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Marriage Equality and a Vision of Wholeness

We shout mazel tov for marriage equality!

The dream has come true, but there is work to do! The United States has taken one more step toward fulfilling the dream of a country where people can live their own lives without fear; but as we celebrate the SCOTUS decision that gives every person the right to marry their beloved, we know the right to live in peace is still a far off dream for too many people.

This victory is a milestone on the road to justice and freedom. Even as we celebrate, we hold the people of Charleston and the entire country in our prayers. The poignancy of our celebration is huge because our joy is so great and our grief for our African American brothers and sisters is so deep. We know now more than ever that none of us are free until all of us are free.

IMG_0835At the core of my religious faith is the eternal promise of justice for all. Not for some but a vision that one day all people of good will shall sing in one voice an anthem of peace and liberty. In Jewish tradition, we teach that the Sabbath is a foretaste of the world to come. The Sabbath is a model of how the world might be. It is a world without work obsessions, a world where poverty and violence are gone, a world where children go to bed at night with warm full bellies. The Sabbath is the taste of the ideal where we rest from our labors to enjoy the true gift of freedom and taste God’s bounty at a table set for all.

We know the right to marry will face great resistance. We know the violence against transgender people is rampant. We know the need for an employment non-discrimination law is great. We know the need to work against racism is urgent, but today, TODAY, we celebrate as if all is complete, the Shalom, the peace and wholeness of God’s creation is with us.

This vision of wholeness, of Shalom, reminds us that when the celebration ends, and the Sabbath prayers are complete, justice and equality will only be fulfilled by going back to work to bring everyone to the table in all our glorious diversity.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA. She currently serves as President of the CCAR

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Opening the Sacred Envelope: The Joy of Seeing Mishkan HaNefesh Being Used

Some weeks ago I was sitting in a synagogue in the Upper East Side of New York on a beautiful May morning, listening to the beautiful words of Rosh HaShanah liturgy set to music during the Hava T’filah seminar for rabbis and cantors. Even the sound of the shofar pierced the air as a clergy team shared their model service with the group. In the very capable hands of the clergy and musicians of Temple Israel, eighty rabbis and cantors had gathered to pray the Rosh Hashanah Evening Service from the new CCAR Machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh. Yes, it was artificial by design. But it was real worship and so it was gratifying to see the book come to life.

Temple IsraelAs has been stated many times, Mishkan HaNefesh calls upon worship leaders to omit much of the service (there is enough material for many years) so that every choice you  make is important. I call this the Trader Joe’s method. If you walk into Whole Foods in Lincoln Park, Chicago, you can get lost – there are way too many choices. Trader Joe’s, on the other hand, has just a few items in every category. By design, Mishkan HaNefesh is Whole Foods, offering you many options, but the worship service itself has to be Trader Joe’s. (Do not use this analogy on Yom Kippur).

The experience of the Rosh HaShanah service at Hava T’filah reminded me that the worship experience is very different than just the machzor itself. By all means embrace the machzor when preparing for the Days of Awe. But focus on the experience of the Days of Awe, allowing the machzor to be a sacred implement in your creation of the experience.

The great Bible scholar Uriel Simon once taught, in connection with Joseph, that a dream not interpreted is like an envelope not opened and a letter unread. I would argue that a machzor not employed in worship is the same.

What a pleasure it was to witness this sacred envelope being opened!


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Not Alone with Sweaty Palms: Even the Rabbi Gets Nervous

It was good to learn I am not alone!

About two weeks ago, I presented the following issue to my colleagues on Facebook:

Am I the only one who gets REALLY nervous every time I speak? I don’t really get it. I can’t count how many times I have spoken in public since I entered HUC in 1968 and even lots before that. And yet, whether it is Kol Nidre before a big crowd or 20 kids in a classroom, I get really nervous. I hope (and have been told often) that it doesn’t show—Baruch Ha-Shem—but I don’t fully understand why that happens. Any thoughts?

It felt strange.  Yes, even though I served forty years in the pulpit and spoke in 65 communities on five continents as President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, I get very nervous each and every time I speak.

