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Rabbinic Reflections

Finding a Home at Synagogue: Rabbi Robert Orkand on 50 Years as a Reform Rabbi

In 1943, my parents were married and moved to Los Angeles. They, like so many Jews who grew up in the Bronx, travelled as far west as they could looking for economic opportunities and to escape the rigidity of traditional Judaism. Unlike many of those Jews, my parents ultimately joined a synagogue in LA—and a Reform one at that. Temple Isaiah was founded in 1947 and its first rabbi, Albert M. Lewis, z”l, came to the temple in 1948, as did Cantor Robert Nadell, z”l. My sense was that my parents didn’t want to give up on their Judaism, but were looking for Jewish connections in an environment more modern than what they had experienced in New York. I also believe that my parents were attracted to the social activism of Rabbi Lewis. 

My younger siblings and I were sent to religious school at Temple Isaiah, which beginning in 1957, was led by Jack Horowitz, a transplant from Ottawa, Canada. Somewhere along the way he was joined by Sam Lebow, the accordion-playing teacher of music, and later by Bonia Shur, a young Israeli composer, who some years later, taught at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati. 

I mention the staff at Temple Isaiah because they, more than anyone, were responsible for my becoming a rabbi. While Albert Lewis was lacking social skills and wasn’t a terribly good preacher, his involvement in what later became known as social action was inspiring. At the time, I was learning to play the clarinet and was invited by Sam Lebow to accompany him as he went into the religious school classes to teach the songs of the Jewish people. Jack Horowitz’s enthusiasm helped me fall in love with Jewish education, and Bonia Shur’s invitation to play in the little orchestra he was organizing allowed me to not only learn the music of the fledgling State of Israel, but also to appreciate why the founding of the Jewish homeland mattered.  

In short, I came to love the synagogue. It was home away from home. It was a place where one could find common ground with fellow Jews. It was a place filled with Jewish music. It was the place that instilled in me the importance of Jewish education and Jewish identity.  

I never thought of becoming a rabbi until I was a senior in college. My plan was to become a public school teacher, but as I thought about that, I realized that the synagogue was where I wanted to be. By that time, I was teaching in several area synagogues, including my own. How, I asked, could I continue doing that as a Jewish professional? Having come to admire the rabbis with whom I worked, I realized that the rabbinate would allow me to combine teaching with social justice work in a setting that felt so comfortable. 

Excited by this possibility, I spoke with my own rabbi and the two for whom I worked. Rabbi Lewis advised me to choose a different career path because “synagogue boards will eat you alive.” One of the rabbis for whom I worked said that he loved the rabbinate, and then left the profession to do something else. And the third rabbi I spoke to left town soon after our conversation. Given these responses, one would have expected me to abandon my thought of becoming a rabbi, but something compelled me to ignore the advice I was given, and I applied to HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. 

As they say, the rest is history. It was at the required summer ulpan in 1967 that I met Joyce, my wife of fifty-four years, as well as rabbinic students who became lifelong friends. Our year in Israel in 1969–1970 (the year before HUC-JIR’s year in Israel program began), started me down the path of involvement with our Movement there, culminating in my year as ARZA president. I was privileged to serve three congregations in Miami, Florida; Rockford, Illinois; and for thirty-two years, Temple Israel in Westport, Connecticut. And, I was honored to serve on a variety of UAHC and HUC-JIR committees and boards in addition to those on which I served in the communities in which we have lived. 

Yes, there have been disappointments along the way, and yes, the work ethic I adopted for myself took me away from family far too often. And yes, synagogue boards and committees were sometimes filled with people who did not appreciate what I was trying to teach them. But I can honestly say that after a career spanning fifty years, I definitely made the right decision to become a rabbi.


 Rabbi Robert Orkand is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and more of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis in 2023.

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Rabbinic Reflections

50 Years in the Reform Rabbinate: Rabbi Paul Citrin on Teachers, Mentors, and Inspirations

While I am not a prophet nor a son of a prophet, at this fiftieth anniversary of my ordination by HUC-JIR, I think of Isaiah. When God sought to recruit Isaiah, and Isaiah demurred, the Eternal One touched his lips with a glowing coal from the Temple altar. It is the metaphor of touch that I use to review five decades in the rabbinate.

