The 133rd annual Convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis was held March 27-30, 2022 in San Diego, where 300 Reform rabbis gathered in person with several hundred online. Here, we share CCAR Chief Executive Rabbi Hara Person’s poignant address to the Reform rabbinate.
How amazing it is for us to be together once again, after three long years since we last gathered as colleagues. What an incredible milestone this is for us as a chevrah, a truly celebratory occasion. It feels unbelievably moving and replenishing to be here together.
And what a strange, hard time this has been. Two years and about two weeks ago, after a lot of struggle, we had just made the decision to go virtual for Convention. So much of that time, those early pandemic days pre-vaccine, were filled with anxiety and fear. All of us were making decisions on the fly—you in your communities, and us at the CCAR, figuring out how to quickly replan and reinvent ourselves. Priorities changed overnight. At the CCAR, we sent our staff home to set up remote office spaces. We changed our educational and support offerings to meet the needs of the moment. We organized coaching, advising, and counseling sessions for rabbis at no cost. We provided you with free or heavily discounted CCAR Press resources. We heard your stress and tried to provide you with care and support during the grimmest, grief-filled, scariest times. I remember one of you telling me that you had done eleven COVID funerals in one week. In one week! Unimaginable, the spiritual and emotional cost.
At the same time, strangely, without social gatherings and commuting, there was also time to be filled. I rolled the thousands of pennies that had migrated to my house after my father died. I seasoned my cast iron pans, and then did it again. I had time to watch the dirt in my garden slowly fill with flowers in bloom that first pandemic spring, giving me a much-needed sense of hope. That all seems so quaint now, given what was still to come.
When we last gathered in person at CCAR Convention in March 2019, no one among us could have foreseen the enormity of what we’d be facing in this intervening time, and how much we would be changed by the experience. Painfully, often in grief, sometimes at great personal cost, but also with creativity and tremendous learning, we persevered. You rethought your rabbinates, you experimented, you pushed through, and even if you sometimes fumbled—and we all did—you nonetheless inspired and led and brought comfort. When I look at and see what you’re managing, when I speak to you, when I hear what you’re doing, when I visit your synagogues, I see the miraculous. I see resilience in the face of all of this. I see innovation. I see vision. It’s truly amazing. There is so much to be proud of.
And yet, I know it’s been a very hard time, and a complicated time. I know you lost people in your own lives, and that grief continues. I know that many of you are exhausted and overworked, stressed and burnt out. I see how hard you’ve been working, and often under impossible conditions. I know you are doing more than ever, and in many cases with fewer resources, less support, and more difficulty. I know that.
At that same time, we are facing challenges in regard to our beloved Reform institutions, challenges that make us question so much. If that wasn’t enough, we are facing fears about what endangers not only our souls but also our physical selves. As many of you have said, being a rabbi shouldn’t be dangerous. And yet it sometimes is just that. With the three ethics reports that have come out from our beloved organizations, the terrible events in Colleyville, the overall rise in antisemitism, and questions about the future of our institutions, there is no doubt that this moment we’re in is a hard one.
I feel it too. There have been times when I—like so many of you—feel weighed down by such a sense of brokenness. There have been many dark moments this past year, many moments of feeling that brokenness deeply within my soul. When I took on this job of serving the Reform rabbinate, I believed I would be doing something that I could be proud of. I thought I’d be able to focus on moving the CCAR into the future.
I could not have imagined that I would be managing the painful and dispiriting work of unpacking the ethical misconduct of rabbis and our institutions. To be the face of the CCAR in this moment is, to say the least, complicated. There have been moments of pain, deep shame, and bleak and utter darkness. Yet I know that this pain pales in comparison to the pain carried by the brave individuals who’ve come forward.
I can’t help but think back to that last in-person Convention in 2019 in Cincinnati, the city in which our founder Isaac Mayer Wise’s legacy is so present. As I was preparing to speak to you all for the first time at that joyous time, before I was even in the role of Chief Executive, I thought about our founder’s legacy. Legacy looms large at the CCAR. We are, after all, one of the three legacy organizations of the Reform Movement, along with our partners the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). We have a storied history that goes back to the nineteenth century. But what does it mean to be a legacy organization? What is the legacy that we have inherited, and perhaps even more importantly, what do we want our legacy to be?
B’reishit teaches ki afar atah v’el afar tashuv, that we come from dust and return to dust. That’s humbling, to be reminded of our nothingness, but it also prompts us to consider just the opposite—that it is what we do in between those states that matters. While we are blessed to walk this earth and be in relationship with each other, what are we doing to create a legacy of positive change, to make a difference, to help right wrongs, to give voice to the voiceless?
We have so much to feel good about, both in our history as Reform rabbis as well in the present. Our Reform predecessors helped define American Judaism. We have reformed liturgy and published generations of prayerbooks. We have marched for social justice and advocated for equity and civil rights. We were the first rabbinic organization to ordain women. Our rabbis published the first English-language modern Torah commentary that included contemporary scholarship, and our rabbis also created the first women’s Torah commentary. We have officiated at countless life-cycle events, celebrating with and comforting Jews decade after decade. We have taught and inspired and written books and sustained communities, and so much more. Part of the challenge of this moment is holding the complexity of all the good that we rabbis have done for people, the community, and the world, all the ways that we have lived out our values since our founding in 1889, together with the ways that we have fallen short.
