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Convention

Fulfillment Beyond Measure: Rabbi Alvin M. Sugarman on 50 Years in the Rabbinate

Each year at CCAR Convention, we honor CCAR members ordained 50 years ago or more. Here, Rabbi Alvin M. Sugarman reflects on his life and learnings in the rabbinate.

If there is such a phenomenon as a spiritual journey, I cannot think of a better way to do just that than being a congregational rabbi. For not only have I experienced my own spiritual life, but I have tasted the spiritual lives of my members. As I have stood under the chuppah, enabling two people to make holy and sacred the bond of love that will join their two souls, I too was touched by the powerful magic of their romantic love. 

And again, I found myself in their presence as I participated in the naming ceremony for their tiny infant. To see the look in their eyes, to view the countenance of grandparents and at times even great-grandparents, all of whose faces radiated with a kind of ultimate joy, was a special privilege granted to me as a rabbi.

Then, before I knew it, I was standing at the door of our preschool and watching bewildered parents letting go, for the first time perhaps, of their little one as their toddler walked down the hall to his first preschool classroom. Then in the blink of an eye, I was handing each member of the kindergarten consecration class their own little Torah, which they accepted so tenderly, holding their Torah close to their hearts. Then in three blinks of an eye, I was standing next to a thirteen-year-old chanting from the Torah at his bar mitzvah.

Two or three years later, I was with this bar mitzvah boy and his classmates, participating with them in a stunningly, beautiful confirmation service they had created. Two years later, I was privileged to conduct an “off-to-college Shabbat,” praying and hoping that wherever these students went, their Judaism would live in them and that I had somehow instilled in them a desire to live a Jewish life.

The next time I might see one of my confirmands might be when they once again are standing in front of the congregation, but this time instead of reading a confirmation prayer, they are speaking about their late grandfather at his funeral, a grandfather who meant so much to them. The young man tells those gathered for the funeral how much it meant to him to hold his parents’ hands in a circle with me as together with his grandfather we repeated the Sh’ma, the last words his grandfather said before slipping into a coma and dying.

Sitting with families, listening to them speak about loved ones who have just died, about how they lived their lives, how they loved, how they struggled and sometimes failed, then strove again and succeeded, I’ve learned so much about how to live life, not just what I’ve read in books, but from sharing in my congregants’ lives.

The blessing I have received as a rabbi has brought me fulfillment beyond measure, but I am quick to note that whatever spiritual nourishment I have gained from my rabbinate would never have been possible without my life partner, Barbara, who has been by my side now for almost fifty-six years. Nor would it have been possible without the understanding and enlightened leadership of The Temple’s officers and board, as well as the deep support and understanding of our Temple family.

What I have described above, along with almost every imaginable type of counseling situation, became the heart and soul of my rabbinate.

I tried my best to keep not only the words of the prophets alive, but to turn those words into deeds, such as helping create a shelter for homeless couples and a shelter for  homeless newborns and their families. What wisdom did I learn? I learned when people are given a chance to allow the goodness of their hearts to bloom, they will do so. The night before we opened our shelter for homeless newborns and their families, we had an open house for our volunteers. The infant bathtubs were placed up high so mothers would not have to bend over to bathe their babies. On the side of each tub was a little yellow rubber duck that one of our volunteers had placed there. I smiled and I think God did too.

I pray that my rabbinate has been pleasing in God’s eyes….


Rabbi Alvin M. Sugarman received his BBA from Emory University and was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. In 1974 he was named senior rabbi at The Temple in Atlanta, Georgia. In December 1988, he received his PhD in Theological Studies from Emory University.

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.

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Convention

Convention 2021: A Chance to Truly Be Present for One Another

I have two pieces of art that have hung on my study wall for many years. They’ve moved with me from place to place, and I often find my eyes wandering to them. Even though they are so familiar to me at this point, they continue to provide me with new inspiration.

The one piece is a black and white painting by Amos Amit with the words Da lifney mi ata omed, Know Before Whom You Stand. Amit is an Israeli artist, born in 1945 and raised in the Galilee.

The second is the famous picture by Norman Rockwell, with the verse “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The backdrop is filled with pictures of an array of faces, representing many different identities from around the globe.