It might have begun with my Bar Mitzvah. I thought I would die (literally) before I could get up and read from the Torah. “You mean the scroll has NO vowels, and they expect ME to read it,” I remember exclaiming incredulously to my parents!

But then I did my first ever exercise in deductive reasoning. I thought:
• Kids in my class who are older then I have had their Bar Mitzvahs (It was much later that I learned that the proper term is ‘B’nai Mitzvah’),
• Some of them are dumber than I am.
• All of them are still alive.

Vital Lesson Learned. 

Therefore, I reasoned, if I really practice and study hard, maybe I can make it. And I did. The lesson has served me well, I always try to be well prepared, but that has never prevented me from getting very nervous. And so half-afraid that my colleagues would laugh at me, I posted my question.

To my surprise thirteen different colleagues affirmed, “You are not alone,” and six others clicked “Like” in recognition of my issue. Their affirmations confirmed what I believed (at least what I hoped) all along:  Although different people feel it to different degrees, the nervousness is a function of really caring about what I say and wanting it to have as much meaning as possible to those who listen.

A Small Price to Pay.

Knowing that “it is not just me” who gets nervous was very reassuring. Thanks to my colleagues I can go forward feeling that that the nervousness I must overcome each time I speak is a small price to pay for the sacred privilege of sharing the fruit of my study and my experience with others.


Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs is the author of What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. He is the former President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Bet Israel, West Hartford, CT.

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Join Rabbis Organizing Rabbis at CCAR Convention

“Who knows whether you have come to your position for such a time as this?”

Last week we told the story of Mordechai calling Esther to action for her people just days before our country commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Alabama. We honored Esther and Mordechai, who risked their lives to rid their community of the injustice Haman intended to perpetrate, and then we honored Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Joshua Heschel, John Lewis and many others who risked their lives to rid our country of the injustice perpetuated by structural racial inequality.

Mordechai called Esther to approach Achashverosh. Rev. Dr. MLK Jr called clergy to join him in Selma. Today, a new, yet familiar, call is sounding. We hear it echoing in newspaper articles and protests all across our country. We hear it in the absence of indictments for police officers at whose hands black men and boys’ lives were lost. We hear it in the statistics comparing the number of black men under some form of correctional control (1.7 million) to the number of black men who were enslaved in 1850 (870,000). Those of us attending CCAR convention will hear it in the words of Rev. William Barber II, who launched the Moral Movement in his home state of North Carolina, during his keynote address. What are we called to do? In his speech in Selma this past Shabbat, President Obama said:

“If we want to honor the courage of those who marched that day, then all of us are called to possess their moral imagination. All of us will need to feel, as they did, the fierce urgency of now. All of us need to recognize, as they did, that change depends on our actions, on our attitudes, the things we teach our children. And if we make such an effort, no matter how hard it may sometimes seem, laws can be passed, and consciences can be stirred, and consensus can be built.”

I want to honor the courage of Queen Esther and those who marched in Selma 50 years ago. I want to respond to the cries of outrage about the racial and economic inequality that plagues America to this day – cries from others and from my own heart. I want to heal and transform the structural inequalities that break on race and class lines in this country. I want to join with rabbinic colleagues to exercise our moral imagination, feel the urgency of now, and take action together.

At CCAR Convention this coming week, Rabbis Organizing Rabbis will begin harnessing the power of the Reform rabbinate to deepen and develop relationships across lines of race, class and faith to dismantle racial and economic inequality. Join me at the ROR workshop on Tuesday, March 17 from 11 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. to discuss structural inequality – how we as rabbis are affected by it, how rabbis across the country are working on it in their communities, and how we might address it together. Because, perhaps, we have come to our positions for such a time as this.

This blog was originally posted on the RAC blog.

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Celebrating the Class of 1965: Retirement, Change and Continuity

At the upcoming CCAR Convention, we will honor the class of 1965, 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 these members of the class of 1965 and their 50 years in the rabbinate.


A wise friend once told me, “Retirement is not necessarily everything it’s cracked up to be.”  At the time I didn’t believe him.  Already retired a number of years, on a scale of 1 to 10, I felt I had a 12.  But opportunity often strikes when you least expect it.  A small part-time congregation arose near my suburban Atlanta home.


