CCAR Convention News Rabbis Reform Judaism

Celebrating the Class of 1964: “Blessed in Every Way”

At the upcoming CCAR Convention, we will honor the class of 1964, those who have been CCAR members and served our movement for 50 years.  In the weeks leading up to convention, we will share and celebrate the rabbinic visions and wisdom of the members of the class of 1964.

I have spent all but four years of my fifty as a rabbi of Temple Israel in Memphis.

I met my wife, Jeanne, fifty years ago at Temple Israel. Our three sons grew up in Memphis and became b’nai mitzvah at Temple Israel. Our granddaughters became b’not mitzvah there, and a grandson is to become bar mitzvah there next Sukkot. My whole life turned on coming to Memphis in1964.

In the spring of 1959, I had finished two years of pre-rabbinic classes at HUC and the University of Cincinnati. Dr. Samuel Sandmel z”l called me in and suggested that I could start the rabbinic program the next fall a year early. As a result, in 1964, I was ordained a year ahead of schedule. Rabbi James Wax z”l and Temple Israel of Memphis needed an assistant rabbi. In that summer of racial turmoil in the South including the murder of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi, I came to the South.

Welcome to the rest of my life!!

I have been blessed beyond any dreams with my rabbinate. At Temple Israel, I had the challenge and the privilege of orchestrating our transition from a great and historic Classical Reform congregation of the old school to a proud and historic congregation in the mainstream of Reform Judaism. Because I was blessed with a receptive and trusting congregation, the stresses and conflicts that so often accompany that transition were minimal for us.

Thirty years ago, I gave a sermon calling on people to cook for, to drive for, to visit, and to care for other members in time of crisis. I called it God’s Unfinished Business, a reference to our not knowing why bad things happen, focusing instead on what is demanded of us. Hundreds of volunteers have continued that program of gemilut chasadim member to member for three decades. That is one of the proudest achievements of my rabbinate, precisely because it has become part of the lives of so many laypersons as both volunteers and beneficiaries.

My goal for a temple staff was always this: When one of us does well, everyone scheps nachas. For the most part, that has been true with the talented clergy and staff I have worked with. That neshama at Temple Israel was shared by our lay leadership: never adversaries, they have always been true and real partners and friends in the years of my rabbinate and beyond.

Most of my rabbinate was spent in a very large congregation. I am grateful that, nonetheless, I could be “someone’s rabbi.” I could not be what my father z”l was called at his funeral, “a member ex-officio of every family in the community,” but some of my greatest rabbinic moments were being included as a member of a family whether sitting with a couple discussing their coming marriage or sharing with the bereaved after they had suffered a loss.

Not only did the people of Temple Israel welcome me fifty years ago; so, too, did a whole region of Southern Jewry, because Temple Israel is a hub for many small Jewish communities in the South. A highlight of my rabbinate was serving as a long-time rabbinic advisor of SoFTY (now NFTY Southern) and being part of the very beginnings of the Henry S. Jacobs Camp where Jeanne and I still spend an occasional summer week on staff. Our grandchildren, now third generation campers, have joined the many for whom HSJ has been a second Jewish home for over forty years. Since I retired in 2000, I have had the special opportunity to serve Congregation Adath Israel in Cleveland MS monthly and for the yamim noraim. The community there, Jewish and beyond, has become part and parcel of Jeanne’s and my life.

My opportunities to serve our Conference, our movement and my colleagues have been many and wonderfully gratifying. Even in the work of our Ethics Committee or the Commission on Rabbinic-Congregational Relations where we encounter some of the difficult times for rabbis, I found satisfaction in the lay persons who support and work with us, as well as the great mass of colleagues who are overwhelmingly dedicated to our mission. Of course, the honor of being president of the CCAR is a highlight of my rabbinic years, and I prize that honor even as it carried burdens and responsibilities I did not always anticipate.

In my community, I have had the opportunity to teach Judaism for twenty-five years at Rhodes College, to chair the local NCCJ, and to chair the board of Family Service as well as that of the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association, the largest single social service agency in West Tennessee. I have had the chance to share with able and dedicated clergy from all faiths, going back even to the Sanitation Strike of 1968 which led to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. To be a rabbi in Memphis in that April and since carries its own sadness but its own mandate and mission.

Finally, the best thing that happened to me in my rabbinate was showing up for work one day in the summer of 1964, hearing a typewriter hesitatingly clicking in an office that should have been empty, and finding a lifelong love in Jeanne. In these fifty years, we have been joined by three sons, Jeffrey, David and Michael; their three wives, Rona, Shara and, most recently, Lindsey; and three grandchildren, Caroline, Madeline and Nathaniel.

I can only wish for our children and grandchildren and for all my colleagues what I feel at this anniversary. As is said of Abraham, I can say, “Va’Adonai beirach et-Tzvi bakol – Adonai has blessed me in every way.”

