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Holding a Digital Shivah Minyan in the Age of COVID-19

For as long as I can remember, I have begun every shivah minyan by saying something like this: “The measure of a community’s strength is not how they gather for celebrations, but how they show up for each other in moments of sadness and pain. It’s easy to show up for something fun and joyous, but when we make our presence felt at the low points, we demonstrate our connection and commitment to each other.” So, what do I say now when it is impossible to be physically present even for our closest relatives and friends? To be honest, I don’t change the script much other to acknowledge that if we could, we would be there. It is essential that we acknowledge the unique nature of the moment we are in. No matter where you live in this world, no matter how hard the COVID-19 pandemic has hit your community, we are all suffering. We are all separated from those we love, from our regular routines and from the Jewish rituals that structure so much of our professional lives. At the same time, we are grateful for the ability to innovate our rituals to meet the moment we are in, just as Jewish leaders have done for thousands of years.

Zoom and other video conferencing platforms have been a God-send at this moment of social distancing. But they are also cause for stress, confusion, and mishap if not used adeptly. Here are some insights I have gathered from leading shivah minyans on Zoom.

  1. Create a Zoom meeting with a simple password. New security features on Zoom create an automatic numeric password. Change the password to make it easy to remember. When sending the link, either highlight and bold the link and password or edit the invitation to include only the link, the password, and relevant phone numbers. 
  2. Make sure the immediate circle of mourners is comfortable with the platform. Determine whether they will be using a computer, a tablet or a phone. Insist that they download the software or the app to their device beforehand. Offer to help them do a test run or suggest that they connect with someone in their circle who has experience with the program. Avoid comments such as, “It is really easy to use,” or “You should have no problem at all.” I have found that less tech savvy people, particularly seniors, find Zoom to be confusing. There are many prompts that don’t feel intuitive for everyone. 
  3. Advanced Zoom features to consider: The waiting room function allows you to get on early with the immediate family and make sure they are set. It can also protect against Zoombombers. Mute folks upon entry as well. It’s best to maintain control of people’s mute function in general. Offer to record the service. It is easy to upload and send as a link to the family afterwards. On the other hand, I would encourage people to leave their cameras on, but remind them that they can be seen. It is very comforting to see all those faces together. 
  4. How do we lead a technically successful shivah minyan on Zoom? There are several options. The CCAR has graciously given us free access to the flipbook version of Mishkan T’filah for a House of Mourning . If you share the flipbook link, prepare ahead of time to give the digital page number (which is different from the print book pagination). If you plan on using the screen share option, displaying pages as needed, it is ideal to have a second person in charge of that function. Plan ahead to cut and paste the link to the flipbook into the chat feature of Zoom: 
  5. How do we lead a spiritually and emotionally successful minyan service on Zoom? This is the easiest part! People are grateful to be together. People are moved to see each other’s faces. People are incredibly forgiving of any technical awkwardness. In leading the service, I start by explaining all the technicalities listed above. I let people know that they will be muted for most of the service. And then we begin. Keep the service as concise as possible. All Hebrew should be read or sung so people can keep up. All English readings should be communal. (All this is done with the participants muted.) However, when it comes to Kaddish, I have followed the advice of others and unmuted all the participants. It is awkward and clumsy with the time delay. But it is also incredibly moving to hear everyone’s voices. It is a great source of comfort to the mourners as well. 
  6. One final note. The most important part of an in-person shivah minyan is the gathering before and after. The sharing of stories and memories is so cathartic. There is an option on Zoom to make someone else  co-host of the meeting. Plan this ahead of time with a member of the immediate family. This will enable the group to stay on after the service and allow you to leave the meeting. People can linger and share stories about the person they have lost for as long as they like. Just remember to finish recording before you get off or it won’t save.

We rabbis are perfectionists by nature, yet this is definitely not a time when we can expect to be perfect. But by leaning into our compassion, our patience, and our creativity we are still able to offer comfort and connection to our people in their time of sorrow and loss.