Recently, I’ve been turning to these two teachings as I work with our extraordinary CCAR Convention chair, Rabbi Amanda Greene, the outstanding CCAR staff, and the dedicated members of the Convention committee.

The Talmud’s charge to remember God’s presence wherever we go has been at the center of our thinking about the upcoming convention. If it is a challenge to turn a hotel into a sacred space for T’filah and Talmud Torah, it is all the more so when we aren’t even together in a physical space. How do we ensure that there is kedusha in our online gatherings?

I am well aware that we’ve all been asking this question in our own communities in different ways over the last year, as the pandemic has restricted all of our gatherings. We will rely on the hard learned best practices of so many of you in many ways. One strategy in particular stands out for me. The March CCAR Convention won’t just be a series of webinars or a string of online programs. Rather, we have been looking very carefully at the concept of the “journey” of CCAR Convention 2021. How will we travel through each day and how will we travel through the entirety of the week?

Heschel has a beautiful framing of this teaching: that wherever we go we must cultivate the art of awareness of God. This is what we will do during our Convention.

This will be an impactful week. I look forward to truly being together, spiritually and emotionally. I plan to clear my calendar, set my out of office messages, and find a quiet space to sit undisturbed while I participate.

The second teaching on my wall, the so-called Golden Rule, is also very present in my thinking about convention. Simply put, the stress and strain of the last year has been exaggerated by not being with colleagues, classmates, and friends…those who have a unique understanding of rabbinic life and who have been a cherished presence in my life for 25 years.

Our online Convention will provide opportunities for us to share and connect…not just to catch up in the chat box while a presentation is happening, but to take time for real conversation. While we can’t actually share a meal or a cup of coffee, there will be built in opportunities, including some that use innovative technology, that create the experience of sitting together, chatting in the hall together, and opening up about our lives, our work, and our hopes and dreams. Our Convention will be a chance to truly be present for one another.

In the coming weeks, there will be more and more shared about the speakers, presenters, and program plans. For now, I urge you to give yourselves the gift of connection: register and carve out this time to be together as a Conference and as a family of colleagues.


Rabbi Peter W. Stein is the Senior Rabbi of Temple B’rith Kodesh in Rochester, NY and an adjunct faculty member at the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. He is the Vice Chair of the CCAR Convention Committee.

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.

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Convention News

Convention 2021: Recharge, Rejuvenate, and Reconnect

When CCAR Connect 2020 drew to a close, I was excited to announce our 2021 CCAR Convention in New Orleans. The announcement came with a sense of hope, safety and security, and as much optimism as I could muster in that moment.

Within days, or maybe it was weeks, many of us began to realize that traveling in March of 2021 would likely be off the table. With the support of the CCAR leadership, our Convention committee quickly shifted our planning for an in-person Convention in New Orleans, to creating an online Convention.

It has no doubt been a challenging year for so many of us. A year ago, none of us could have imagined this past year that we have lived through both personally and professionally. CCAR Convention has always provided an opportunity to come together as colleagues to connect, to learn, and to grow. Perhaps this year, more than ever, we need that space to connect, to learn and to grow.

While our 2021 Convention will take place online, the Convention Committee alongside the CCAR staff have worked hard to create a meaningful Convention that will provide many of the same opportunities that we are able to experience when we are in person together.

We know that we need to connect with friends and colleagues in both formal and informal ways: to not only share ideas or study with one another, but to also grab a virtual cup of coffee and laugh and cry over shared stories and experiences.

We know that we need opportunities to rejuvenate our souls through worship and ritual.

We know that we need both time and space to honor, to celebrate and to remember our colleagues.

We know that we have much to learn from major thought leaders who are influencing and shaping both the future of the Jewish community and the larger world.

We know that we have big questions to answer about what the Jewish future holds in our forever-changed world. And we don’t need to answer them alone.

And that is why I am looking forward to CCAR Convention 2021, a series of days where we will be able to gather, albeit virtually, to connect, to learn, and to vision together as a community of sacred colleagues.

Join me, put on your “out of the office” message, take the time and space to recharge, rejuvenate and reconnect between March 14-17 for CCAR Convention 2021. We cannot wait to see you there!

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Rabbi Amanda Greene is the Associate Rabbi, Director of Lifelong Learning at Chicago Sinai Congregation, and Chair of CCAR Convention 2021.

