Rabbinic Reflections

Teaching, Caring, Helping: Rabbi Fred Raskind on 50 Years in the Rabbinate

Over the past five decades, I take great satisfaction from my experiences and accomplishments during my rabbinate. I am so grateful for:

  • The health, energy, and focus to work and serve
  • The small congregation rabbinate that fostered personal, quality relationships
  • The variety of settings of Southeast congregations, Hillel, V.A. chaplaincy, and retirement positions, as well as counseling and private consulting work
  • Countless life cycle events, sharing joys, transitions, and losses through pastoral care, ceremonies, and celebrations
  • Intellectual stimulation, teaching and learning Torah, personal study, and community programs
  • Connecting with so many interesting, bright, and kind Jews and non-Jews, too
  • Achieving a successful balance between my professional and personal life.

Many of my key remembrances include:

  • Initiating an annual brotherhood weekend pulpit exchange program: the service and my sermon at First Methodist Church was radio broadcast through northeast Alabama
  • Creating an accompanying script and coordinating music for a two-hour December Chanukah concert radio broadcast [ALA]
  • Planning and implementing a two-summer sabbatical to prepare programs, lectures, and sermons on “Jews in the Civil War” for the temple, pulpit exchanges, and community groups
  • Initiating my congregation’s participation in the annual Athens Pulpit Exchange Day
  • Delivering the invocation and benediction at the University of Georgia commencement IN 1980, and the invocation at the 1981 Homecoming game, broadcast on regional TV
  • Reading at the Inaugural Service at the National Cathedral; being invited to official events of St. Augustine’s 450th anniversary, including the reenactment of Menendez’ landing (the costumed actors sailed in a replica boat piloted by one of my congregants!); a major social event with Cardinal O’Malley, and the celebratory mass at the historical cathedral.

Over the course of my rabbinic career, three lessons have emerged for me.

First, the focus for my rabbinate is a “three-legged stool”-teaching, pastoral caring, and officiating at worship and life cycle occasions.

Second, my task has been to help those in their individual Jewish lives and journeys to the extent possible—to help rather than obstruct.

Third, despite inevitable frustrations and setbacks of the professional rabbinate, the priority has been to maintain my personal integrity and sense of self beyond rabbinic roles: Just weeks prior to ordination, a favorite faculty member had offered this insight and compliment: “You’re one-we never got to.”

For that, I’m still grateful.

Rabbi Fred Raskind served Congregation B’nai Abraham in Hagerstown, Maryland and Temple Bet Yam in St. Augustine, Florida. He celebrates 50 years as a Reform rabbi.

We look forward to celebrating 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2022 in San Diego, March 27-30, 2022. CCAR rabbis can register here.

Rabbinic Reflections

Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger: Gratitude for 50 Years Spent Teaching and Preaching

With rabbis on both sides of my family, growing up spending weeks each summer at UAHC camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, and involvement in local and regional NFTY, I do not remember ever wanting to be anything but a rabbi. So, I saved a year by attending HUC-JIR’s undergraduate program, taking courses at HUC-JIR while majoring in English Literature at the University of Cincinnati, then entering the second year of HUC-JIR.

The summer before my final year at HUC-JIR, Ann and I married. The fine folks of my student pulpit in Jonesboro, Arkansas thought we were adorable as they wined and dined us from Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur. Then we settled down to married life, which, for me included writing a dissertation on Reform Jewish theology with Dr. Jakob Petuchowsky.

Then we were off to an assistant rabbi position with Joseph Asher at Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco for three years, and to another great place as solo rabbi for eight and a half years (nine football seasons) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “Aren’t you afraid to preach to all those academics?” a few friends asked. Perhaps I should have been, but I quickly found that the academics were great people, each a specialist in some narrow field and anxious to respect their rabbi as a Jewish specialist!

In each step in my career Ann has been an invaluable partner, with creative ideas for congregations, and, at least as important, a memory for names and relationships far superior to mine. When we decided we were ready to move on to a larger pulpit, we ended up in a city with a marvelous cultural life, Fort Worth, Texas, where we have lived for thirty-eight years and raised two wonderful children. Moreover, the Beth-El community was proud to have their rabbi play leadership roles in the city as well as work on growing the temple and, ultimately, building a marvelous new building, and endowments. Brite Divinity School at TCU welcomed my teaching a course every couple of years, and I made time to write articles for the CCAR Journal and other publications.

When asked over the years what I liked about the congregational rabbinate I generally spoke of the great variety of the work: not only preaching, teaching, and being there with people at life’s highs and lows, but administration, programming, leadership development, counseling, youth work, and engagement in the community. Always, both because I feel most authentic as a rabbi when studying and because I enjoy it, writing has brought satisfaction, whether sermons and articles or, in recent years, two books.