Marilyn, my eshet chayil of fifty-four years, and I discussed what this change might mean in our lives.  We decided that reentering the congregational rabbinate would add immeasurably to our retirement. That was seven years ago.  We have not regretted it.


Friendly baalbatim, on average our children’s ages, have made our lives easy.  Our congregants lovingly regard us as bubbie and zeyde.  This rings favorably in our ears.  As the senior members of our congregation we enjoy both teaching them and learning in return.  It is a mutual endeavor.  Together we’re searching for life’s meaning at different stages of our lives.  Judaism assists us in our quest.  Our involvement also softens some of the inevitable changes retirement brings.  Rabbinic continuity of service makes a real difference.  Now we understand better why Moses remained vital to 120.  Now when asked about retirement satisfaction I respond, “On a scale of 1 to 10, we have a 20.”


It seems unbelievable that we’ve reached the fifty year milestone since receiving s’micha.   Incredulously, we ask, “Can this be true?”  We are grateful but it is humbling.  Throughout this span Marilyn and I served congregations as a team.  In addition, Marilyn was for many years an educator, a public school and Hebrew school teacher. Commitment to a life of service came naturally to her.  It was also part of our covenant with each other, the Jewish people and G-d.

Change and Continuity:                                                                                                                          

Like you, over the decades we have fulfilled many roles.  Teachers, chaplain, college lecturer, community positons, interfaith representatives, counselors, comforters, writer and exemplars of the Jewish faith are part of the familiar mix.  Congregations, a full time nursing home position, retreats, URJ camps and conclaves, Confirmation class trips, CCAR shaliach to kibbutz Nir Eliyahu, president of the GCAR/Greater Carolina Association of Rabbis, regional and national boards, a Doctor of Ministry degree in Counseling from Boston University School of Theology, four children and seven grandchildren – make for many blessings.  Throughout fifty years the transcendent meaning of our faith, G-d, Torah and Israel, enabled us to hear the “still, small voice” motivating a life of service.                                                                                                                                                       

Retirement and Continuity:           

Recently, to our delight, our baalebatim signed us up for two more years.  We are looking forward to it.  Judaism is infectious.  We want to keep teaching it.  Nothing gives our lives more direction, usefulness and continuity.  Ihm yirtseh haShem, when these two years conclude, we’ll have reached another milestone, four score years.  Ken y’hi ratson.                                            

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Celebrating the Class of 1965: Fifty Years and a Lot Has Happened

At the upcoming CCAR Convention, we will honor the class of 1965, 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 these members of the class of 1965 and their 50 years in the rabbinate.

Fifty Years and a lot has happened… “I am closer to death today than I was to puberty as an infant.  What a chilling thought for one with a couple of diseases knocking on the door.”

“Hamishim Shana, Uchmo shenohagim lomar:  Ken Mashehu Kara beintayim ba’olam.”  Lea Goldberg wrote lines like this about lovers re-meeting after “twenty years.”  Yes, something has happened in the meantime.

Fifty years is longer than Goldberg’s lovers’ hiatus, but I experience the same astonishment about time’s way of confounding us.  I entered College just after Brown vs. the Board of Education, which occurred shortly after Campy and Jackie Robinson were allowed to stay at the Chase Hotel in St. Louis as long as they didn’t swim in the hotel pool.  I went to a fancy college “un-prepped” (both literally and figuratively) and—since there weren’t any “preparatory” schools for seminary, I entered HUC with little thought about getting ready.  My main motive, I think, not cultural-ethnic, to be a kind of Jewish Unitarian, but I left with deep ties to Israeli life and Hebrew culture.  I began to serve my “Unitarian” self some years after ordination when a surprise illness drove me into self-care and attention to people who needed attention as they entered their own worlds of illness.  Just as apparently good things sometimes have unintended problem consequence, so may the bad things that happen yield fresh life and important achievement.

