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Rabbis Torah

We Are Witnesses – Parashat Va-y’chi

The following is a d’var Torah on the Parashat Va-y’chi given by Meir Bargeron at the 74th annual convention of the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis in January 2020.


In Parashat Va-ychi, we find ourselves at the end of B’reishit, a book that covers an immense amount of literary, religious, and physical territory. From the first moments of the universe, to the court of the Egyptian pharaoh, the narrative moves from the tremendously macro-view of space, and time, and earth, to the micro-view of human relationships. And along the way, humanity and God form a relationship that eventually becomes an eternal covenant. B’reishit is vast in its scope, and its author chooses to end the story with a family drama; a drama that propels the children of Israel forward on their—and on our—trajectory to redemption and revelation. And, it is a drama that has much to say to us as rabbis about our holy work.

This moment in the life of Jacob and the lives of his sons is the culmination of decades of family dysfunction and conflict, and the Torah is its witness. This is a parashah about death and dying, about a father’s deep concern about the generations that will follow. About love that is unevenly distributed between a father and his children. About cruelty between brothers and its after-effects. Va-ychi is about truth-telling at the end of life.

Imagine for a moment being in the room with Jacob and his sons at the end of his life, knowing the stories of what all they have been through, and hearing each story from the array of perspectives. Imagine being called on to provide care and comfort to Jacob, to Joseph, and to Ruben, Simeon, and Levi. What challenging pastoral work this would be!

We rabbis are the collectors of people’s stories, and we hold them. Just as the Torah is a witness to the lives of the matriarchs and patriarchs; as rabbis we are witnesses to the lives of the souls under our care—in beautiful and in painful moments. We provide spiritual care and comfort to people as they endure illness and approach death. We listen as they tell us their regrets and hear their Vidui as they seek God’s forgiveness. Sometimes the duty falls upon us to say this confessional prayer for them. We are witnesses to the humanity of these exquisite and excruciating moments. It is our sacred responsibility.

Caring for people through their pain and through their losses is indeed sacred work. And we offer our care at a great personal cost. We do this willingly; it is part of who we are as rabbis. We are called to serve in these sacred moments, and we are almost always the only rabbi in the room.

In these rooms of sacred care, we hold stories of great family pain, and stories of joy and stories of death and life and every mess, every trauma, in between. The relationships we observe and the stories we hear become psychically and spiritually connected to our own stories; particularly to our losses, our sadness, our fears. For a fleeting, soul-searing moment, these stories become our stories. They become etched on the parchment of our own soul’s torah, that is weathered and worn, and achingly beautiful. The torah of our souls must be tended to with loving care, or the ink will smear, the scroll may tear. We rabbis can tear, if we fail to tend to ourselves and each other.

We are indeed often the only rabbi in the room. Yet, we need help to hold these exquisite and excruciating moments of life. We need our professional networks, we need our friends who understand this awesome responsibility, we need our rabbis—we need each other.

Here is my audacious request of you, of each of us: make a call, send a text, reach out to care or to be cared for. On this Shabbat, when you say the Mi Shebeirach for healing, include in your silent prayers a prayer for sacred caregivers, for those who hold the stories of others, for each of us.


Meir Bargeron, MSW is a member of the ordination class of 2020 at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. He will enter the rabbinate following a career in clinical social work and non-profit administration. Meir is a rabbinic intern at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA. 

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Rabbis

Unexpectedly Stumbling Upon a Unique Jewish Destination in Italy!

Sometimes, life’s unexpected surprises are to be found at arm’s length or, quite literally, around the corner! But I digress…

Earlier this summer, my two younger daughters and I spent a week in Italy primarily to celebrate my niece’s, their first cousin’s wedding which took place on beautiful, isola d’Elba, the Island of Elba.

Before our departure for Napoleon’s once-temporary home, we spent our first two nights in the bucolic northern Italian town of Crema, my niece’s husband’s parents ancestral home. Less than an hour and a half’s drive from Milan, we could not have asked for a more delightful, picturesque town, one dating back to the 6th century: a veritable maze of narrow, cobbled-stone streets lined with brightly-painted, flower-bedecked homes; elegant, private palazzo’s behind ornate, wrought-iron gates and fashionable boutiques leading to the central “Piazza Duomo,” awash with outdoor restaurants and cafes.

The plaque on the outside of the Museum.