Rabbi Mara S. Nathan is the Senior Rabbi at Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, Texas. 

CCAR Convention congregations Immigration

Remarkable Moments in a 50-Year 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 2020, March 22-25 in Baltimore, Rabbi Sanford T. Marcus reflects on the importance of community outreach.

This coming year marks the 50th year of my ordination, the last class during Nelson Glueck’s tenure as president of HUC-JIR. It is also the 60th anniversary of remaining on the Brandeis University waiting list!

I had a first and last job at Temple Beth-El in Providence, Rhode Island.  I succeeded Rabbi Braude whose vaunted reputation was deserved. I was only 31 when elected Senior Rabbi of a 1,200 family congregation. At the time there was no Placement Commission to prevent my succession. When I informed my mother of this happy news, she exclaimed, “Honey, do you think you’re competent?”  She had a point. Happily, it turned out that a caring presence can trump competence. I have been over-honored through the years. I am the only rabbi to be elected to the Rhode Island Hall of Fame. I have been awarded seven honorary degrees. It is satisfying to feel that I have made a difference for good.  

I have many life-saturated memories of my rabbinic career. Two are particularly compelling. Anya Volnyskaya was a youngster in the former Soviet Union who was “twinned” with many American young girls celebrating their B’nai Mitzvah. An empty chair was placed on their bimahs in her honor. This dramatized the plight of Refusniks. Years later, Anya and her family moved to Providence. She yearned to celebrate her own Bat Mitzvah. As this festive occasion approached, she invited the six girls from around the country who once prayed for her to be allowed to leave Russia. They all came. Surrounding Anya as she began reading Torah, they joined in a chorus of the Shehecheyanu prayer. There was not a dry eye in the congregation.  

Dr. Myer Saklad led a health team to the Warsaw Ghetto after it was subsumed by fire. When he arrived, the ground was still warm. Saklad came across a human skull and instinctively cradled it in his arms. He took it home. Years later when he was dying, the doctor came with the human remains wrapped in stiff brown paper tied with string. What should he do? The week following Rosh Hashanah we gently placed it in our temple cemetery next to prayer books that could no longer be used.  I have never participated in a more moving burial.  

I have been blessed by two remarkable women. Julie was instrumental building my career and our family. She was the cherished mother of Rebecca and Elizabeth. She died tragically in her fifties. Rebecca named her son Jonah in her memory. 

Janet Engelhart brought Allison and two more grandsons into my life. Her brother said at our wedding that she is distinguished by her big heart. He was so right. Her gifts of spirit created a loving, unified family.

On the Jubilee occasion of my ordination, I have much for which I am grateful.  Rebecca is a Reform Rabbi.  From generation to generation.  Now, if I could only hear from Brandeis!

Leslie Y. Gutterman is rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth-El in Providence, Rhode Island, and currently serves on the CCAR Taskforce on Retirees and Sucessors.

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A Full and Diverse Rabbinate

I grew up in a small South Georgia town. “Shabbat” services were every other Sunday evening, as our congregation of 18 or so families did not have a full-time rabbi, but would invite the rabbi in a neighboring community to visit. (One of our rabbis was Julius Kravitz, z’l, who later was on the faculty of HUC-JIR in New York, and who led our 1963 summer program in Cincy.)

We were CLASSICAL reform. Caps intentional. Never would a kippah be allowed! Once I was old enough to go to Temple, I never missed a service. One of my earliest memories was sitting in the pews, and opening the Union Prayer Book, of blessed memory. I would look at the title page, and was in awe that the publisher was the Central Conference of American Rabbis. I could not imagine a more august group. Never did I think that my life would take a path that would lead me to being a member for fifty years. And never have I considered myself to be “august.”

During my early rabbinic career, I led worship from the Union Prayer Book. Later came the Gates of Prayer series. And then, just a few months before my retirement in 2008, I introduced Mishkan T’filah. I am not lamenting these changes, for I see them as clear examples that our Reform movement is alive and changing. The English of the UPB still moves me, but the words of the scholars of our movement today also speak my heart.