And that became the two sides of my rabbinate:  vigorous, I hope “progressive” attachments to the Jewish nation (my parents called them “pinko”) and a dedication to the problems people experience as they go through their journeys into the world of illness.  So I retired from HUC (a partial retirement, I hasten to add) as a teacher of Hebrew literature and as a trainer of hospital chaplains.  The Kalsman Institute, established by our friends the Levy – Kalsmans, urged me on in the pastoral direction, hard work, and (frankly) batting a little over my head, led me to a life of scholarship about matters Hebraic and literary. I have enjoyed my scholarship, although living in Hollywood has made me aware that more people read a stray blog in one day than have read all of my hundreds of essays over 50 years.   Along the way I helped HUC California grow with a school of education, a school of Jewish studies, and a museum education program that flourished and grew many heads.  A full rabbinical school emerged with a special spirit that maybe I have helped create.

But back to what happened in fifty and more years:  The Civil Rights Movement, our changing relationships with women, The Six Day War, new freedom to Russian Jews, the digital revolution which continues to give me the finger as I try to navigate all the gadgetry that makes life easier and busier.  As with people, progress seems paradoxical, and when I think of Israel’s management of the territory that a few wild eyed dreamers made part of Jewish history, I cry for all we should or might have done as Jews.  But Agnon won a Nobel Prize, and there has been more Jewish American creativity (much of it clumsy but all of it interesting) than I ever imagined when I thought I owned all the creativity that was available.  And the culture that comes out of Israel—good grief, it is amazing, created by geniuses, who are my friends; and scoundrels, most of whom are my opponents (I hope.)

In fact, what I have learned in fifty years is how deceptive people can be in the midst of their goodness; and how many great victories are won at a huge cost to others. Some of the good people:  My first rabbis as a rabbi, Leonard Beerman (z’l), and Sandy Ragins, my first boss (with whom I had a problematic relationship, but who was a major and gracious mentor) Alfred Gotschalk (z’l), the funky but wonderful Ezra Spicehandler, and complex Gene Mihaly (both separated out to death), and many others including my own unruly, gutsy and generous father.

A couple of years ago Hara Person asked me to reflect on my retirement for a little squib in the Newsletter.  I look back at what I wrote then and realize that I was too sanguine.  I retired voluntarily, and enjoyed some great years on account of that; but had I known how well I would manage cancer, heart disease, and a tendency to broken bones, and how I would deal with those unmentionable deep dark things of the soul, how much energy I have, and how attached I was to the institution that made my professional life possible, I would not have taken the deal.  Anyone want to hire a near 80 year old?

Is everything built out of contradictions?  I don’t know, but sometimes I think so.  I am a kosher man (a la Yehuda Amichai, another mentor); I am a kosher man whose soul is cleft and because my soul is parted I seem to be better able to stand.  Chewing the cud is like regret — that other part of Kashrut.   It’s not the best part of my game, but it works for me.

But who would dare regret American efforts at civil equality for minorities and a different consciousness about women; who can regret the multiplicity of Jewish voices that one would not even have dreamt of 50 years ago (although it too has been mixed with some issues) who can regret the privilege during those fifty years to serve people, to teach young students aspiring to be old (some day) just like us? And who would ever regret a life of friendships, a marriage that finds me looking forward to seeing my partner every morning! And who would hesitate for one moment to smile as my wonderful son and colleague daughter in law send pictures of the (belatedly wonderful) little boy who bears my father’s name.

I do “regret” (but it’s the wrong word) that my father and mother could not live to see that little boy, but—as the sunset and the sunrise never actually meet (that phrase is plagiarized) so it is God’s way that each generation has new interpreters—interpreters whom the old timers aren’t really comfortable with.  I hope little Kobi (Jacob, that is) and the Kobi cognates (my students) will interpret my life as contributing to the great citizens and Jews he and they will become.

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Celebrating the Class of 1965: Deflations and Exaltations

At the upcoming CCAR Convention, we will honor the class of 1965, 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 these members of the class of 1965 and their 50 years in the rabbinate.

