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Rabbinic Reflections Statements

Remembering Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD, z”l: ‘At the Turning: Reflections on My Life’ (2014)

The Central Conference of American Rabbis mourns the death of our beloved rabbi, teacher, and friend, David Ellenson, PhD, z”l (1947–2023). The former president and chancellor emeritus of our Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi Ellenson was a mensch of the highest order who imparted wisdom and kindness in addition to sharing his voluminous knowledge and scholarship.

Rabbi Ellenson was a devoted and generous member of the CCAR and a friend to CCAR Press. His forewords or afterwords appear in three CCAR Press volumes: The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival, The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality, and From Time to Time: Journeys in the Jewish Calendar. In fall 2014, to mark the close of his first term as HUC-JIR’s president, CCAR Journal published “A Tribute to David Ellenson,” with articles by Rabbis Robert Levine and Rachel Adler. The issue also contained an autobiographical piece by Rabbi Ellenson entitled “At the Turning: Reflections on My Life.” We share excerpts of that piece in his memory.


The forces that have animated my life and work cannot be understood without recourse to my family and my past as a Jewish boy growing up in the South during the 1950s and 1960s and the multilayered world I experienced. Everything in my world talked about difference and exclusion. My grandparents had all emigrated from Eastern Europe to the United States in the early 1900s. My maternal grandparents had settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while my paternal grandparents improbably came to Newport News, Virginia. My parents, Rosalind Stern and Samuel Ellenson, met at Harvard Hillel in 1945, immediately after World War II, and they married in 1946. A year later, I was born, and six months after my birth, my father, a degree from Harvard Law School in hand, returned with my mother and me to Newport News, where he began the practice of law….

To this day, I cannot fully capture how very much I love the South and the Peninsula. The approximately 2,000 Jews located on the Peninsula lived peacefully and prosperously among more than 150,000 gentiles…. My entire extended family lived in the same pleasant neighborhood, and my childhood and adolescence were filled with family gatherings and events at which aunts, uncles, and cousins were present. …

I was and remain at some very deep level of my being a Virginian. However, I was also a Jew and that was “the rub.” I never felt I fully belonged. My being a Jew in a Christian world made me an outsider and different from the time I was a small boy, an observer even as I was an eager participant in the larger world. It left me feeling alienated even as I was overwhelmingly social and active.

In sum, the fabric of my identity was fraught with tensions. The inequities and evils I witnessed as a child and as a teenager in matters of race and gender and the sense of being an outsider as a Jew to the gentile culture in which I was raised all left a permanent mark on me….

* * *

I enrolled [eventually] in the Religious Studies Department of the University of Virginia, where I received an M.A. degree… There, for the first time, I read the works of Durkheim and Weber, where I was provided the beginnings of a vocabulary that would allow me to frame and illuminate my concerns. It was also equally clear to me that I had so much more to learn if I was to ever explore seriously the nature of what it was to be a Jew in the modern world.

This led me to move to Israel for two years. The first year I lived on Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek in the Jezreel Valley—where I worked in the fields and advanced my spoken Hebrew—while, in the second year, I enrolled in the rabbinical program at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. Although I seriously considered remaining in Israel and making aliyah at the end of that year, I decided to return to the United States, where for the next four years I would pursue rabbinical ordination at HUC-JIR in New York and doctoral studies in Religion at Columbia University….

The precise character of my [doctoral] work was shaped by two men. Towards the end of my formal graduate education in 1976 and 1977, I came under the tutelage of Fritz Bamberger of HUC-JIR and Jacob Katz of Hebrew University, who was then at Columbia as a visiting professor…. [Professor Bamberger’s teaching made] me aware that the hermeneutic of tension I have employed in all my work is embedded in a narrative that emerged from my own childhood experiences as a Jewish boy in Virginia…. Professor Katz provided me with the content and even more importantly the methodology that would guide and inform my work for decades to come. [He] pointed out that Germany was the crucible in which modern Judaism was born. It was here that the conflict between an inherited Jewish tradition and a highly acculturated Jewish community first played itself out… Indeed, it is a primary reason that I wrote my dissertation on Rabbi Hildesheimer, an Orthodox Jew completely committed to Jewish tradition, who received a doctorate from a German university and who was completely comfortable in Western culture. A study of his life would indicate precisely how Jewish religious tradition could be and was adapted to the demands of the time and place in which he lived. In so doing, I could hold up a mirror to my own being and provide a case study of how Judaism could be adapted to the modern world….

My decision to employ his model to study Rabbinic responsa and prayer book compositions in Western Europe, North America, and my beloved Israel reflect my deepest personal commitments to Judaism and the State of Israel. It also led me to believe that academic scholarship was a vital means to illuminate an understanding of life for myself, my Jewish community, and others in the larger world…

* * *

As a Jew who is commanded every day to remember my bondage and my exodus from Egypt… I cannot forget the books of my Jewish past, nor do I want to. Instead, I hope that my children and my students and their descendants, as our daily liturgy phrases it, will be “yodei sh’mecha v’lomdei toratecha” (knowers of God and students of Torah). My years as president of the College-Institute have been an extension of my entire life and all my values. I have aspired as a Jew born in America and connected deeply both to Israel and the larger world to place myself and my students in a chain of Jewish tradition that is humane and inclusive. Rabbi Leo Baeck provides me with a language for that aspiration…:

Every generation by choosing its way, its present way, at the same time chooses an essential part of the future, the way of its children…. Ways bind, wind, and wander. When a man forms his life, he begins to create community. He is not only born into community as if by fate, but he has now been called to the task of molding it.

My own Jewish way has wandered. Surely, the ways of my own children and grandchildren as well as my students will wander as well. Nevertheless, I and they are also bound, and my way, just as theirs, emanates from those who lived before us. I have tried—through my researches and through my work as a teacher and as president of the College-Institute—to honor the way I have inherited even as I have struggled to mold a direction for a way that reflects who I am. I look forward with confidence to how the students and graduates of HUC-JIR… will mold their own directions for the Jewish people and humanity in the days ahead.

Read the entire piece here.


Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD, z”l (1947–2023), served as president of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion from 2001 to 2013 and again from 2018 to 2019. He was a prolific scholar of modern Jewish thought and history.

Categories
LGBT Rabbinic Reflections

LGBTQ+ Rabbinic Groundbreaker Rabbi Eric Weiss: ‘The Great Deficit of Breaking Any Ceiling Is That You Have to Be Careful of the Shards’

This Pride Month, the Central Conference of American Rabbis is lifting up an important community within the Reform rabbinate: the groundbreaking LGTBQ+ rabbis who were amongst the first rabbis to express themselves openly, who paved the way—and often fought for—LGBTQ+ acceptance and inclusion in the Reform rabbinate and in the Jewish community.

Generations of LGBTQ+ Jews have lived closeted lives because of outright discrimination and more subtle forms of bias and rejection that have dominated much of Jewish history, including the history of our Reform Movement and the CCAR itself. We are committed to continuing to learn how to rectify the erasures of the past and to embrace all of our colleagues.

While the Reform Movement has advocated for LGBTQ+ inclusion for decades, for many queer rabbis, the personal experience of navigating sexuality in rabbinical school, or being the first out rabbi at a synagogue, in an organization, or even in their city or community, was a fraught, sometimes painful experience, often marked with judgment, shame, or even overt discrimination. 

We share these moments of truth, and we also share important moments of joy and hard-won milestones. We honor the experiences of queer Reform rabbis, their meaningful contributions, and above all else, we thank them for showing up as their authentic selves and bringing diversity and wholeness to the rabbinate and to their communities.

“Neitzei hasadeh—Let us go forth and let our message ring out, that God loves us all, that we love us all, and that love conquers all.” [Based on Song of Songs 7:12]


I was first admitted to rabbinical school, through the Hebrew Union College Los Angeles campus under the deanship of Rabbi Lenny Thal, in 1979, after my graduation from the University of California at Santa Cruz. I declined my admission, requested a deferment for a year, was granted the deferment to 1980, and subsequently declined the deferment. It wasn’t time.

In 1979, I came out as a gay man and moved to San Francisco, where I spent five formative years. During this time, I worked in law firms, attended Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, taught religious school with my sister at Congregation Sherith Israel, and relished the gay life of San Francisco. The era between the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969 and the first reported cases of AIDS in the United States in 1981 was extraordinarily celebratory for gay men. We broke down paradigms and rebuilt them into new communal structures and relational interactions. It was a glorious era. In a heterocentric world, this period is frequently cast as one of sexualized abandon, with life and death consequences. Such homophobic and transphobic tropes have served to diminish sexual identity, gender identity, and otherwise maintain a level of heterocentric hegemony that has denied to this day a medical cure for AIDS.   