I have been touched by several individuals who moved me in the direction of the rabbinate, and whose personal examples guided me:  

—My parents, Herb and Harriet Citrin, were raised in non-observant, unaffiliated homes. When I was in first grade, they joined a Reform synagogue. They became active, and transmitted to me the joy and fulfillment of being part of a community characterized by caring and celebration.  

—Metuka Miliken Benjamin, my first Hebrew school teacher who, just a few years ago, was awarded by the State of Israel, recognition as the outstanding diaspora educator. Metuka touched me with a passion for Hebrew language and Zionism which continues to this day.  

—Rabbi William Cutter, my teacher and thesis advisor, who touched me with his listening skills, his penetrating questions, and his unfailing kindness. 

—Rabbi Isaiah “Shy” Zeldin, my rabbi and a father figure. He touched me with his creative vision, his outreach to people in need, and his skill as a builder and motivator.  

—Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn touched me from the time he invited me to become his assistant, and after three years, his associate. He modeled for me integrity, diplomacy, and unwavering dedication to activism for social justice 

As I review half a century of my rabbinate, I hope I have touched and inspired people in my congregational communities: 

   —Michael Brown, z”l, was heavily burdened with cerebral palsy, yet determined to become a bar mitzvah. With tremendous effort, Michael learned to recite the Torah blessings. On that Shabbat he was glowing.  

—Hundreds of confirmation students continued pursuing Torah study with me to explore matters of theology and concerns about Israel. I continue to receive communications from former students who are now parents themselves.  

—Listening to those who need to be heard, being supportive, and guiding them to find strength in our tradition. 

The focus of my rabbinate has been congregational life. My passions are education, interfaith dialogue, Israel, and social justice. I cofounded the Jewish-Catholic Dialogue of Albuquerque which, over the years, has expanded to include Protestants and Muslims. I served on the board of the Martin Luther King Jr. Multicultural Council, which provided college scholarships to minority students. I served as the president of the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis, and as a board member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. During my active rabbinate, I served six congregations, and helped lead two congregations to build new synagogue facilities. 

This is a list of books I have authored over the years: 

  • Joseph’s Wardrobe (UAHC, 1987). A children’s novel about values and identity. 
  • Gates of Repentance for Young People (CCAR, 2002), co-authored with Judith Z. Abrams, z”l
  • Ten Sheaves, a collection of sermons, addresses and articles (Amazon, 2014). 
  • Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Jewish Questions  (CCAR, 2014). Volume conceived and edited by P. Citrin. 
  • I Am My Prayer (Resource Publications, 2021). 
  • Unpublished Master’s thesis, the Arab in Hebrew Literature since 1948, shelved in the Klau Library at HUC-JIR. 

I am blessed and touched by my family: my wife of forty-one years, Susan Morrison Citrin, our four children, and eight grandchildren. We are retired in Albuquerque where I continue to teach adults. Hiking, biking, travel, and writing continue to touch my life. 


Rabbi Paul Citrin is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and more of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis in 2023.

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Rabbinic Reflections

Sacred Reminiscences: Rabbi Fred N. Reiner on 50 Years in the Reform Rabbinate

My father did not have much advice for me, but there was one message that I remember. He told me to choose work that I loved, and then it wouldn’t seem like work. I am sure that in his business career, he never really had a job he loved. My rabbi, Herman Schaalman, talked to me about the rabbinate for many years, and in the end I decided to try out Hebrew Union College. Both of these mentors were right. 

When I think back on my career, I focus on the many varieties of rabbinic experience, on the different ways I have served. My first rabbinic job was National Director of Admissions and Director of Student Services at HUC-JIR, an administrative post in Cincinnati. I have served three very different congregations, I and was a part-time chaplain at several hospitals along the way. I have had the opportunity to teach in congregations, in universities and seminaries, and in the community. I have advocated for social justice and supported important causes, as we all have. I have led committees and boards in the communities I served, in the Reform Movement, and in my religious communities. I have had the time to study, to write, to present academic papers, and to create new knowledge. All this has been deeply gratifying and enriching for me. 

I am so grateful to have had the honor of serving and leading in the Jewish community. It has been a privilege to know so many colleagues and to work with them in strengthening the Jewish people. And I have witnessed great changes in the rabbinate and in the Jewish community over the years. The impact of women in the rabbinate, and the great diversity of today’s rabbinate, enriches all of us. It has been so gratifying to see young people drawn to rabbinic service, including my son, and I have been privileged to guide some of them. 

