Categories
Rabbinic Reflections

Rabbi James Mirel: 50 Years of Joys and Sorrow Serving the Jewish Community

On July 28, 2006, a deranged antisemitic man with a gun entered the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle and murdered my congregant and dear friend Pamela Waechter. She was one of a handful of American Jews who have been murdered for being Jewish.  

The Islamic terrorist was found to be sane by the jury and sentenced to life in prison. Pam‘s life was over in a bloody barrage of gunfire. 
 
At her funeral, our temple was filled with fellow Jews and many government officials and others, well over a thousand people who were still in shock. That was most traumatic and yet most important day in my life as a rabbi, when it fell to my shoulders to bring comfort to her family and to the community. Pam’s memory will stay with me forever. She truly died al kiddush HaShem—for the sanctification of the God and the Jewish people.  
 
When she converted many years prior, I am sure her rabbi reminded her that historically being a Jew can be a source of personal danger and persecution (as is required in the Talmud), but no one could have imagined that it could lead to her being gunned down in cold blood just for being a Jew or working in a Jewish setting. 
 
Fifty years of thousands of funerals, weddings, bet mitzvah, and other life cycle events. All meaningful at that moment, most of them forgotten in the details. 
 
But every once in a while, having served in the same community all fifty years—and I pray more to come—someone will see me on the street and say something like, “Rabbi, you really made a big difference in my life.” 
 
These are the moments in which I know I made the right decision fifty-five years ago when I entered HUC-JIR in Los Angeles with a college degree in philosophy and a hundred dollars in my checking account. What a journey. I have been blessed in so many ways.  

Baruch HaShem.


This year at the CCAR Convention 2024 in Philadelphia, we celebrated all of the CCAR rabbis celebrating 50 years in the rabbinate. We are honored to include Rabbi James Mirel in this year’s 50-year rabbis and ordination class of 1974.

Categories
Israel Rabbinic Reflections

Rabbi Oded Mazor: Israel, on The Day After (היום שאחרי)

Rabbi Oded Mazor is a Reform rabbi living in Jerusalem, where he leads Kehilat Kol Haneshama. During CCAR’s annual rabbinic Convention—held this March 2024 in Philadelphia—he was asked to address an audience of his rabbinic peers and reflect upon life in Israel during the war, specifically the day after the war ends. Below are his powerful reflections.


We were asked to talk about “the day after.”  

In the last few days, two quotes from the תפילה (t’filah, prayer) passed before my eyes, bringing two different feelings that many of us feel these days, about the present and about the future.  

On Shabbat, the words that struck me the most were not easy ones. Do you remember the words ואל תטשנו יי אלוהינו לנצח (Al titshenu Adonai Eloheinu l’netzach)?i How should we translate these words? What does the word לנצח (la’netzach, forever) refer to in this phrase? Does it mean, “God, don’t ever forsake us?” Or does it mean, “God, don’t forsake us forever?” It’s not the same thing.  

I’m going to refer to a few people in my congregation, Kol HaNeshama in Jerusalem.

The first, her name is Esther. She is eighty-seven years old. She teaches a Torah class every other week, for twelve years now. She’s incredible! And she comes to me every other week with a suggestion for an alternative Haftarah for the next Shabbat, a different reading that we can have from the נביאים (n’vi’im, Prophets) or from the כתובים (k’tuvim, Writings), to understand the Torah portion in a different way, two weeks from now!

Two years or so ago, when we were in the middle of Covid, and I met with her and spoke with her—and, thanks to her, we still have a morning meditation twice a week on Zoom, because even now that we’re allowed to be in the synagogue, the pace that we set during Covid, to meeting on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9:30 in the morning for meditation, we’re still doing it, with more than a minyan on most days. I remember sitting with Esther in her room, and the way she looked at reality and היום אחרי (ha-yom acharei, the day after), she said, “I know the cure is going to be found. We’re going to get over Covid. I’m just not sure I’m going to be here.” ואל תטשנו יי אלוהינו לנצח (V’al titshenu Adonai Eloheinu l’netzach). This feeling of my personal נצח (netzach), my personal “ever,” I feel that I’m already forsaken. Maybe this is going to be the reality. That’s what Esther was feeling during Covid. I think she feels like that again right now, these days.

But when we were saying the Hallel here in Philadelphia, the verse לא אמות כי אחיה (Lo amut ki echyeh, “I shall not die but live”) came to me from the Hallel, as an answer to my feeling of ואל תטשנו יי אלוהינו לנצח (V’al titshenu Adonai Eloheinu l’netzach), insisting on this לא אמות כי אחיה (Lo amut ki echyeh), ואספר מעשי יה (V’asaper ma’aseh Yah), “I will not die but live, and I will tell the deeds of God” (Psalms 118:17). Now obviously, we all know we’re not going to live forever; but as a mental source of strength to ourselves, we may affirm: לא אמות כי אחיה (Lo amut ki echyeh, “I will not die but live”). 

Thinking about the day after, I’m also thinking about the manager of our congregation, Anna. Her cousin is Karina Arayev. She’s one of the women soldiers kidnapped from the Nachal Oz base on October 7. For many, many, many awful weeks, Anna’s uncle and aunt (Karina’s parents), and the whole family—which is a rather small family of Ukrainian Jews—didn’t know anything about Karina and her situation. Three weeks ago, Hamas released a short film with three women talking. One of them was Karina. That’s the first time that they received any message, if we can call it that.