My rabbinate has always been in small communities; perhaps this is because of my childhood. That means that in the pre-internet days I was often quite isolated, but somehow, I was aware of the changes that were happening, and always understood that my responsibility was to take my flock, no matter how small, and to create an environment where they would be comfortable wherever they went.

After ordination in 1970 I served in Lincoln, NE and Springfield, OH before entering the United States Air Force as a Chaplain. I was stationed at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs (twice), the Military Air Lift Command headquarters at Scott Air Force Base, IL near St. Louis, Royal Air Force Mildenhall in the United Kingdom near Cambridge, and Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, TX. After 20 years of active military service I retired and became the founding rabbi of Temple Beit Torah in Colorado Springs, CO.

I now have the luxury now to sit in the pews and experience worship led by the talented and caring clergy team at Temple Beth El in Madison, WI. This has afforded me the opportunity to become more personally involved in prayer. I no longer worry about what’s on the next page. One of the most wonderful observations is the level of participation by the congregation. The Jew in the Pew is much more involved; the UPB model of “Congregation” responding to “Leader” is no more. We all chant the V’ahavtah and the prayers of the Amidah. Beth El has a Team Torah consisting of lay members who chant Torah. (I’m the only member of the group who reads Torah, I never learned to chant!)

Like life, like any rabbinical career, there have been ups and downs. I cannot do anything about the unpleasant times, but I can re-live and get pleasure from the joys. Such as uniting couples in marriage and watching them grow into families. (The first couple I married in the summer of 1970 will celebrate 50 years this summer!) Vivian and I served tea to Prime Minister Begin when his plane stopped for fuel in England. I’ve led High Holy Day worship in the Rashi Synagogue in Worms, Germany. And I have participated in many little ‘common’ moments that are a part of being a rabbi and involved in the life of congregants. I’ve spent hours in hospitals just being a presence in a time of great stress.

Upon retirement I discovered NAORRR, and found great joy in being with colleagues, some who were long-time (but not ‘old’) friends, and I’ve made many wonderful new ones who have had similar rabbinical journeys. When I attend the annual NAORRR convention I always remember that I was blessed to have two study partners of blessed memory at HUC – Howard Folb, z’l, and Jonathan Plaut, z’l. Their early deaths left a void that has affected me greatly. May their memories be for a blessing.

Rabbi Irvin Ehrlich coordinates CCAR Sharing Our Lives announcements.

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Humanitarian Mission to Cuba

“Cuba? Why are you going to Cuba on a humanitarian mission, rabbi?” Congregants and friends asked this question numerous times after Congregation Kol Ami and Temple Beth Hillel announced the plan to visit Cuba in April 2016. The answer was simple, the Jewish community there needs us and we need to hear their stories.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger and I learned about the possibility of doing a Jewish religious mission from other rabbis who led similar trips and we knew that, as the relationship between the United States and Cuba’s relationship is entering a new era, timing was just right. Working with Pierre from World Passage Ltd., we worked out an itinerary that enabled us to meet with the Jewish communities in Havana and Cienfuegos and learn about the country and people of Cuba. Our congregants were excited about this travel opportunity and before we knew it we were on our chartered flight from Miami to Havana.

We entered Cuba poem-1carrying clothes for the tropical climate, a minimum of 10 pounds of physical donations for the four organizations we would visit, cash tzedakah, and enough cash for our trip (United States citizens cannot use credit cards or ATMs so we needed to convert our cash into CUCs). Our enthusiastic group of 22 hit the ground running and began our tour. We went right to the Sephardic Synagogue in Havana, one of three Jewish communities we would visit (we also stopped at a maternity clinic in Trinidad and brought gifts).