CCAR Convention General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism

Celebrating the Class of 1964: “The Rabbinate: An Act of Faith”

At the upcoming CCAR Convention, we will honor the class of 1964, those who have been CCAR members and served our movement for 50 years.  In the weeks leading up to convention, we will share and celebrate the rabbinic visions and wisdom of the members of the class of 1964.

Shortly after coming to Toronto from Chicago in the late 1960’s, I asked a friend to help organize a collection of food and clothing for the Vietnam War draft resisters living in the downtown area of City. “No problem,” he replied, and in little more than a day a caravan of cars was streaming down Bayview Avenue loaded with coats and jackets, scarves, socks, and a variety of pastries schnorred from local bakeries before they closed on Christmas eve. The hundred or so forlorn men and their families huddled in their center on Huron Street were predictably grateful for this gesture of largesse from the passel of Jews who had descended on them from somewhere in the great frozen wilderness north of Bloor Street.

If they were appreciative, I was overwhelmed by the quick response to the new rabbi’s appeal, especially at a time when many Canadians were unsure whether these people were refugees or deserters from a war supposed to save the southeast Asian nations from falling like dominos into the lap of the Soviet Union and China. Years later, I was recounting this story to one of the Temple members who had participated in the event. He expressed great puzzlement at my interpretation and responded, “Oh, no, Rabbi. You have it all wrong. We thought you were a bit of a wacko! But you were the new American rabbi, and we Canadians were too chagrined to tell you so!”

Forty years later, I find myself wondering whether they or I have changed appreciably. If the past is prologue, then, perhaps, many of our good deeds are the unmeant outcomes of our earlier patterns of thought and behavior. The greatest consequences of our efforts frequently defy our intentions, or bend them toward purposes little imagined in their infancy. Ask any parent, or any husband or wife to reflect honestly on what they anticipated and what they achieved in their marriage. Ask any rabbi what he or she intended for their congregation and what they accomplished. The rabbinate, like the family, is an act of faith. Our vision may be faulty, our motives obscure even to ourselves; but if, in the end, a student or child blesses us for giving them hope in a time of doubt or a spark of inspiration at a crossroads in their lives, then dayenu – it is enough. Whatever we intended has been redeemed, and we can pray with some conviction:  

Baruch Atah Adonai, Elohenu Melech Haolam, she’chechiyanu v’kiyamnau, v’higiyanu lazman hazeh.

Blessed are You, Adonai Elohenu, Sovereign of the Universe, for giving us life, and sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this day.

CCAR Convention General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism

Celebrating the Class of 1964: “Beauty in Holiness”

At the upcoming CCAR Convention, we will honor the class of 1964, those who have been CCAR members and served our movement for 50 years.  In the weeks leading up to convention, we will share and celebrate the rabbinic visions and wisdom of the members of the class of 1964.

Being on the Right Side of History I would begin this write-up by expressing personal satisfaction that, in my not so humble opinion, I have taken the side of the zeitgeist, the rational spirit guiding our times, in important issues of environment, church/state, and civil rights, GLBT rights, rights of the powerless and marginalized, elder care, mental health, and justice for juveniles.

One of my proudest moments was marching with Florida Governor Bob Graham to show support for the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) on Sunday, June 6, 1982. Following the march, I offered the invocation on the Capitol steps. I had the honor of sitting next to actress Elizabeth Rolle.

I come by my propensity for Feminism honestly. My mother, Louise Mayer Garfein, had her hair cut short, when short hair was not considered ”ladylike” for a young woman. Mother also refused to ride side saddle on her Appaloosa horse, “Circus,” though only side saddle was considered proper for a woman.

The greatest highlight under the category of church/state relations was my March 1994 ejection from a Florida Senate Education Committee hearing on the subject of prayer in the public schools. During the hearing, two senators were talking loudly to each other while a minister was testifying at the podium. A balustrade separated the senators from me. They were seated, while I was standing over them. I asked them to listen to what was being said at the podium. In a burst of anger they asked a Sergeant-at-Arms to tell me to leave, which I did. But reporters caught the whole scene, and the incident spread like wildfire throughout the Florida press. An editorial in the Pensacola newspaper quipped about the irony of the two senators arguing for freedom of religion, while trying to impose school prayers on the non-conforming public, and clamping down on a rabbi’s freedom of speech. The incident was a highlight in my rabbinate, because it alerted and aroused the liberal clergy and laity throughout the state as to what might be happening to conjoin church and state, rather than keeping them apart. The Friday night worship following my ejection occasioned the one and only time in my career that our congregation accorded me a standing ovation.

Interaction with Scholars and Friends Another highlight of my life was my study with Dr. Moshe Greenberg, z”/ . Dr. Greenberg was my premier professor at the University of Pennsylvania College of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Greenberg had the gift of lecturing with great clarity and responsiveness to students’ inquiries. He became my adviser and mentor when I chose to major in Ancient Near Eastern Studies. I took every course he offered and wrote my senior thesis with him. For the first time I entered into a serious study of Biblical Hebrew. I gained insight into Biblical criticism and I came to understand why there might be duplications or contradictions within the same passage. I learned about differences between the approaches of Julius Wellhausen and Yehezkel Kaufmann. I grew in my conceptualization of God. I studied fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which at the time had recently been discovered.