When Anna is thinking about היום אחרי (hayom acharei, the day after), there is no יום אחרי (yom acharei, day after) without Karina coming home. Karina’s parents, Anna’s aunt and uncle, told her that very explicitly: If she doesn’t come home, there is no day after. We try as a community to be there with Anna and her family the whole time through. When we say “the whole time through,” it means that, weeks ago, too many weeks ago, when the first groups of hostages were released, every time a group of hostages came back home and Karina was not amongst them, we were rejoicing with the families who received their loved ones back home; but we were in pain with Anna’s family, with Karina’s family, and the families of all the hostages who are still waiting and have no idea—and had no idea, until the first group of people came off the Hamas vehicle, and still have no idea. 

Nati is not a member of our congregation. She is definitely a very close friend of our congregation. She’s not a member of our congregation because she lives on Kibbutz Or Haner, a few kilometers from Gaza. The next kibbutz up the road, further from Gaza, was not evacuated. The next kibbutz to the west was the kibbutz that stopped the terrorists from infiltrating Or Haner, Kibbutz Erez. Nati and others from Kibbutz Or Haner were moved to Tiberias on October 8. They were there for a month, and then they were offered to move from Tiberias to Jerusalem, to the Orient Hotel. Have you ever been to the Orient Hotel? That place was, for three months, a refugee camp for the people from Or Haner. Nati is the chair of K’hilat Sha’ar HaNegev, led by our dearest colleague, Rabbi Yael Vurgan. When they were moved from Tiberias to Jerusalem, Yael made the connection between Nati and me, and we met in the lobby of the Orient Hotel, which didn’t look anything like what you remember from the Orient Hotel’s lobby. The walls were the same, but nothing else. And I sat there with Nati and her husband, Damian. From that meeting on, every Kabbalat Shabbat and every Shabbat morning, Nati and their younger son, Noam, were with us at Kol HaNeshama. Noam would come and stand next to me and with the other children from Kol HaNeshama for opening and closing the Ark. And his job came to be holding my סידור (siddur, prayer book) when I put the Torah Scroll inside the ארון (aron, Ark), and then I would give him a hug when we sang דרכיה דרכי נועם (d’racheiha darchei no’am, its ways are ways of pleasantness).

A month ago, they returned to their home in Or Haner. What does היום אחרי (hayom acharei, the day after) mean, when you return to your kibbutz, just a few kilometers from Gaza, and the kids go to school, and some of their friends are not there anymore and will never be? And some of their friends will be there, but still are someplace else around Israel and not yet allowed to come back. What it meant for Nati: Returning home is to go pick the lemons from the lemon tree in their yard. היום אחרי (hayom acharei, the day after) will be to know that this lemon tree will give lemons again next year as well. 

And if we’re talking about picking lemons, Debbie is a member of our congregation. Debbie retired from being a lawyer at משרד הרווחה (Misrad HaR’vachah, the Ministry of Welfare) just a few months ago, in August. She didn’t know what she was going to do in her retirement. What she has been doing for the past five months—on top of worrying about her three children, all three of whom were recruited to the army—she has been organizing our volunteering in agriculture, twice a week, every week, for the past four months. Ten to twenty people on each group from Kol HaNeshama, from the area, and people from abroad who hear about it and ask, “Can we join?” One of them is a very dear friend of mine, Rabbi Aaron Goldstein from London. When he told me that he was coming to visit a month and a half after October 7, he asked, “Can I do anything with you?” I said, “OK. Let’s join the agricultural volunteering,” and we planted broccoli. The name Aaron gave it is “brocco-therapy.” It was walking in the field and planting broccoli, one after the other, one after the other. “The day after” will be when Aaron comes again with his congregation and shows them, “You see, this field? Now we’re going to plant another line of broccoli together.” 

My deepest sense of היום שאחרי (hayom sh’acharei, the day after)—and I hope this time I won’t dissolve into too many tears—every day is when I drive my children to school, to the יד ביד (Yad b’Yad, Hand in Hand), bilingual school in Jerusalem, that has been functioning incredibly in these months. Since it’s a rather new building, they have enough shelters in the building, so they were able to return to a regular schedule in the school as soon as anyone was allowed, because they have enough shelters. Many other schools had to require the children to come in shifts—a day yes, a day no; in the morning or in the afternoon—because they only had so much room in the shelters. But the Yad b’Yad school in Jerusalem, of all places, has enough room in the shelters to have everybody coming on the same day from the first day that was allowed in Jerusalem. And every day when I get the privilege that my schedule allows me to drop them off and pick them up at school, and see their teachers and see their friends—Jews and Arabs, Palestinians who live in West Jerusalem, Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem, Palestinians from across the checkpoint to Bethlehem, from Beit Sahour and Beit Jala.  

Some of their teachers were not allowed to come to school in the first few weeks, because they’re on the other side of the checkpoint. Some of their teachers couldn’t come to school because they have little children who had nowhere to go, and the other parent was in מילואים (miluim, reserve duty). And these teachers have to come to school and teach in the same class. And I was told an incredible story by one of my kids’ teachers. In another class, the Jewish teacher was teaching, and the Muslim teacher was there with her. One of the grown children of the Jewish teacher walked in the room in uniform, having come back home from the army. He asked his mother to go out with him for a coffee. His mother told him, “I can’t go. I’m teaching now.” And the Palestinian teacher said, “Of course you should go with him! He’s your son! He came home!” She understood that as a mother, even though that son came into the class in uniform, and I can only imagine what that meant for the Palestinian teacher. That mother had to go with the son who came from the battlefield. What they didn’t know was that the reason he came to get her to go out for coffee was that, at the coffee shop, the other son who came home from מילואים (miluim, reserve duty) was waiting.  