Some twenty years ago the fine folks of Beth-El asked if I would like to take some months off as a sabbatical leave. I had the chutzpah to respond that what I needed was not a single chunk of time, but a month or two each summer to pursue various writing projects where good Jewish libraries were available. They graciously agreed. Soon Ann and I were enjoying the delights of New York City, and I was happily ensconced most days in the HUC-JIR library.  Serendipitously, I had contacted a JTS professor of Jewish philosophy, Neil Gillman, for some reading suggestions. It turned out that we shared an interest in the significance of the current revolution in cognitive studies and neuroscience for theology. Each summer I would make pilgrimage to JTS, and later to Gillman’s apartment, and in the role of friend and mentor he pushed and prodded as I shared chapters. Later he told his publisher, Jewish Lights, that I needed to be taken seriously. I am not under any illusions about going down in history as a revolutionary Jewish thinker, but I dare to think I have made some original contributions to the stream of Jewish thinking in Our Religious Brains (Jewish Lights, 2012) and Why Call It God?: Theology for the Age of Science (Wipf & Stock, 2020).

No rush to wrap it up, but when mortality catches up with me, I will continue to be grateful to God, the rabbinate, family, and friends for a satisfying and, I dare say, meaningful life.

Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger is celebrating 50 years in the rabbinate. He retired in 2016.

We look forward to celebrating 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2022 in San Diego, March 27-30, 2022. CCAR rabbis can register here.

Rabbinic Reflections

Revolution, Innovation, and ‘Quiet Victories’: Rabbi Richard Address on 50 Years in the Rabbinate

Our generation of rabbis has been blessed to have served during one of the most transitional times in American Jewish history. From the moment we walked off the bimah in  June of 1972, we were witness to and part of great changes. We helped shepherd the feminist revolution, the revolution in synagogue music and worship styles, the LGBTQ revolution, and numerous social justice causes. It is safe to say that in many ways, the Reform Judaism that welcomed us in 1972 is not the same as it is in 2022. This is all for the good. We have lived the reality of innovation and flexibility, even up to the present as so many of us still teach and preach electronically.  

As I reflect on these 50 years, I also reflect on the friends from our years who have died, friends with whom I still hold sacred memories. Our rabbinate has changed in so many ways, yet, as we move into our own futures, we can also take pride in the lives we have touched, the moments of meaning we helped shape, and the relationships that, in so many ways, helped shape us.

I think, as I look back on these years, that one of the great lessons has been the mystery of personal encounters. We can never know what impact a class, or a word, or a call, or a visit may have made with someone. If we are lucky, some of these people will remind us, often years after the event. I think that these “quiet victories” are the real payback for all of us. They reinforce what I call the theology of relationships; that as we age we come to understand that the relationships we have really are what gives us meaning. Our rabbinate has given us so many of the moments. Maybe we do not celebrate them enough.

Let us also keep in mind that, as long as we are blessed with health, we can continue to help, each of us in our own way, to continue to create these relationships and shape a unique Jewish future. We have been blessed to have been called to be of service, so may we continue.

Rabbi Richard F. Address, DMin, is the Founder and Director of Jewish Sacred Aging, and he hosts the weekly podcast Seekers of Meaning. He is adjunct faculty at HUC-JIR in New York City and the Wurzweiler School of Social Work at Yeshiva University. He served for over three decades on the staff of the Union for Reform Judaism and was the founding director of URJ’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns. He is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi.

We look forward to celebrating 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2022 in San Diego, March 27-30, 2022. CCAR rabbis can register here.

Rabbinic Reflections

Rabbi Roberto Graetz: 50 Years, Three Languages, and Two Continents as a Rabbi

A lot has happened in my half a century in the rabbinate—marriage, children, and grandchildren, who are at the stabilizing center of my life in a world in constant change. I believe that the rabbinate changed with the ordination of Rabbi Sally Priesand, and my rabbinate changed as I worked with women colleagues who became close family friends. As driven as I was, they didn’t teach me to work less; they taught me to work better.

I served in two continents and in three languages! I survived persecution and death threats as well as a near-death experience; each of these taught me something new about how to be in the world, in my work, with my family, and communities. I loved the teaching, engaging with good thinkers—young and old—watching people learn and ask deep question, taking lessons I taught them further than I could or would.

My greatest joy was whenever a young woman or man would talk to me about exploring the rabbinate for themselves. Along the years, I can claim at least some credit for sending 25 to 30 students to HUC-JIR, JTS, AJU, and even one to a seriously Orthodox yeshivah in Jerusalem. Each of them a link to the future. As some of them already think of retirement, I helped to start, and now teach at a Reform rabbinical training institute for the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world.