Crema, however, is not your typical tourist’s destination. On the contrary; I suspect that very few Americans have ever ventured into the town but Asians, for example, are now arriving in unprecedented numbers. Why? Because Crema was chosen as the site for the full-length 2017 award-winning movie “Call Me by Your Name,” directed by Luca Guadagnino, who just happens to be a local resident.  Imagine my daughters surprise when they were told that the movie’s two male stars, Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer, also stayed at our charming, six-bedroom B&B on Via Vimercati!

Crema, a town of approximately 34,000, has apparently no Jewish residents nor are there to be found any synagogue remains. I was told, however, that a tiny Jewish quarter was once situated directly behind and in the shadow of the Duomo, the Cathedral, that continues to dominate the main piazza.

I had asked my wife, Randy, to purchase a National Geographic map of Italy before our departure. I was interested and curious to know where we were going to be. Imagine my surprise when, after finding Crema in the Lombardy region of the country, I couldn’t help but notice that one of the closest geographical places to Crema was none other than Soncino!  I was astonished; all I knew was that the village associated with Jewish printing was in Italy but, to all intents and purposes, it might well have been hundreds of miles away. On the contrary; it was just around the corner! Literally!

The inscription attesting to the “…word of God from Soncino…” (Sefer Ha’ikkarim, 1485)

I asked my niece’s now father-in-law, Alberto, if he wouldn’t mind taking my father and I to visit the “Museo della Stampa,” the Printing Museum which also houses the “Centro Studi Stampatori Ebrei Soncino,” the Soncino Hebrew Printers’ Study Center. Alberto was only too pleased to help. He promptly called and was told that the Museum was only open that day for two hours from 10:00am to 12 noon. By then it was already 10:15; we hadn’t a moment to lose! It was now or never for we were all leaving bright and early the following morning for the coastal town of Piombino in order to take the ferry over to Elba.

After driving for about 20 minutes through corn fields and non-descript industrial plants, we duly arrived at 8 Via Lanfranco, a tall, old brick building dedicated to the history of the printing press but also to Soncino’s truly unique Jewish history: it was here, supposedly on the very site where the Museum is now located, that the world’s very first edition of the Hebrew Bible was printed! Those of us at all familiar with translated Biblical and Talmudic texts recognize the unsurpassed quality of the iconic “Soncino Press” printers’ mark (with its iconic tower probably connected with the neighboring municipality of Casalmaggiore), universally acknowledged as, arguably, the oldest and most venerable Jewish printing house in the world.

The Museum at 8 Via Lanfranco, Soncino.

The history of Jewish printing is forever linked with the village of Soncino (2018 population just over 7,800 including one Jew, Aldo Villagrossi!) thanks to a Jewish family who, due to anti-Jewish discrimination, had fled the German city of Speyer, near Mainz. Due to an edict authorized by Francesco Sforza, the Duke of Milan, Israel Nathan b. Samuel’s family was given permission to set up a loan business in Soncino in 1454. After some three decades, the family decided to embark on a new business: that of printing and published their first work, the Talmudic tractate Berachot, on February 2, 1484.  However, the so-called “Familia Soncino,” (“Sonchino” in Italian) made history when on, April 22, 1488, they printed “…La Prima Bibbia Ebraica Completa…” the first complete edition of the Hebrew Bible, with vowels! It should be noted that the Soncino’s printing house was the only one of its kind in Italy from the last decade of the 15th century to the first quarter of the 16th century.

The late Gothic-style, tower-like building on Via Lanfranco and its carefully planned masonry – with inner tough bricks suitable to support the planking and outer waterproof bricks – together with the larger rooms on the ground floor and the ogival windows on the upper floors, suggest that it might well have been the very site of the Soncino’s printing house and home.  It was renovated and officially opened in 1988, to mark the quincentennial anniversary of the first complete printing of the Hebrew Bible. A translation of the marble plaque affixed to the outside brick wall reads as follows: “This building has been designated as the home of the Jewish printers who named themselves after the town of Soncino and printed numerous books in this village from 1483 to 1492 among which was the first complete Hebrew Bible in 1488. The owner, Dr. Francesco Cerioli, gave it to the local authorities so that it would become the venue for the study of the Soncino Printers. 22 September 1991.” 

A facsimile of the first page of the first printed edition of the Hebrew Bible, April 22, 1488.