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.

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CCAR Convention Convention

Connection, Disruption, Challenge & Hope: Chief Executive Rabbi Hara Person Addresses the CCAR During the Coronavirus Crisis

Each year at CCAR Convention, it’s customary for the CCAR Chief Executive to address the rabbinic membership. However this year, given the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CCAR was forced to move our annual Convention online. The address below is adapted from the words that CCAR Chief Executive Hara Person shared with the digital gathering of Reform rabbis who came together online throughout the country in this time of change and need.


One of the most frequent questions I’ve gotten in the last eight months is: What has surprised you the most about this job? And what I can definitively say is that when I was applying for this job, no one told me I would have to become an expert in pandemic planning. And cancelling our in-person Convention, yeah, not something I ever thought I’d be doing, and certainly not in year one. I really didn’t want to be the first CCAR Chief Executive to cancel Convention; I did check with our posek, Rabbi Dr. Gary Zola, who assured that indeed I was, so that’s another first for me. But Gary also reminded me that the Pope was cancelling mass, and if it was good enough for the Pope, it is good enough for us.

And I assume you can all relate, since I’m guessing this is the first time you are cancelling services, shutting your buildings, postponing events, and doing or not doing according to all the new health protocols we’re suddenly living with. This is a time for firsts for all of us.

I will take a moment to acknowledge that even before we were all working remotely in virus-land, this has been a year of tremendous transition at the CCAR and in many ways still is. I need to acknowledge my gratitude for our tremendous and dedicated executive team: Betsy Torop, Cindy Enger, and Laurie Pinho, who have been my steadfast partners and friends through an already tumultuous year of new beginnings, new hires, and new ways of working at the CCAR—their willingness to teach me, to have patience with my learning curve, to be honest even when it’s hard, and to have faith in our collective future is what makes the CCAR such a strong and exciting organization to lead. And our talented senior staff, Tamar Anitai, Fani Magnus Monson and now Rafael Chaiken, as well as rabbinic staff Dan Medwin and Sonja Pilz, as well as all the rest of our staff—I am truly blessed to work with such a thoughtful, hardworking, and inspiring team of people. I know you don’t know them all—this was going to be the first Convention for many of them—but I hope you’ll get a chance to meet them over the months and years to come. I am lucky to have them all by my side. And I also have to thank my predecessor, Steve Fox, who is the model emeritus. He has stayed out of the way but has been there for me when needed, and I have needed it, especially in these last few weeks.

But right now, we need to talk about today. We need to talk about connection and disruption. We need to talk about possibility and challenge. Suddenly we are being forced to think and plan and rabbi in completely new ways. It’s exciting and it’s terrifying. As Jews, we know that our biggest moments of creativity and innovation come out of times of disruption. When the Temple and the priesthood were destroyed, we got resourceful and created a portable set of texts and practices that we could carry with us wherever we went. How brilliant—and indeed we’re still carrying those with us today.

What bound us together throughout history was our common tradition and practices, the Hebrew language, and our shared faith in the God of Israel. One of my favorite novels is A. B. Yehoshua’s A Journey to End of the Millennium, which describes a clash of cultures between Jews from the East and Jews in the West. And yet, the reason they clash is because they recognize the connection between them – though their traditions differ, they’re merely different threads that together still make up the same tapestry of Jewish peoplehood. They understand that they’re joined together, parts of a whole, which exacerbates their differences. When most people in the world lived in isolated villages, Jews around the world grasped that they were part of a bigger endeavor. As in the novel, Askenazi Jews in Europe encountered Jewish traders from North Africa who appeared once a year to sell their goods. And in this way Jews in one part of the world were aware of Jews in other communities, and even as they viewed some of their practices with suspicion or even distain, they knew that weren’t alone, together they were parts of something bigger. Think too of our history of responsa: Jews living in one part of the world could send a sh’eilah to the academy in Pumbedita or Sura and get a response back a year or so later. A slow connection, to be sure, but a connection.