They say that one shebs naches fun kindern, and I believe one does from one’s students as well. I learned from all of them.

It has been and continues to be one hell of a ride!

Rabbi Roberto Graetz retired as Rabbi Emeritus from Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, California in 2016. He is celebrating 50 years in the rabbinate.

We look forward to celebrating 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2022 in San Diego, March 27-30, 2022. CCAR rabbis can register here.

Rabbinic Reflections

Rabbi Peter Grumbacher on a Charmed 50 Years in the Rabbinate

I’m glad I can look back on these past fifty years with a smile. As my wife Suzy says, “It was a charmed rabbinate.” To serve one congregation for an entire career says more about them than it does about me. We had—and still have—a wonderful relationship, and there’s not a minute of that half-century I’d trade with anyone else.     

My congregation, Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington, Delaware, was kind and very open to change and to challenge; they were involved with the broader community, with our Movement; and I found that they cared for each other deeply. I hope I was part of that positive vibe that was felt by so many because I tried my best to foster relationships that spoke of the congregation as truly “sacred.” 

To me, that’s what it’s all about. My predecessor, Herbert Drooz, taught me by example, by deed, that we were stewards of God’s people, not overlords. And they responded in kind. In my twenty-fifth year, one of our classmates asked me what the best thing was about serving one congregation for so long, and I responded, “Getting to know all the people.” And of course when he asked me the worst, well, I had to say, “Getting to know all the people.” And now another twenty-five years have passed and my answer is the same. I’ve become good friends with so many, most of my past presidents, in fact; and when they die, as so many have, I have felt it deeply. There’s a void in the pews, and there’s a void within me.

I couldn’t have done it without Suzy, and those aren’t empty words. There have been some tough times across our fifty-two years, but her love and concern for me have been the pillars, sometimes more than I deserved.

It’s all in the relationships, how we view ourselves and others, recognizing our strengths and our faults and realizing that everyone has their own strengths and faults. After all, we’re mortals. 

It’s been a charmed rabbinate for me.

I wish all my classmates health and strength, and many more years of dedicated service. Most of us may have retired as rabbis, but we sure didn’t retire as Jews.

Rabbi Peter Grumbacher is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington, Delaware. He is celebrating 50 years in the rabbinate.

We look forward to celebrating 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2022 in San Diego, March 27-30, 222. CCAR rabbis can register here.

Israel Rabbinic Reflections Social Justice

Implement the Kotel Agreement: An Open Letter to Ambassador Michael Herzog

Dear Ambassador Hertzog,

I am an American Reform rabbi. I am writing to you from Tel Aviv, where I am privileged to be spending a month with my Israeli family.

This morning, I joined friends and colleagues to celebrate Rosh Chodesh at the Kotel, as I have many, many times before.

I am honored to join my courageous and resilient Israeli sisters to welcome the new month, even though we who join Women of the Wall (נשות הכותל) are often screamed at, spat upon, and prevented from praying together. Today was no different: we were corralled into a separate space as if we, not our hecklers, needed to be contained. The true desecration today was the screaming, the shrill whistles, and the guards’ bullhorns that attempted to silence our prayer. Instead of providing protection to us, the Kotel authorities ignored and seemed to support those who harassed us.

You know that the current situation at the Kotel causes grave harm and deep embarrassment for all of us who love Israel. Israel is my home, but being heckled by ultra-Orthodox men and women, and boys and girls, when I lift my voice in praise to the Source of all makes me feel unwelcome and alienated in one of Israel’s most sacred places. 

You also know that Israel is home to many Jews who do not identify as Orthodox, and that North American Jews from all liberal streams feel a profound sense of peoplehood when we visit Israel and attend one of the many Israeli Reform, Reconstructionist, or Conservative synagogues. And when we visit the Kotel, we want to pray in peace, in a space that welcomes us. 

No one heckles the men who gather to pray. No one prevents men from bringing a Sefer Torah to sanctify their gathering. No one prevents men from being called to the Torah for the first time, or to celebrate a simchah, or to remember a loved one. No one accuses other prayer groups of “disturbing the peace.”

Yet I return to Israel, and to the Kotel, whenever I can, in the hopes that the Kotel Agreement, approved on January 31, 2016 by the Israeli government will finally be implemented. This detailed, 45-page document, negotiated over three and a half years, provides full and unimpeded access to the Western Wall for Jews of all streams. It is my hope that once implemented, the harassment, intimidation, and שנאת חינם will cease. 