I often think we do not recognize the impact we make on the people we lead and serve. We are planting seeds: seeds of Jewish life; seeds of pursuing justice; seeds we hope will grow and flourish. 

I remember Mike, who first came to see me when he was in high school, telling me that he wanted to have a bar mitzvah. Only one of his parents was Jewish, and the family had no religion. They never belonged to a congregation, and Mike never attended religious school. He wanted to be Jewish, and his hope to have a bar mitzvah was deeply sincere. There was something else—Mike had a terrible stutter, which became worse under stress. We worked together, and I marveled that his stutter disappeared when he chanted. As he chanted Torah, his parents and family were so deeply moved at his transformation and at his determination and commitment. Would that all our impediments could be removed by studying Torah! 

Once at a Union Biennial, a man I did not remember approached me. He needed to thank me, he said, for officiating at the funeral of his mother. It was a routine lifecycle service, to be sure. But he went on to explain, “We had terrible disagreements in our family for years, and I was so afraid that this animosity would mar the service and detract from the love and honor we needed to feel for our mother.” What he thanked me for was not the service, but the meeting with the family, where they were able to come together to grieve and celebrate her life. 

It was years later that this man approached me, and it is often many years later that we learn of our impact or success. All of us have stories to share, I am sure, and all of us recall on this anniversary the peaks and valleys of our rabbinic careers. How good it is to remember and to share these sacred reminiscences. 


Rabbi Fred N. Reiner is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and more of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis in 2023.

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Rabbinic Reflections

Rabbi Joel Levine on 50 Years in the Reform Rabbinate: Reflecting on What I Have Learned 

Psalm 90 includes one of my favorite lessons in all of Torah: Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. 

As a rabbi for fifty years, I have taught hundreds of souls from preschool to older adults. However, what I want to reflect upon is not what I have taught, but what I have learned. 

I have learned from my students and congregants that Reform Judaism is a giant tent; embracing with utter respect, the unique diversity of our growing community. I have learned to honor the humanity of my congregants; sharing with them poignant moments of joy and sorrow. I have learned from my congregants how they understand God, Torah, and Israel; how they feel comfortable in Reform Judaism; and how they welcome souls from a diversity of backgrounds and beliefs. 

What I have accomplished 

My greatest achievement as a rabbi was not only to be a founder of Temple Judea, but to become an integral part of creating what our members call the “Miracle on Hood Road.” Our congregation began with one hundred and fifty families and struggled for many years in West Palm Beach. I located land and an empty building in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida owned by the Church of Latter-day Saints. With the help of our lay leadership, our congregation purchased the land and the building, and transformed it into a tribute to both the Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions. What is even more special to me is that my successor is not only a dear friend but a dynamic spiritual leader who has grown Temple Judea to close to seven hundred families with no mortgage and a healthy endowment fund. 

What I continue to look forward to 

One of the greatest gifts I have given my successor is moving 3,000 miles away to West Hollywood, California. Here, Susan and I can experience the unique feeling of being members of two congregations—Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and Temple Isaiah of Los Angeles—as well as a new organization for older adults, ChaiVillageLA. Since moving to West Hollywood, I have volunteered to be a spiritual counsellor at Beit T’Shuvah and a volunteer at the food pantry of the Karsh Center of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple

As I reflect on my fifty years as a rabbi, I feel that as a teenager I made the right choice, a wonderful choice for my life’s work. Although I expected that fulfillment would come from teaching. Instead it has come from learning. 


Rabbi Joel Levine is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and more of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis in 2023.

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Rabbinic Reflections

50 Years in the Reform Rabbinate: Rabbi Michael L. Kramer on Cherishing His Jewish Faith and Being a ‘Sh’liach L’goyim’

Fifty years in the rabbinate! It is a humbling experience watching the years pass by. I am reminded of the story where the rabbi sets out to change the world, and finds that it is beyond his scope. Then he tries unsuccessfully to change his community, then his family, and ultimately realizes he must focus on himself. The challenge of bringing change is great. I find rewards in the small things: a note from a former congregant responding to a sermon on coping with illness, exchanging shots of vodka with a Soviet Jewish immigrant I helped bring to America, the appreciation expressed by a bat mitzvah child, and the friendships that I have developed with congregants over the years.   