Jewish life in Cuba was strong prior to the 1959 revolution. There were approximately 15,000 Jews throughout the island of Ashkenazi and Sephardic descent. Havana was home to 6 or 7 day schools and a private Jewish high school. After the 1959 Revolution, private businesses were confiscated by the government, private schools were closed and if one was to participate in any religious community s/he would not be able to work within the government (this included medical professionals, teachers, etc.). For decades there were not enough Jews at any of the synagogues to make minyanim for the High Holy Days. However, after the fall of the socialist countries, the Castro regime allowed Cubans to practice religion without fear of penalty or retribution. Cuba changed from an atheist country to a secular country.

The Jewish community of Cuba today is approximately 1,500, about 1,100 Jews in Havana and 400 in small communities throughout the country. Like all of the people of Cuba the Jewish community has made life work under difficult circumstances. Our donations consisted of items that the congregations in Havana will use in their pharmacies. The congregations run the facilities and any Cuban who has a prescription can come and receive whatever it is they need, provided the pharmacy has it in stock. We also brought basic necessities like toothpaste, toothbrushes, and men’s and women’s underwear.

While there is much to be proud of within the Cuban Jewish community, they are in trouble. Most of the Jews leave Cuba whenever the opportunity presents itself (today most of the young people plan to make aliyah). 95% of Cubans are intermarried, and at the Patronato Synagogue 20% of the congregants are over 60 years old. Cuba’s Jewish community has a unique history and story of survival and there is much to learn from them.

Of course we did not only meet with the Jewish community of Cuba. We heard an overview of Cuban architecture, and sadly every day three houses collapse in Cuba because of the lack of infrastructure. We saw signs of Jewish life, Jewish stars embedded in stained glass windows, hanging from chandeliers and placed within mosaics. We visited Museo Bellas Artes and saw the immense collection of Cuban art. We heard an acapella concert by a phenomenal group in Cienfuegos and saw a demonstration of authentic Santeria dance and music. We stopped at Jardin Botanica de Cienfuegos, an amazing space filled with hundreds of species of trees. And we stopped at La Finca Vigia, Ernest Hemingway’s home, to view the property and the newly painted swimming pool (thanks to President and Mrs. Obama’s recent visit.)

Narratives in Cuba are very important. We learned the story of the October Crisis (what we in America call the Bay of Pigs) and for many in our group it was eye-opening to hear a different perspective. We also carried the narratives of the Cuban Jews living in the United States with us. One of my congregants has fond memories of her family’s home in Havana and the farm where they grew sugar cane. In 1959 she and her family fled Cuba, their home and farms were confiscated by the government and she vowed never to return. The Cuban people are eager to tell their story. If you are able to do so, I encourage you to go and listen. Listen to the music, dance to the rhythms, and take in the wonders of the vast array of visual arts.

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Rabbi Eleanor Steinman is the Director of Religious Education at Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village, CA. She blogs at

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Five Minutes

“Rabbi, Do You Have Five Minutes?”

I am asked this question all the time.  As I am walking out of the Oneg  Shabbat, as I am finishing preparations for a class, as I am setting up for Torah Tots, someone stops me and says “Rabbi, do you have five minutes?”   In the early days of my rabbinate, I always said ‘yes’.  Standing in the hallway, I waited for the question about the meeting agenda, a mitzvah project, or availability for an unveiling.

Those questions rarely surfaced.  In the requested five minutes I have heard a story about an abusive partner (a fellow temple member), a deceased mother who died young when hit by drunk driver, and a myriad of medical diagnoses.  Impending divorces seem to often be shared after the request for five minutes.  Needless to say, these were never just five minute conversations, and rarely appropriate for the hallway.

I have gone through many stages in my understanding of this request.  At first I took it at face value and found myself surprised over and over again. Then I learned to realize that the request for five minutes was like a code. I had cracked the code and wasn’t surprised when a much more significant conversation was needed.  Not surprised, but annoyed nonetheless.  “Why can’t she make an appointment when I can give her my full attention?”  “Why doesn’t he realize that this is not a five minute conversation?”  “Surely he realizes that I am about to teach/on my way home/in between meetings?”