Today we welcomed a new month: Adar. Tradition teaches: משנכנס אדר מרבים בשמחה.

However, my joy today was diminished, and my heart heavy with disappointment and anger that Prime Minister Bennett, on the sixth anniversary of the signing of the Kotel Agreement, is capitulating to extremists and denying that the Kotel Agreement is a fair and long overdue compromise. As you know, there is broad support in his coalition to finally move forward on this long delayed and eminently fair solution. 

Now is the time to rise beyond narrow political considerations. I implore you, as a representative of the Israeli government, to conclude the task begun with “Ezrat Israel” in 2013. Nine years later, it is time for the Israeli government to implement the Kotel Agreement.

Let us welcome Adar with joy, not shame.

Thank you.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, PhD

Learn more about the Kotel Agreement here.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, PhD serves as a Spiritual Director at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. She is the editor of Chapters of the Heart: Jewish Women Sharing the Torah of Our Lives (Cascade Books) and The Open Door: A Passover Haggadah (CCAR Press), and has served as a congregational rabbi, worked with congregations and lay leaders through the URJ, and has taught at the University of Cincinnati, University of California, Los Angeles, and LaSalle University.

Rabbinic Reflections

Rabbi Sally Priesand on Celebrating 50 Years in the Rabbinate and the Path to Becoming the First Woman Rabbi in North America

As I reflect on the past fifty years, I am grateful to God that part of my life’s work has been to open new doors for women in the Jewish community, but at the same time, I have tried never to lose sight of the larger mission of the Jewish peoplewhich is to derive from the words of Torah a set of values and a sense of holiness that will enable us always to be partners with God in completing the world.

Dr. Nelson Glueck, president of HUC-JIR, was the man most responsible for my ordination. He was passionate about those things that were important to him, and he had a certain charm that inspired others to dream bigger and do more. As someone once said, “He brushed away the ruts that others were prone to stumble in. He stepped right over them. He didn’t even see them. He had a higher horizon.” That horizon enabled him to envision a day when women would serve the Jewish people as rabbis. From the moment I arrived in Cincinnati I knew that he believed in me, and I was conscious of the fact that ordaining a woman as rabbi was a decision being made by the College-Institute itself under his leadership—the Union and the CCAR had nothing to do with it.

I was devastated when Dr. Glueck died a year and a half before my ordination, but his wife Helen, a distinguished physician and researcher in Cincinnati, told me that before he died, he said there were three things he wanted to live to do, and one of them was to ordain me. Throughout my career, I have had a picture of Dr. Glueck hanging above my desk, together with a letter from his wife dated March 19, 1971. The letter ends this way: “I have already told you how meaningful your ordination would have been for him and how he would have loved to have seen that day. I am sure when I see you ordained, in my mind’s eye I will see his hands on your shoulders, for no matter whose hands are there the meaning will be clear, the continuity of Jewish life and his immortality of spirit.”

I came to HUC-JIR because I wanted to be a congregational rabbi. That dream was fulfilled for me in 1981 when I became rabbi of Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, New Jersey, a position I was privileged to hold for twenty-five years, becoming Rabbi Emerita upon my retirement. Its members were warm and welcoming, open to new ideas and unafraid of new challenges. They allowed me to be myself, to experiment and be creative, and they were willing to take responsibility for their own Jewishness, one mitzvah at a time. Together we created a temple family and studied Torah hoping to discover what God would have us do and be. Our commitment to social justice grew from year to year, as we provided a Jewish presence in our community, joining with others in the task of tikkun olam. Without my temple family, my life would never be the same. They kept me grounded and treated me, not as the first, but simply as their rabbi.

My experience tells me that we are richer for the gifts that female rabbis bring to our shared task: rethinking previous models of leadership; empowering others to become more responsible for their own Jewishness; discovering new models of divinity, knowing that God embodies characteristics both masculine and feminine; training new leaders to be more gender aware by welcoming to our institutions of higher learning respected female scholars able to share with us lessons and insights unique to women; creating new role models and allowing to be heardoften for the first timethe stories of those whose voices have been silenced for too long, the countless number of women who have enriched our people from biblical times on.

In conclusion, I want to thank my thirty-five classmates in Cincinnati for always making me feel like part of the class. To them I say: I have never forgotten that day of our ordination, when I was called to the bimah, and you very spontaneously stood up to honor this important moment in Jewish history. I think of that often and shall always be grateful for your kindness and friendship.

Rabbi Sally Priesand has the distinct honor of being the first woman rabbi in North America. She is celebrating 50 years in the Reform Rabbinate.

We look forward to celebrating 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2022 in San Diego, March 27-30, 222. CCAR rabbis can register here.