As Jews we know how to connect. And as rabbis, all the more so. We know that connection across distance matters. It’s at the core of who we are. Just as our ancestors gained strength knowing that there were other Jews around the world, so too does our connection across physical distance give us strength and nourish our resilience. My father used to always ask me: how are things in rabbi-world. He died before social media became ubiquitous, but he would be amazed to see that there is actually such a thing as rabbi-world. Even in the best of times I have often thought that many rabbis live in two places—in your physical community with the people you serve and of course with your loved ones, and simultaneously in the online world, drawing sustenance from the connection to each other; the sharing of stories and advice and struggles, and just the affirmation that yes, other rabbis are dealing with the same things.

Despite being stuck in my house and apart from you, I’ve felt our connection this past week quite strongly. I was able to share Shabbat with so many of you in a single day from my living room. I started with Australia in the morning, then Israel in the early afternoon, the East Coast of the United States, then the middle of the country, and then the West Coast. And despite the social distancing that we’re practicing, I feel more, not less, connected to all of you, and more connected to our Jewish community as a whole. In the midst of the fear and anxiety is a sense of strength and joy—that from all around the world we’re figuring this thing out, and finding ways to create meaningful and real connections that go beyond our specific communities.

It’s been incredibly inspiring to see how you’re pushing yourselves outside your comfort zones in order to bring comfort to those you serve. The good news is that we no longer live in a world in which physical distances by necessity create emotional, intellectual, or spiritual distances.

My grandmother Gussie was nicknamed Six Month Sadie. Why? Because when her mother, my great-grandmother, Lena, was giving birth to her here in New York, she hadn’t seen her own mother, Golda, back in Europe in several years, and didn’t know that she had died. She named the baby Sadie. But when she learned, some months later, of her mother’s death, she changed my grandmother’s name to Golda, or Gussie. Hence the nickname, Six Month Sadie—a funny story but also emblematic of the distance, both physical and emotional, that was a reality of life for many families at that time.

And here we are, several generations later, where on Friday night, in between synagogue hopping, I went onto Zoom and lit candles with my family—one kid in Boston and one in Berkeley, and my mother and sister in Miami. There is a miraculousness to this technology and the possibilities it holds for us in allowing us to connect in real and meaningful ways while physically separated.

It’s been amazing to see how the new restrictions we’re suddenly living with have not been stumbling blocks—yes, they’re frustrating, and yes, in some cases heartbreaking. And yet, you’re rising to the challenge and showing incredible leadership. We can’t assemble at a shivah house, and so you’re holding online shivahs that bring real comfort and connection. We can’t assemble for a bat mitzvah, so you’re compassionately postponing until it’s safe to do so and finding inventive ways for your students to shine nevertheless. Wan’t have welcoming Shabbat for the tots, so you’re singing into a screen from your couch and uplifting your favorite three year olds. Can’t study Torah around a table on Shabbat morning—no problem, study together from everyone’s dining rooms tables. And on and on.

This is a time for us to be as open as we can be to new possibilities, to go out on a limb, to teeter on the edge of the known and the unknown, to be nimble and flexible and creative. Not everything we’re doing is going to work or be successful. But out of that will come some new ways of working and coming together that are going to transform who and what we are as a Jewish community, and what it is that rabbis do.

And yet, this is also a moment of tremendous fear and uncertainty. We don’t know how long this quarantine will last, and we don’t know what the long term effects will be. Surely there will be hardship for many of us, in the weeks, and over the months and possibly years to come. Some of us will live with the aftermath for a long time to come. Our personal lives and our professional lives will be profoundly impacted in ways we cannot yet imagine. And we at the CCAR will do our best to support you, and help you, and learn our way through this with you.

When the Pinelands in New Jersey experienced a devastating fire, scientists noticed something amazing. The heat of the fire melted the resin in the cones of the pine trees, causing them to burst open and spread their seeds, enabling the forest to regenerate. One of the scientists who studied this phenomenon said: “The system bounces back. Fire has been a part of that area for a long time. There you find species that have adapted to frequent fires; otherwise they get outcompeted by the species that can.”[1]  Throughout our history, that’s who we’ve been as Jews, and especially as rabbis, time after time. We are resilient, we know how to adapt, and we have the capacity to seed new growth.

In the midst of all this change and creativity, innovation and disruption, pain and loss and growth, I want to suggest a few basic principles that may help guide you in the days and weeks to come.