With the onset of the AIDS pandemic, I became among the first gay and lesbian hospice volunteers, first with the Coming Home Hospice and then with the Shanti Project, to serve primarily gay men dying of AIDS. These deeply spiritual experiences not only resurrected my interest in reapplying to rabbinical school but also stimulated my curiosity to learn more about spiritual care as a Jewish theological practice. In 1982, I re-applied to rabbinical school, through the Los Angeles campus, under the deanship of Rabbi Lee Bycel, and was accepted, this time as an openly gay student. I began rabbinical school in the fall of 1983.     

There were many points of great support along the way. In Jerusalem, when I wrote an essay that was gay-themed, I received it back with the same grammatical corrections as any other essay I wrote. I met gay Israelis, and, in what seemed an unofficial student mark of Jerusalem life, I had an Israeli boyfriend.

In 1984, upon my arrival to the Los Angeles campus, I had the great luck of landing into a class filled with love, kindness, and great humor. There, Rabbi Stanley Chyet, z”l, sought me out and in a private meeting assured me that my ordination would never be threatened. In 1986, in a private meeting on the Los Angeles campus, then-CCAR President Rabbi Jack Stern, z”l, made clear that the CCAR would welcome me as an openly gay member. My Los Angeles peers elected me to represent the student-body in rabbinical school admission interviews. I still remember an orientation evening with Rabbi Lee Bycel, the L.A. Dean, who said, “Never forget your peers, you will need each other over the years.” For me, his wisdom was prescient. I believe our collegiality is our individual health. Nobody knows what it is to be a rabbi but another rabbi. In 1987, on the New York campus of HUC-JIR, my peers elected me student body president. In the day-in and day-out life of HUC-JIR, it was my peers who gave me an abiding comfort and satisfaction in the midst of the challenges that we all face as we are formed into a rabbinic identity.  

But, there were terrible moments of crassness. A Talmud professor in Los Angeles spoke of a gay man sitting on a fire hydrant, and the sexualization that image invokes as a metaphor to explain the legal principle, shev v’al ta’aseh. Conversations, casual or formal, about officiation at “gay weddings” were filled with spineless and p’shat reflections from rabbi-professors such as “I am glad I have never been asked so that I haven’t ever had to say no.” Discussions of the efficacy of LGBTQI+ synagogues (the entirety of these letters did not exist then) were held as if the most important theological point was that “those people” only want the freedom to kiss one another with “Shabbat Shalom” at the end of a service. The most painful parts of this prejudice still are the extraordinary use of professors’ God-given minds to skew theology into pure prejudice. This cloak of prejudice derails, even to this day, rabbinic careers and causes great economic, social, and personal harm. That this remains without t’shuvah is one of the real stains on HUC-JIR. There were many nights, as I fell asleep, that I was grateful for the enduring power of my Gay-Jewish identity—an identity that was strengthened during my prior years in San Francisco—so that the bruises of prejudice never went deeper than my skin.  

San Francisco became a throughline in the years following my ordination. I spent the entirety of my formal rabbinate in San Francisco. Some might look from the outside and say “how lucky,” but in truth, I didn’t have a choice. I had one solid job offer when I was ordained in 1989, at the Bureau of Jewish Education in San Francisco. I got that job offer because I had gone through the Los Angeles-based School of Education. I then sought further training in clinical pastoral education and spiritual direction—a continuation of the spiritual path that began in those early years of the AIDS pandemic, but also an opening to new job possibilities to continue to be a rabbi. In many of these places I remained the first of something. In many places, I yearned to follow someone else. The great deficit of breaking any ceiling is that you have to be careful of the shards. 

I was able to serve as the CEO of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center where I helped build the Jewish healing movement. From my own self-reflective practice of Jewish spiritual care, I have had the chance to contribute to a vocabulary of Jewish spirituality and care, develop programs of Jewish spiritual support, and help to define the spiritual narrative in illness, dying, and grief. I have been able to help create spiritual frames for the experience of mental illness, communal spiritual supports, and the ways a spiritual narrative supports Jewish adult identity development in bikur cholim.  

I have had the rabbinate I wanted. I entered HUC-JIR with the desire to go into “pastoral care.” The language of Jewish healing did not then exist. I have also had a rabbinate that never formally attached to the Reform Movement. While I sat on the CCAR board, was asked to write two books from the CCAR Press, and have been honored to work with CCAR leadership, my rabbinate was never supported by the Reform Movement. Today, too many of us can say the same. Our devoted rabbinic contributions to the Movement we love is actually from the outside. And, like many, I would never be the rabbi I am without my husband or without colleagues.   

History, I learned from my HUC-JIR professors, is not neutral. What happened happened from different perspectives, and no history is ever fully true until all perspectives are known. This is why we learn that history is never about the past. All history is an evolving story of love, pain, disappointment, jealousy, relief, celebration, triumph. This is why history is also human intrigue. This is why our own Torah narrative is so abiding to our common identity. This is why, after the destruction of our Temple in Jerusalem, our rabbinic mind formed a Jewish life that would be contemporary to every time. We all know that the realization of one’s own b’tzelem Elohim happens over time. And so then does any history. As soon as I realized that I was gay, in 1979, I “came out.” I was admitted to HUC-JIR as an openly gay student in 1983. I was ordained in 1989. So many of us LGBTQI+ folks end up caught in the heterocentric notions of “coming out.” And yet, we all know the countless ways in which revealing oneself are marked in the range of time. We who fully understand marking time and space, need to shed these heterocentric frames of “coming out” and rather develop our own markings of LGBTQI+ milestones. This is the ultimate theological task. Our b’tzelem Elohim is a diversity which is a testament to God’s unfathomable creativity. We have always existed in the rabbinic mind. Ours is to frame the covenantal relationship to ourselves and the Transcendent as a matter of Judaism’s continual canon for a vital Jewish life.   

Rabbi Eric Weiss was ordained in 1989 at the New York Campus of HUC-JIR. He is formally trained in Jewish education, clinical chaplaincy, and spiritual direction. He is a co-founder of Grief and Growing: A Healing Weekend of Individuals and Families in Mourning and of Kol Haneshama: Jewish End of Life/Hospice Volunteer Training Program. He is the editor of Mishkan R’fuah: Where Healing Resides and Mishkan Aveilut: Where Grief Resides, published by the CCAR Press. He is a founding co-president of the GLRN: Gay and Lesbian Rabbinic Network, now the QESHET listserve. He is executive director emeritus of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, where he served for 26 years. He served on the board of the CCAR and is a past president of the Northern California Board of Rabbis. Currently, he currently serves as a CCAR/HUC-JIR Mentor, and he is the Interim Co-executive director of Shalom Bayit, the Jewish community’s central voice for domestic violence in the Bay Area. He resides with his husband of 31 years, Dan, in Palm Springs, California.

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LGBT Rabbinic Reflections

LGBTQ+ Rabbinic Groundbreakers: Rabbi Denise Eger: ‘Speak Loud, Fight Harder, Be Proud’

This Pride Month, the Central Conference of American Rabbis is lifting up an important community within the Reform rabbinate: the groundbreaking LGTBQ+ rabbis who were amongst the first rabbis to express themselves openly, who paved the way—and often fought for—LGBTQ+ acceptance and inclusion in the Reform rabbinate and in the Jewish community.

Generations of LGBTQ+ Jews have lived closeted lives because of outright discrimination and more subtle forms of bias and rejection that have dominated much of Jewish history, including the history of our Reform Movement and the CCAR itself. We are committed to continuing to learn how to rectify the erasures of the past and to embrace all of our colleagues.

While the Reform Movement has advocated for LGBTQ+ inclusion for decades, for many queer rabbis, the personal experience of navigating sexuality in rabbinical school, or being the first out rabbi at a synagogue, in an organization, or even in their city or community, was a fraught, sometimes painful experience, often marked with judgment, shame, or even overt discrimination. 

We share these moments of truth, and we also share important moments of joy and hard-won milestones. We honor the experiences of queer Reform rabbis, their meaningful contributions, and above all else, we thank them for showing up as their authentic selves and bringing diversity and wholeness to the rabbinate and to their communities.

“Neitzei hasadeh—Let us go forth and let our message ring out, that God loves us all, that we love us all, and that love conquers all.” [Based on Song of Songs 7:12]


As we observe Pride in 2023, I am reflecting on many aspects of my LGBTQ+ rabbinic journey. I am particularly nostalgic as I am retiring from my pulpit soon. My entire rabbinic career has been serving the Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Jewish community.  

When I was ordained a rabbi in 1988 by Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, it was still a time when you could not be openly gay or lesbian and rabbi. (There was not even a discussion that transgender people could be part of this equation at that time!) The College–Institute did not ordain openly gay or lesbian people as rabbis.   

This was a burning question and issue in the mid- to late 1980s within Reform Judaism. What was the place of LGBTQ+ Jews in the community? Could LGBTQ+ Jews be religious leaders? And all of this against a backdrop of a horrible AIDS pandemic that was killing gay men in droves in this country. And in the midst of a political scene where the U.S. government did nothing to help. Ronald Reagan’s administration’s inaction and lack of truth telling about AIDS/HIV contributed to the number of deaths. The right wing of the Republican Party and the religious homophobes they courted called for concentration camps for gay men, and they blocked civil rights for LGBTQ+ people. 