Learning from Travel Experiences After completing my second year of rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College-JIR in Cincinnati, I spent ten months (1961-62) in Israel. Attending Ulpan Etzion, I became somewhat adept at conversational Hebrew. This enabled me to get by in Hebrew and travel by bus to all parts of Israel. Also, along with my classmate, Ron Goff, I benefited from private tutoring from Rabbi Dr. Yehoshua Amir. Dr. Amir provided us with many rich learning experiences at his quaint home in the “German Colony” of Jerusalem. They included a Passover Seder, during which, in the Dayenu, Holocaust survivors recounted how they had been rescued from annihilation, and were thankful for their deliverances.

Much of the time I was alone. Speaking with strangers, many of whom were happy to teach me a little Hebrew “on the run,” I had a variety of life experiences. Subsequently, during my rabbinical career, I have taken numerous trips/pilgrimages to Israel. From them I have garnered many anecdotes, one of which includes an awesome surface survey of the western Negev with Dr. Nelson Glueck.

Probably the most memorable of my trips was in 1976. Senator Richard Stone, Monsignor William Kerr, and I escorted forty Catholics, Protestants, and Jews to Israel and Rome. Almost as memorable was my tour in January 1994 to Israel, Sinai, and in Jordan, Mt. Nebo, Amman, and Petra. For this there were some thirty rabbis, who were members of ARZA (American Reform Zionist Association). The time was nigh for a peace treaty between Jordan and Israel.

In June, 1981, I participated in an archaeological dig in the City of David, the oldest section of the city of Jerusalem. This is south of the “Dung Gate” of the Old City. This area has been number one on my list of archaeological interests. Dr. Yigal Shiloh, z”/ was Project Director of the dig. In January of 1987 my travel-lust took me in a different direction. Rabbi Larry Halpern of Orlando and I volunteered with the movement for Soviet Jewry to go to Moscow and to what was then known as Leningrad.  Our mission, along with that of many others, was to deliver medications, tennis shoes, blue jeans, cameras and other non-perishable commodities to Refusedniks, Jews who had applied to leave the Soviet Union. Not only had the regime refused to let them go, it forced them out of their existing jobs, so that they had no way to make a living. Rabbi Halpern and I, like many others, took suitcases replete with goods that the Refusedniks could use or sell, so as to tide them over through their limbo status. We had to memorize their addresses and phone numbers, so we could deliver these items without being detected by the authorities. To contact them we had to go to public pay telephones situated outdoors in 40 degree below freezing weather.

Genealogy – Israel and Galitzia From my travels I gained interest in my family history and genealogy, picking up bits and pieces of information from here and there. My Garfein relatives in Israel had come from Sambor, Galitzia, which is where my paternal grandfather, Harry Garfein, was born. Galitzia was a province in southern Poland, which was occupied by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1772. Harry Garfein was a young teenager, trained as a tailor, when he migrated to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1886. He married my “Granma,” Rosa Weil, who was a native of Louisville, born of Alsatian parents. My mother’s parents migrated to Louisville from western Germany in the late 1800s.

I have visited some of the cemeteries where my ancestors are buried. In 2003 I took a roots trip to central and eastern Europe, including Sambor, which is now in Ukraine. In Sambor I may have seen the house where the Garfeins once lived. Like so many other homes where Jews have lived in Europe, there is a hollowed out place on the right front entry doorpost, where a mezuzah had once been affixed.

While Rabbi at Temple Israel in Tallahassee, I helped build up our archives and became acquainted with the genealogies of its member families. I also helped acquire silver ritual artifacts for display at Temple Israel. When church groups asked for a tour of the temple, I presented them with a sight and sound visit and explanation of some of the basic beliefs and practices of Judaism. On several occasions I spoke from church pulpits. I also conducted demonstration seders. I received numerous notes of appreciation for such appearances and presentations.

Dissertation, Sermons, Picture Book One of my greatest highlights was my ability to create literarily. For my dissertation before Ordination I translated the esoteric passages of Maaseh B’raysheet (God’s Work of Creation in Genesis} and Maaseh HaMerkavah (God’s Chariot in Ezekiel}. These were commentaries written by Rabbi David Kimchi a.k.a. RaDaK, a student of Maimonides. RaDak, 1160-1235 lived in Narbonne in Provence. I could not have achieved this feat of translation without the help of my mentor, Rabbi Dr. Alvin Reines, who was an expert in the vocabulary of medieval Jewish theology and mysticism. It was not until 30 years after my Ordination that I came to realize that these esoteric passages were probably a foil, with Maimonidean theology opposing the definitions of Jewish mysticism, when it came to the usage of various vocabulary words.