1. We will make mistakes. There are no rule books for the reality we’re suddenly living in. We’re not going to get it all right. But that’s going to be okay. We tore down the infrastructure of a conference that had taken us two years to plan and built an entirely new one in two weeks. Not everything has gone according to plan. But it’s pretty darn great nevertheless. I cannot properly express my gratitude to Laurie Pinho, Dan Medwin, Aliza Orent, and the whole CCAR team, but especially Betsy Torop, all of whom have worked tirelessly, first to get us ready for Baltimore, and then to unwind the convention, and then quickly create this online version. You have no idea how hard they all worked to make this happen. Please thank them yourselves when and if you can, even if you don’t know them. Gratitude does not begin to describe what I feel for them, and fatigue doesn’t begin to describe what they feel.

2. Pace yourself. Change is exhausting. Working from home with your kids, also indefinitely home, is exhausting. Trying to get it right and meet everyone’s needs at a time of fear and worry while managing your own anxiety is exhausting. The uncertainty of this moment is exhausting. So give yourself a break, where and how you can. Ask for help, be strategic, create priorities. You’re going to need to pace yourself to get through this.

3. Be forgiving. We have to be forgiving with ourselves and with each other. Nerves are frayed. Skills are being learned as we race full steam ahead. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. Be patient. Rest when you need to. And model this for others.

4. Practice gratitude. We must find opportunities for gratitude in the midst of all this. I want to take a moment to thank, in addition to our CCAR staff, our CCAR Board. I knew I was going to love working with Ron Segal, but little did I know the adventures we’d be dealing with together. I could not ask for a kinder, wiser, menschier partner, and wow am I grateful to Ron for always having my back. Lewis Kamrass, our president-elect, has thrown himself into our teamwork with both feet and I am so grateful for Lewis’s level-headed good advice and caring. And to our whole Board, the support you’ve shown me and our staff is just incredible, and so appreciated, especially in the midst of dealing with your own communities.

5. Summon courage. This is a time for courageous leadership. We must summon every bit of our stores of courage and have faith in ourselves as leaders. You can do this, even if you’ve never done this before. Your people need you to be brave. Find the right people to be your thinking partners, get input, listen to feedback, test new ideas, be willing to be wrong, and trust your ability to figure it out. But also, you don’t have to be brave all the time. It’s also okay to be scared, and feel vulnerable – acknowledging that takes real courage.

6. Care for each other. Let us, as a rabbinic community, care for each other. This is not only a time of fear but also of loneliness. Who within our rabbinic community can we reach out to? Who is emotionally vulnerable and needs some extra support? And then there is the actual virus itself. Some of us may get sick. Some of our family members may get sick. Some of us may lose members of our communities to this virus, or even, God forbid, family members. Let us be there for each other, to rabbi to each other, to be sources of support and caring in times of loneliness, fear, or grief.

7. Grab hope. And we must look for hope and grab it wherever we find it. Our history teaches us that hope is always out there, even if we can’t immediately recognize it, and even in the worst of moments. No matter how bleak things look, we cannot, we must not,  give in to despair. Finding hope is hard, but the search for hope is one of the things that can sustain us in dark times.

In closing I’m going to share a poem by Ada Limón.

Instructions on Not Giving Up

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/27/nyregion/nyregionspecial2/27mainnj.html?searchResultPosition=2

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CCAR Convention Convention

I’ve Been Blessed With Many Teachers: Reflections 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 2020, March 22-25 in Baltimore, Rabbi Bob Saks reflects on his many teachers and their many lessons.

With gratitude to my many teachers:

From the rabbis of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, where I celebrated my Bar Mitzvah and was confirmed, I learned that fighting for social justice is at the heart of Judaism.

From Lubavitch emissaries, I learned that Judaism is more than social justice.

From the Rabbis, I’ve learned that one should say at least one hundred blessings a day, and that we can start the moment we open our eyes in the morning.

From Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and Hasidism, I learned that singing and dancing are gates “to the place where God dwells,” and that nothing penetrates as deeply as a good story.

From Rabbi Seymour Siegel at JTS, I learned the relevance of Torah study.

From Sifrei Musar, I learned that ethics and spirituality encompass all of life.

From Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Mussar Movement (thank you, Alan Morinis), I learned that self-knowledge is the first stage to self-improvement, and that it doesn’t come easily.