My rabbinate unfolded against this backdrop, fueling me to become an advocate and activist for LGBTQ+ rights in society and LGBTQ+ rites in our Jewish world. There were many closeted LGBTQ+ people who were already ordained, but only a handful who were openly gay. As the Central Conference of American Rabbis and Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion were actively debating the ordination of gay and lesbian colleagues as rabbis, there was to be a resolution at the 1990 CCAR Convention in Seattle. In advance of the Convention, my coming out story ran in the Los Angeles Times, helping to give a face and name to the cause.  

There was no turning back.

From left: Rabbi Ross Z. Levy, Rabbi Denise Eger, Cantor Patti Linsky during High Holy Days 2022 at Congregation Kol Ami.

I stood at the bedsides of countless young men dying of HIV, feeding them and visiting them when they had no one, when their families still rejected them.   

I advocated for gay youth who were often thrown out of their homes.

I did training for Jewish professionals, social workers, and other community leaders about how to be more inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community. We made connections with the Israeli LGBTQ+ community supporting their efforts and worked with the first openly lesbian Tel Aviv city council woman, Michal Eden, who opened the LGBTQ youth shelter, Beit Dror, in Tel Aviv. We raised money for Beit Dror, as well as provided resources to train their social workers in Israel on LGBTQ+ issues for youth.  

These are but some examples of my rabbinate. 

Rabbi Denise Eger, right, with Reverend Susan Russell of All Saints Church in Pasadena, California in 2008, when the California Supreme Court ruled that provisions in the state’s marriage statutes banning same-sex marriages violated the California Constitution.

Over the course of the next thirty-five years, I would push the boundaries of inclusion for marriage equality both in our Reform Movement and the larger Jewish world and in society at large. I performed the first legal same-sex marriage in California in 2008 when the California Supreme Court found same-sex marriage to be legal in the Constitution. I would do over sixty weddings during that summer of love, before voters in November 2008 took away the right to marry until the federal government granted it again in 2015.  

I worked on many other issues of concern for LGBTQ+ people, including advocating for transgender rights and for the expanding understanding of gender expression alongside sexual orientation.  

There are many moments of memory, including becoming the first openly LGBTQ+ person to become president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 2015. One story from that moment that most people don’t know, is that even with all the progress on LGBTQ+ civil rights in society and in the liberal Jewish world by 2015, the day I was to be installed as CCAR President, a credible death threat was made against me. At the Convention, I had a bodyguard. My colleagues kept asking who the guy was that was trailing me everywhere. We couldn’t actually say as we didn’t want to draw too much extra attention to the situation, but there was an abundance of caution. I didn’t leave the hotel except once to go to dinner, where the bodyguard sat at the next table with a clear sight line to the door. It was frightening for me and for my family as my son was with me from college.  

The world had changed and yet not so much. There still was an expression of hatred and violence against me as an out lesbian, as an out Jewish lesbian. 

This wasn’t the first death threat I received. There have been many. 

And what worries me most today, is the climate of hatred and harassment and rolling back of civil rights for our LGBTQ+ community. The particular focus on the dehumanization of transgender people and trans children and their families in many states; the threat to marriage equality; the rolling back of hate crime laws; the attack on women’s reproductive health, hearkens back to the time when I became a rabbi.  

Our Reform Movement will need to stand strong and tall for LGBTQ+ rabbis and their families. Our Reform Movement will need to stand strong and tall for our LGBTQ+ congregants and members and in the larger society and use its power and voice and moral suasion to be the advocates we need.  

May this Pride Season inspire us to speak louder, fight harder for justice, and be proud of our queer rabbis, family, friends, and community. 

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, California. In March 2015 she became the 60th President of the CCAR, becoming the first openly gay or lesbian rabbi to hold that position. She served from 2015-2017. Rabbi Eger is also past President of the Southern California Board of Rabbis (the first woman and openly gay person to do so) and a past President of the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis.

In 2020, she released Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells: A Celebration of Jewish Life and Ritual (CCAR Press), a groundbreaking collection of LGBTQ+ prayers, poems, liturgy, and rituals. Her latest book is Seven Principles for Living Bravely: Ageless Wisdom and Comforting Faith for Weathering Life’s Most Difficult Times.

Categories
LGBT Rabbinic Reflections

LGBTQ+ Rabbinic Groundbreakers: Rabbi Don Goor on Opening Doors

This Pride Month, the Central Conference of American Rabbis is lifting up an important community within the Reform rabbinate: the groundbreaking LGTBQ+ rabbis who were amongst the first rabbis to express themselves openly, who paved the way—and often fought for—LGBTQ+ acceptance and inclusion in the Reform rabbinate and in the Jewish community.

Generations of LGBTQ+ Jews have lived closeted lives because of outright discrimination and more subtle forms of bias and rejection that have dominated much of Jewish history, including the history of our Reform Movement and the CCAR itself. We are committed to continuing to learn how to rectify the erasures of the past and to embrace all of our colleagues.

While the Reform Movement has advocated for LGBTQ+ inclusion for decades, for many queer rabbis, the personal experience of navigating sexuality in rabbinical school, or being the first out rabbi at a synagogue, in an organization, or even in their city or community, was a fraught, sometimes painful experience, often marked with judgment, shame, or even overt discrimination. 

We share these moments of truth, and we also share important moments of joy and hard-won milestones. We honor the experiences of queer Reform rabbis, their meaningful contributions, and above all else, we thank them for showing up as their authentic selves and bringing diversity and wholeness to the rabbinate and to their communities.

“Neitzei hasadeh—Let us go forth and let our message ring out, that God loves us all, that we love us all, and that love conquers all.” [Based on Song of Songs 7:12]


When I was ordained in 1987, all I could see in my future were doors that were closed to me.  

When I applied to Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), I hid the fact that I was gay. I feared that being discovered would bar me from any opportunity to be ordained, let alone allow me to find a position upon ordination. While the seminary accepted me, the door to true acceptance was locked shut. 

When Evan and I first met, we hid our relationship. We did not communicate with each other at HUC-JIR for fear of discovery. Instead of speaking at school, we left messages on each other’s voicemails so that we could meet (always clandestinely), away from eyes that might lead to the door of ordination being shut in our faces.  

I went into placement confident that I could only ever find a position in a synagogue as a closeted “single” man. When I did accept a position in the New York area (this was so Evan and I could be close; he had one more year before being ordained as a cantor), the senior rabbi asked if I was gay. (At the time, the CCAR had a task force on accepting gay rabbis, so it seemed like an innocent question.) With a quivering voice, I answered, “Yes”! He then told me he couldn’t have me on his staff. He didn’t want a rabbi who would be lying about his identity to the congregation and, at the same time, wasn’t willing to hire an “out” rabbi. The door that I feared would be slammed shut in my face did in fact close, in an emotionally devastating moment.  

In follow-up interviews, I was careful to keep the door completely shut and avoid the question of sexual orientation at all costs. As an act of self-preservation, I was complicit in keeping that door closed tightly.  

At Temple Judea in Tarzana, California, I spent many years as assistant/associate rabbi, sharing a home with Evan—my “roommate”! We were careful to build an impenetrable barrier between our professional and personal lives.   

When the senior rabbi position at Judea became available, I knew it was up to me to open the door so I could serve the congregation with a sense of wholeness and integrity. Over the period of a few months, I met with congregational leaders—past, present, and future—to share my story and to come out to them individually and in person. None of them were surprised; all were supportive. Doors began to open. 

Rather than go through an open search, the congregation hired consultants to help them understand what they were looking for in their next senior rabbi. While they quickly reached the consensus that I would be a great match, I’m told that the more senior members of the congregation expressed concern that younger members would be uncomfortable, while younger members were nervous that older members might object. Over several months my personal life was discussed openly by hundreds of congregants. Would Evan and I kiss on the bimah? Would we dance together at synagogue events? It was more than uncomfortable and not at all an easy process. And yet, the door slowly creaked open.   

At the time, it seemed that I was the first openly gay rabbi to be appointed senior rabbi at a mainstream congregation, a story interesting enough for The New York Times to cover. While the synagogue celebrated, protestors attended my installation, and a famous radio personality spoke about abomination on his nationally syndicated program. I’m forever grateful to my teachers and mentors, Rabbi David Ellenson and Rabbi Richard Levy, z”l, for supporting me quite publicly. While the door was slowly opening, there were those trying to slam it shut again.  

A number of years later, as same-gender marriage became legal, Evan and I, at long last, celebrated a chuppah surrounded by friends, family, and congregants. The Shabbat before our ceremony, we were blessed on the bimah at Temple Judea, after which one family resigned. It turns out it was okay to have an out, gay rabbi, but they didn’t want it “shoved in their face”!   