I was fortunate to be able to turn out some sermons that did not just sit in a file cabinet. Two were published in So That Your Values Live on – Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them edited and annotated by Jack Riemer and Nathaniel Stampfer. They are: “Finish Your Final Business” (about preparing for ones own funeral) and “Organic Immortality” (about the mitzvah of donating ones organs after death).

I also wrote a picture book of children’s stories, Tales of the Temple Mice. These were stories written for religious schools, first at Temple Israel in St. Louis, and then at Temple Israel in Tallahassee. The stories are value oriented, and are somewhat autobiographical.

The Beauty of Holiness; The Appreciation of Hebrew I tried hard to promote beauty in holiness, as the Psalmist said, “Worship God in the beauty of holiness.” Aesthetics, of course, is a highly subjective matter. God is in the details, as is the devil. I tried to be on the side of God. I strove for the best in music for our congregation: professional vocalists and lovely liturgical music accompanied by organ, especially that of our Classical Reform tradition. I decorated both our home and our bema for the holidays with floral arrangements and plants.

For the Torah service at Temple I designed a Lucite lectern for reading the Torah. I chose this transparency for the lectern, so that congregants, especially children, could see what the unrolled Torah looks like. For the Torah scrolls, we designed vestments of different colors that were changed at the onset of each major liturgical season.

For bar and bat mitzvah services, I taught the youngsters to translate their Torah readings, not just to read mechanically without understanding.

Nachas fun Kinder; The Joy of Judaism and the Pleasure from Children

I have saved the best highlight ’til last, like the baked Alaska at an atrociously wondrous banquet.

I met Vivian at her sister Ellen’s Confirmation luncheon. After three dates we were engaged, and on January 23, 1966, we were married. When Vivian appeared in the portal to the sanctuary, she radiated a beautiful glow down the dimly lit aisle. She has remained an exquisitely lovely bride. Shortly thereafter we went to Tallahassee to be interviewed by the rabbi selection committee of Temple Israel. We were warmly received and almost immediately invited to become Rabbi and Rebbitzen of the congregation.

Florence Reichert Greenberg, daughter of a rabbi and sister of two rabbis, was a member of the selection committee. She assured us that the congregation would be engaging just the Rabbi, not the Rebbitzen. Vivian would be free to pursue her own paths. Nevertheless, Vivian did contribute to the religio-cultural functioning and well-being of the congregation and general community. She was a strong support to me and could serve as a conduit of communication from congregants to me. She enjoyed entertaining. For Shabbat dinners and Passover seders she set an elegant table, often inviting guests to be present.

It was not too long after we’d settled in Tallahassee that our children came into the picture. Rebecca was born before our Sabbath evening service. When I led the service at that special moment, the words of our prayerbook rose up off the page. Almost every word was full of meaning, evoking my choking and tears. The Temple members thought something terrible had happened. But the choking and the tears flowed from my innermost joy, not sorrow.

Susanna was born after our Sabbath evening service. When I walked out of the sanctuary our custodian, Allen Ransom, who’d just received the phone call, was anxiously awaiting me. “Rabbi,” he said, “you’d better get yourself to the (Tallahassee Memorial) hospital!”

I immediately drove from our Temple at Copeland and St. Augustine streets to the hospital. It seemed as though I had to stop for a red light at every corner. Finally, I got to the threshold of the delivery room. After a few moments, I heard the doctor say, “It’s a girl!”

Our home life as a family was quite within the parameters of Reform Judaism. There was consistency and regularity of ritual observances and prayer. We aimed at infusing joy, meaning, and beauty into our spirituality. Conferences and camps associated with our Federation of Temple Youth reinforced the values of our home life. I kept my vocational advice, hints, and direction to a minimum. What a pleasant surprise it was, therefore, that Susanna and Rebecca chose professional careers akin to my own. Rebecca is a cantor; Susanna is a professor of Biblical Hebrew and cognate languages and history.

Our daughters are married now, and they have their own families with children. It appears that they are keeping up the tradition in which they were brought up.

L’dor Va-dor– From Generation to Generation.

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See You in Chicago!: From the First CCAR Convention Registrant

I must admit it’s more than a little embarrassing to receive an e-mail from a classmate (and Jerusalem roommate!) telling me I was the first colleague to register for our upcoming CCAR Convention in Chicago. It’s one thing to be an enthusiastic member of our Conference (which I am), but it’s another matter entirely to be the loudest guy cheering at the pep rally.

But I’m glad Joui Hessel reached out to let me know I was the very first registrant, because it’s given me a chance to reflect on why I rushed to make sure that I would be a part of yet another meaningful, productive, and refreshing CCAR convention.  And I can boil all that down to two things: learning with colleagues, and doing with colleagues.