We come from dust and we return to dust, but in between we have choices to make about the legacy we leave. I want our legacy to be an honorable one, a legacy of integrity and morality, a legacy of inclusion and respect. And I also want to say, wrongdoing on the part of some does not negate all the tremendous good done by most.
But in the midst of our proud Reform rabbinic legacy, and in the midst of all of your important and good work, there is misconduct that, rather than setting an example of menschlichkeit and being our best selves, was instead behavior that did the opposite, behavior that created a legacy of hurt and pain. There were, and continue to be, colleagues who have displayed the worst of human behavior. And other colleagues who either didn’t recognize the behavior for what it was, or didn’t do the right thing to eliminate that behavior from our community.
Our institutional t’shuvah isn’t just necessary—it’s the right thing to do. I’m grateful to the CCAR T’shuvah Task Force for the thoughtful work they are doing to inform this process. And as we know, t’shuvah is not just a one-time formal statement, but as Maimonides taught, the changing of behaviors going forward. Words without action—and a deep-seated commitment to change—are meaningless. To that end, the CCAR is making t’shuvah a fundamental part of our organization, every day through our actions, by improving our processes, hiring an ethics staff member, supporting the ethics committee in increased training for its members, and hiring professional investigators, as well as engaging in many conversations about experiences with our system and history.
I am very grateful to the Ethics Committee for approaching their difficult work with integrity and dedication. Even before we received the Alcalaw report, their suggestions of ways to continually upgrade the process already had a significant impact. So too the Ethics Process Review Committee has made continual changes to the Ethics Code, almost every year. The attention to ongoing upgrading on the part of both committees is remarkable. Hopefully, as a community, we will vote in many of the needed changes to the current Ethics Code that the Ethics Process Review Committee is currently working on in a special session, even as the Ethics Task Force envisions what an ethics process of the future may look like.
But here, today, I want to begin to apologize out loud.
I’ve heard so many painful stories over the last year. Some happened years ago; some are more recent. Not all are about sexual misconduct. Some stories aren’t about the ethics process at all but are about the way a colleague was hurt by the CCAR. Some are stories of bias or diminishment. And let me be clear—some of the pain that has been expressed is because the ethics system actually worked as it should and held rabbis accountable, and though warranted, that can be painful. Regardless of what, when, or how, the pain is real.
When Abraham speaks to God to argue the case for sparing the people of S’dom, he begins by stating that he is but afar v’eifer, dust and ashes. Abraham invokes humility as he speaks up for the voiceless and argues for what he believes is right. Not only do we come from dust and return to dust, but our texts acknowledge that in our lifetimes we sometimes go through periods of being covered in dust and ashes. There are times in which we are brought low, bowed down in sorrow and grief, before we can rise again.
In this last year, I have often felt buried in both the dirt and the ashes of this pain. I want to say clearly: I am sorry that CCAR rabbis have caused pain. I’m sorry that the CCAR has caused pain. I’m sorry that our legacy is tarnished.
I came to the rabbinate considerably after the vatikot we’re honoring at Convention and owe so much to those first pioneer women, my older sisters who led the way. But I too have my stories, my experiences in the rabbinate and in our Reform institutions, as a mother with one and then two young children while a rabbinic student, as a career-long non-congregational rabbi, as an oddity in many ways, all of which have shaped my rabbinate—sometimes painfully and sometimes joyfully. Moreover, having been one of the early women at a formerly men’s college as an undergrad, I know very well that merely opening the door to let us in doesn’t mean equality has been achieved and bias has been overcome.
And yet, even with all that, it turns out that we also have what to be proud of. We knew we had to revamp our ethics system and were moving forward with this work even before new allegations came to light in this last year. And moreover, we actually have an ethics system, a system in need of further upgrades, yes, but an existing, robust system that has been updated and changed year after year by you, by your votes. The path ahead is filled with repair, rebuilding, and healing. But this too can be our legacy—the commitment to create a better, safer future, and to always improving what we do and how we do it.
I am grateful that we have both an Ethics Task Force and a T’shuvah Task Force hard at work right now, helping to create a better future for us all. I am also grateful to be able to work with my partners, Rabbi Rick Jacobs at the URJ and Dr. Andrew Rehfeld at HUC-JIR, as we begin to navigate what we can do better together, and grateful as well to Rabbi Mary Zamore at the Women’s Rabbinic Network (WRN) for her unwavering commitment to justice.
Not easily, and not without pain or cost, but progress is happening. Rabbi Zamore and WRN leadership have suggested that we join together in a Day of Lament in the next months. I believe that this will be a meaningful and significant experience for us as a community, and I’m appreciative to be able to partner on this project. In addition, CCAR will be working with URJ and HUC-JIR to plan a Yom Iyyun around themes of repentance and other related topics for the community as a whole. Both of these plans are very preliminary right now, but I believe in the power of ritual acts, communal study, and deep, vulnerable conversation. More information about all of this will be forthcoming in the coming months.