Why is it that people use a phrase that minimizes what is often far from minimal – death, loss, disappointment, heartbreak?   I have two thoughts – one that focuses on those making the “five minute” request, and one that is about us as rabbis.  Making an appointment to talk to the rabbi adds weight and gravity to the subject at hand.  To actually schedule a time, come in to the office, and sit behind a closed door is to acknowledge a depth of need that many may not yet be able to confront.   Asking for “five minutes” may be a gentle entry into a difficult subject, a way for the individual to try to hold on to the notion that the crises they confront is not as challenging as they fear.  In granting the five minutes that is really 45 minutes, we may gently usher those we care for along their path of growth and understanding.

But I think there is something even more significant in this interaction about how we see our rabbinic work and the message we convey to others.   What does it mean when we say we are busy, that we have a lot to do? Many of us list meetings to attend, classes to prepare and teach, money to raise, boards to train.  We would all say that being present for our community, sharing in their joys and sorrows is also ‘what we do’.  But being present outside of formal life cycle events often can’t be scheduled in the same way as the planning meeting for mitzvah day, and is what gets lost in the crush of an overburdened schedule.

The turning point for me in understanding this was a conversation that I had with a women who had asked for five minutes.  After our non-five minute conversation I asked her why she hadn’t made an appointment.  She said, “Rabbi, you are always so busy and I know how much you have to do.  I didn’t want to add to that.”  I have thought about these words often, and with some shame.  I am busy and I do have a lot to do – and one of the most important of those things I have to do is to be fully present for people like her and all those others who only ask for five minutes. How many times, in my busy-ness, have I failed to convey this?

I have tried to shift my mindset, to make space for the meaningful interactions that happen as people walk in with their kids for tutoring or religious school or to prepare mailings or wait for a luncheon. Being available in all of the in-between times doesn’t interrupt my work, it is my work – holy and sacred work for which I am profoundly grateful.


Betsy Torop is the CCAR Manager for Member Engagement and the Rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom, Brandon, Florida.


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Shabbat at Kehillat Halev

There is something magical about Shabbat in Israel. The frenetic pace of the six other days of the week comes to a crawl, it is as though one can feel the angels of Shabbat descending upon this land. As part of the CCAR Israel convention, my colleagues and I separated and were guests of 13 Reform communities throughout the country. From Haifa to Gezer to Nahal Oz, we joined in prayer with congregations affiliated with the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism.

I was delighted to attend Kehillat Halev in central Tel Aviv. We walked into the space, a senior day center the congregation rents from the municipality of Tel Aviv, and were welcomed warmly. Israelis from newborn to senior come each week to this congregation and bring in Shabbat with energy, kindness, joy, and amazing music. Rabbi Rotem offered beautiful words of Torah that spoke to my soul, stirring my own prayer, and from the feeling in the room, the prayer of each person.

Children were sitting on the laps of their parents, quietly playing with toys on the floor, or being danced around in the arms of family and friends who are like family.

The community uses a daf T’filah, a handout of the traditional prayers, contemporary reflections, and modern Israeli poetry. Music ranged from Taubman’s Hashkiveinu setting, niggunim, new Israeli songs, and traditional nusach.

The service concluded and I was simultaneously sad and ecstatic. Sad because I don’t know when I will get to celebrate Shabbat with this community again. Ecstatic because this community exists, is thriving, and my soul was filled with the spirit of Shabbat.

I hope you will join me in supporting the communities of the Israeli Reform Movement with our dollars and our Israel trips.

And thank you to Kehillat Halev for a gorgeous Shabbat. I’m sending in my synagogue membership when I get home.

Rabbi Eleanor Steinman is the Director of Religious Education at Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village, CA.


Ten Common Missteps Congregations Make During Strategic Planning

Rabbis and lay leaders are rightfully anxious about the future viability of congregations due to a myriad of changes happening in American Jewry and beyond. Our Jewish institutions – particularly congregations — exist in an era that necessitates 1) the naming of obsolete ways of thinking and doing, 2) a willingness to experiment with fresh new approaches, and 3) the realization that the answers are probably as idiosyncratic as the community in which each congregation exists.