My children came with us to many of the הפגנות (hafganot, demonstrations) in Jerusalem in the past few months. The two younger ones said that they’re not willing to come any more after, at one of these demonstrations, they saw how I was screaming,  לא תהיה לבן-גביר מיליציה (l’Ben-Gvir lo tihyeh militziah, “No private militia for Ben-Gvir!”). There was a proposition that there would be some kind of force that would be under Ben-Gvir’s direct supervision. I think that got them really scared, not so much Ben-Gvir’s militia, but seeing me screaming that way. They prefer being with their Arab Palestinian homeroom teacher, their Jewish homeroom teacher, and their friends, whom they might get along with or not get along with. It’s OK. They’re children in school; that’s what happens. It’s not heaven in that school. It’s the normal life that we want to see.  

It’s the day after that we pray for.  

Will Esther live to see it? Will Karina come back to see it? Will Nati really be able to feel it also in Or Haner, seven kilometers from Gaza? Will Debbie’s three children, coming back from the army, be willing to take part in it, after what they have experienced?  

But my children are going to school. And on מוצאי שושן פורים (motz’ei Shushan Purim, the night that Shushan Purim ends), in Jerusalem, in the courtyard of Kol HaNeshama, we’re going to have an Iftar meal for the families of our daughter’s class. 

That’s the day after that I’m waiting for.  

Watch Rabbi Oded Mazor’s address here.

Categories
CCAR Convention Rabbinic Reflections

Regrounding Ourselves in Our Purpose: CCAR President Rabbi Erica Asch’s CCAR Convention 2024 Sermon

The 135th annual Convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis was held March 10-13 in Philadelphia, where 450 Reform rabbis gathered in person. Here, we share the powerful sermon that CCAR President Rabbi Asch gave during the Convention Torah service. Her d’var Torah addresses the challenges of being a Reform rabbi after October 7, and the self-kindness, gratitude, and joy she hopes all Reform rabbis can find. Read the sermon below, or watch the video here.


March 11, 2024/ 1 Adar II 5784

How’s it really going?

How it started.

We all remember the beginning of our journey. Getting the letter, or email, that we had been accepted to school. Meeting our classmates. Studying. Student pulpits. Dreaming of what the future might be. And even hiking in the hills of Israel.

And then after years of rigorous study we made it. Ordination! Triumph! My class was not always that serious, I promise.

And now here we are—esteemed rabbis, established leaders, well respected members of our community. When people ask us how’s it going, we confidently reply, “Living the dream!” That is how it started. And this is how it’s going.

There’s an interesting thing about these memes. They always tell a positive story. And sometimes we feel that way. But often our reality of how it’s going might be this:

Too many things to do and a too messy desk. Four appointments I missed last week because I was so frazzled.

Or this:

Looking desperately for some inspiration and not feeling like I know what I want to say for a really big sermon I’m giving.

Or this:

Up in the middle of the night because the world is overwhelming.

The gap between how it started and how it’s going can seem painfully big. It can be hard to remember the honor and privilege, the excitement and optimism, the hope and joy that we once felt about being a rabbi.

So… how’s it going? How’s it really going?  Do you feel exhausted? Overwhelmed? Hopeless? Yes? Sometimes I do.

Because sometimes this job eats us alive. Even in normal times, being a rabbi means having to wear too many hats—we are religious leaders and fundraisers and administrators and a pastoral presence and transmitters of tradition and social workers and mediators and…and…and

And then came October 7.

October 7—and everything that has happened in the months since have shattered our world in ways we do not yet understand. It has taken an incredible toll on us personally. Yet, even as we work through our own trauma, we have continued to serve our communities. We are expected to be strong, and smart, and caring, and careful. We’re expected to have it all together.  

And we know that October 7 is neither the first nor the last crisis we will have to face. How many of us have led communities who have confronted the devastation of natural disasters made worse by climate change—floods, fires, hurricanes, and more? Raise your hands. How many have had to deal with a mass shooting that shocked your community? Who has had to deal with threats to your physical safety? What about an unexpected and tragic death? Those challenges, and ones we can’t even imagine, are part of the job. They will always accompany us on our rabbinic path.

All of this—the war and upheaval, the antisemitism and hatred, the pressing needs of our communities—all of it can wear us down. Sometimes, it can seem impossible to keep going. I hit my breaking point late October, a few weeks after October 7, just after a mass shooting in Lewiston, 30 miles from my home, after walking with a close friend through an unspeakably horrible experience. I was done. There was no way I could do this job anymore.

I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that way. And yet, in the midst of feeling so hopeless, I was lucky. I was lucky to have friends and colleagues I could turn to. I was lucky that the CCAR offers short-term counseling and I could talk to a rabbi about what I was feeling. I was falling, but I was caught by my family, my friends, and my colleagues. I know that not all of us have been caught in the same way.

This job is so hard, and we all have been carrying so much the past several months, and throughout our careers. That is why we must strive to rekindle the sense of joy and purpose that inspired us to pursue the rabbinic life. And, if we are lucky enough to be living in a moment of joy and purpose, we must help those around us who are struggling. We have to recognize and accept our imperfections. We have to reground ourselves in our purpose. We have to recapture our sense of gratitude. And, now, more then ever, we need one another. We need this community.