There is so much important work ahead of us. I am energized by all the possibilities. And indeed, in this incredibly difficult time, despite all the really hard and painful work, CCAR has continued to grow and evolve in really exciting ways. As you have hopefully seen, one of the things we will be voting on tomorrow is new Vice President positions, one of which is the Vice President of Varied Rabbinates, as a response to the evolving reality of where and how our rabbis serve today and what kinds of support you need. That’s a significant step forward for us as a Conference, a new milestone.
And another very big milestone—we are taking the very first steps toward a new Reform Torah commentary, including a new translation. It’s very early in the process, but I’ll have more to share with you in the months to come.
Accelerated by the needs of the last two years, we now have a robust wellness program under Rabbi Betsy Torop, CCAR Director of Rabbinic Education and Support, in addition to the pandemic pivoting and all the other fine work she and Julie Vanek, CCAR Education Specialist, are doing in that department, including this Convention. You don’t necessarily see her work, but if it wasn’t for the thoughtful fiscal and operations stewardship of Laurie Pinho, our COO and CFO, we would not be able to function, never mind flourish, and without Laurie’s leadership we certainly would not be able to run a hybrid convention.
The department we used to call “Placement” has evolved into the fuller and more inclusive Department of Rabbinic Career Services, and I’m so grateful that our interim directors, Rabbi Deborah Hirsch and Rabbi Michael Weinberg, were willing to put their retirements on hold to come help us for the year. With their help, and with your feedback and input, we’ve re-envisioned that department and created a new structure for the future, which includes two full-time directors with separate portfolios to better meet your needs. I’m so excited that we’ll be welcoming Rabbi Leora Kaye and Rabbi Alan Berlin this summer, when they’ll take over as Director of Rabbinic Career Services and Director of Search Services respectively, and help us keep moving the department into the future. With this new structure, we will be able to better serve different kinds of rabbis at all moments of the rabbinic career lifecycle. I’m grateful too for Rabbi Dennis Ross and Rabbi David Thomas, both serving as interims in specific career-related areas this year.
CCAR Press Director Rafael Chaiken came in only months before the pandemic but despite that challenge, the Press has thrived under his leadership. Director of Strategic Communications Tamar Anitai makes us look good in social media spaces and helps us navigate the complex world of communications. Our Development Department recently welcomed Pamela Goldstein in a new position as the Director of Advancement, who together with Lisa Tobin, our Director of Development, is working hard to provide all the services and resources that you rely on and help us find ways to keep growing into the future. Our Special Advisor in Ethics, David Kasakove, came into a brand-new position at a historic moment, giving us wise and careful guidance. I am also grateful to our two emeriti, Rabbi Steve Fox and Rabbi Alan Henkin, who generously continue to provide insights and help when asked.
I also want to thank and acknowledge my amazing assistant, Rosemarie Cisluycis, and the rest of our team: Debbie Smilow, Raquel Fairweather, Jaqui D’ellaria, Michael Santiago, Ariel Dorvil, Chiara Ricisak, Rabbi Jan Katz, Dale Panoff, Nathan Burgess, Rodney Dailey, Rabbi Rex Perlmeter, and Rabbi Don Rossoff, as well as our HUC-JIR interns Madeline Cooper and Ariel Tovlev. And we are soon to be joined not only by Leora and Alan, but also by our colleague Rabbi Annie Belford-Villarreal, who will become the new editor at CCAR Press this summer. Most of these amazing staff members are either here this week in person or back home helping to run the online version of Convention, and I urge you to introduce yourself and say hello when you cross paths.
I want to say a special thank you to CCAR President and my partner and friend, Rabbi Lewis Kamrass, for his wisdom, calm counsel, and caring heart. I also must thank the whole CCAR board, who provide incredible support and thoughtfulness, and all of you who volunteer with the CCAR in such a huge variety of invaluable ways. I am so very grateful to the many, many CCAR members who work so hard on behalf of our Conference.
I said earlier that I feel weighed down by brokenness. But one thing I am learning in the midst of this incredibly difficult time is to not walk away from brokenness. Brokenness calls, and I am trying to embrace it, to face it, to learn from it, and to walk through it.
At the heart of our Jewish tradition is the idea that brokenness is part of life rather than an aberration. The challenge of holding within us that tension between brokenness and wholeness is a deep part of our collective story. In just a few weeks, as we celebrate our freedom at the seder, we will break the middle matzah. Doing so reminds us that we live in a broken world, that we ourselves contain brokenness.
Back home, spring flowers are bursting through the desolate winter dirt of my Brooklyn garden. What looks bleak in one season can become celebratory in the next. This I know: out of dust and ashes, beauty arises. In the coming weeks, we will taste the bitterness of oppression as we joyfully celebrate liberation. Brokenness may bring us low, but it is only a chapter, not the whole story. Our narrative continues. As we move from dust to dust, we continue to write our story, and in so doing, continue to create our ongoing and ever-evolving legacy. We have so much to be excited about. I look forward to growing and building the CCAR with you in the months and years to come.