Eventually, despite facing hurdles, I was welcomed for twenty-six years as the rabbi—not as the gay rabbi. I was blessed to share fully in the life of the congregation. 

While the journey to full acceptance and welcome within the community wasn’t an easy one, I never imagined during my time as an HUC-JIR student, hidden deep within the closet, that my career would be so fulfilling and so meaningful. While doors were closed to me along the journey, I’m pleased and proud that, over the years, more and more of those doors swung open. The seminary that wouldn’t have ordained me had I been out invited me to teach and mentor students. The world of synagogue life that was originally closed to me embraced me, and Evan, in the end. They opened doors and hearts, allowing me to serve as their rabbi with complete openness and integrity. I feel privileged to have shared my professional journey with a loving partner, caring friends and family, and a supportive community. Together we forced open the doors so that future generations of rabbis could walk through them with their heads held high. 

Rabbi Donald Goor was ordained in 1987 at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. In 1996, Rabbi Goor was appointed the first out, gay rabbi to serve a mainstream congregation. Rabbi Goor served on the faculty of HUC-JIR in Los Angeles for many years and is rabbi emeritus at Temple Judea in Tarzana, CA. He made aliyah in 2013 and now serves as the rabbinic liaison at J2 Adventures—planning trips to Israel for rabbis and synagogues—and on the boards of the Israel Religious Action Center, Shutaf—a program for special needs kids—and the David Forman Foundation. Rabbi Goor is married to Cantor Evan Kent, his life partner of over thirty-five years. 

Categories
LGBT Rabbinic Reflections

LGBTQ+ Rabbinic Groundbreakers: Rabbi Allen Bennett on Finding Identity, Authenticity, and Freedom

This Pride Month, the Central Conference of American Rabbis is lifting up an important community within the Reform rabbinate: the groundbreaking LGTBQ+ rabbis who were amongst the first rabbis to express themselves openly, who paved the way—and often fought for—LGBTQ+ acceptance and inclusion in the Reform rabbinate and in the Jewish community.

Generations of LGBTQ+ Jews have lived closeted lives because of outright discrimination and more subtle forms of bias and rejection that have dominated much of Jewish history, including the history of our Reform Movement and the CCAR itself. We are committed to continuing to learn how to rectify the erasures of the past and to embrace all of our colleagues.

While the Reform Movement has advocated for LGBTQ+ inclusion for decades, for many queer rabbis, the personal experience of navigating sexuality in rabbinical school, or being the first out rabbi at a synagogue, in an organization, or even in their city or community, was a fraught, sometimes painful experience, often marked with judgment, shame, or even overt discrimination. 

We share these moments of truth, and we also share important moments of joy and hard-won milestones. We honor the experiences of queer Reform rabbis, their meaningful contributions, and above all else, we thank them for showing up as their authentic selves and bringing diversity and wholeness to the rabbinate and to their communities.

“Neitzei hasadeh—Let us go forth and let our message ring out, that God loves us all, that we love us all, and that love conquers all.” [Based on Song of Songs 7:12]


Although I had begun the coming-out process in my senior year of high school (1964), for all intents and purposes, I remained essentially closeted until four years after ordination in 1978. This meant applying to seminary under false pretenses because being truthful about being gay would have meant not being admitted to the school. 

There was no support system of any kind throughout this time, and although I was not consciously thinking about it all the time, in the back of my mind there was always the fear of discovery and the stress and pressure of evolving into the persona of a rabbi while at the same time living a lie. 

I was the first openly gay rabbi, at least in the U.S. As one might expect, the organized Jewish community was not receptive to the news of my coming out. While it was never stated directly, it was strongly implied that it would be nigh impossible to find a (congregational) job if people knew that I was gay. Fortunately, I had never wanted to work in congregational life, so my job search took me in different directions, e.g., hospital chaplaincy, that was much more to my liking. As it turned out, the chaplaincy job was only part-time, and to make a full-time living, I ended up becoming the rabbi of the small congregation in the community, but did not disclose my gayness, and thus avoided the challenge that my being out would have posed. 

By the time I left that position, I had decided to enter academia and was able to avoid the issues that would have been associated at that point in time with congregational work. 

One of the hardest things about being a/the first gay rabbi was that in the minds of the people I encountered, I was perceived as gay first and a rabbi second. That was the wrong order of things, and it was an unnecessary burden. Also, there were no peers, there was no support system of any kind, extremely few colleagues to whom I could speak about my personal life, and this resulted in my living a pretty lonely existence for a good part of this time. 

One of the biggest rewards since coming out was that I was free of the burden of deceit, lies, and duplicity. That freedom meant that I could be a role model, a “symbolic exemplar,” and not experience ongoing guilt about being inauthentic. It meant that I could use my own experience to help inform other LGBTQIA+ clergy about the differences between being out, honest, and free, and being closeted, dishonest (with oneself and others), and restricted. 

I would not wish coming out the way I did on anyone. The world seemed completely unready to accept LGBTQIA+ clergy in the 1960s and 1970s, and even now there continue to be risks associated with our authenticity and honesty. Yet despite the risks, I look back with some disbelief at how far we have come, while understanding that we still have so far to go to achieve the unconditional acceptance that we all deserve. For the most part things have changed for the better with non-Orthodox Jewish seminaries accepting, admitting, and ordaining LGBTQIA+ students. Today same-sex marriage is accepted law throughout the land, something many of us in my generation thought we would never live to see. And we have created liturgies and rituals to sanctify these relationships, thus expanding the welcome of our communities in ways many of us never experienced in our early years.

Whatever one’s gender identity or orientation, it is extremely challenging to be a rabbi, cantor, educator, etc., in these times, perhaps even more so than in my generation. Fortunately, in most cases today being LGBTQIA+ is not a major risk factor in our professional lives. For better or for worse, our real challenge is to find ways to keep Judaism and Jewish community relevant to those who are or wish to be Jewish. And our own individual identity is only one part of the totality we bring to our work. 

Rabbi Allen Bennett was ordained in 1974.

Categories
LGBT News Rabbinic Reflections

LGBTQ+ Rabbinic Groundbreakers: Persevering on the Road to Acceptance, by Rabbi Deborah A. Hirsch, DMin

This Pride Month, the Central Conference of American Rabbis is lifting up an important community within the Reform rabbinate: the groundbreaking LGTBQ+ rabbis who were amongst the first rabbis to express themselves openly, who paved the way—and often fought forLGBTQ+ acceptance and inclusion in the Reform rabbinate and in the Jewish community.

Generations of LGBTQ+ Jews have lived closeted lives because of outright discrimination and more subtle forms of bias and rejection that have dominated much of Jewish history, including the history of our Reform Movement and the CCAR itself. We are committed to continuing to learn how to rectify the erasures of the past and to embrace all of our colleagues.

While the Reform Movement has advocated for LGBTQ+ inclusion for decades, for many queer rabbis, the personal experience of navigating sexuality in rabbinical school, or being the first out rabbi at a synagogue, in an organization, or even in their city or community, was a fraught, sometimes painful experience, often marked with judgment, shame, or even overt discrimination. 

We share these moments of truth, and we also share important moments of joy and hard-won milestones. We honor the experiences of queer Reform rabbis, their meaningful contributions, and above all else, we thank them for showing up as their authentic selves and bringing diversity and wholeness to the rabbinate and to their communities.

“Neitzei hasadeh—Let us go forth and let our message ring out, that God loves us all, that we love us all, and that love conquers all.” [Based on Song of Songs 7:12]


I was ordained in 1982 from the Cincinnati campus of HUC-JIR, a decade after the ordination of the first woman rabbi, Sally Priesand. In 1982, as congregations struggled with the concept of women rabbis, the term lesbian rabbi was not in their vocabulary. When I applied to rabbinical school, the psychologist who barraged every applicant with psychological testing on behalf of the College–Institute, happily informed me after reviewing my test results that ‟at least we know you aren’t gay.” I dodged a targeted bullet and terror followed me throughout my time at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, knowing in New York, one professor refused to sign the ordination certificate of any gay or lesbian student. While in Cincinnati, I only came out to a few close friends and one professor. 

After ordination, I moved to New York (to be with my then-partner) and served as the assistant rabbi at Temple Beth-El of Great Neck. Although the senior rabbi was male, the president, cantor, and I were female. One past-president and major donor expressed concern when the senior rabbi was away and only women were on the bimah. When I became the rabbi of East End Temple in Manhattan, there was a woman president my entire tenure and we had many female cantorial students. B-Mitzvah guests often inquired if East End Temple was a women’s synagogue. One member quit the temple when she realized I was a lesbian and another threatened to quit if I went public.   

Rabbi Hirsch in the 1990s.
Rabbi Hirsch (far right) was amongst several women leaders honored by Elizabeth Holtzman, then the Comptroller of New York City, during Women’s History Month in the 1990s.