I see my life as a spiritual journey and challenge congregants to make a spiritual journey of their own. I have tried to be responsive to my congregants’ needs. I have listened to them at moments of sorrow, and brought words of comfort when they suffered pain. I have tried to uplift spirits with sermons, and on occasion, with a humorous remark. I held Jewish healing services for those in need of solace, and I took clinical pastoral education courses to improve my pastoral skills.

I have enjoyed working with children. My student pulpit was as a rabbi in a Jewish school/residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed children where I served as rabbi and counselor. I took pleasure in speaking to children at assemblies, celebrating Shabbat with nursery school students, and preparing b’nei mitzvah. Answering the pensive queries of Jewish youngsters gave me satisfaction. The most important thing we can do is teach our children to be menschen.

Raising the knowledge of our members is an important task. We should foster an adult appreciation of Judaism. American Jews often know too little about their faith. I have offered courses in the synagogue and with colleagues in the community to increase Jewish learning. In Bowie, Maryland, I ran a well-attended lecture series for more than ten years, and in Massapequa, New York, I sought creative ways to enhance adult education. In both communities I’ve overseen a healthy number of adult b’nei mitzvah students. I also led several congregational trips to Israel. Jewish learning can take place in a variety of environments: in building sukkot, in celebrating a Shabbat dinner together, in a Tikkun Leil Shavuot the night before your child’s confirmation.

I have a strong belief in K’lal YisraelKol Yisrael aravim zeh bazeh,  All Israel is responsible for one another. I have always sought to work with my colleagues, joining together to teach an Introduction to Judaism course, writing a community seder, or other creative efforts. A rabbi is a sh’liach l’goyim, a representative to the community. We cannot insulate ourselves from civic activities. I have been active in local clergy associations in communities I’ve served. I joyfully accompanied a group of African American clergy from Prince George’s County to Israel, was involved in creating a Black-Jewish s’darim, and tried to forge better relations with the African American community.

In the Washington area, I served as rabbinic advisor to our active Washington chapter of ARZA. For many years, I was a member of the ARZA National Board and attended the World Zionist Congress as a delegate in December 1997. I encouraged synagogue members to vote in the Congress elections and my congregation had one of the highest participation levels in Reform congregations. I joined an ARZA rabbinic mission that met with Prime Minister Netanyahu and Cabinet Minister Natan Sharansky over the issue of the Conversion Law. I feel passionately that Reform Judaism should make a home for itself in Israel. I have also visited Reform communities in Morocco, Eastern Europe, and Brazil where there are overwhelming challenges facing the Jewish communities. My years in the rabbinate nurtured my love for the Jewish people and strengthened my passion for the teachings of the Torah. Our heritage is an incredible gift that our ancestors handed down to us. Our challenge is to teach our children to cherish our faith as past generations have. This is the responsibility that I have assumed as a rabbi and as one who cares deeply for the Jewish people.


Rabbi Michael L. Kramer is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and more of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis in 2023.

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Rabbinic Reflections

50 Years in the Reform Rabbinate: Rabbi Joseph A. Edelheit (C ’73) on the Unique Experiences of His Rabbinic Engagement

When I thought about becoming a rabbi as an undergraduate at CAL Berkely in 1966, I could never have imagined the extraordinary experiences I would have. For fifty years, people have asked me to engage them, teach them, and sometimes lead and interpret a meaningful ritual in their life.

I have served three Reform congregations over thirty years in the Upper Midwest. where I learned what “windchill” meant.

From the outset, the reality of interfaith couples and families became a central focus of my rabbinate. “Intro to Judaism” education and congregational programming have always been a significant concern. Eventually regional and national rabbinic work about gerim/gerut provided me with an opportunity to be a leading advocate for Patrilineal Descent.

University teaching became important, especially Jewish-Christian dialogue, which led to an opportunity to do doctoral work at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago.

HIV/AIDS emerged at a time when those who were among its first patients and deaths were alone and often rejected. I served this tragically unique community, which led to opportunities to lead in how Reform Judaism faced these challenges both in Chicago and nationally. Eventually my work was recognized, and I was asked to serve on President Bill Clinton’s Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, 1996–2000.