I am extremely grateful to Francesca Perotti, the Museum’s Curator, for the time she spent with us and for her invaluable insight. She made a freshly-minted copy for me of “Pagina iniziale della Bibbia stampata a Soncino il 22 aprile 1488,” the very first page from the very first printed edition of the Hebrew Bible which just happens to contain Genesis 1:1-14. I couldn’t help but notice that in addition to the Museum’s own watermark, the lithograph also includes a parody (in both Hebrew and Italian) of the famous biblical quote from Isaiah (2:3): “For out of Zion shall go forth the Law and the word of God from…Soncino!!”

While my visit to Sunsi (as it’s known locally) was all too short, it was truly memorable! Who knew that just down the road from nearby Crema, in a remote corner of what was once the Jewish quarter of a small Lombardy village, the very first edition of the Hebrew Bible was printed over 531 years ago!


Rabbi Robert S. Leib serves Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington, PA.

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lifelong learning Rabbis

Finding Our Authenticity as Rabbis: Sermon from Ordination, Cincinnati, 2019

Rabbi Hara Person, incoming Chief Executive of CCAR, delivered this sermon during the Ordination at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati this past Shabbat. It was her great honor to have been invited by the ordinees to address them, and she is grateful to have been invited to be part of their ordination.

Authenticity

In the waning days of my fifth year as a rabbinic student, a rabbi posed a question to my class. He asked: How will you come to feel authentic as a rabbi?

And I remember instinctively blurting out an answer: When I grow a beard. 

In retrospect, it’s funny. But it’s also not so funny. The image I had in my head even after five years of rabbinic school was still man with a beard and a kippah. In part my comment was about gender, but it wasn’t only about that. I was gauging my sense of self by what I believed to be the view of others. I was looking at myself from the outside rather than searching within. At that moment, I couldn’t imagine who I would become as a rabbi, and what my rabbinate might look like. All I could feel was the gnawing dread of not being authentic. 

My worry about authenticity wasn’t simply that I was insecure – yes, that too. But there were bigger forces at play. At that moment I knew what I couldn’t be as a rabbi, but I couldn’t yet imagine who or what I could be. I worried that as a first- generation Reform Jew, not having attended Reform summer camp or been in NFTY, not having those childhood connections and shared vocabulary, that I would be less than fully authentic. I also worried that being a woman rabbi with two small children, and the employment choices I made as a result of my children, would make me less than a “real” rabbi.

Today’s parashah asks the questions that I struggled with as I looked toward ordination twenty-one years ago: Who do you want to be? How will you get there? What’s going to happen if…? 

Much of this parashah hangs on the word im, “if.” The first “if” follows with a cascade of goodness. IF you follow my laws and my commandments –  rain will fall on your fields and you will have everything in abundance, you will live in peace, and Adonai will be your God, present always in your midst. The blessings are all conditioned by that one initial “if.” But the flipside of the equation pounds forth with “if” after “if.” IF you do not obey me, IF you spurn my laws, IF you remain hostile – the “if”s hammer away at us, one after the other, an ongoing reminder of the potentiality that things may not work out well.

The repeated trope of “if,” harsh as it may feel in that second list, actually reminds us: the future is not based on what we’ve already done. Rather, the text insists that the future is still in formation, it is dependent on the choices we make in the present, and will continue to make, as we set the direction of our own internal compasses.

“If” is a perfect word for today, a liminal space between what is and what will be. Imagine who and what you want to be as a rabbi. Whether you are setting out to work in a congregation, chaplaincy, a school, an organization, Hillel, the military, go to medical school, or wherever your rabbinic calling may lead you, you are choosing to set out to do sacred work. Your IF, your rabbinic compass, is setting you in the direction of doing what you can to bring more goodness, more justice, and more healing into the world, to live up your highest aspirations.

This path you’re choosing requires great courage and great faith. Sometimes the way through is going to be obvious to you. You will be at a bedside or in front a classroom or on the bima, and you will suddenly realize that you are fully there, fully rabbinic and sure of yourself in that moment. But sometimes, you will feel less certain. 

The choices we face as rabbis are often not as clear as the binary choice between right and wrong, good and bad, as set out in our parashah. There will be moments when you find yourself writing at your desk or sitting with someone in pain or trying to soothe someone’s anger, or for that matter, maybe when you’re moving chairs for the tenth time in a week, and you’ll think: Why am I here? Is this who I am? Why does this matter? What am I supposed to do now? 