Because we are rabbis, and we are Jews, we ground ourselves in the wisdom that our Torah offers. This week in P’kudei, we read in detail about the making of the priestly vestments. These are made of the finest materials—linen and colorful yarn, gold and precious stones, all stitched together with the utmost care. Almost an entire chapter is devoted to these vestments, but we never see the person who will wear them. Aaron only appears when the mishkan is finally consecrated. He appears after a list of all the objects that are anointed and consecrated. Then, just like all of those objects, Moses is commanded:

 וְהִלְבַּשְׁתָּ֙ אֶֽת־אַהֲרֹ֔ן אֵ֖ת בִּגְדֵ֣י הַקֹּ֑דֶשׁ

וּמָשַׁחְתָּ֥ אֹת֛וֹ וְקִדַּשְׁתָּ֥ אֹת֖וֹ וְכִהֵ֥ן לִֽי׃

Put the sacral vestments on Aaron, and anoint him and consecrate him, that he may serve Me as priest (Exodus 40:13).

Aaron and his sons, like the mishkan and altar and laver are made up, dressed up, and anointed to serve God. They dutifully play their role. The clothes they wear, all those beautiful designs, hide who they really are.

Like Aaron, we too often put on our vestments and subsume ourselves to the role of that ideal rabbi.

But dutifully fulfilling this role can harm. It harms Aaron. In Leviticus 10 we read that after Aaron’s sons are brutally killed right before his eyes in an act of divine retribution, וַיִּדֹּ֖ם אַהֲרֹֽן, Aaron is silent. And then, Moses commands Aaron and his remaining sons not to mourn or cry out and they do as Moses tells them. They do what Moses tells them. Aaron doesn’t mourn his sons. It is one of the cruelest parts of Torah. Rather than grieving as any father would, Aaron wears his beautiful robe and plays his role. He and his remaining sons are asked to give up their humanity in service to their God and their people. And they do.

This week’s parashah, in fact, gives us an example of what not to do. But we are not priests. We are rabbis. We are not anointed by God, and we do not have to do our duty no matter what the cost. Our ancestors threw off the mantle of priesthood, yet sometimes we still cling to it, because it can be hard to give ourselves permission to just be us, not Aaron, not “the rabbi,” just who we are. It’s hard just to be Zusya and know it is enough.

That is the first piece of figuring out how to do this job in a way that is sustainable and even fulfilling. We have to recognize our desire to always be more and remind ourselves that we are enough. In fact, being imperfect is not only a gift we give ourselves, but something we can model for those we serve. 

Accepting “enough” is hard. It took me a long time to come to terms with “just” being the rabbi of a small congregation, in the middle of rural Maine: I felt I should be striving for more professionally instead of being satisfied with the very real gift of finding a congregation that I love and loves and appreciates me. It’s beautiful that we want to give our best to those we serve, but that desire to do more is also dangerous. We need to give ourselves the gift of recognizing and embracing our imperfections. 

The second thing we have to do is to reground ourselves in our purpose and remember why we went into this work. We didn’t become rabbis for fame or fortune, we went into it for something bigger, something we could uniquely contribute to the world. Maybe it was walking with people through the most difficult moment of their lives, or creating community, or teaching this tradition we love. That purpose is different for everyone, but having it keeps us focused and centered. Without it, we risk trying to do everything for everyone and that is impossible. We are at our best when we embrace the unique gifts we bring to this work and reground ourselves in what we bring to our communities.  

Finally, we need to recapture our sense of gratitude. As I was reading the reflections by our 50-year colleagues on RavBlog, I was struck that while their careers were not perfect, they all expressed a sense of appreciation—for the ability to be with others during difficult and joyous moments, to teach, and to serve. I have no doubt that those of us still a few years away from that milestone will look back on our careers with that sense, but we need recapture gratitude right now.

While this week’s parashah offers an instruction on how not to be, we are also celebrating Rosh Chodesh Adar II. We are taught משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה. How can we mandate joy? Perhaps, as our ancient ancestors suggest, we should just naturally feel joy because of the miracles done for us during this month. With no disrespect to them, it isn’t that easy. But I think the secret of this obligation, lies in the celebration of Purim itself. Purim is yom hafuch; a day of turning everything upside down. It’s a day of accepting that maybe the mistakes were supposed to happen. A day of reminding ourselves of the importance of celebration and joy. It’s a day of just being who we are. Purim’s gift to us is that we don’t have to put ourselves into a box or fulfill a function. The task is the joy and the silliness and the messiness of life. We need that permission. As rabbis, and as people. And our people need that permission as well. How beautiful to be reminded of the need for joy right now, in a world that often asks too much and a profession that can seem overwhelming.

This d’var Torah isn’t about all the work the CCAR is doing, although I’m incredibly proud of that work and I’m happy to talk your ear off about it. It’s about who we are, as rabbis and as people. It’s about how tremendously hard this job can be; how sometimes it almost breaks you. And it’s about how we must recognize and accept our imperfections, reground ourselves in our purpose and recapture our sense of gratitude.

My wish for us is that we find a way to be a little bit kinder to ourselves. That we love ourselves even when we don’t live up to our exacting standards. That we recognize that our work is hard, but it is holy. And that we extend that kindness and compassion not only to ourselves but to one another. That we meet someone new. Lend a shoulder to cry on. Celebrate a victory.