From American Indian religions, I learned that we live between earth and sky, and that all living things are family.

From older African-Americans, I learned dignity.

From younger African Americans, I learned anger.

From the Book of Job and writer Annie Dillard, I learned that nature is awesome even when it is grotesque and gruesome.

From Martin Buber and Bishop Pike, I learned that too much doctrine and too many rituals lead us away from God.

From Abraham Joshua Heschel, I learned that the best of us can do it all: fight for justice, learn and teach Torah, live a full traditional life, a life with wonder, and find God in dialogue with others;

But I’m no Heschel.

From the unique spiritual culture of Japan, I’ve learned that a vase with a single flower can speak more eloquently than a whole bouquet and that making the ordinary beautiful is its own wisdom.

From the religions of Asia, I’ve learned to rein in my clattering mind so that I might live some of the time in the “here and now.”

From Danny Matt’s extraordinary translation and commentary on the Zohar, I’ve come to think of God as the energy that is the deepest essence of all things, all thoughts, all laws of nature and of the human personality, and that our role should be to channel the Divine, by channeling ourselves in the direction of justice and mercy.

From my friend Rabbi Steven Shaw, z”l, I learned to take risks, to dare to be creative, to match seekers and teachers, and also that, for some, Jerusalem may be in the woods of Maine.

From the Jews of Israel, I’ve learned that my deepest failure is not to live there with them, as this moment in Jewish history demands.

From the daily news, I’ve learned how good and how evil humans can be.

From my congregants at Bet Mishpachah, I learned about authentic community, courage, and perseverance even in the darkest times, and about the creativity, skills, and knowledge of our lay leaders.

From my mother, I learned to be faithful and to do what one knows one must, even when the price is high.

From my sons, I’m still learning what good parenting looks like.

And from my wife of 50 years I’ve learned how sweet it is to be loved and to love another.

I’ve been blessed with many teachers.


Rabbi Bob Saks was ordained by Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1970. He is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Bet Mishpachah in Washington, DC, where he served from 1991 through 2009. He has been the recipient of many prestigious awards including the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance in 2009, Jews United for Justice – Abraham Joshua Heschel Award in 2008, and the World Congress of Gay and Lesbian Jews – Leadership Award in 2008.

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CCAR Convention Convention Inclusion inclusivity

Jewish Community Outreach & Interconnectedness: Rabbi Sanford T. Marcus Reflects

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 to his rabbinate.

I think community outreach has been one of my most memorable accomplishments in my 50 years in the rabbinate.  With the influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union in 1989, I organized the mentoring of some 100 immigrants who settled in Columbia, arranged to have English classes taught at my temple, and welcomed many of the adults and children as members of temple.  B’nai mitzvah and weddings among the newcomers were unique occasions celebrated by the entire Jewish community.

I had organized a Catholic-Jewish dialogue that resulted in numerous interfaith programs alternately held at temple and at Catholic churches. It included members of the Conservative congregation along with ours. This led to the bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina speaking at my temple with over 400 Jews and Catholics attending. That was front page news here. The bishop invited me to be an observer at a diocese synod, which provided a unique insight into Catholic religious policy in the making. 

I also was a member of a steering committee which formed a statewide Partners in Dialogue with Christians of various denominations: Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Native Americans. It sponsored occasions for sharing faith observances and ethnic foods. And with the co-sponsorship of the University of South Carolina Department of Religious Studies, the Dialogue brought to town internationally known religious leaders for an annual event. 

With the leadership of Dr. Selden Smith and South Carolina Holocaust survivors and their children, we formed the South Carolina Council on the Holocaust, designed to honor South Carolina survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants, and the South Carolinians and their descendants who participated in the liberation of concentration camps. This led to the erection of a beautiful monument honoring their memory in downtown Columbia. 

Shortly after arriving in Columbia, I joined The Luncheon Club, a racially diverse group that promotes collegiality and is informative on current issues. It originated in 1962 when African Americans were unable to eat in white establishments. It continues to meet today. I became heavily involved in interracial relations and formed a Black-Jewish Coalition which held dialogues, pulpit exchanges, and a joint Passover Seder held at my temple.

All in all, I feel that I have grown in knowledge and discretion over the years of my rabbinate and have a greater understanding of how interdependent we Jews are with the rest of our population and how important good community relations are.