Although, in time, I did confide in more and more people, I remained closeted until 2000 when I became the then-UAHC regional director of the Greater New York Council of Reform Synagogues. In the eighteen years prior to my being “out,” I attended CCAR Conventions (for six of those years I was the CCAR financial secretary—the first woman to be a CCAR officer) and stood next to colleagues who voiced opposition to gay marriage being considered k’dushin (Jewish marriage) and rabbis officiating at gay marriages. In the early years, some women colleagues distanced themselves from lesbian rabbis, after a few of us ‟came out” at a WRN Convention in the late 1980s. As women rabbis were still struggling to be as equally accepted as their male counterparts, any deviation from the normal path of full-time solo rabbi or climbing the ladder from assistant to senior rabbi, was frowned upon. Adding a ‟lesbian” component posed an even greater threat for acceptance.

While at East End Temple, I came out to the then-UAHC regional director and friend, and he urged me not to go public. In the 1990s, I applied for and was a finalist for two rabbinic positions. My then-partner, in speaking to a colleague who did not know of our relationship, mentioned that his wife was on the congregation’s search committee. When she mentioned she knew I was a candidate, he responded, “oh, the gay rabbi.” I didn’t get the position.

When I was in my final interview for a CCAR senior executive position, I was asked to explain how I was a staunch supporter of family values, yet didn’t have children of my own. I responded that I had to be satisfied with raising up generations of Jews. I am not presuming both positions weren’t offered to me because I was a lesbian, rather, the fact that I was considered “other” was palpable. Little did I know that fifteen years later, I would find a wife who had four grown children, and that she and I now have the immense privilege and pleasure of being savta and savta (grandmother) to thirteen amazing grandchildren and are blessed with a warm, supportive, and loving family.  

As I look back on my forty-one years in the rabbinate, I am amazed at how much has changed for the positive. I returned to the congregational rabbinate in 2010 and served three congregations until retirement. Not once was concern expressed about my being a lesbian, and Carole and I were warmly welcomed into each congregation.

Rabbi Deborah A. Hirsch, DMin, and wife Carole Rivel.

I also realize I spent my entire rabbinate in New York and that other LGBTQ colleagues encountered prejudice throughout their journeys. For me, the path to acceptance was a very rocky road, and I persevered. I learned that I had to live my life fully embracing every part of me. The tipping point for me to openly be a lesbian rabbi came when I realized that bifurcating my life became untenable. Despite the struggle, I never once regretted my decision to become a rabbi. It has been a richly spiritual and meaningful calling. I am confident as a Jew, rabbi, and lesbian; I have served as a positive role model, inspiring, teaching, and comforting generations.   

Rabbi Hirsch and Carole Rivel’s commitment ceremony at Debbie Friedman’s on December 31, 2003.
Rabbi Hirsch and Carole Rivel’s legal wedding in Massachusetts on August 23, 2005. Gay marriage became legal in Massachusetts in 2004.

Although the LGBTQ community has much to celebrate, the struggle is far from over. We are experiencing a growing, dangerous wave of xenophobia targeting the LGBTQ community, people of color, Jews, and many other minorities here and abroad. We are B’nei Yisrael—the children of Israel, literally those who wrestle with God. Each Jewish LGBTQ generation must remember the struggles of past generations, celebrate the victories, and be a shofar—a piercing call for justice, equality, and acceptance for all of God’s children.  

Categories
gender equality Rabbinic Reflections

‘The Clergy Monologues’ Video: A CCAR Learning Tool to Explore Gender Bias in the Rabbinate

The Central Conference of American Rabbis is pleased to share “The Clergy Monologues” video, a teaching tool designed to highlight ongoing gender bias experienced by female-identifying rabbis and cantors in Jewish spaces.

“The Clergy Monologues” video, together with its accompanying discussion guide, is a ready-made program for leadership groups, synagogue boards, youth groups, and the community at large to explore and address both the overt and subtle bias that still exists toward female-identified clergy in our most sacred institutions. This video is series of real stories from rabbis and cantors. With the exception of Rabbi Sally Priesand, who reflects on her own career as the first woman rabbi ordained by a North American seminary, the rabbis and cantors in this video are reading stories submitted by their clergy colleagues.

Together with “The Clergy Monologues” discussion guide, this is a ready-made program for leadership groups, synagogue boards, youth groups, and the community at large to explore and address both the overt and subtle bias that still exists in our most sacred institutions.

This video is a project of the CCAR Task Force on the Experience of Women in the Rabbinate, with support from WRN, WRJ, RPEI, and the ACC.

A companion video, “The Educator Monologues,” which addresses gender bias that Jewish educators experience, is also available.

Categories
CCAR Board Rabbinic Reflections

Using Our Gifts to Enhance Rabbinic Communities: CCAR President Rabbi Erica Asch’s CCAR Convention 2023 Sermon

The 134th annual Convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis was held February 20-26, 2023 in Israel, where over 250 Reform rabbis gathered in person. At this Convention, the CCAR also installed its new 2023-2025 Board of Trustees with Rabbi Erica Asch serving as President. Here, we share Rabbi Asch’s powerful sermon addressing the Reform rabbinate.


Watch the video here, or read the sermon below.

February 25, 2023: Parashat T’rumah teaches us the importance of bringing our unique gifts and talents to the community. In the parashah, the Lord commands the Israelites to build a Mishkan and calls on each of them to contribute their own special offering. This passage teaches us that every one of us has something valuable to offer, and it is our duty to share it with others. As we reflect on our own gifts, let us be willing to share them with our community, and strive to make a difference in the world with what we’ve been blessed with.

At this point, some of you might be a bit concerned about my sermonic abilities. Others might have guessed that this opening paragraph was not actually written by me, but by ChatGPT. Perhaps you were tipped off by the clichés, the awkward grammar, or the use of the word Lord. I think it is safe to say that ChatGPT has not yet passed the Turing test invented by mathematician, computer scientist, and philosopher Alan Turing in 1950. The test was simple: Can a computer successfully pretend to be a human being in a text-based conversation? While ChatGPT did not fully capture my sermonic brilliance, I appreciate that it got me started. 

I imagine that many of us, whether we are newly ordained or recently retired, have given some better-written version of that opening paragraph. We have preached—just as Moses asks and the Israelites answer, bringing their own unique gifts with a full heart—please bring your own unique gift to our community. In our sermons, we are Moses, exhorting the Israelites to build our community. But in our jobs, we are not Moses. Rather, we are the Israelites, bringing, with care, our own gifts to the communities we serve.

When Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus was installed as CCAR President in 2009 in Israel and spoke on this parashah, she taught us: “…these gifts are essentially who we are and what we do as rabbis. These gifts that we bring are the gifts of our minds and our hearts and our hands and our souls. These gifts are our sweat and our tears. These gifts are our energy and our time. This is why we are rabbis: because our hearts are so moved.”[1]

We are rabbis because our hearts and souls are so moved. And sometimes, maybe often, our gifts are received with love and compassion, whether we bring a thought-provoking sermon, an insightful teaching, or a caring pastoral presence. On good days, we build communities where we help to make the lives of those we touch a little better, and our world a little bit more just, and perhaps then God dwells with us.

But sometimes, maybe often, we bring our unique set of gifts and they are not accepted. We are a brilliant strategic thinker, but our congregants want someone who can sit on the floor at Tot Shabbat. Our vision for the organization upsets our board chair who wants us to “stay in our lane.” Our big new program flops, and our abilities are questioned. Sometimes we suffer untenable job situations in silence because we are too scared that if we say something, we might not get another job. Sometimes our contract isn’t renewed. But more often it’s the little difficulties that wear us down—the feeling that our gifts aren’t acknowledged. What happens when our hearts are moved and we bring our unique combination of gifts, the gift of ourselves, and we are rejected?

What happens when the gift of ourselves is rejected? This devastating possibility never occurs to our commentators. In all the discussions of various colors of wool and what exactly are those t’chashim, they give no thought that gifts for the Mishkan could be refused. In our Torah portion, unlike our lives, every gift is accepted and valued.

While being a rabbi is often rewarding, it can also be heartbreaking. The last few years, in particular, have not been easy. When we face difficult situations in our communities, we desperately want things to be better. If they were able, I have no doubt the dedicated staff of the CCAR would rectify all of the challenging professional situations we face. They do their very best. But our staff can’t change the leadership of an organization, or curb the behavior of difficult personalities, or make others embrace the gifts we bring.

We work as hard as we can to make our communities the picture of compassion and acceptance we see in our parashah, but ultimately we are not in control. We cannot single handedly change the culture of the places we serve.

However, we are in control of our own rabbinic community. Together we have the power and the obligation to make the CCAR a place of compassion, understanding, and support. Our actions shape this community.