I retired from my congregational rabbinate in 2001 because of challenges to my health, and I finished my doctoral work (DMin) at the University of Chicago in 2001.

A state university that settled a class-action lawsuit over antisemitism asked for my help. As part of the settlement, I created a program of campus and community engagement about Jewish culture. Eventually, I became tenured faculty, and retired as Emeritus Professor of Religious and Jewish Studies. Though I tried to bracket my rabbinate at a state university, my pastoral role was called upon by students, faculty, and administration alike. My academic career required teaching about and interpreting Jews, Jewish life and texts, and Judaism to a campus and community of less than fifty Jews.

I helped to bring a unique symphony and choral Holocaust memorial program, “To Be Certain of the Dawn,” to the state university and a nearby Catholic university. We later took more than 250 students and faculty to France and Germany and performed it at Natzweiler-Struthof  concentration camp with survivors in the audience.

During this period, there was an opportunity in India to continue my HIV/AIDS work with multi-faith organizations who worked among infected children whose parents had died of AIDS. I participated in creating an international NGO that funded and provided service for sixty AIDS orphans in rural India who were all living with HIV/AIDS. Engaging people who had never met a Jew, but invited me to share a meal while sitting on the floor of their hut, added to my life commitment of pluralism.

My ongoing academic participation in the Society for Ricoeur Studies, is another unique experience of my rabbinate. I am the former student of Paul Ricoeur, who insists that philosophers and religious thinkers can and should engage in dialogue with a Jewish thinker.

My participation in conferences, took me to Rio de Janeiro in 2011 when I was invited to speak to a Reform congregation, ARI. Now eleven years later, that unexpected Shabbat invitation, led to exceptional personal love and another chapter of my rabbinic life, serving the World Union of Progressive Judaism. I volunteer for Brazilian communities who have no rabbi, and whenever asked, I teach at ARI where it all started.

During retirement I have written and edited two books with a third in preparation. The current crisis in antisemitism has added a new emphasis to my work in Jewish-Christian dialogue. I will co-teach a course at a Protestant seminary that deals with the challenges of preaching and teaching in response to antisemitism.

In 2021, the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, honored me as their alum of the year, the first time a rabbi has ever been awarded this recognition.

These fifty years were more meaningful because of the unconditional presence of my children. Still today, it is the love and respect of my family that I cherish the most.


Rabbi Joseph A. Edelheit is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and more of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis in 2023.

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member support mental health Rabbinic Reflections

The Cup or the Well: Resilience for Today’s Rabbis

My teacher, Rabbi Leonard Kravitz, often quoted one of his teachers, “Can men [sic] drink deeply if an empty cup is passed around?” In this fraught moment in human—and Jewish—history, many rabbis are feeling like their cups are empty.

The call for our resources has perhaps never been more urgent. Our communities need our gifts, talents, and tools. They need our teaching to gain access to Torah’s timeless wisdom; they need our acumen to craft rituals that will make meaning out of life’s transitions; they need our leadership in pursuing justice and in defending our people from antisemitism, they need our loving presence by their sides as they encounter loss, grief, hatred, and fear.

Fortunately, we have much to give. But we are finite beings facing infinite needs. Our job responsibilities are too frequently impossible to accomplish. Our institutions too often lack adequate resources to accomplish their missions. Our lay leaders are confused and frustrated (and not infrequently, they take it out on nearest target—their rabbi). We have our own personal lives—responsibilities to partners, kids, parents, siblings, and friends that don’t respect “blackout periods” of peak work—our spouse gets COVID at Rosh HaShanah, our child has a meltdown and needs mental health care; our parent breaks a hip, our friend loses her job.

It is so easy for our cups, our hearts, our spirits, to be depleted, exhausted. How are they (we) to be refilled?