It was a steamy summer day in Cincinnati, Ohio, the end of July, 1960. Arlene and I had been married for a month. Together we navigated the Appalachians and the Ohio Valley in our un-air conditioned 1954 Ford Fairlaine. Our arrival was a great day for Cincinnati.  Everyone was happy. For on that day, the American Dental Association Council on Scientific Affairs announced that Crest toothpaste was effective in inhibiting tooth decay. P&G stock skyrocketed. And the Stiffmans had arrived. We dropped off a carload of possessions at a friend’s home, and then excitedly drove to our real destinations, University of Cincinnati for Arlene; 3101 Clifton Avenue for me. We had seen the pictures of the beautiful HUC campus in the catalog. As we drove up Clifton Avenue, we became more excited. Exaltation – visiting the mother font of Reform rabbinical training, and then we turned into the driveway.

It was a construction site. The Sisterhood dorm was being renovated, as was the classroom building. The Klau library was under construction, as was the new dorm. I parked on the dirt area in front of the classroom building, and we ventured inside. The first person we met, a junior faculty member named Norman Golb, directed us to the Provost’s office. There we met Mickey November, Dr. Sandmel’s administrative aide, who really ran the school. She showed us around, put us in touch with those we had to meet, and we were on our way back to our car. Exaltation!

We looked forward to getting to our motel next to Frisch’s Big Boy and resting. As we reached our car, we realized that our first visit to HUC-JIR had resulted in a flat tire. Deflation!

Exaltation and deflation!   Welcome to the next five years of my life. Ain’t it great to be retired! Each of us remembers those days.

Memories can be deceiving. Usually I’ll remember something and Arlene will tell me what really happened. Whenever I speak lovingly of those HUC days, she reminds me how our study group used to get together to study, but spent half of the time complaining. “Rivkin and Reines spend too much time on their personal theories and not enough time on their subjects. Language lab was a downer after we learned, ‘Sim na yadecha tachat yerachee.’ Too many papers! Too little time to study!” There were so many complaints.

But the major one was, “They’re not preparing us for congregational life. They are educating us with texts, history, philosophy, human relations, a little theology, a dash of music…but not practical rabbinics.” By and large, this was true. Yet, buried in all of that other important stuff, we sometimes got a glimpse of the future. In Mihaly-McCoy tradition, let me cite three instances.

The first was in a class that was not a class. The school did not offer a class in practical rabbinic. A group of us went to Dr. Glueck to ask for such a class and we’re told, “You’ll learn all of that afterwards!” Out of the goodness of his heart, Sylvan Schwartzman offered a unit on the practical rabbinate in his home. It was the first time I stood in front of a couple with a Rabbi’s Manual in my hand and struggled through leading a wedding service.

He was the only faculty member who had served a congregation. Among the many things he taught us, one stood out. He said to us, “Remember, you’re not one of them!” He related his experiences in Nashville, where many of his congregants spent every Saturday night at the Country Club, often drinking quite heavily. He was given a Country Club membership, but this was not his style. So he stopped going regularly. One of his lay leaders told him that he was missed at the Club. “After all,” the man said, “We like to have “The Rabbi” there!” He wasn’t Sylvan Schwartzman; he was “The Rabbi.”

That story stuck with me. I’ve served the same congregation for forty-eight of my fifty years as a Rabbi. We had made some good friends. But…. We used to go to a wedding and see tables of our friends and contemporaries sitting there having a good time. However we viewed them from the end of the head table, sitting next to the grandma who couldn’t hear. Once we were lucky enough to be seated with friends at a reception. One of our longtime friends remarked, “We must be considered very important because we’re seated with ‘The Rabbi.’ Remember… “You’re not one of them”.  Ain’t it great to be retired and to remember?

The second teaching moment took place in the classroom of that fearsome scholar, Dr. Jakob J. Petuchowski, of blessed memory. It was our first class following the High Holy Days. In walks this distinguished theologian in fancy cowboy boots with a ten-gallon hat covering his thick shock of dark black hair. He had spent another Yamim Noraim at his ten-day-a-year congregation in Texas. His people presented him with the hat and boots. He looked up at us, and in his Germanic-British accented English said, “Remember this gentlemen, there is nothing like the Jewish layman.” We were taken aback. This guy who made us strain our necks trying to avoid his gaze so he wouldn’t call on us to answer a question, was praising these unlearned Texans with whom he shared ten days a year?