One of my first official encounters with the CCAR left me in tears. I was in the midst of undiagnosed postpartum depression and the response I received was not only not pastoral, but felt cruel. That was not the intention, but I left feeling hurt and disrespected. “They don’t understand me,” I remember thinking. “They don’t care about me.” I could have justifiably slammed the door and never looked back; or let that hurt, which I still feel, color my impressions to this day. But around that time, I had another encounter, not with CCAR staff, but with two rabbinic colleagues who also had a newborn. This baby was their third and as we sat together on the floor, with our infants, outside the opening dinner at a CCAR Convention, they told me that I could do this; I could be a rabbi and a parent. They assured me that I would find my way. And another colleague not only told me that having a child is hard—which I needed to hear—but helped me to find meaningful, part-time work in the city where I was moving. And these experiences, too, are part of the narrative of my involvement with the CCAR. Because the CCAR is not just staff, it is all of us. We all help to shape our shared rabbinic community.

Many of us have struggled within this small group. We have experiences where we have not felt heard or understood or valued by colleagues; where we felt our gifts have not been accepted. We may have felt as if only the senior rabbis of large congregations were given kavod within the Conference. Maybe we thought we had to pretend that everything was fine even when it was not. Maybe we live outside of the United States, like so many here this morning, and don’t feel that the larger Conference recognizes us. As a part-time organizational rabbi with no discretionary fund, I went to my first convention thanks to the generosity of a colleague. As I talked to my classmates, many of them assistant rabbis in large congregations, I thought their lives were perfect. Moses valued all gifts equally, but it didn’t feel like that was the case for me. Was my gift worthy?

How often have we had these internal doubts? These narratives are so difficult for us to carry and they are unfair. Unfair to ourselves because we diminish our own gifts. Unfair to others because we don’t show them our own struggles, and in showing them, give our colleagues the chance to lift us up. Fifteen years later, it is that conversation on the floor, and many more like it at the back of the ballroom, in restaurants, and over phone calls and Zoom screens that have kept me going.

There was certainly a time when new ordainees were expected to sit silently in the back row (not by choice) and listen quietly to the g’dolei hador, but that is not our Conference today. We have a board, and a leadership, and a Conference made of people on a variety of rabbinic paths, and each person brings different gifts to our community. We need and value them all. Our Conference has changed. We talk about wellness. We understand the pastoral aspects of placement. We recognize the variety of ways we serve as rabbis. We are not perfect, but we are different, and we do ourselves a disservice when we don’t recognize and embrace the way that, together, we have changed our rabbinic culture.

Our culture can continue to change only when we bring the full gift of ourselves—messy, complicated, and fundamentally human—to this space. Nineteenth-century commentator Rav Chaim of Volozhin teaches that God’s intention in building the physical tabernacle is to show us that just as the Mishkan is made of holy materials, our own actions should be equally holy—then God will dwell with us.[2] Similarly the Malbim, writing in the 1800’s, who would have been horrified to be quoted by a female Reform rabbi, but nevertheless teaches some wonderful Torah, reads v’shachanti b’tocham not as I will dwell among them, but I will dwell within them.[3] It is the action of bringing our gifts that will create a holy community where God dwells with us. That brings us back to ChatGPT and the Turning test.

In his podcast “Cautionary Tales,” economic journalist Tim Harford brings up a little-known incident from 1989, a text chat between a student at Drake University in Iowa and a chatbot at University College in Dublin known as MGonz.[4] MGonz was not, as Harford says, “a gentle conversation partner.” Their one hour and twenty-minute conversation was peppered with obscenities and insults and included a lot of boasting about their sex lives. MGonz, because it was programmed to insult, passed the Turing test with flying colors. But here Harford makes a provocative argument about our inability to distinguish if we are interacting with a chatbot or a person. “If it’s impossible to say which is which, that’s not because the bots are so brilliant, it is because we humans have lowered ourselves to their level.”[5]

It is not that chatbots have passed the Turing test, but rather that we humans have failed it. Too often our conversations mirror what could be done by a chatbot—oneg chit chat, passive listening, returning the conversation, over and over again, to what we want to discuss. This happens not just in our communities, but with one another.

Talking to one another in real and meaningful ways is risky, for sure, but it is ultimately rewarding. In a world where we might often feel like we can’t be our full and authentic selves at work, where our role can be a barrier, we have a chance, with one another, to pass our own Turing test. To share how we are really doing, to support one another, to question respectfully. To say something that could not be mistaken for a computer; to invite one another into genuine relationships. We can jump into real interaction with all the risks and all the rewards that are possible. We have the opportunity to bring our full selves, our proudest moments, our missteps and our uncertainties, to this community.

In order to build our Mishkan we just need the gifts of ourselves—messy, complex and dedicated. Some of us will bring brilliant sermons, some inspired teaching, some meaningful worship. Someone will offer a loving question. Someone else will bring a kind word when it is desperately needed. We don’t know what the next year will bring for us personally, professionally, or as an organization. But if we place gifts of ourselves at the center of this community and accept the gifts of one another, then the sacred space we create will make the journey ahead easier for us all.


[1] Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus graciously shared her entire sermon with me.

[2] Rav Chaim of Volozhin in Nefesh HaChayim, Gate I, 4:18.

[3] Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser (Malbim) on Exodus 25:8 Vaasu li mikdash.

[4] The “Cautionary Tales” podcast can be heard in its entirety.

[5] This quote occurs at 29 minutes and 56 seconds in the episode.

Categories
CCAR Convention News Rabbinic Reflections

Even in the Darkest Times, We Must Keep the Ner Tamid of Our Highest Values Burning: CCAR Chief Executive Rabbi Hara Person’s CCAR Convention 2023 Address

The 134th annual Convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis was held February 20-26, 2023 in Israel, where 250 Reform rabbis gathered in person. Here, we share CCAR Chief Executive Rabbi Hara Person’s moving address about the direction of the CCAR, the meaning of gathering in Israel during the largest civil protests in history, and the need to speak out for justice in an Israel of our highest aspirations.


Watch the video here, or read the address below.

February 26, 2023: Parashat T’tzaveh reminds us of the importance of the Ner Tamid, the light that is to burn at all times, throughout the ages. When I was ordained, reaching this milestone of twenty-five years seemed impossibly far away. Today, thinking back to who I was twenty-five years ago, I find myself looking for my Ner Tamid, the light that has remained constant throughout this journey and binds that new rabbi to who I am today.

There’s so much to be grateful for in my most unusual career. These twenty-five years have been incredibly fulfilling, hard, and challenging, never boring. Getting to spend twenty-one years publishing Jewish books for the Reform Movement was an incredible gift. Having had an unusual route through HUC-JIR, not doing the typical year in Israel, and then being part of two different classes, I never had the same sense of “class” or “classmates” that most of you have had, though I love my two classes and congratulate both my class of 1997 on their Doctorate in Divinity from last year, and the class I was ordained with in ’98 on their upcoming Doctorates. But getting to develop deep relationships with colleagues, who have made me a better rabbi, and really a better person, who have become mentors and friends, has been another gift of these twenty-five years.

I decided to become a rabbi because, while I was in grad school for something else, I realized that it was the rabbinate that was aligned with my deepest values. My personal Ner Tamid, that which filled my life with light, was located in the Jewish world. Going to rabbinic school seemed to be the way to fulfill my personal purpose, a way to connect with the ideas and values that were essential to who I was. My road to the rabbinate was not straightforward, and my career has been unexpected and unusual, but I am so grateful to have had the opportunities to learn and grow, to stretch and yes, to struggle, as a rabbi these twenty-five years, and to have, God willing, much more still ahead of me. 

These last several years have been so hard, and indeed, there has been much struggle. And yet out of this time, some incredibly generative work has grown. I am very proud of us as a Conference, in the ways that we continue to push ourselves to learn, and to be better than we were the year before. For all this work and more, I want to recognize the CCAR staff who are here with us, and those who we weren’t able to bring this year.

There is so much important work underway, work that continues to make us a stronger and better Conference. The innovative growth in the area of wellness and support, under the leadership of Rabbi Betsy Torop, with Julie Vanek and Rabbi Dusty Klass, and assisted by Ariel Dorvil, is extraordinary. The wealth of classes, trainings, support groups, and gatherings is breathtaking. And of course, Betsy and Julie, together with the Israel Convention Committee, put this extraordinary week together for all of us.

Rafael Chaiken, together with his talented staff, Rabbi Annie Villarreal-Belford, Debbie Smilow, Raquel Fairweather-Gallie, Chiara Ricisak, and rabbinic intern Ariel Tovlev, is taking the CCAR Press to new heights, publishing the resources that you and your communities need, including the newest books just out: Prophetic Voices: Renewing and Reimaging Haftarah by Rabbi Barbara Symons and These Words by Alden Solovy.

The long awaited release of the Clergy Monologues video and discussion guide, created by the Task Force on the Experience of Women in the Rabbinate, will soon be available, thanks to the work of Tamar Anitai—only a small part of her portfolio. This will be a great resource to spark important conversations about gender, equity, and bias in your communities. We are grateful to everyone who has helped bring this project to fruition, including the Reform Pay Equity Initiative. If you’re feeling good about this week’s press coverage, that’s also thanks to Tamar.