The learning at Convention is always top-notch.  Be it the speakers (Michael Chabon last year was a highlight for me) or the smaller sessions, there’s always something new to think about, a new perspective provided, and thoughtful friends (unfortunately scattered across North America) with whom to discuss.  And then there is the incredibly important informal education: catching up with colleagues in the hallways, restaurants and [let’s admit it] bars, to see what’s happening in their lives, and to talk about common challenges we face.  There’s no better course of professional development than conversing with CCAR_LB-0660colleagues of all ages to help orient me before I return back home.

Learning is good, but doing is more important.  (That’s in Pirkei Avot, I’m pretty sure, but this isn’t a scholarly article.) And the “doing” that we rabbis get to work on together changed profoundly for me last year in Long Beach.  There we launched the first campaign of Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, which has led to a massive year of continued effort and focus on helping Comprehensive Immigration Reform pass through Congress.  The Convention not only allows our strategy team to meet face-to-face (in place of bi-weekly conference calls), but it more importantly allowed all of us to connect to colleagues who soon became comrades-in-arms in this crusade.  It was incredibly energizing to see a room full of rabbis engaged in an issue; it’s more encouraging, many months later, to see how many of those rabbis have found meaningful ways to remain connected to and involved in the work since Long Beach.

254I find that time away from home and hearth and study allows me time to get better perspective on my life and career.  For thirteen straight years, I find no better partners in finding that perspective than my friends who share CCAR Convention with me.  Because these times are so precious to me, I’m proud I was the first to register.

And I hope you’re the next one to do so!  See you in Chicago!

  Rabbi Seth M. Limmer is rabbi of 
Congregation B’nai Yisrael of Armonk, New York.  

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Rabbis Organizing Rabbis: Immigration Reform

Zacil addressing Rabbis at CCAR Convention.
Zacil addressing Rabbis at CCAR Convention.

When Zacil finished speaking, I could see they eyes of four hundred fellow rabbis welled up with tears. This undocumented immigrant courageously described living in her shadowland of America, a parallel country to the land of opportunity discovered by my great-grandparents, a land ruled by the principle that–regardless of high school graduation or a university degree–the highest aspiration of person without papers was living in perpetual fear while toiling tirelessly as landscaper or maid.  When Rabbi David Saperstein rose to speak following her standing ovation, he simply stated, “There are eleven million Zacil’s living today in America.”  And so immediately, beginning with over 250 rabbis sending a simple text message to become part of Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, our Central Conference committed ourselves to work for comprehensive, humane and common sense Immigration Reform.

I helped form Rabbis Organizing Rabbis to move the work of tzedek back to the center of my rabbinate, to the center of the Reform Rabbinate.  I knew I wanted to work closely with colleagues on sustained campaigns to bring greater justice to our world; I sensed so many colleagues shared a commitment to tikkun olam that we were just waiting for the moment to act together and reclaim our Reform Movement’s mantle as leaders in repairing our world.  But by the time I wiped the tears from my eyes at hearing Zacil’s story, by the conclusion of a convention which 300 colleagues joined Rabbis Organizing Rabbis,  I was simply grateful that a dedicated and wide-ranging community was ready to get busy in the work that Torah calls us to do: to see to the welfare, the dignity, the humanity of the stranger, the oppressed.

In a workshop, my colleague and friend, Rabbi Larry Bach shared with us a teaching from Deuteronomy 6:

And it shall be, when Adonai your God brings you into the land which sworn to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you great and goodly cities, which you did not build; and houses full of all good things, which you did not fill; and wells dug, which you did not dig; vineyards and olive trees, which you did not plant; when you shall have eaten and be full, then be wary lest you forget Adonai, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.

Larry challenged our complacency, we comfortable citizens of these United States who are not wary Deuteronomy’s warning and frequently forget we are but a generation or two removed from the immigrant experience.  I was forced to think back through the many family stories I have forgotten to try and recall how my ancestors made it to America’s shores.  I remembered the story of my great-grandfather, who [and I appreciate the cosmic irony here] ran away from Russia rather than go to the seminary his parents wanted him to attend.  I had always heard how, in sneaking out of Eastern Europe, he was forced at a certain point to hide from Cossacks in the straw and hay of a mattress lining.  He saved his own life when not making a sound as the Cossack’s bayonets pierced his stomach, causing blood to pool in his shirt and amid the straw.  He carried that scar the rest of his life, across the Atlantic Ocean, and through Ellis Island to America.

I really don’t know if my grandfather was an illegal immigrant or not.  I don’t know how or if he got his papers squared away legally.  But I have realized, thanks to Larry Bach and Deuteronomy, that my great-grandfather must have skirted or violated innumerable laws and ordinances in escaping the oppression of Russia and making his way to safer shores.  I have come to see that I had forgotten: I am the heir of illegal immigrants, real human beings who fled real horror to discover in America a better way of life for their children, and their children’s children.  Quite literally, for me.

So I commit myself, along with countless colleagues, to work for comprehensive and humane Immigration Reform.  Not just because it is the right thing to do; not simply because it will be the first campaign of Rabbis Organizing Rabbis.  I am doing this for my great-grandfather, for my family, and for me.  I will no longer forget who I am, and what my identity compels me to do.  I am the stranger, and knowing what it feels like to be oppressed, I must work on behalf of strangers, aliens, those in the shadows, everywhere.