Is this the most helpful paradigm for us; waiting for someone or something to refill our cups? Perhaps, instead, we might imagine ourselves in the position to draw from a well, to seek, and find, sustenance when we most need it. Perhaps ezreinu, our Help, is to be found whenever and wherever we need it, like Miriam’s well, which showed up for our people while we were wandering in the midbar. Miriam’s well, according to the Midrash would show up every time the Israelites settled in a new place in the wilderness.[1] This beehive-shaped well would appear seemingly out of nowhere; its water was available for all who came to draw it. From the well, our ancestors drew more than sustenance; they drew healing as well.[2] According to one account, the well would appear every Motzei Shabbat; those who drew from it were healed of all their afflictions.[3]

In the paradigm of the well, sustenance is there for us when we need it. Hagar found the well that was there all along, in her unspeakably desperate moment, when she was convinced that she and Ishmael were about to die. With God’s help, Hagar looked up and spotted the well.[4] She filled her vessel, and she revived Ishmael. Hopefully, Hagar followed the convention of airplane oxygen masks and first slaked her own thirst!

We rabbis, who are the nurturers and sustainers of those we accompany, may be too tired, or too proud, or too discouraged to remember to look up to see the well. And we certainly cannot do it alone. We need to support and remind and encourage one another, to be truly chaveirim.

And, if we look up, help and healing are here. We can find support to open our eyes to sources of sustenance through colleagues whose job is to accompany us, such as counselors and coaches available through the CCAR. Maybe we can find the well through taking a brief break after Havdalah (whether that break comes on Saturday night or Wednesday). And perhaps we can find the well through our spiritual practice, with the help of guidance like that of the daily practice offered by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.

May we all be able to lift our eyes and see the wellsprings of help, hope, and healing that are here for us. May we draw waters in joy from the Living Well. [5]

[1] Rav said Miriam’s well was “a portable, pure spring.” BT Shabbat 35a

[2] Bamidbar Rabbah 18:22 tells of a blind person in the town of Shichin who came upon the well of Miriam and recovered his sight.

[3] Shulchan Aruch Orach Hayim 299:10

[4] Genesis  21:19

[5] Aryeh Hirschfield’s translation of Isaiah 12:3


Rabbi Dayle Friedman (HUC-JIR NY ’85) is a CCAR Special Advisor for Member Support and Counseling. She has written widely about pastoral care, spirituality, and aging. Her most recent book is Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older: Finding Your Grit and Grace Beyond Midlife.

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interfaith Rabbinic Reflections

‘We Stand on Common Ground’: Rabbi John A. Linder on Meeting Pope Francis 

Our rabbinates give us the opportunity to be in places we’d never imagined. Though the quiet, unheralded encounters and relationships sustain me the most, I’ll hold this one particularly close to my heart. 

We live our respective faiths most deeply by being in covenantal relationship with one another; bound by our shared humanity. For me, this was never validated more powerfully than during a recent, unexpected trip to Rome. I was invited to join a delegation of twenty interfaith leaders and organizers from the West/Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) to meet with Pope Francis for a conversation in his residence in Vatican City. I embarked with the blessings of the leadership of Temple Solel, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Religious Action Center, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. At the beginning of our meeting, the Pope thanked us for inconveniencing ourselves to come and see him. Imagine that!   

What ensued was a true dialogue, a 90-minute conversation in Spanish with lots of back and forth engagement (I was one of five non-Spanish speaking leaders, fully participating thanks to headphones and a translator!). The encounter was filled with many blessed exchanges about the joys and struggles of our work; affirming the central role faith institutions play in building community through the pursuit of justice, especially for those on the margins. 

As we shared our community organizing experiences, we were all struck by how carefully Pope Francis listened. I was profoundly moved by his humility. He listens lovingly, from a place of curiosity, openness, and humor. He loves to smile and laugh! The Pope was just fun to be with!   

The Pope heard us tell stories of organizing around our local issues. He was touched when hearing about how becoming a public person restores dignity and develops a sense of one’s agency. What really struck the Pope is that we were not talking about theory or ideology, but rather real-life stories that described experiencing God through encounters with the other. The room was filled with kindred spirits.   

Pope Francis stressed the importance of being with people, of paying attention to their reality, emphasizing what he referred to as “amor concreto,” concrete love. The Pope lives in love. He’s been walking the talk of his ministry from the barrios of Argentina to the Vatican—seeing and hearing injustice, acting for systemic change, and being changed in return. He celebrated the value that we place on leadership development and strategic action; of doing rather than complaining about what’s not being done; of acting without disparaging or demonizing. The Pope, though just learning about us, remarked that the IAF is “good news for the United States.”   

