Roy Furman is celebrating 50 years in the Reform Rabbinate.

We look forward to celebrating 50- and 51-year rabbis when we come together online at CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, 2021. CCAR Convention 2021 will strengthen us spiritually, emotionally, and professionally, bringing us together at a time when we need it more than ever. CCAR rabbis can register here.

Categories
CCAR Convention Convention

Great Privilege and Joy: Rabbi Steven Chester on 50 Years in the Rabbinate

My desire to become a rabbi after graduating from UCLA led me to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, Israel, and Cincinnati, and reached fruition when I was ordained in 1971. My love for Judaism in all its many aspects made me realize that the only way I could live and teach the values of our tradition, as well as become fully immersed in Jewish life, was by becoming a rabbi.

Where has it led?

I had the privilege of serving four congregations in my career: Temple Beth Israel in Jackson, Michigan; chaplain for the Jewish inmates of the state prison system of Michigan; Temple Israel in Stockton, California; and Temple Sinai in Oakland, California. In addition, after retirement in 2011, I became interim rabbi in three other congregations: Temple Beth Ora in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada; Temple Israel in Alameda California; and Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, California. All the congregations I served gave me a positive rabbinic experience, and I feel so fortunate to have served each of them. Each, in its own way, has helped form the rabbi I am today.

Some thoughts after fifty years in the rabbinate: to be a rabbi has been my privilege and joy. I feel privileged that I have become an intimate part of so many lives. I have become part of my congregants’ lives through joyous occasions: a B’rit Milah, a naming, a bar/bat mitzvah, or a wedding. I have become part of their lives at sad times: a serious illness or the death of a loved one. To be with my congregants at these times—to rejoice when they rejoiced, to offer comfort when they suffered—has been an awesome responsibility, an awesome privilege and a blessing for me. It was especially meaningful for me to train and officiate at b’nei mitzvah for those who had either severe physical or learning challenges.

I have had the privilege to have wonderful colleagues. The rabbis and cantors with whom I served in my forty years of congregational life made my rabbinate rich and fulfilling. Sharing with them, learning from them, studying with them, and sharing the bimah with them enhanced my life.

My fifty years has been full of many diverse experiences. I have served on various boards of both Jewish and non-Jewish organizations. I helped found an in-home hospice in Stockton, served on the board for a number of years, and became the grief and mourning counselor for the hospice. I taught Bible at Spring Arbor College near Jackson. I was privileged to be appointed an adjunct professor of Jewish Studies at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, teaching two classes there. 

Leading congregational tours was an important part of my rabbinate. I led eight trips to Israel; two to Cuba; one each to Spain, Morocco, and Central Europe. In Oakland, I led a trip to the Gold Country of California where we visited cemeteries and other Jewish sites that were active during the Gold Rush.

The most important thing I learned in my fifty years of the rabbinate is that the great majority of people are basically good. They care about others, want to live a good life, and wish for a world of peace and justice. I also learned that the board of directors of a congregation are partners with me and not adversaries. We are both working for the same thing: to make a vibrant and vital congregation.

As I think about the future, I look forward to the time when we again can meet in person. I am now living in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic where all of our synagogue activities are virtual. I long for physical contact, for being together at Temple as a live community. I will continue to do life cycle events. Also, I plan to study, teach and travel.

I hope to live long enough to see our ten-year-old granddaughter become a bat mitzvah. I hope to see our country become united instead of divided.

I end with the following: My life has been blessed because I am a Jew, because I am a Reform Jew, and because I am a Reform rabbi. If I had to do all over again, I would do it in the exactly the same way.  I feel so much gratitude for the fifty years I have served as a congregational rabbi.


Rabbi Steven Chester serves as Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Sinai in Oakland, California. He is celebrating 50 years in the Reform Rabbinate.

We look forward to celebrating 50- and 51-year rabbis when we come together online at CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, 2021. CCAR Convention 2021 will strengthen us spiritually, emotionally, and professionally, bringing us together at a time when we need it more than ever. CCAR rabbis can register here.