I really wanted to find the perfect picture to encapsulate a real version of how it’s going. One that acknowledges the difficulty and celebrates our successes. I couldn’t figure out what it was. But I realized that this morning I would have the perfect picture. Looking out at all of us, I see all the incredible work we are doing. I see us going on this journey together. And, I see the type of community we are building for the generations of rabbis to come. A community where they are seen and valued not for what they do, but for who they are. A community of connection in a society that is often full of loneliness and isolation. A community where we value finding balance and meaning and joy in our work. And that picture, the picture of all of us, is one of resilience, and hope, of kindness and joy. We are so blessed to be part of this community.


Rabbi Erica Asch is the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and has served as the rabbi of Temple Beth El in Augusta, Maine since June of 2013.

Categories
Rabbinic Reflections

‘Sh’leimut’ and These 50 Years: Rabbi Bruce Kahn Reflects on His Diverse Career as a Reform Rabbi

On page 14 of Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar, Alan Morinis writes, “Achieving our potential for wholeness—sh’leimut—is not so much a reward as it is the fulfillment of the purpose of our lives.” I believe that is indeed the purpose of our lives, of religion, and of my rabbinate. Aiding others in the pursuit of sh’leimut unifies every good thing I attempted to do each day from ordination onward.  

While a great many of my teachers at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion had especially powerful influences on my rabbinate, Dr. Alvin Reines’s teachings impacted me most of all. He challenged us to go forward to assist individuals and communities to move toward wholeness as Jews or in accord with whatever were their beliefs. I tried to do so as a congregational rabbi, as a US Navy chaplain, as a civil rights agency executive director, leading philanthropic pursuits and much more. I have always seen myself as a servant and derived great satisfaction doing so. Let me add here how honored and proud I am to be a member of the class of 1974!  What great classmates!    

US Navy Chaplain Corps (twenty-eight years, mostly as a reservist): Twice, I attended Naval War College. I served briefly on many of types of ships and served at USNA and USCGA. I was three times a unit commanding officer, and I was Regional Command Chaplain. I led services the first time a Jewish worship pennant flew on a ship underway. I officiated at the burial of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, and I was at sea on the submarine Rickover when the producer and screenplay writer for The Hunt for Red October were on board in preparation for making the movie. I was activated on 9/11. On October 11, 2001, I was the only Jewish chaplain co-officiating in 9/11 memorial service at Pentagon. I retired in 2002, and was recalled in 2003 and sent to the Iraqi Theater during High Holy Days and Sukkot. In 2014, I was the only rabbi to testify before a congressional subcommittee on religious accommodation in the military. I have held commission for fifty-four years.  

Pulpits: 

  • Congregation Or Ami, Richmond, VA, 1976–1980: Congregation doubled in size. I served with denominational judicatory heads to advocate for social justice in Virginia legislature, where I got to meet Jacques Cousteau. And I began my decades-long involvement in fair housing. 
  • Temple Shalom, Chevy Chase, MD, 1980–present (solo rabbi, senior rabbi, rabbi emeritus): I separated tenth-grade graduation from confirmation service, making confirmation voluntary. 80 to 90 percent of b’nei mitzvah youngsters continued through tenth grade. 85 to 100 percent of confirmands continued in post confirmation. I established culture so that whatever a member’s need, help from within Shalom could be found. Many members went to HUC-JIR or other seminaries. I began a dozen cutting-edge programs. Shalom commissioned the writing of a sefer Torah in honor of my service there—I still don’t believe it. I was also presented with Shalom Lifetime Achievement Award. (Received two other lifetime achievement awards from other organizations.) My beloved wife Toby was given a Shalom award bestowed only twice before.

    In recent years, I am thrilled to be a member of Zoom Gali Gali, a group of over a dozen retired Reform colleagues living in the area. 

Soviet Jewry:  As a Washington Board of Rabbis leader in support of Soviet Jewry, I helped plan eight peaceful arrest demonstrations in front of Soviet Embassy. With four colleagues, I served twelve days in federal prison. The US Supreme Court later overturned the law used to convict us.    

Civil Rights:  I was a founder of the Fair Housing Council of Greater Washington and the Equal Rights Center. 2004–2008 served as ERC Executive Director. Among many other things, we brought actions that led to a nationwide end to the crisis in accessible housing for people with disabilities.     

Amcha for Tsedakah: In 1990, I founded a small tzedakah collective that over time raised two million dollars for especially worthy NGOs in Israel, America, and elsewhere.   

Camp Airy: I was involved there since 1957. In 2012, Airy dedicated a new Shabbat siddur “In loving honor of Rabbi Bruce E. Kahn, D.D.”  

Every year I am privileged to remain involved in a great many rabbinically connected volunteer efforts. One example: for the past eight years, I have raised essential funds for and worked almost daily with impoverished families; first one family in Baltimore, and then a family in DC.    

Most important to me, before and through these past 50 years, are my wife Toby and our family, my faith in God, and helping folks move towards sh’leimut.     


Bruce Kahn is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and all of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2024.

Categories
Rabbinic Reflections

‘Meet People Where They Are and Grow Together’: Rabbi Jerome David on 50 Years in the Reform Rabbinate

A true story: I was in the third grade, or maybe fourth, and I went to Shabbat services with my friend Gary at his Orthodox shul. We are both children of Holocaust survivors. While his family clung to tradition, mine tried to escape it. I was trying to follow the service, but to this day I remember that uncomfortable, sinking feeling of being totally lost and confused—being a stranger in a strange place. I also had this growing awareness that the older kids sitting near me were pointing at me, talking about me and laughing, or so it seemed.  Just then the gabai towered over me, grabbed my siddur, and turned it right-side up! “Here, try this,” he barked. 