As process consultants we get to work with committed, creative, and forward-thinking lay leaders, clergy, and professional staff. We see the best of strategic visioning. We also see planning efforts that merely re-package the status quo.

Before we encourage a congregation to invest the time, money, and effort in strategic visioning, we ask leaders to consider whether they are truly ready for significant change. But even when this commitment exists, there are many ways to fail. Here are ten common mistakes that congregations make. How many of these look familiar?


  1. Look to the Meyvins: Don’t look for solutions from an outside expert. Your answers rest in the insight and aspirations of your people.

Tip: Design a process that enables all participants to become well versed regarding the congregation’s realities, challenges, and opportunities.

  1. Focus on Programs: Program innovation is an insufficient answer to creating a vibrant Jewish community, yet it often gets 80% of the attention and investment.

Tip: Look at innovations in structures (e.g., volunteer, dues, etc.), systems (e.g., education), and culture (e.g., welcome) as opportunities for real and sustainable change.

  1. Convene the Usual Suspects: Involving only the people who are already active and visible in congregational life will guarantee that you reproduce past thinking.

Tip: Bring together participants who represent the diverse make-up and aspirations of the congregation – people who represent the past, present, and the future

  1. Treat Congregants as Consumers: During strategy development the worst mistake you can make is to ask people what they need and want, and then end the conversation.

Tip: Instead ask: “What are you interested in helping to bring into being here?” Frame every conversation to encourage a “citizen” rather than consumer mindset.

  1. Emphasize Solutions to Urgent Gaps: Trying to solve short-term problems or Band Aid the most obvious challenges rather than deciding the future you want to create.

Tip: Focus on articulating a future that inspires people to invest their energy and resources instead of goals that emphasize the prevention of bad things from happening.

  1. Act from Scarcity: Avoid the assumption that whatever we want to accomplish in the future must be accomplished with today’s resources, infrastructure, staff, and volunteers.

Tip:  Avoid conflating the “what we aspire to become” conversation with the “how are we going to pay for it?” conversation.  Both matter but they need to happen separately.

  1. Set the Bar Low: Working to eliminate risk ensures achieving goals without meaning. If we always get it right, we are probably not taking enough creative risks.

Tip: Broaden the definition of “success” and be willing to view implementation as a series of pilots that reveal valuable lessons whether or not they get the desired results.

  1. Defend the Legacy of the Past: Focusing on how much better things are now than they use to be is a distraction. It may be true but does not foster a forward-thinking conversation.

Tip: Ask, what no longer serves our mission and what can we build upon to create the future we really want?

  1. Avoid Going First: Choose not to be the first in the community, the movement, or the country to do something that challenges conventional wisdom, boundaries, or rules.

Tip: Make a conscious decision to lead in small and big ways. Be prepared to disrupt the status quo, break with convention, and displease people who prefer things as they are.

  1. Take a Competitor Stance: Proceeding as if other congregations and institutions have interests that are separate, independent, and competing creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that ensures silos.

Tip: Look for ways to create a vibrant Jewish ecosystem in your community – one in you can play to your strengths while collaborating with others.


Although the act of going through a strategic planning exercise may feel reassuring and create the illusion that “we’re doing something,” it is insufficient to ensure a bright future for any organization.  The planning process itself must be a practice ground through which leaders change the kinds of limiting default habits described above.

Larry Dressler is a master process facilitator and trusted advisor to rabbis throughout the US.  Larry will be joining CCAR for an upcoming webinar, “Engagement 101 Are you a CEO – a Chief Engagement Officer?” and an upcoming in-person seminar titled, “Rabbi as (CEO) Chief Engagement Officer. 

Amy Rosenblum specializes in helping socially purposed organizations maximize their impact and ensure their sustainability. Both are based in Boulder, Colorado.