Rabbi Seth M. Limmer is rabbi of 
Congregation B’nai Yisrael of Armonk, New York.  


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Organizing: The 21st Century Rabbinate

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been attending CCAR conventions for a Bar Mitzvah of years, since ordination in 2000.

I attended a session called “Praying With Our Feet:  Reclaiming the Rabbinic Mantle as Agents of Change in the World,” at which my classmate and colleague Rabbi Seth Limmer spoke.  Seth, the Chair of the CCAR’s Justice and Peace Committee, talked about the efficacy of collaboration and the principles of Organizing in amplifying the power of the rabbinic voice in confronting the issues of importance in today’s society.

Rabbi Seth Limmer
Rabbi Seth Limmer

“Our first campaign as Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is… comprehensive, humane, common sense Immigration Reform,” Seth pronounced to much applause.  As I see Seth up there, and think back over our thirteen years in the rabbinate, I am drawn to a single question.

To wit: What are the big shifts in the Reform rabbinate since 2000?  It’s as fitting a time as any to ask the question — not only because of the conveniently Jewish 13-year milestone which naturally recommends a moment of contemplation of the past years of evolution and even revolution; it is also appropriate that I would pause here after 13 years to consider the shifts in rabbinical leadership since the obvious secular boundary-marker of the year 2000 itself, the last year of the 20th century and the gateway to the 21st.

I would isolate the theme that we gathered in Long Beach to consider:  the use of Community Organizing principles in our spiritual leadership.  13 years ago, no one in the Reform Movement was speaking this language — the language of Organizing, the language of using relational meetings to build broad-based consensus and develop strategies for action, thus leveraging congregations’ power, mobilizing people of conscience, and thereby giving us a shared model for our Social Justice work. Nowadays however the language of Organizing is our lingua franca. In Westchester, we have used Organizing to develop a growing coalition of churches, synagogues, and other institutions outside the faith community to work for the greater good of our county and to confront Social Justice challenges including mandated access to kindergarten throughout New York state, a boon to beleaguered school districts that must sometimes consider cutting kindergarten under budgetary pressures; we are also using Organizing principles to mobilize action around gun violence prevention.

I’m eager to read comments on this subject: how has Organizing shifted your rabbinate? Your congregation? Your community? And what are the other big shifts since 2000?

Rabbi Jonathan Blake
 is the Senior Rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple in 
Scarsdale, New York.


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Silence and Conversation

intentional.094307At the closing of a session at the recent CCAR Convention, Rabbi Elaine Zecher led us in a session of intentional silence and meditation, as a way for each of us to begin to process our learning so far, as well as consider how and in what we might root ourselves as we move forward after the convention’s close.

I found the exercise powerful.  I want to express personal gratitude to and for Elaine and her skillful transformation of an enormous, chair-filled, artificially-lit/ cooled hotel ballroom into a warm, inclusive space where real, intentional, mindful thought could happen.  She is an exquisite and inspirational role model.

The silence enabled my own intentional and grounded thought around the conference’s provocative topics. Throughout this exciting conference, ideas have been coursing through my brain, seemingly on overdrive: independence, interdependence, competition, collaboration, our rapidly flattening and interconnecting world from the most micro and macro views, declaration versus conversation, leading and listening,  the marketplace of ideas in which everyone regardless of title has a share, the charge to inform and transform, and the list goes on and on.  But yesterday I was able to siphon all of it down to what seems to be the key issue at play in these shifts we are here to address.

Implicit in all the conversations, large and small, is understanding that navigating the shifts, or to throw out the scarier word, “surviving” the shifts will require both broad and specific platform changes for us as individuals and our communities, if we have not begun this work already.  These changes offer us great opportunity to think of our world, our roles, our people, and our places differently, more fluidly, more collaboratively.  And whether we find that exciting, terrifying, or both, the resonating question for all of us remains: who will pay for it?  I don’t mean that in an idiomatic sense, as in who will suffer the consequences, although there are those who do see it that way.  But rather, most literally, who will fund these changes and shifts?

I believe great ideas, innovations and/or approaches will get funded (from our own constituents, foundations, etc). But, and here is the real elephant in the room, they won’t fund all of us.  The real question is not who will fund these changes, but rather who will fund us, pay our salary, enable us to support our family, pay our bills, etc?  And that is indeed a terrifying question.  Because as much as it is about our institution’s risk taking and survival, on a more fundamental level, is there any real way to extricate that from talking about our own?