He went on, “At HUC we tell you all of the time how important the rabbi is, that you are the repository of wisdom and ethical tradition. You are the one who must lead”. He went on, “Gentlemen, the lay people live in the real world. They can help us keep our heads on straight. They don’t have to support a synagogue or form a Federation or educate themselves and their children. They live in a small town and don’t have to pay to bring a rabbi in every year for the holidays. But they do it. There’s nothing like the Jewish layman.”

What a lesson! How many of us locked horns with lay leaders, ordinary people in our congregations? When we wanted to win the argument, we were tempted to tell them, “I’m right because Judaism says you should do it this way.” At times like that, when I felt strongly about an issue and wanted to pull my rank, I would think back to “Petuchowski in boots,” to stabilize my thoughts and tamp down my ego.

Most of us, retired old souls, can now look back upon our years of active duty. Most of us agree that there is nothing like the Jewish layman or laywoman. They volunteer their time. They give of their means. Some annoyed us to distraction and some inspired us to perfection. In light of the Pew report and demographic surveys, we should especially cherish our partners. As we remember the many leaders with whom we shared, we think, “Ain’t it great to be retired!”

Number three. To prove my innate sense of non-discrimination, I refer to a faculty member of our New York campus, to our revered late President and to our beloved Jacob Rader Marcus. Each reminded us that we can overcome our failures.

Twice I heard Borowitz talk about tough times in his life. He had been fired as a teacher at Rockdale Temple when he was a student – then came back to speak there as Director of the Joint Commission on Jewish Education. A decade later he spoke at my congregation, where as a young Assistant he had been pushed out by the Senior Rabbi Julius Gordon. He said to my flock, “And now I’m teaching those who will be your rabbis!”  What a brilliant career he still is experiencing.

Marcus wrote “The Rise and the Destiny of the German Jew,” in the early 1930s predicting the fall of Hitler and a great future for German Jewry. Facts proved otherwise. He then decided to concentrate on the past and founded the academic discipline of American Jewish History, a major scholarly discipline today. Neither Borowitz nor Marcus gave up because of a failure. They used them as stepping stones to a better future.

Each of us has experienced times of failure, seasons of disappointment in our rabbinate. How many times did I fail to reach out to a member, screw up a Torah reading, skip a name on a Kaddish list, or miss seeing someone in the hospital? How many times did I fail a colleague or myself?  We each have memories of failures – but they do not define us. Like our teachers Borowitz and Marcus, we move on from dwelling on our failures to remembering our successes.  Now we are free to look back upon our careers, to remember all, the deflations but mostly the exaltations. Ain’t it great to be retired?

“You are not one of them.” “There is nothing like the Jewish layman.” “I overcame failure.”  I guess I learned more about being a rabbi than I realized.

The flat tire was repaired and we moved on to the motel next to Frisch’s Big Boy and to our life ahead. I celebrate my memories.

We celebrate our memories. We give thanks for the support of our families who still uphold us. We cherish the memories of the friends and the study partners, the colleagues and teachers who taught and teach us at the College-Institute and beyond.

We of the class of 1965 hope that it might be said of us, “Vayecchi,” that we lived and made a difference in the world, cherishing our sacred calling while partnering with amcha, learning from our deflations and basking in our exaltations.

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Celebrating the Class of 1965: Shaping What Tomorrow Will Bring

At the upcoming CCAR Convention, we will honor the class of 1965, 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 these members of the class of 1965 and their 50 years in the rabbinate. 

As with all of my jubilee classmates, life has brought me much undeserved joy: Resa, my life partner who shares with me a nurturing, forgiving, healing, joyous love; children for whom I am still a desired part of their world; grandchildren who regularly turn to me with challenging questions and unsolicited hugs; and a career of meaningful, often satisfying sacred service, rich with human interactions.

As with most us, life has also brought me much undeserved pain: sitting by my young mother’s bedside, helpless before the malignancy that was consuming her brain; confronting a professional failure that challenged my too fragile self-worth; bearing the agonizing burden of deciding whether my sister should be administered sufficient morphine to quiet her pain, morphine that would also stop her heart; trying to internalize what it meant, what it really meant, when for over ten years – every six months — my physicians would tell me that I had only three more months to live.