What profound validation for the local work of the Valley Interfaith Project (VIP), our IAF network affiliate. I feel great pride that Temple Solel has been a member of VIP for fifteen years, acting together within a broad-based interfaith organization to carry words of Torah into the real world. Throughout his encyclicals and many writings, the Pope appreciates the radical nature of the Hebrew Bible, as the foundation of Christian Scripture. He understands that it’s impossible to realize words of scripture without entering into the fray of the public square, without ruffling some feathers. He has never sought refuge in an ivory tower. Pope Francis, looking at each of us directly in the eye, said, “the only time you should look down at someone, is when you are helping to lift them up.”   

At the conclusion of our conversation, I presented Pope Francis with a leatherbound and gold leaf Hebrew Bible. I said to him, through a translator, “Your Holiness, I have never been more certain, that we stand on common ground.” The Pope got a kick out of it when I told him that my (almost) 94-year-old mother-in-law inscribed the book the night before my flight to Rome.   

I think about the unlikely paths that brought each of the twenty members of the IAF delegation together—paths paved by the common values of our sacred texts, which merged into a collective pilgrimage to Rome, to be touched by the presence and soul of this magnificent man, all of us recognizing that the ground upon which we stand as brothers and sisters is, indeed, holy ground. Now back home, we are strengthened by one another, interconnected through our respective faiths, emboldened and blessed by Pope Francis to continue our sacred work, channeling the words of Micah, to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” 


Rabbi John A. Linder serves Temple Solel in Paradise Valley, Arizona.

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News Rabbinic Reflections

The Aftermath of the Highland Park Fourth of July Massacre: A Reflection on the Idolatry of Gun Worship

This past weekend, my family and I attended a wedding in Los Angeles. It was a beautiful affair. Two wonderful families were joined with lots of love, fanfare, and celebration. There were many events that brought us all together. As we awoke this morning and got ready to attend a farewell brunch before flying home, our joy was diminished by the news of a violent act of murderous terror that filled the airways and social media—the horrific massacre in Highland Park, IL. This time, however, it was personal. 

Highland Park is a Chicago suburb with a substantial Jewish population that is very close to my hometown of Evanston, IL. When I was in high school and college, I taught and led services at several congregations there. I have many close friends and family who live in or near the area where the shooting took place. The Maxwell Street Klezmer Band—dear friends and musical collaborators—were performing on a float in that very parade. So far, I have not heard that any of the people I know personally were harmed, but as of this writing, seven souls were snuffed out and more than two dozen others were wounded by a lone gunman armed with easily-obtained, high-powered weaponry, and multiple rounds of ammunition. 

It is hard to write about the plague of gun violence that has infected our society without wading into murky waters. The politicians, lobbyists, and pundits on every side of the political spectrum will do all that they can to spin this horrific event—and the hundreds of others like —to underscore their specific agendas. Accusations will be thrown about. Somber and angry speeches will be delivered. Tears will be shed. Funerals will be held, lives upended, and nothing will change—the daily deluge of violence will continue unabated. 

Many of you know my views on firearms. I have written and spoken extensively on how gun violence is not merely a social or political problem. It also screams out to the world that we are in the midst of a spiritual crisis: that of idol worship. Simply put, idolatry can be defined as the worshipping of physical objects and imbuing them with powers, qualities, and cosmic significance that supersedes logic and undermines the foundations of our nation. Our society’s obsession with the ownership and deification of weapons of mass destruction—fed and exacerbated by gun manufacturers and the lobbying organizations on their payrolls—has taken a horrific toll on the social fabric and spiritual capital of our citizens. It is nothing less than idolatry. Highland Park now joins the ranks of Columbine, Aurora, Newtown, Parkland, Pittsburgh, Colleyville, Uvalde, and too many others to mention. We have seemingly lost the capacity to be shocked anymore. The question we are asking is not: “How can this happen in a civil society,” but “When will the next tragedy occur—and will it impact those whom we know and love?” 