I swore then I was not going to remain stupid in my own Judaism. My grandparents were killed because they were Jewish, and I didn’t know the first thing about it. I prevailed on my parents to join a synagogue—a Reform temple, where my rabbi served as a mentor and role model. At my bar mitzvah, the rabbi commented to the congregation, “We now know where our future rabbis are coming from.” A seed was planted. 

I’ve thought a lot about the trajectory of my own life, having recently returned from my high school reunion. 

I thought about how I could have predicted so little of it. If you would have told me when I was a fifteen-year-old kid at Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati, Ohio that I would be here with you, now, celebrating my fiftieth anniversary in the rabbinate, and fifty years at one congregation, I’m not sure what I would have said. 

Could I, arriving at Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, New Jersey in the summer of 1974—my sideburns long, my Midwestern accent thick, my experience non-existent—could I have known that I would stay, not the two years prescribed by my initial contract, but fifty years in the end, through generations, through upheaval, through change, moving from Cooper River to the promised corner of Springdale and Kresson, unifying with M’kor Shalom and becoming Kol Ami?

In the words of our son, Rabbi Ben David, “We all have examples too. I know we do.” You didn’t think it would go this way. You weren’t expecting it either: the news, the sickness, the sadness, the surprises, the professional and personal transitions one after another. Who would ever have imagined? 

One unexpected consequence is how agreeing to pilot the Introduction to Judaism course in the winter of 1979 would turn into a lifelong passion. I’m still teaching the course and so many of my cherished graduates are members and leaders of our congregation. This journey remains a labor of love for me—not only have I instructed, I have learned volumes and have been truly inspired by my students.  

One might say that the prevailing philosophy of my rabbinate is to “meet people where they are and grow together.”  

I am still growing, reaching, climbing, and hoping. 


 Rabbi Jerome David is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and all of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2024.

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Rabbinic Reflections

‘Sit Until You Are Called Forward’: Rabbi Harold Robinson Reflects on His 50-Year Career as a Reform Rabbi

It was my first ever Rosh HaShanah dinner as a rabbi, and I was trying to enjoy the meal, but instead was frantically reviewing my sermon and double-checking the cues, and generally full of opening night jitters. Then the phone rang: “Rabbi, what do we do if one of the family has just died at the dinner table? Did the rest of us go to service?” I frantically scrolled through memories of halachah while I extended my concern for the family and offered to come by either before or right after services. And asked for the identity of the caller so I would be able to connect. 

“Oh no, Rabbi, you misunderstood. We were just chatting around the table and wondered what would happen, hypothetically.” I asked myself; “Really? Is this why I became a rabbi?” 

Last month while attending a wonderful lecture at HUC-JIR, Cincinnati, in a room full of colleagues, my phone (on silent) signaled an incoming call. I texted, “Can I call you back in an hour?” All caps response, “NO, NOW!” I stepped out and called back. It was a woman whose father I had buried and at whose daughter’s wedding I was misader kiddushin. She was barely able to get out the words “talk to the police!” I have known the police lieutenant for forty-five years; he grew up across the street from us. The officer said, “Rabbi, her husband just died in a horrible accident.”  

Two days later I gathered with the bereft widow, the four young adult children and their significant others. The family was riven by issues; the children were still coming to terms with each other and their parents. Some had not spoken in several years. I mostly listened for three hours and even taught two texts.  

When I left, they were once again a family, tearfully embracing each other and me. This really IS why I became a rabbi! Silently, I thanked my days at HUC-JIR fifty years ago, my studies with Rabbis Mirsky and Katz, and especially conversations in the Bumming Room with you my fellow students that started me on the path that brought me and that family to that important moment.  

Most of all, I cherish the study of texts. At this moment I harken to the wisdom of Vayikra Rabbah 1:5: “Rabbi Joshua of Sichnin in the name of Rabbi Levi expounded the verse ‘For it is better it be said to you: Come up here, than you be humbled and sent down before the prince’ (Proverbs 25:7). Rabbi Akiba taught in the name of Rabbi Simeon ben Azzai: ‘Take your seat two or three lower and sit until you are called forward: rather that than if you had placed yourself higher and be told to move back. Better that people call you up, come up, than say go back, go back.’” 

It was hard but worthwhile advice to follow when I thought I knew more than I knew, and still hard but worthwhile advice to follow when I actually know even more than I imagined I knew. In almost every circumstance it has been better to be asked for advice or an opinion than to gratuitously offer one. Though it is often a struggle.  

Still, I am learning from Miriam, my beloved wife, who teaches from P’sachim (99a): “Silence is fitting for the wise … ‘Even a fool, when he holds his peace, is considered wise; and he that shuts his lips is esteemed as a man of understanding’ (Proverbs 17:28).”  


Rabbi Harold Robinson is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and all of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2024.

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Rabbinic Reflections

Rabbi Harry D. Rothstein: Finding the Divine in a Hospital Room

Life is funny in some ways. I was born into a secular Jewish family in Brooklyn, went to New York City public schools, all the while playing hooky from afternoon Hebrew school. And here I am fifty years in the rabbinate. God has a sense of humor.

I graduated from Brooklyn College and was accepted by Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, receiving ordination in 1974. When I was accepted into the College–Institute, I was told that I would be prepared for the pulpit. Yet, my most profound and spiritual experiences have been as a hospital chaplain. Life can have its twists and turns.