Ironically, a refusal to adapt, evolve, risk to surf the shifting waves significantly ups the odds against us.   Ironically, the success that we all seek seems only possible with a willingness to shift our  “survive” model  (how we’ve always done it) to a “thrive” model.  And that necessitates risk. Or does it?  Because the truth is, a certain freedom comes in the realization that many of our established, risk-averse systems and assumptions don’t work well anymore.  The real risk comes in hoping these “old” ways will somehow work well again; the real opportunity comes in seeking out new models of connection, leading, learning, and being.  And this isn’t just about the internet and social media.  To assert that Facebook and Twitter will somehow save us all is to truly to miss the larger point.  There is so much that we can learn, offer, converse about, and grow with when we open ourselves to the possibility that our world and work and selves might learn and grow from what others outside of our traditional go-to sources have to offer.  We cannot let our fears of what bad things might happen when we loosen our tight grip of control paralyze us in the face of the great opportunities that await.  Nor can we let this cause us to forget the power that our deep wisdom tradition has to offer, that we can offer, to the constituents both within and without our walls, no less to the world.

If you weren’t at the closing program yesterday, here are the questions Elaine offered each of us the opportunity to consider:

1) What of what we’ve heard or learned has caused you to worry?

2) What has inspired you?

3) What are the emerging questions that come up for you?

4) What personal commitments will you make around these ideas moving forward?

One of the key lessons of this conference is the importance of creating collaborative, intentional conversations that enable listening, sharing, and learning so we can thrive in the shifting or shifted world. I am up for the conversation, and if you are too, maybe we can talk.  I am not a big power leader in the CCAR or URJ, but I am a rabbi, like you, who thinks, worries, gets excited about and makes action commitments too.

Rabbi Wendi Geffen has served as one of North Shore Congregation Israel’s rabbis since 2002. She can be found on twitter @wendigeffen and blogs at

CCAR Convention News Rabbis

Leading the Shift: The CCAR Convention Opening Program

Rabbi Steve Fox, Zev Yaroslavsky, Tiffany Shlain,  Dr. David Feinberg, and Rabbi Asher Knight.
Rabbi Steve Fox, Zev Yaroslavsky, Tiffany Shlain, Dr. David Feinberg, and Rabbi Asher Knight.

The stated objective of this year’s CCAR Convention is, in part, “…to engage colleagues in deep conversation on the issues about which they are passionate.”  Tonight’s opening program was designed to initiate this series of conversations by offering short talks presented by thought leaders in other fields: medicine, politics, and multimedia art.  Each of these exceptional figures – Dr. David Feinberg, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, and filmmaker Tiffany Shlain – offered perspectives on how to “lead the shift” by drawing on their own personal experiences of challenge and success.

I loved Supervisor Yaroslavsky’s comments about the messy work of political coalition-building, and was energized by Shlain’s ideas about the overlapping “participatory revolutions” that we see around us today in the world of culture and technology.  More than anything, however, I was moved by the comments of Dr. Feinberg, who is the President of the UCLA Health System and CEO for the UCLA Hospital System.

Feinberg talked about the way he succeeded in transforming the UCLA hospitals after he took the helm – humbly pointing out that he had no formal training and suggesting that he had had no appreciable experience to recommend him for the post.  He spoke about how he brought about a system-wide shift in consciousness by insisting that members of the hospital staff become radically patient-centered at all levels, from hospital parking attendants to neurosurgeons in the operating theater.

The reorientation that Feinberg brought about was massively sprawling in its scope, but he suggested that it could be boiled down to focusing hospital employees’ attention on improving one single statistic: the number of patients who responded positively to a simple question: “How likely are you to recommend us to a friend?”

Feinberg’s idea is not a new one; in fact, it was documented and explored at length by Fred Reichheld several years ago in his book The Ultimate Question (Harvard Business School Press, 2006).  Reichheld argued that the way customers answered this question would be the most revealing metric that predicted a company’s long-term growth and profitability.  But Feinberg has been uniquely successful because he recognized that this mode of assessing a business’s success and effectiveness can be translated effortlessly to the healthcare field as well.

I’d like to suggest that the same thing is true for the not-for-profit realm, and specifically for the landscape of Jewish communal institutions.

I wonder what Jewish life would be like if our communal leaders – clergy, lay staff, and volunteers alike – spent their time being obsessively focused on improving their constituents’ answers to that question.  What would our communities feel like if we were single-mindedly devoted to exceeding members’ wildest expectations of us and our institutions?  What could the future become if every Jewish professional set out to turn every interaction as an opportunity to turn constituents into evangelists, to transform them into walking billboards for our organizations, celebrating the wonderful services we provide and the inspiring missions we embody?

I have participated in numerous conversations with colleagues who lament declining membership numbers, shrinking dues revenue, and an overall diminution of k’vod ha-rav, the respect traditionally accorded rabbis as spiritual guides and communal leaders.  The beauty of Feinberg’s approach  is that it recognizes that prospective patients are influenced most powerfully and effectively by the testimony of their friends and peers – not necessarily by the expertise of doctors or hospital staff.  The same would be true if we succeed at carrying this approach into the world of Jewish communal work; unaffiliated, unengaged, and uninterested Jews in our communities are much more likely to be convinced to walk through our doors if they receive impassioned recommendation from a friend whose judgment they trust.