Our development team, led by Pamela Goldstein, with the support of Samantha Rutter and Sarah Stern, works hard to find ways to fund all the incredible work we’re doing. The needs are ever greater, and none of that is possible without funding. So many of you have helped, both with your own contributions to the Annual Giving Campaign, as well as with introductions to those in your communities who are inspired by what we do to serve rabbis. Thank you for helping us fulfill our mission.

Laurie Pinho, and her team of Jaqui Dellaria and Michael Santiago, keep us on track in more ways than you can imagine. If you’ve interacted with Laurie, you know how lucky we are that she’s part of our executive team, and I’m so glad that Laurie is here with us this week, not only doing more than you can imagine behind the scenes, but also experiencing Israel for the first time.

In a changed landscape, Rabbi Leora Kaye and Rabbi Alan Berlin, assisted by Rodney Dailey, and with Rabbi Dennis Ross advising in the area of interim work, are doing a fabulous job managing rabbinic searches and advising colleagues on their careers. Before Convention, I was on the road visiting rabbis and congregations for about seven weeks. And I’m hearing so much positive feedback about the ways we’re now able to serve rabbis, and the congregations and institutions where rabbis lead. Our new model of two full-time professionals in this department, as well as the shift in the focus of our work within it, is already making a big difference. 

It is amazing that we are able to have trained counselors on our staff to support you professionally and personally, including Rabbi Rex Perlmeter and Rabbi Don Rossoff, now joined by Rabbi Dayle Friedman. I’m very sad that Rex will be retiring this summer, but so grateful for all his help in establishing this program and leading the way.

And of course we have done, and are continuing to do, significant and meaningful work in the area of ethics. With the hiring of David Kasakove, our Director of Rabbinic Ethics, and Cara Raich, our  Ethics Advisor for Inquiries and Intake, both former attorneys, we now have a whole new CCAR department. I’m very grateful for the support from you as we’ve moved as quickly, as carefully, and as thoughtfully as possible to revise our Ethics Code and update our system. That process is still ongoing, with the Ethics Task Force working on several proposals for change. It’s amazing how far we’ve already come in a short time, with much more on the way. 

I have to also add that Rabbi Steve Fox is an amazing emeritus, available when needed and so respectful of boundaries. Especially given the craziness of these past three years, it has been such a gift to have Steve there when needed as an advisor.

And I can’t speak about staff without mentioning my assistant, Rosemarie Cisluycis, whom many of you know as Roe. Roe has no easy task managing me, and I’m grateful for her patience, organizational skills, and sense of humor.

The CCAR couldn’t do anything without our devoted staff team. But it is the partnership with our volunteers that really make the CCAR who we are. I thank everyone who has been part of our work in any capacity. Rav todot. I especially want to take a moment and thank Rabbi Mara Nathan, Rabbi Lev Hernnson, and the whole Convention Committee team. All I can say at this moment is: Wow! Kol hakavod. I am so grateful to all of you! And while I’m on thank yous, we are also grateful to everything J2 did to make this week happen, and look forward to more years of growth and collaboration together.

And our board is truly the backbone of the CCAR. This board, for the last two years under the leadership of Rabbi Lewis Kamrass, and now led by Rabbi Erica Asch, CCAR President, is an active working board. To be on the board is not an honorific, but a real commitment to dig in and move the CCAR forward. I am so grateful for the partnership of Lewis, Erica, and the whole board, and the tremendous commitment they demonstrate to the well-being of the CCAR and our members.

For the last three years, the board has been involved in an additional change process as well. The vice president positions have been rethought and revised to better meet the needs of who the CCAR is today. For example, we now have a vice president of varied rabbinates, in recognition of the many different ways that our members serve as rabbis.

Moreover, beginning with Rabbi Ron Segal’s leadership as board president and then under Lewis Kamrass’s board presidency, the board decided that it was time for a review of the mission, last revised in 2008, and at the ways in which the mission is carried out. At the last in-person meeting in December, after a three-year strategic visioning process of deliberation and study spanning two boards and two presidents, the board passed a new mission for the CCAR, along with a set of core strategies that lay out the top-line ways in which we achieve the mission.

This new mission is: The CCAR supports and strengthens Reform rabbis so that our members, their communities, and Reform Jewish values thrive.

The core strategies, formerly called pillars, are:

  • Rabbinic Well-being
  • Community
  • Learning
  • Career Services
  • Ethics
  • Thought Leadership
  • Reform Movement Leadership

This revised language is not a radical new vision—rather, it is our organizational Ner Tamid that provides clarity and a reemphasis that reflect the needs and aspirations of the CCAR of today. The vessel may be new, but the light within remains unchanged. I am very proud to be part of an organization that undertook such a deliberate and intentional process, and asked many hard questions in order to arrive at these new articulations of our purpose. This sharper focus will help us in the years to come, as we seek to always stay true to our mission and purpose.

There are also new initiatives in different areas, and I’m going to share one that I’m particularly excited about. When what we lovingly call “the Plaut Torah Commentary” was published in 1981, it was truly a gift to us from those who brought it forward—Plaut, Bamberger, Hallo, and all those who made it happen. Can you imagine our Reform community without this commentary, which was such a pioneering effort in its time? And then there was the revised edition in 2005, out of which came the bar/bat mitzvah booklets that so many of you rely on. And in 2008, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary was published to tremendous acclaim—a truly groundbreaking work. It was my honor to have worked on all of those projects and to have provided those very necessary and beloved resources to our community. But the scholarship featured in the Plaut is from the ‘70s, and some of it is, well, dated.

Torah is our central sacred text, the light in in our midst. Torah is critical to our mission as Jews and as rabbis. And because we are a forward-thinking Movement, it is now time to plan for our gift to the next generation, the next Reform Torah commentary. This is an ambitious, huge project that is going to take tremendous resources. But indeed, we must do it. There is much that is still to be decided in the months and years to come. But some key decisions have been made. I am delighted to share that Bible scholar Dr. Elsie Stern has been named the chief editor of the project. HUC-JIR Bible scholar Dr. Daniel Fisher-Livne will be working with her. There will be other scholars involved as well, and that list is still being determined, as are many questions about approach, the types of commentary, writers, and so on.

Because this project isn’t ambitious enough already, we are also creating a brand-new translation—the first translation that will truly be a Reform Movement translation and not licensed from another source. That part of the work is already well underway, led by our colleagues Rabbi Janet and Rabbi Shelly Marder, under the supervision of Daniel Fisher-Livne and Elsie Stern. We will be running the first of several pilots this coming fall—this first round will focus on the translation.

And lest you worry, we are not limiting the planning of this commentary to just a print book format. Right now the focus is on developing the content, which can be purposed in many different ways. I am extremely excited if not also a bit daunted about the work that lies ahead on this project. And I will keep you informed as it develops.

So, there is much change happening in many places within the CCAR. In an increasingly complex and uncertain world, we can no longer depend on the ideas, structures, and resources that we assumed were always going to be there, and were always going to meet our needs. Needs change, the topography changes, and we change. Just as each of us evolves and grows during the course of our careers, the CCAR as an organization must rethink those givens, and redetermine our purpose, our goals, and our tools. That is the change process we have been in these past three years—it is exciting, sometimes scary, and even at times daunting, but necessary for the good of the CCAR.

What is visible as the throughline in all this work that I’ve shared this morning are the essential values that undergird and guide all of it in the midst of great complexity. What is there for us to grab onto while the storms surge around us is the clarity of our mission, our values, and our commitment to staying focused on our purpose of serving rabbis, so that rabbis can serve the Jewish people. This clarity of purpose is our Ner Tamid, the light that continues to burn brightly even as change swirls around it.

And speaking of complexity, I can’t stand here today, in Tel Aviv, and not also address where we are and what we’re doing here at this complicated moment in the history of this Land, this place with which we each have our own personal relationship and unique story.

My Israel story goes back to 1973, fifty years ago, when I came home from Yom Kippur services. I was nine years old. I had gone to services with my mother while my father stayed home to watch football. And as we walked into the room where he sat, the game was interrupted by breaking news. What I still remember so clearly was my mother crying out: “They’re doing it to us again!”

That was the day that I learned that there was a Jewish country called Israel. I’m sure I had heard about it before, but I hadn’t paid much attention. My parents were not Zionists. They were busy taking part in the great story of making it in America, my father the son of Russian socialist immigrants, and my mother a daughter of long-time American Jews of German ancestry on one side and second generation European jumble on the other. They had never been to Israel. It just wasn’t in their consciousness, that is until it was on the news, being besieged.

I had no idea what my mother was talking about, but as she cried, she explained to me that Israel was under attack. And I was confused—confused that my mother was so upset about a war taking place across the world, and confused as to why, if there was a Jewish country, we didn’t live there.