Categories
CCAR Convention Torah

A Career Dedicated to Teaching and Learning Torah: Rabbi Norman J. Cohen on 50 Years in the Rabbinate

Each year at CCAR Convention, we honor members of our organization who were ordained 50 years ago or more. In advance of CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, we share a blog from Rabbi Norman J. Cohen.

Though it has been fifty-three years since we were ordained by Dr. Alfred Gottschalk, z”l, at Central Synagogue, it seems like yesterday. But as I look back and remember the emotions of that day, which were heightened for me by my mother’s death only months before, little did I know that fifteen years later, Dr. Gottschalk would ask me to join the Administration of the College-Institute. And, as I stood on the bimah of Central Synagogue with Dr. Gottschalk, seated on the bimah was his ultimate successor, Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, then a rabbi at Central. What an amazing snapshot! Three presidents of HUC-JIR on the bimah at one time. Who would have thought that I would also have the honor of serving for a brief time as Interim President of the College-Institute.

At that moment of Ordination, it surely would have been impossible to imagine how my life as a rabbi would play out. My goal then was simply to enter our graduate school in Cincinnati and immerse myself in rabbinic text study, hoping to gain a deeper understanding of its various genres. The years studying Midrash and Rabbinic Literature were such a blessing, and in great measure, it was due to the knowledge I gained and the passion I imbibed from wonderful mentors, chief among them, Drs. Eugene Mihaly, z”l, Ben Zion Wacholder, z”l, and Ellis Rivkin, z”l.

Little did I know then that my entire rabbinic career would be bound up with the College-Institute, as a faculty member who also spent twenty-three years working in the administration. And it began with my return to the New York School in 1975, due in large measure to the faith that Dr. Gottschalk had in me, as well as the efforts of Dr. Paul Steinberg, z”l, and Dr. Eugene B. Borowitz, z”l. For thirteen years I served as a full-time member of the Faculty, teaching and advising rabbinic and cantorial students; trying to impart to them not only the knowledge that I gained, but a sense of what it means to be a rabbi, a cantor, really a Teacher of Torah.

Serving as the Director of the Rabbinical School and then Dean of the New York School, and finally as Provost of our College-Institute was indeed a wonderful way for me to channel my rabbinic aspirations. Helping to shape the training and growth of future rabbis, cantors and educators provided me a tremendous opportunity to ensure that future Reform Jewish leaders would become the newest chuliot, links in the Shalshelet HaKabbalah, the chain of tradition and help ensure Jewish continuity. And in the process, I gained so much from so many of the students with whom I was truly privileged to study.

During the years I spent working in the administration, it meant a great deal to work with clergy, education and administrative staff, and faculty who embodied supreme dedication to shaping a seminary which could be a bastion of creativity and commitment to Jewish life. They, in turn, would train leaders who would make a significant difference in the lives of all those whom they were blessed to serve.

Yet, as I reflect upon almost five decades of work at our alma mater, it has been clear to me that the greatest joy and personal fulfillment I experience comes in the myriad of moments in which I share my love and passion for words of Torah. Studying with students and laypeople alike—opening ourselves to every element in the text, biblical and rabbinic, and having it teach us who we are and who we aspire to be as Jews and as human beings—has given me indescribable pleasure. Through my teaching at the College-Institute and in congregations, and the six books I have written, I’ve tried to demonstrate the power of words suffused with k’dushah, the holiness latent in every textual element, which have been transformational for me in my life. The most important insight I have ever gained about the importance of the teaching of Torah came from a comment by Franz Rosenzweig, who noted, “Teaching begins when the subject matter ceases to be subject matter and changes into inner power. We truly teach when we ourselves are drastically changed in the process. We truly learn when our autonomous self is pierced and we move beyond ourselves to the Other.”

And so we praise the power in the universe, in us, which is the source of mayim chayim, life-giving water, Torah:

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu laasok b’divrei Torah.


Rabbi Norman J. Cohen is celebrating 50 years in the Rabbinate. Rabbi Cohen serves as Professor Emeritus of Midrash at HUC-JIR New York.