Feinberg’s strategy proved revolutionary, which is particularly exciting given the simplicity of the approach.  Its success and its simplicity both recommend it to us rabbis, who have nothing to lose and everything to gain from employing it.  When I leave Long Beach and return home to my own organization, I will look forward to doing my part to “lead the shift” by concentrating on improving the way my constituents answer this simple and potent question, and I hope that my colleagues across the country will do the same.


Rabbi Oren Hayon is the Greenstein Family Executive Director at the University of Washington Hillel.

CCAR Convention CCAR on the Road

CCAR Conventions, Then and Now

CCAR Convention, 2012
CCAR Convention, 2012

I wonder how many CCAR conventions I have been to over the years.  I remember the first.  It was in Pittsburgh and I had just been ordained. As I walked up to the L-Z registration line, I was scared and excited until a lovely volunteer pulled me aside.  “The registration line for the wives is over there,” she said kindly while pointing across the room.   This memory surfaced recently when I  told a friend I was going to the CCAR conference and she asked if I enjoy it.  I do now, I said.

Those early conventions are pretty much lost in the haze of the years, but I remember moments like that.  Since there weren’t many female rabbis, we all ended up being cycled and recycled through the various committees.  In those years, there would only ever be one woman on any given committee. I remember once being on the Nominating Committee and suggesting two female names.  We already have a woman, I was told.

All that seems like ancient history now although it was a mere 30+ years ago.  For all that we wonder at times whether anything has changed, it turns out that much has changed, at least when it comes to the CCAR. We now come together with intention, defined by what we do as rabbis, not by our gender or sexual orientation.   We take for granted that two of the five rabbinic members of our senior CCAR  staff are women.  Our immediate past president is a woman.  Women have chaired our convention planning.  The WRN is an ex-officio member of the CCAR board. The brochure for this next conference calls the CCAR  “the organization for every Reform rabbi, retired, community-based, congregational, part-time, portfolio and full-time.”

The year I was directed to the wives’ registration line at that Pittsburgh Conference, the overwhelming membership of the Conference held congregational positions.  My friends in Hillel simply didn’t bother coming since there was nothing there for them in the program (as well as a feeling of being invisible in contrast to the pulpit rabbis).  The part-time rabbinate existed only for retired rabbis who still wanted to keep a hand in pulpit life.  The rabbinate was a much narrower place.

And, in a not-so-well-kept secret,  it turns out that not all male colleagues enjoyed CCAR conventions.  Many of my friends joked about the “how big is yours” syndrome.  They complained that the very convention that should allow us to relax and be ourselves often turned out to be a bastion of judgment and competition.  They also wanted to talk about their personal doubts, their professional conflicts, and the challenges of balancing the rabbinate with family.  They, too, yearned for a different, more truly collegial experience.

For many years after I left the full-time congregational rabbinate, I stopped coming to CCAR conventions.  All kinds of considerations came into play. I served a part-time congregation without the financial resources to send me to conferences.  I would have had to cancel patients in my private practice, which had both economic and psychological consequences.  Since I was self-employed and funded my own vacations, I needed to be selective about how much time I spent away.  If the choice came down to going to the CCAR convention versus going to visit my children, my children won.

Rabbi Ellen Lewis at 2012 CCAR Convention with Rabbis Michael Weinberg, Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus, and Rabbi Steve Fox.
Rabbi Ellen Lewis at 2012 CCAR Convention with Rabbis Michael Weinberg, Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus, and Rabbi Steve Fox.

While all of the above reasons seemed valid at the time, I also confess that I wasn’t as drawn to going to the convention as I am now.  For many years, the CCAR didn’t feel like the organization for every Reform rabbi, or at least not the organization for this Reform rabbi. The happy confluence of women’s entering the rabbinate and society’s undergoing parallel shifts has sparked many positive changes in the rabbinate and in our conference. We all know that there are changes yet to come, as acknowledged by the title of this conference (Rabbis Leading the Shift: Jewish Possibility in a Rapidly Changing World).   I am happy about returning to these conferences.  I am excited about seeing old and new friends.  And yes, I plan to enjoy it.


Rabbi Ellen Lewis ( has a particular interest in the integration of religious and psychoanalytical concepts and has worked at developing models of clinical supervision for rabbis, cantors, and other religious professionals.  In her private practice, she works with rabbis and cantors in therapy and supervision.  After her ordination at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1980, she served congregations in Dallas, Texas, and Summit, New Jersey, where she was named Rabbi Honorata.  Since 1994, she has been the Rabbi of the Jewish Center of Northwest Jersey in Washington, NJ (  

Rabbi Lewis is also a certified and licensed modern psychoanalyst in private practice in Bernardsville, New Jersey and in New York City. She received her analytical training in New York at the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies ( and at present serves on the faculty of the Academy of Clinical and Applied Psychoanalysis (  She is a Fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors ( She can be reached via email at or in her NJ office 908 766 7586.