Sanford T. Marcus is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Tree of Life Congregation in Columbia, South Carolina. He served as the spiritual leader of the synagogue for twenty years prior to his retirement in 2006. Ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1970, he is a recipient of two master’s degrees, and was awarded an honorary doctor of divinity degree. 

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chaplains congregations Convention General CCAR Prayer Rabbis

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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CCAR Convention Convention

CCAR Convention 2020: Acting Upon the Jewish Moral Imperative to Confront Climate Change

If you are anything like me, I imagine you strive to reduce your harm on the environment. Perhaps you bring reusable bags to the supermarket or limit your use of single use plastic and paper products. Maybe you compost or drink coffee from a reusable travel mug.  

And yet, if you are anything like me, despite having made some or all of these personal lifestyle changes, you feel that these small tweaks to your daily routines aren’t enough. Large scale systemic changes are what’s needed to positively impact the future of our fragile planet. 

This year at CCAR Convention in Baltimore, I am thrilled that we’ll dive deep into both the small scale actions we can take and the systemic changes we can fight for to truly be spiritual leaders on the devastating issue of climate change. 

On Wednesday morning, Karenna Gore, activist, advocate, and Director of the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary will inspire us as religious leaders with her moral and ethical vision for climate justice. After learning from her, we’ll gather for workshops that give us tools and strategies to take back home and implement locally. Topics will include: clean and accessible water, rising sea levels, and we’ll also learn from experts at Baltimore’s National Aquarium. 

Choni the Circle Maker from Taanit 23 famously states that he plants a tree, not for his own benefit but for the good of generations to come. In doing so, Choni reminds us of the urgency of working today to benefit the future. But have you read the end of this Choni parable? There, we learn that when Choni makes his infamous time travel journey 70 years into the future, upon visiting the Beit Midrash, no one recognizes him, and he is left alone. He cries out in pain from the grief he feels of being left out. This ending to the story gives us an equally important moral about the need for community. Choni reminds us that we cannot act effectively when we are alone. We need each other.

This idea certainly rings true for me as a solo clergy in a small congregation and as a Hillel rabbi on a local campus. At Convention, I draw energy and strength from being with you all and feeling that together we can raise our voices to positively impact our fragile planet, its plants, animals, and human beings.

If you haven’t yet registered for this year’s Convention, please consider joining us. It will be a better Convention with you there.

I look forward to seeing you all in Baltimore!

Rabbi Lisa Vinikoor is the rabbi of Beth Israel Congregation in Bath, Maine and Bowdoin College and a member of the CCAR Convention committee. CCAR Convention 2020 will be held in Baltimore, March 22–25, 2020. 

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CCAR Convention Convention Social Justice

A Hands-On Farming Experience at the Pearlstone Center in Baltimore at CCAR Convention 2020

My name is Rabbi Jessy Dressin, and I am a community rabbi in Baltimore and the Director of Repair the World Baltimore, an organization that aims to make meaningful service a defining part of American Jewish life by mobilizing young Jews to volunteer in local communities to help transform neighborhoods, cities, and lives through service experiences rooted in Jewish values.

I have not been to a CCAR Convention to date but was excited to be asked to join the CCAR Convention 2020 Committee and help curate opportunities that are special to Baltimore for Convention participants. There are so many things about Baltimore and the Baltimore Jewish community to share with colleagues both during and prior to Convention that are special to Charm City.

Many of you may have visited the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center for various conferences over the years. If you have, you have probably appreciated such a vast space of land dedicated to Jewish education, experience, and gathering.  You may have even been lucky enough to enjoy some homegrown produce from the farm at one of your kosher and conscious meals provided to guests during conferences and gatherings.

Whether you have visited Pearlstone before or this might be your first time, I am excited about a unique opportunity for rabbis to participate in as part of the pre-Convention track. Our visit to Pearlstone will include the opportunity to roll up our sleeves and help with some preparations in various ways for the upcoming farming season. Activities may range from prepping beds, starting seeds (planting seeds that can incubate in the greenhouse until they are rooted enough to be planted into the ground), and other fun preliminary activities that are essential for an abundant growing season that begins with the coming of spring. Also, baby goats! Just this last week, two baby goats were born at Pearlstone, which means there will likely be even more by the time we arrive in March.