We look forward to celebrating 50- and 51-year rabbis when we come together online at CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, 2021. CCAR Convention 2021 will strengthen us spiritually, emotionally, and professionally, bringing us together at a time when we need it more than ever. CCAR rabbis can register here.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 582-X-190-convention-footer_1.jpg
Categories
CCAR Convention Convention

Convention 2021: Enter with Intention

During a recent CCAR Board meeting, our colleague and board member Rabbi Mona Alfi selected a pasuk from Parashat T’rumah on which to d’rash: “ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם, Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). Included in her chosen source texts was a passage by Mordecai Kaplan, a segment of which follows:

“The presence of the multitude in public worship creates an atmosphere that profoundly influences the individual participant. It stirs up emotions of gratitude and confidence that one could not experience in isolation” (A Year with Mordecai Kaplan, p. 73).

The ensuing discussion invited an evaluation of Kaplan’s (and other commentators’) assertion amidst this continuing stretch of isolation when the concept of “presence” has taken on entirely new meaning. Can a “multitude” comprised of silent individuals, visible in small boxes filling our computer screens, still engender an atmosphere rich with emotion, gratitude, and confidence?  For many, the answer was a definitive “yes.” Even in their silent Zoom sanctuaries and classrooms, colleagues noted that the mere presence of engaged and participatory congregants and students effects greater spiritual meaning and enhances the level of joy for all involved…with one caveat. The present multitude to which Kaplan is alluding is achieved when, virtual or not, individuals actively engage and participate in the worship (or learning, or community-building, or meeting, or…), and not simply log in to check a box or listen passively while trying to work simultaneously on other tasks.

Admittedly, the learning focused my attention as much on events to come as it did on experiences during the past year, in particular, our approaching CCAR Convention. Contemplating the potential and hoped-for impact of our Convention, even as we gather from our respective homes and individual spaces, the aspirational qualities that Kaplan describes aptly named are a now-familiar longing for countless among us—an atmosphere that profoundly influences the individual participant, one that stirs up emotions of gratitude and confidence not experienced in isolation. That we happen to be gathering by virtual means is, in truth, an inconsequential variable. With the stellar leadership of our colleagues Rabbi Amanda Greene (Convention Chair) and Rabbi Peter Stein (Vice-Chair), this year’s Convention possesses the undeniable potential to make a genuinely needed, positive and enduring impact in each of our rabbinates. However, the remaining variable in the realization of a spiritually renewing, heartening, confidence-boosting, enriching, educational, and joyful gathering rests not in the hands of the Convention planning leadership, but in each of ours. It is our collective determination to be present that will enable the restorative atmosphere we seek.

This past Rosh HaShanah, our congregation’s first pre-recorded service began with an invitation to members to “enter with intention.” Appreciating that it would have been easy enough for people simply to watch passively, as if with popcorn in hand, we encouraged congregants not to allow the fact that the service was pre-recorded to dissuade them from engaging and participating fully and sincerely, as if they were sitting in the sanctuary.

Looking ahead to this year’s Convention, the sages remind us that our mutual commitment to presence, our decision to engage fully and participate actively—to enter the days with intention—will foster an atmosphere in which renewed gratitude, confidence, and joy can well up and flourish. So, if not done already, clear your calendars for the days of this year’s Convention. Treat the few days we have together as if we were sitting together in the grand ballroom of a Convention hotel. The commitment we make to be present—for ourselves and for one another—will ensure this year’s Convention with all of its virtual creativity, realizes its full potential as one of the best Conventions yet.


Rabbi Ron Segal is President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and senior rabbi at Temple Sinai in Sandy Springs, Georgia.

CCAR Convention 2021 will take place online March 14-17, 2021. CCAR Convention 2021 will strengthen us spiritually, emotionally, and professionally, bringing us together at a time when we need it more than ever. CCAR rabbis can register here.

Categories
CCAR Convention

Reflection on Lessons That Should Have Been Learned Decades Ago

Each year at CCAR Convention, we honor members of our organization who were ordained 50 years ago or more. In advance of CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, we share a blog from Rabbi Jay Heyman.