In the pursuit of meaning in the presence of such a mixed bag of life experiences, I have dedicated my rabbinate to the Jewish People. It wasn’t a conscious choice. It just happened. I came alive to our world in the ’60’s; I embraced the anti-war movement while still in uniform; I entered into the struggle by African Americans for human and civil rights; feminism; choice – yet through all of that I found myself inexorably drawn to my people’s right and obligation to secure its own future. The Six Day War. The Soviet Jewry Movement. The birth and flowering of Reform Zionism. High school kids at Kutz. College kids. Israel. The Aliyah that Resa and I embraced as full partners.

For four decades as a congregational rabbi and now for one decade as a retiree – the meaningful survival and evolution of the Jewish people have been at the center of my day-to-day concerns. Over the years that struggle became a unifying theme around which I could organize my thoughts and actions. Even today, even now, it ignites within me hope and purpose. To put it simply, that struggle keeps me alive. Perhaps it is not the most worthy of causes, but it infuses my being with a shot of metaphorical adrenaline.

Maybe that is why I find myself today still trying to shape our people’s tomorrows. Maybe that is why so many of my classmates have made similar choices in their own ways, in their own lives: refusing to give up on trying to have an impact on the future.

It’s not that I see better or know more than anybody else. I know that I don’t. But I believe based upon what I have seen and learned and experienced that the survival of Israel as a Jewish democratic state is a sine qua non for the survival of North American Jewry, even as the reverse is equally true. And that belief for me is a mandate for meaningful action.

So when I received a call from a close colleague and friend in early January, asking me to help him raise some funds quickly so that he could effectively compete for a position on the Labor slate in the forthcoming Knesset elections, I could not refuse. That election has a real possibility of overturning what I consider to be an intransigent government incapable of launching positive initiatives which might, just might, move us closer to a two state solution. If a new government is formed this Spring linking parties of the political right with the ultra-orthodox parties, many of the recent ground-breaking achievements in easing the stranglehold of the Rabbinate over matters of personal status and life cycle events will be reversed. To shape the future, outspoken advocates for religious pluralism like my friend are needed by the Knesset. There is a job demanding to be done. I tried to help.

Elections for the World Zionist Congress are currently on-going. A victory for ARZA in these elections will pour more than $20 million into the activities of the IMPJ and the Hebrew Union College over the next five years. Israeli Reform Judaism now tracks support from more than 7% of the population. We are growing, evolving, changing. We offer new definitions as to what a synagogue could be; we demonstrate how the manner in which we treat the stranger in our midst helps determine our relationships with an increasingly hostile world. With a western understanding of democracy and with a liberal and embracing vision of Jewish identity both embedded in our Reform DNA – Israel needs us to win and to win big in the Congress elections. Another job yet to be done. By us. We can still help. We are very much alive. We are relevant. We are needed.

I don’t know how many quality months or years that I have left. The door to that mystery is firmly shut. And I am painfully aware of my own personal limitations and weaknesses. But like many of my classmates, I am not yet willing to turn my back on how the future will emerge. Being in a struggle the outcome of which will not be known for many years after I am gone doesn’t diminish the vitality that I feel today because I am still engaged.

So whatever the worthy issues that command each of us: Israel or environmentalism or racism or economic justice or the strengthening of our families or writing that book that really needs to be written — we who are growing old can continue to find what Frank Bruni recently called in The New York Times, “slices of opportunity” awaiting us. So long as our hands can reach, so long as our souls can yearn and our minds can comprehend – so long can we yet have a vital role in shaping what tomorrow will bring. We who were once the future and then were the present are not ready to lay down our burdens. Not yet. Not now. We have too much to do. We are needed. You see, there is life to be lived. And we are still choosing to live it.

General CCAR Healing Rabbis

Rabbinic Soul Maintenance

I recently met with a colleague who informed me that she really doesn’t like to ask God for help, especially during Tishrei, because there’s already so much on God’s plate. It reminded me just a little bit of the old story with the punchline, “look who thinks she’s nothing?” I am reminded as well of a poignant piece by Jacob Staub on the difficulty of asking for help, available at “And it is, for many of us, so difficult to ask for help. We may feel things slipping away from us, or the color bleeding from life. But all too often we wait until everything has already hit the fan to pick up the phone and say, ‘I need you.’”