That day changed the trajectory of my life, because I decided then and there that when I was old enough, I was going to live in Israel. And I began to read about it voraciously over the next years, biographies, novels, history. I was fascinated, in particular, with the idea of the kibbutz, and couldn’t wait until I was old enough to go live on one.

And at one point while I was in high school, in 1979, if anyone remembers this, Bloomingdale’s—yes, the store—did a whole campaign about Israel, with a big, colorful poster featuring a dove and a rainbow, that said: Israel, The Dream. I had that poster up on the wall of my childhood bedroom where it reminded my fifteen-year-old self of my dreams on a daily basis.

As soon as I could go to Israel, I did. At nineteen, I set off for a year on Kibbutz Tzora, taking part in the late NFTY college program, CAY, as I know some of you also did. That year had a huge impact on my life: because of that year, my children are half Israeli. I then returned to Israel for several years after college, living in Jerusalem and studying art in Tel Aviv.  

It was while living in Israel that I really became an adult, and it was also where I decided not to become a rabbi, because while living in Israel, I realized that I could have a rich, dynamic Jewish life without needing to become a Jewish professional—a very healthy realization.

All of this is to say that Israel is deeply woven into my personal history. And in this land so deeply seeped in the past, there is something about being here that conjures up so much about who we have been as individuals, and as a people, and who we may still become.

As I stand here today celebrating my twenty-five years in the rabbinate, having reaffirmed that choice eventually after my initial decision to not go into the rabbinate, I no longer feel that sense of bright connection to Israel portrayed on the Bloomingdale’s poster in 1979. My relationship with Israel is much more nuanced today, certainly more than it was when I was nine or fifteen and had not yet ever been here, but also more complicated than when I was in my twenties and living here. I still have a love for Israel, a fondness and a connection, but there’s a different comfort level than I once had. I struggle with how to reconcile the Israel of my dreams and of our collective aspirations: the Israel of poetry and medical miracles; of art and innovation and green valleys full of anemones; the Israel of progressive values and generous hospitality, with all the ways in which Israel can be infuriating, opposed to our shared values, denying of pluralism, equality, and democracy. How do we express our outrage and disappointment, or as we heard during the demonstrations in Tel Aviv, the sense of bushah, shame? How do we stay engaged with this country that feels less and less welcoming, less and less connected to who we are or what we want to be, and yet still calls to us?

I know that our partners here in Israel share our highest aspirations and hopes. And I want to acknowledge them—our friends at IMPJ, IRAC and all the Reform rabbis here in MARAM. We should all be proud of their incredible work, and grateful for what they do every day: advancing pluralism, fighting against discrimination and oppression, standing up for civil rights of minorities, working toward peace and co-existence, and civil society, fighting for accountability, and doing the tachlis, often thankless work of building Reform Judaism in Israel. The work you are involved in here on the ground every day brings the light of our shared core values into the darkness, and provides hope. And we thank you for your help with putting this week together.

Being in Israel is a reminder of what is essential to us as Reform rabbis. As rabbis, we can’t just engage with Israel as the Disneyland of Judaism. Israel can’t just be the place to practice our Hebrew on cab drivers, to stock up on Judaica, and to enjoy rugelach from Marzipan. We can’t romanticize Israel as the place where we can experience “authentic” Jewish life. We also have to speak out for our most deeply held values just as we do at home. Just as we speak out for justice at home, we have to speak out for justice in Israel. Just as we believe in speaking up for the powerless at home, we must pursue that in our relationship to Israel as well. Just as we engage in the work of racial justice at home, we must hold that as a value here too. As people who love Judaism, the Jewish people, and Israel, we must do our part to keep the Ner Tamid of our highest values burning here too.

Moreover, we have to be willing to have difficult conversations with each other about Israel without falling back on accusation and polarization. We have to learn to live with disagreement and be open to different perspectives and narratives. We have to be able to move beyond terms like “pro-Israel” and “anti-Israel”—the reality is much more complex than those two binary positions. We have real enemies out there: witness on the one side our experience at the Kotel, or the “Day of Hate” in the United States. The energy we spend on demonizing each other about how we interact with Israel is a distraction, a waste of our resources. We have to get comfortable with having a large, open tent, here in the CCAR, in our home communities, and in our families. Gone are the days of Israel, The Dream. Israel, the Reality, is complicated, often antithetical to the very values we hold dear, and frankly, often unwelcoming to who we are.

But that doesn’t mean we have to reject those whose perspectives doesn’t align with ours, or give up on the Israel we believe is still possible. We have to keep learning, we have to keep listening, and we have to keep speaking out.

When we originally planned this Convention, of course we had no idea what a challenging moment this was going to be in Israel. But here we are. As rabbis, we understand nuance and complexity. We can hold the contradiction of today’s difficult truth, that we object to what the new government is proposing to do in regard to civil rights, human rights, pluralism, the judiciary, and so much more, and we can still believe in the potential of Israel, an ideal not yet reached but worth striving for.

My Israel story today is not what it was in 1973, or in 2003, and neither is my rabbinic story. All of our stories keep changing, as we keep changing and as realities keep changing. Earlier this week, Merav Michaeli reminded us of the famous quote from Gold Meir, that as Jews we can’t afford to be pessimists. Rather, our job as Jews is to be eternal optimists. What is unchanging in the midst of it all is hope, the light that flickers but does not go out at our core. As rabbis, our job is to speak out against the injustices of today, while keeping in sight the potential of a better tomorrow. No matter how hopeless things seem, no matter how grim the current reality, our job is to nurture the Ner Tamid within us, to keep that light of hope for a better future alive even in, or especially in, the darkest of times.

Categories
Rabbinic Reflections

From Singapore to San Luis Obispo: Rabbi Lennard R. Thal on Serving All Three Reform Jewish Institutions

When I look back on the fifty years since my ordination, I realize that I have been very fortunate indeed. My rabbinic positions, with one wonderful exception, have been most rewarding and all have been within the institutions of our Reform Movement, beginning with nine years at HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles campus, three years as assistant dean, and then six more as associate dean.  

In 1982, I accepted Rabbi Alex Schindler’s invitation to become the regional director of the Pacific Southwest Council of the URJ (then still known as the UAHC), covering congregations from San Luis Obispo, California to El Paso, Texas. When Rabbi Schindler was succeeded by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, I moved to New York and became the senior vice president of the URJ, retiring (or so I thought) in 2008. It was Al Pacino who said in The Godfather series, “Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in” and, indeed, I was asked to serve as the interim director of rabbinic placement, a position I held from 2009 to 2011.  

I may be the only CCAR member who has been on the payroll of all three Movement institutions organized by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise! In any case, I found each of those positions to be fulfilling, satisfying, and growthful—and each produced lifelong friendships with rabbinic colleagues. In each, I came to appreciate the importance of rabbinic-lay relationships, the component parts of rabbinic leadership, and that success in the rabbinate depends less on facility with challenging texts and more on essential menschlichkeit and good old-fashioned “people skills.”  

At the outset of this essay, I referred to a “wonderful exception” to my institutional positions. Through a delightful bit of serendipity, in 1993 I was invited to lead High Holy Day services in a new, not-yet-fully organized group of Jews in Singapore. I went, thinking that it was a one-off opportunity for an unusual experience, never—never!—imagining that it would lead to a twenty-one-year tenure as the visiting rabbi in what would become the United Hebrew Congregation in that fascinating Southeast Asia city-state. Toward the end of those twenty-one years, I convinced the lay leaders that the community’s numeric and programmatic growth required the presence of a full-time, in-residence rabbi, and then had the joy of “installing” my successor. In retrospect, the experience of taking a congregation in its “infancy” through its “adolescence” into “adulthood” brought me a great sense of satisfaction and joy. 

I should mention one other highlight of my years at the URJ, namely the opportunity to develop the newest of the Union’s sleepaway camps in Snohomish County, WA, not far from the city where I grew up (Bellingham, WA). Camp Kalsman, situated on 299 acres in a gorgeous setting, serves Reform Jewish families from Alaska to the Northern California border and from Western Washington through Idaho and Montana. I kvell when I have been able to visit—seeing youngsters benefit from a place where “Jewish identity formation” happens so beautifully! I also am amused to see the signpost naming the main road through the camp in my honor: Lenny Lane (with no apparent apology to The Beatles!).  

All this being said, I do have some significant concerns regarding our Reform Movement and its congregations in the years ahead. It’s not clear to me these days that people care so much about what it means to be part of a “movement.” It’s also not clear about the potentially long-lasting effects of the Covid pandemic on our congregations. I worry about the growth of antisemitism and about distressing political developments in Israel. Worries to one side, I do enjoy retirement and I do look back on my fifty years in the rabbinate with great satisfaction and joy. 


Rabbi Lennard R. Thal is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We celebrate him and all of the CCAR members who reached this milestone in 2023.