In the fall of 1974, the Chief of Police called and asked me to stop by his office. “Rabbi,” he said, “I don’t want to upset you, but we have an undercover agent in the Klan, and he has told me of a plot to kill you or someone in your family.” So, for the next several weeks, while white fundamentalist Christians, right-wing extremists, and assorted white supremacist groups burned books, blew up bridges, painted Nazi and Klan insignia on public buildings, and generally created mayhem in Charleston and Kanawha County, West Virginia, my family and I were guarded around the clock by at least two and sometimes more uniformed police.

That spring, the Board of Education had selected new textbooks, which included multiethnic and multicultural literature. Local evangelicals saw the new titles as anti-Christian, anti-God, anti-Bible, inconsistent with American values, pro-integration, and filled with doctrines to encourage their children to merge their racial identity with Blacks. Within a matter of weeks, the John Birch Society, the Christian Crusade, the KKK, and American Nazis had climbed out of the sewers to lend moral support. Nor was it long before the entire community found itself embroiled in conspiracy theories involving the satanic banking system and the cabal of the “international Jew.”

Such was the first uprising of white, fundamentalist Christians threatened by 1960s social changes: the civil rights struggle, banning school prayer, the anti-war movement, women’s liberation, sex education. ’Twas an unholy alliance of religious fanaticism and political grievance; not just fringe extremists.

That era remains an enduring memory with me and, since the events in D.C. this past January 6, it is now one that plays even more than a leitmotif in the back of my mind.

Since those opening shots of the culture wars between the urban cultural elites and the rural red state rubes, we have experienced unparalleled affluence and poverty, national insecurity and popular dissatisfaction, growth and consolidation of power, the concentration of wealth and the spread of poverty. But mostly we have been lured into a trance of false promises by an economic system, best characterized as neoliberalism, that has weaponized the struggling, poorly educated, gullible masses of this country, enrolled them to serve an ever more fanatical Republican party, and has now unleashed a demon that threatens the very future of the nation.

We who have benefited from the status quo for such a long time seem to have forgotten what happens when the populace becomes fed up with not being seen, being denied equal opportunity and a fair share of economic benefit. It is so easy to forget what has always happened historically when the peasantry becomes impoverished and starving. That’s when the pitchforks come out. And Jewish history reminds how easily that pent up anguish and frustration can be ill-channeled through propaganda by those in with money and power.

Even before our current health and economic crisis—when our politicians were reassuring us of the basic prosperity and health of the economy—soup kitchens were filled to the brim, homeless shelters unable to accommodate all those needing shelter, emergency rooms overflowing with the uninsured. Millions of Americans have worked two jobs for decades for minimum wage and still do not earn enough to provide for their family’s basic needs.

The Reform Movement in which I was raised in the 1950s and 1960s prided itself on the notion that “ethical monotheism” meant living an obligation to build a better world. The imperative of tikkun olam should have reminded us not to forget seeking justice, speaking truth to power, confronting evil, bigotry, and greed in the great tradition of our biblical prophets. We have had strong social justice narratives, but all too often we have been largely silent about the political changes and widening economic chasms. Our values of compassion, justice, and concern for the poor are inconsistent with any politics dedicated to helping the wealthy become even wealthier at the expense of the poor and the middle class. Support for politicians who want to cut services while keeping tax cuts for the wealthiest is not consistent with Jewish teachings about caring for the most vulnerable of society. Indifference to the suffering of others is ungodly according to rabbinic tradition. The work of repairing the world is holy work. The work of economic and social justice is spiritual work. And that is what we are called to do.


Rabbi Jay Heyman is celebrating 50 years in the Reform Rabbinate.

We look forward to celebrating 50- and 51-year rabbis when we come together online at CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, 2021. CCAR Convention 2021 will strengthen us spiritually, emotionally, and professionally, bringing us together at a time when we need it more than ever. CCAR rabbis can register here.

Categories
CCAR Convention

Growing A Congregation and Watching It Bloom: Rabbi Mayer Perelmuter on 50 Years in the Rabbinate

Each year at CCAR Convention, we honor members of our organization who were ordained 50 years ago or more. In advance of CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, we share a blog from Rabbi Mayer Perelmuter.

Upon reflection, I am so grateful to have been in one congregation over the majority of these years. It enabled me to grow and develop a congregation and to see Temple Isaiah through some difficult financial crises, until it blossomed into the largest and most active Reform congregation in Queens, New York: The Reform Temple of Forest Hills.