In the Torah portion we will read this Shabbat, Parashat Chukat, we learn how Moses, instead of speaking to a rock and commanding it to yield water for the thirsty Israelites, strikes it three times and is punished by God and told that he will not enter the promised land. The Rabbis are puzzled by the severity of this decree. Why was Moses treated so unfairly? What did he do to receive such a cruel sentence? There are many possible answers, but one recurring theme is that Moses’s actions were both violent and defiant. He appeared to show the Israelites that he, himself, was the source of life-giving water, not God. In other words, Moses places himself in the role of provider and creator. The violent act of hitting the rock appears to be an attempt to make it look like the staff itself, wielded by Moses, is imbued with the power to sustain and protect the people, thereby diminishing God’s authority and deliverance. 

For those for whom the Right to Bear Arms is sacrosanct, any attempts to place sane limits on the ownership and use of weapons of mass destruction is nothing short of blasphemy. For those of us who see the consequences of these weapons in the blood flowing in our streets, schools, and public spaces, the fact that so many lives have been snuffed out so meaninglessly is, in and of itself, a Chilul HaShem, a desecration of God’s name. 

If we cannot acknowledge the spiritual, psychological and societal toll that the proliferation of firearms on our streets and in our homes continues to exact, then we, like Moses, are rebelling against the godliness implanted within us by our Creator. 

I do not have answers to this tragic situation. But I do know that unless and until we move away from political slogans and lines drawn in the sand, we will continue to see grieving parents and children mourning the loss of their loved ones following senseless acts of violence. We need to learn to look at the facts on the ground and find sane measures to reduce the carnage. 

May we never fail to be horrified by tragedy, and may our horror move us to look within ourselves and our souls and strive to make a change. 


Rabbi Joseph R. Black serves Temple Emanuel in Denver, Colorado. He serves as a Chaplain in the Colorado House of Representatives and is past President of the Rocky Mountain Rabbinical Council. He has had several poems and articles published in leading national literary and academic journals and is a frequent contributor to anthologies and collections of Jewish writing. 

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Rabbinic Reflections

When It’s Time to Speak

Days before Shabbat, I saw on the calendar that we would welcome a new board president to the bimah for a blessing on Friday night. In addition to the sermon and weekly preparations for worship services, not to mention the busy week that was still in front of me, I wondered what could I say to the new president that hasn’t already been said? The question wasn’t easy to answer and not because I didn’t know the new president well, and not because I wasn’t unfamiliar with themes for the occasion. But I was stuck. Then I opened to the weekly parashah and its commentaries and found an insight that changed my orientation to the problem and revealed an answer to my question.

In many places where words were spoken, the Hebrew wasn’t only ויאמר or וידבר. In these texts, for example, either in the same verse or verses that followed, the Hebrew included תספר באזני בנך (Ex. 10:2), or באזני עם הארץ (Gen. 23:13), or אוזנים לשמוע (Deut. 29:3). A clear reference to hearing and not just speaking revealed that the goal wasn’t only to say what needed to be said, but to be sure that what was important to say was meaningful to the one(s) who heard it. In another text (Ex. 17:14), we find, “ושים באזני יהושע,” literally, put it in Joshua’s hearing; but a familiar translation only tells us, “…read it aloud to Joshua.”

“Put it in Joshua’s hearing,” changed my orientation to the problem and led me to ask a better question, “What does the new president of the board need to hear from me?” This question revealed many options. I began to think about validating the president’s gifts and skills that earned her the privilege to serve as president. She would want the congregation to hear that she cares deeply, leads wisely, and always finds time for the congregation’s needs. I thought about linking the new president to a biblical leader who was lifted up by the people to succeed and flourish in her new role. She would like to hear her name linked to the names of the matriarchs or Miriam or Deborah who found leadership to be challenging and rewarding. I thought about expressing my own trust in her partnership to lead the congregation with me. It would be a comfort to her to hear that carrying the weight of Torah, literally and figuratively, as we would stand before the Holy Ark on Shabbat, was a sacred burden we would help each other carry.

When Shabbat came, my final words, which I prepared and then spoke extemporaneously, felt sincere, authentic, and meaningful. In turn, what the new president of the board heard in that moment before the Holy Ark was just what I had hoped she would also always know in her heart and mind. When I added, “עלי והצלחי” there was little question but that she would rise to her new role and prosper in it.

Ever since that Shabbat, I learned not to ask myself, “What should I say?” but rather, “What do they need to hear?” It’s about them and then what we can become together.


Rabbi David A. Lyon serves Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, Texas. He also serves on the CCAR Board of Trustees.