During our visit we will also have the opportunity to do some learning with Rabbi Psachyah Lichtenstein, a farmer and Director of Education at the Pearlstone Center, who always finds way to engage the mind, body, and spirit in thinking about our Jewish connection to the land. He will engage us in rich learning and open up conversations amongst our group that are sure to inspire. We will also have the opportunity to do some additional learning to take what we experienced at Pearlstone and help us bring it back to our local communities—since we can’t all have a Pearlstone around the corner.

As an HUC-JIR student, I spent two summers living at Pearlstone. Thanks to Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, Pearlstone hosted a summer kollel where folks would work to farm the land in the morning and spend the afternoon in the beit midrash, learning traditional and contemporary Jewish texts that helped us to become better acquainted with Judaism’s deep relationship to the land and our agricultural cycles and rhythm. It was a pluralistic living and learning environment that forged relationships and uncovered texts that carry meaning to this day. 

One need not be a farmer, an environmentalist, or even a regular farmer’s market enthusiast to enjoy this experience. I hope you’ll consider joining us for this exciting pre-Conference gathering. Also, did I mention baby goats?


Convention 2020 will be held in Baltimore, March 22-25, 2020. CCAR members can register here for Convention and for the Pearlstone Center Pre-Convention program, which takes place Sunday, March 22.

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Convention

How Inviting Is Baltimore? Baltimore CCAR Rabbis Welcome You to Come to Convention 2020 and See For Yourself

Forbes listed Baltimore as one of the “Coolest Cities to Visit.”  Nothing earth shattering has changed since that 2018 notice.  There has been a lot of focus on the outstanding quality of Baltimore’s medical centers and universities; on our noteworthy and sometimes quirky art museums, our start-ups and our rush of millennials.  There is a lot of good to enjoy and experience in Baltimore.

Oh, we assume you have heard about our challenges. Those have gotten a lot airtime of late.  Baltimore shares similar issues with so many American urban centers, regarding challenges in public education, equal access to health care, racial and economic disparities, and more.  Our great city is struggling to get a handle on violence, even as it trends down in so much of our country.  Yup, our current mayor stepped in when his predecessor resigned under a cloud.   And yes, we are on our fifth police commissioner in as many years.

We know this sounds like a strange list when talking about how inviting our city is.  However, Baltimore is inviting precisely because everything in the first paragraph is true and because our city is actively working to face up to the realities in the second paragraph.

An explosion of social change efforts confronts our challenges here.  Consider these home-grown Baltimore initiatives, in their own words:

  • The Elijah Cummings Youth Program in Israel is an elite two-year leadership fellowship for high school students in Baltimore.  They gain first-hand cross-cultural knowledge and skill.
  • Thread engages underperforming high school students confronting significant barriers outside of the classroom by providing each one with a family of committed volunteers and increased access to community resources.
  • Center for Urban Families connects fathers to their children, creating opportunities for economic and financial security through work, and providing access to other key interventions and supportive services.
  • Baltimore Cease Fire By agreeing to sacred weekends without murder, and by receiving the resources needed to help us avoid violent encounters, we all will eventually agree to honor the sacredness of EVERY day and put an end to murder.

These organizations and so many more are working to address challenges of economic disparity, healthcare access, educational opportunities, police-community relationships, and so much more. Baltimore has these kinds of initiatives, just as your community does as well.

As the month of Av approaches, Lamentations’ initial cry of “Alas, Lonely sits the city” recalls words that Stephen Mitchell places in the mouth of Rabbi Elazar.  “Only words of lament of the destruction of Jerusalem remain. Why shouldn’t they be given to all the other cities as well?” (Congregation, Edited by David Rosenberg, 1987, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc, p.385) As words are spoken about a city with challenges, let us consider the words of that city and the actions of its citizens.  Let Baltimore be defined primarily by Baltimore and its own efforts at improvement and progress, imperfect as they may be.

How inviting is Baltimore? Quite inviting… inviting of visitors, of innovation, and of hope.

Join us for CCAR Convention 2020 in Baltimore, March 22 – 25, 2020. Click here to learn more.


This blog was written by several Baltimore Area CCAR Rabbis.