While I initially served in pulpits in New York State, since 1987 my positions have been as a chaplain in psychiatric centers, prisons, hospice, a cancer hospital, and acute care hospitals, and as a volunteer for a suicide prevention hotline. During my chaplaincy I earned four units of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), my Board Certification through N’shamah, the Association of Jewish Chaplains, and received a Doctor of Ministry in Pastoral Counseling from Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion.

While I have written about pastoral care in professional publications like the Journal of Palliative and Supportive Care and in Caring for the Human Spirit. I find the most meaningful experiences in pastoral care to be not writing, but being with patients. When a patient says that they could not have been discharged without my help, that is the day I know I have earned my salary. The experience of offering pastoral care has made me less judgmental and more compassionate, not only as a professional, but as a person.

My chaplain colleagues will sometimes report that from time to time when they engage with a hospital patient, not often but sometimes, all seems to fall away. For a moment it no longer matters that they are sitting in a hospital room. It no longer matters that they are a chaplain nor that they are conversing with a sick person. Their daily schedule, or any method of pastoral care, seem to fall away. Rather they are merely two human beings engaged in speaking with each other. This moment is divine—sometimes.

When I walk into a patient’s room, I believe that the Shechinah walks with me.

At that moment, I am just one human being speaking with another human being. For me, this is where God lives.  

I was raised in a family where we were taught that the greatest service was service to others. The rabbinate and chaplaincy have given me opportunities to live up to my upbringing.


Rabbi Harry D. Rothstein is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and all of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2024.

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Rabbinic Reflections

Calling It a Career: Rabbi Stephen Fuchs on the Moments that Matter in His 50-Year Rabbinic Career

Ecclesiastes reminds us, “There is a time for every purpose under heaven (3:1).”

When I turned seventy-seven last year, it dawned on me with stark clarity that it was time to bring down the curtain on my tenure as spiritual leader of Bat Yam Temple of the Islands in Sanibel, Florida, and retire.

I will always, of course, be a rabbi, and I will await in wonder to see what new plans the Eternal One has in store for me.

When I announced I would retire the first time in 2012 from my position as senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford, Connecticut, people asked, “What will you do now?” I honestly answered, “I am not sure. I’ll read more, write more, and beyond that, we’ll see.”

I could never have imagined the blessings the “we’ll see” had in store for me these past twelve years: serving as president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, which enabled me to visit more than sixty-five communities on five continents teaching about and advocating for progressive Jewish values; serving as guest rabbi in Milan and Florence, Italy; spending significant parts of five years teaching and preaching in Germany; and then serving for six years as rabbi of Bat Yam Temple of the Islands.

Among the highlights of our years in Germany have been the invitations to teach with Vickie about the Shoah in German schools, and to speak in the synagogue and in churches and at Kristallnacht commemorations in Leipzig, Germany, the city where my father, Leo Fuchs, of blessed memory, grew up and was arrested and imprisoned on November 9, 1938.

Our tradition teaches that King Solomon wrote three biblical books: Song of Songs, a book of love poetry when he was a young man; Proverbs, a book of wisdom in middle age; and Ecclesiastes, with its sober look at life as an older man.

Although I cannot claim Solomon’s wisdom, I have been blessed to find true love as a young man, and the loving marriage I have shared with Vickie for all fifty years of my career years, has sustained me through the many joys and the few disappointments of my career.

I have tried my best to share what wisdom I have gained in my sermons, lectures, and in the college and seminary teaching I have been invited to do over the years, and in the seven books I have written.

Upon ordination in 1974, I became the first full-time rabbi of Temple Isaiah in Columbia, Maryland, a synagogue launched by my beloved mentor, Rabbi Richard S. Sternberger, z”l, UAHC Mid-Atlantic Regional Director.

Beginning in 1986, I became senior rabbi at Congregation Ohabai Sholom, known as The Temple, in Nashville, Tennessee. I will always be grateful that the congregation funded my graduate studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School, which culminated when I earned a DMin in biblical interpretation in 1992.

In 1997, I became senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel until I became rabbi emeritus in 2012.

Now that I am older, I look back on my fifty-year rabbinical career and reach the important conclusion Ecclesiastes teaches: “Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity (1:2).” How true I find those words today.

What is truly important to me now is not recognition or material rewards. I do not deny that I have striven for and enjoyed a measure of those things, but the joy does not last that long, and looking back, they matter very little.

What I shall always cherish, and what will always matter, are the times when something I did, wrote, or said made a real difference in someone’s life. It was in those moments or when someone reminded me of them, that I truly felt God’s pleasure. Participating in our son Leo’s ordination in Los Angeles last May, is a wonderful retirement present and a memory I shall always cherish.

As they did back in 2012, people ask me, “What will you do now?”

For the time being I am proud to become Bat Yam’s rabbi emeritus.

In addition, I would add, “I’ll read more, write more, and beyond that, we’ll see.”


Rabbi Stephen Fuchs is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and all of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2024.

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Rabbinic Reflections

Then You Remember: Rabbi Dennis Sasso Reflects on 50 Years as a Reform Rabbi

Some years ago, I wrote about stages of the rabbinate. I called the first stage “I want to change the world;” stage two: “I want to touch your soul;” stage three: “Wow! I can make a difference;” stage four: “What’s it all about?,” and stage five: “Integration.”

In the “I want to change the world” stage, I was ready to unpack and transmit everything I had learned in rabbinical seminary and make every congregant a maximalist Jew. I had so much to teach, so many good ideas, if people would only listen. As we mature, we realize that our presence is more important than our ideas, and our compassion more important than defending faith and tradition. 