Seth Bernstein posted a beautiful contemplation regarding the gift that Ruth Alpers and he offer our members as the Hotline rabbis of our CCAR Rapid Response team. I am honored this year to be able to join them as CCAR Intern for Member Care and Wellness, as part of my training at the NYU School of Social Work, where I am pursuing an MSW. Seth offered up a list of the kinds of issues which might prompt you to pick up the phone and call one of the three of us. Additionally, I invite you to attend to the basic question of soul maintenance – how are you holding up on a day-to-day basis in the face of all you shoulder personally and professionally? We would never hesitate to encourage a congregant who tells us she is feeling listless or he is feeling joyless to consider speaking to a therapist? But how many of us wait until something has gone dreadfully wrong. Are we sufficiently attuned to the weight of compassion, fatigue and, even, vicarious trauma on our psyches?

Dear colleagues, you offer yourselves up so generously to help others bear the burdens of their lives. The CCAR offers you the same. Ruth and Seth are available for moments of crisis. And for those who would like a few sessions of listening, sharing and examining where you are right now in your life and in the center of your being, I am here for you as well. I am also available for a small number of sessions of spiritual direction and will be facilitating some group work over the course of the year as well.

For more information, go to:

Rabbi Rex D Perlmeter is the CCAR NYU Social Work Intern for Member Care and Wellness.

General CCAR Healing Rabbis

Don’t Let Me Struggle Alone: CCAR’s Rapid Response Line

We are blessed to have family and friends whom we rely upon, just as they rely upon us.  As rabbis, we also are blessed to serve others in the context of a community that widens and deepens our relationships.  Nevertheless, despite all the relationships that we have and nurture, unfortunately there are times in the course of our rabbinate when we and those we love find ourselves in a free fall.  That could be due to sudden illness or trauma, employment setbacks, familial problems, congregational or personal crises.  There are a host of ways and a variety of people within the CCAR which can help.  On the CCAR website under “Rabbis and Communities” there is a tab that reads “Personal Resources & Chevruta.”  Here CCAR members can find contact information for the Rapid Response Hotline for contacting me or our colleague, Rabbi Ruth Alpers.

Our colleague, Rabbi Richard Levy, paraphrased the “Ahavat Rabbah/Ahavat Olam” prayer found in Mishkan T’filah, “As You Taught Torah”. The prayer states a plea that we all feel at times in the course of our lives and rabbinate, “Don’t let me struggle alone.”  When the rug is pulled out from under us, we have the choice to struggle alone or to call upon assistance.  As one of the CCAR’s Rapid Response members, we are available whenever you or your family is in need.

What are some of the reasons why colleagues place the call to the Rapid Response Line in the first place?  It could be trouble with an employer or congregation, a family crisis, the beginning of an alleged ethical violation, marital or family conflict, job placement, and health issues, just to name a few reasons.  For example, colleagues have shared:

“Everything has been going downhill since my divorce. I was just told I will never see my kids again.”

“I can’t find a job, even after all of these months and years of trying.”

“I’m a dead man.  When does this stop?”

“I know my marriage is tenuous and my spouse needs stability, but I am in a dying community, and I don’t see as if we have any choice, or there is any way out of here.”

“My spouse (the rabbi) was asked to give a large sum of money back to the congregation if he wants to keep his job.  We’re being blackmailed.”

“I live in Shmini Atzeret, seventy-five miles, from a city. Can you refer me to a good psychiatrist whose office is close by?”

“Do I inform my congregation about this psychiatric issue in my life? And if so, how do I go about it?”

“I should have called you a while ago.  Where do I begin?”

Ruth and I are just two colleagues here to assist CCAR members as you will see on the website under “Rabbis Caring for Rabbis.”  The prayer, As You Taught Torah continues, “Don’t let me struggle alone; help me to understand, to be wise, to listen, to know.  Lead me into the mystery, Baruch atah, Adonai, ohev amo Yisrael.”

Rabbi Seth Bernstein serves Congregation Bet Aviv in Columbia, MD