Here are some of the accomplishments of which I am most proud:

  • I hired and trained numerous rabbinic interns who are currently religious leaders throughout the country.
  • I instituted a temple covenant with our board of directors and committee leaders, developing a humane, sensitive, way to agree and disagree as we worked together. 
  • I expanded the temple covenant with our lay and professional educational leadership, to be part of the religious school classrooms; this covenant continues to be the opening lesson in our religious school to this day. 
  • Our Mitzvah Day committee started out as a “senior group,” but with my advocacy and encouragement, it became an intergenerational event that included and partnered with the Religious School Parents’ Association. To this day, Mitzvah Day is our most celebrated intergenerational event in the congregation and is known throughout Queens.
  • Prior to the High Holy Days in 1994, Temple Isaiah’s roof was leaking, and the sanctuary was unusable. In partnership with our board, we made the decision to build an ark and move the services to a local college. The lesson that the congregation learned continues to this day: “We celebrate together as a congregational family, not as a building.” This was the rationale that enabled me, in partnership with our board leadership, to convince Temple Isaiah congregants to merge with three other struggling Queens congregations to become the Reform Temple of Forest Hills in 1995.
  • I loved establishing a men’s study group to complement the active women’s groups in our congregation. This weekly men’s study group, which drew diverse ages and very curious intelligent men, was provocative, challenging and exciting for me, and continues to exist today.  
  • I learned so much from my congregational leaders, from my rabbinic interns, cantors, and most important, from my congregants. My involvement, pastorally with them was among the most meaningful aspects of my rabbinate. I treasure the relationships that developed through the numerous life cycle events, sometimes over three generations; the joys and sorrows that I was privileged to share with these people have influenced my life and have enabled me to cope with my own challenges in life as I grow older.  

Rabbi Mayer Perelmuter is celebrating 50 years in the Reform Rabbinate. He is Rabbi Emeritus of The Reform Temple of Forest Hills in New York.

We look forward to celebrating 50- and 51-year rabbis when we come together online at CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, 2021. CCAR Convention 2021 will strengthen us spiritually, emotionally, and professionally, bringing us together at a time when we need it more than ever. CCAR rabbis can register here.

Categories
CCAR Convention Convention

Gratitude & Lifelong Learning: Rabbi Philip Kranz on 50 Years in the Rabbinate

The rabbinate, as realized, was everything that I expected it to be and much more. What appealed to me, initially was the fact that the congregational rabbinate would allow me to serve Judaism through a number of different activities in a variety of different settings. That expectation turned into a reality which I celebrated every day of my active ministry. I championed, more than anything else, the importance of ongoing Jewish education, both for the rabbi and the congregants. I made adult education a hallmark of my rabbinate. I also continued to enrich myself as a student of Judaism, continuing my learning on a daily basis. I came to realize, early on, that my knowledge of Judaism was the most important thing that gave me authenticity as a rabbi.

The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion trained me well, but I did not draw deeply enough from that experience, and I committed myself to a lifelong program of Jewish learning. Teaching and learning makes my rabbinate significant until this day. There were so many outstanding rabbis who served as mentors and role models. Only now do I realize how much I owe to my own rabbis, growing up, Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver and Rabbi Daniel Jeremy Silver, of blessed memory; to Rabbi Sidney Brooks, of blessed memory, who mentored me during the critical years of my student rabbi days; Rabbi Samuel Egal Karff, of blessed memory, whom I served as assistant and eventually succeeding as senior rabbi; and Ronald M. Segal who was my assistant for ten years and who succeeded me as senior rabbi and who now serves as president of our Conference. I was equally enriched by my teachers and my students. “My lines truly were fallen unto me in pleasant places.”


Rabbi Philip Kranz is celebrating 50 years in the Reform Rabbinate.

We look forward to celebrating 50- and 51-year rabbis when we come together online at CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, 2021. CCAR Convention 2021 will strengthen us spiritually, emotionally, and professionally, bringing us together at a time when we need it more than ever. CCAR rabbis can register here.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 582-X-190-convention-footer_1.jpg