The rabbi then discovers that there are issues in the lives of vulnerable human beings and begins to own the role of pastor, entering the stage of “I want to touch your soul.” We are not just enactors of rituals and ceremonials, preachers of theology and ethics, but spiritual counselors whose caring and appropriate words and gestures, whose loyal presence, can help to ease the burden and double the joys of our congregants.

“Rabbi” means teacher. As I was graduating college, I considered an academic career, but soon realized that it was being with people gathered for prayer, celebration, and memory, for the performance of acts of justice and kindness, that most compelled me. I cherished my involvement in academia and writing, but I preferred being a mentor, a guide, and fellow traveler with the Jews of today. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan reminded us, “The rabbi should not be a walking sarcophagus of dead ideas about religion, but an interpreter of the experiences… of religion that are understandable and relevant.”

With the passing of years, the rabbi becomes a leader who “can make a difference” in the broader community, sometimes drawing strong reactions. A mentor warned me, “Some people will love you without reason, and some will hate you without cause. Be yourself. You will know when you have done well.” Rabbi Israel Salanter warned, “A rabbi whose community can never agree with him cannot be their rabbi; but a rabbi who never disagrees with his community is not fit to be a rabbi.”

There will be times of doubt when a rabbi questions ideals and vocation. It’s the “what’s it all about?” stage. Then, you remember…

you remember the love in the faces of new parents holding a newborn and praying for health and joys;

you remember standing on the bimah with a nervous thirteen-year-old, offering blessings and assurance;

you remember moments under the chuppah, with a young couple with whose parents you also had stood under the wedding canopy, celebrating the ongoing chain of tradition and love;

you remember being at the hospital bedside of an elder chanting prayers he had cherished and sung, moments at the graveside of one who died too young, or of a senior taken by Covid, whom the family could not visit during the final days and hours.

you remember the open phone conversation with a grieving family standing near a beloved mother about to be taken off life support—the tears, the love, the last breath.

Carl Sandburg observed that “Life is like an onion. You peel it a layer at a time and sometimes you weep.” And so, you remember the layers, the joys, the tears, the grace, and the strength that sustained you as you sought to sustain others.

As the years flow, a rabbi enters a stage of “integration.” Soren Kierkegaard reminds us that some things are true when they are whispered, but not true when they are shouted. Mature religion is less about the exclamation sign and more about the question mark. With humble and grateful spirit, we enter the stage of “integration”—the feeling, the awareness, that our rabbinic self and persona are one. 

Being a “Rabbi in Israel,” even now in retirement, is not what I do, but who I am—a servant and teacher in love with Judaism and the Jewish people, our culture, our spiritual values, our memories, our moral imperatives, our answers, our questions, our gifts of hope and imagination to shape a better world. Let us imagine…


Rabbi Dennis Sasso is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and all of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2024.

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Rabbinic Reflections

Rabbi Allen Bennett: 50 Years of Joys and Rewards of Chaplaincy, Pulpit, and Interfaith Work

I graduated in the largest ordination class in HUC-JIR’s history.

I was one of the very few graduates that year, if not the only graduate, who intentionally chose not to seek work in a pulpit setting. I elected to enter a one-year residency program in Clinical Pastoral Education (hospital chaplaincy) in Rochester, Minnesota, after which I remained as the Jewish chaplain at the Mayo Clinic-affiliated hospitals for the next two years. Unbeknownst to me when I went to Rochester, I was also expected to serve as the rabbi of B’nai Israel Synagogue there, something no one thought to mention to me during the application process.

I loved my chaplaincy work and learned a great deal from the synagogue work. But when I had an opportunity to enter a doctoral program at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, I jumped at it and moved west. Realizing that I needed to support myself while a graduate student, I took jobs as the Director of Adult Programs at a Jewish Community Center in San Francisco, a clerk in a Jewish book store, a clerk in a Jewish-owned insurance brokerage, the rabbi at Sha’ar Zahav (San Francisco’s first LGBTQ+ synagogue), the Associate—and then Executive—Director at the San Francisco office of the American Jewish Congress, the Executive Director of the JCRC of the Greater East Bay and, finally, as the rabbi of Temple Israel of Alameda. I retired from Temple Israel in 2012.

Throughout my rabbinate, I was drawn to hospital chaplaincy. I became the (volunteer) chair of the Chaplaincy Advisory Board of Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, and served in that position for ten years. I now serve on the chaplaincy committee of Kaiser Hospital in San Leandro because I still enjoy the world of chaplaincy so much.

Relatively early on in my time in the San Francisco Bay Area, I got to know an Orthodox rabbi who was the unpaid President of the Board of Rabbis here. He was a wonderful character who was a role model in the way he tried to support and care for local rabbis regardless of their denominational affiliations. It was because of him that I became intimately involved with our Board of Rabbis, eventually serving at various times as both President and Executive Director, and even now in retirement, I continue my affiliation and strong support of the organization.

As far back as my earliest days in Minnesota, I became involved in interfaith work, initially with the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition of Minnesota, and then with the local interfaith councils. Once I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, my involvement in civic affairs has always been based in interfaith work. I was, and remain, involved in several interfaith and interreligious organizations in the area, working on immigrant rights, reproductive rights, homelessness issues, LGBTQ+ issues, and other social justice issues.

At this point in my life, my greatest joys involve volunteering in chaplaincy-related programs, supporting local rabbis, and interfaith social justice work.


Rabbi Allen Bennett is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and all of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2024.