I remember the deep angst I had upon becoming ordained and watching my classmates take what looked like big and exciting positions – full-time congregational callings rather than the less-than part-time organizational job to which I was headed. I looked to their glorious futures, and felt that my choice, by comparison, while realistic for me, a not-totally-full-time position that would enable me to be at home in the evenings with my small children, was insignificant compared to the careers my classmates were sure to have. They were going to be real rabbis, while I was, I didn’t even know what, juggling as fast I could just to keep all the balls in the air, doing the best I could. Twenty-one years later, what I can stand here and tell you today is that no one’s journey was as expected. Not mine and not theirs. Along with many successes there were also unanticipated detours and curves in the road for everyone, many opportunities for self-reflection, much learning and growth, and sometimes redirection. The journey hasn’t always been easy, but it has always remained a sacred challenge to be our best selves, to make the best choices, and to do our best for those we serve. 

Our Jewish history is full of people called by God to embark on a sacred journey. Think of Abraham, told by God to leave his country, his homeland, and his father’s house, and to set out into the unknown. Etz Hayim teaches: God’s first words to Abram, Lech Lecha, mean, “go forth and discover your authentic self, to learn who you are meant to be.” This is to be a journey not only to fulfill God’s plan, but of self-discovery, one that allows Abraham to grow into his true self. 

Think of other examples of going out into uncomfortable new spaces – recall Rebekah being asked if she would leave her home to make a journey with a stranger, to go marry Jacob, also a stranger, and live amongst a tribe of strangers. Dr. Judith Baskin, in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, cites a comment from Midrash HaGadol that typically, when a woman would be promised in marriage, she was too embarrassed to give her consent or to reject.[1]But as Baskin notes, Rebekah forcefully and clearly makes known her assent. Her direct response, “I will go,” reveals a sense of mission and purpose, and an understanding that her destiny lies elsewhere.  As Dr. Yairah Amit writes, “Women’s contributions to the fulfillment of national destiny finds its expression not only in their role as child bearers but also in their ability to take bold and vital action at critical moments.”[2]

Both Abraham and Rebekah, with no idea of what lay ahead, boldly set out on epic missions, journeys that impact dramatically on the narrative of the Jewish people. They go into the uncomfortable unknown, with faith as their compass, to become who they are meant to be and to fulfill their destiny. 

As you become rabbis and set out into the unknown today, it is your emunah, your faith in God, in the future of the Jewish people, in our collective destiny, that has gotten you to this moment of being a Rav b’Yisrael, a rabbi. The people you serve, in whatever way you serve, are going to look to you to be someone in whom they can maamin – believe in, have trust in, and entrust with theiremunah – their faith. It will be up to you to provide a sense of rabbinic authenticity that comes not from knowing all the right answers, but from having the courage to ask the right questions. 

It won’t always be easy. After all, for all that faith matters, we are not B’nei Emunah, we are B’nei Yisrael (with no offense meant to any members of any Congregation B’nei Emunahs), not the Children of Faith but the Children of Israel, those who struggle with God. Faith leads us, but if struggle comes to you, welcome it, use it for self-reflection because that too is real and will allow you to keep growing. 

There may be voices that question or challenge your authenticity – but only you get to determine it and define it. How you convey your authenticity and your sense of emunah as you grow into your rabbinate will enable those you serve to feel that you are amin, reliable and trustworthy. And when you are amin, those you will serve will be able to truly say, amen; you will be a blessing to them. 

The root that amin shares with emunah goes into many other directions as well, one of which is oman, artist, and omanut, artIn becoming your authentic rabbinic self and growing into your rabbinic authority as someone who is aminand leads from a personal sense of emunah, you will also become an oman, the artist of your rabbinate, defining its contours and texture, its colors and brushstrokes.

The companion to rabbinic authenticity is rabbinic authority. Being the careful, thoughtful author of your rabbinate will nourish your rabbinic authority. A successful rabbinate depends on maintaining the right balance of authenticity, authority, and, yes, humility.  Be sure of what you stand for, nurture and question and redefine your emunah, ask the big and hard questions, and be willing always to learn, and to be wrong. If you encounter a challenge or a problem, be open to the truth of it, no matter how painful, and figure out how the situation can enable you to grow. No doubt about it, this is hard work:  being a rabbi, taking care of yourself and your family and the Jewish people, and remembering why this work matters. Have courage, be brave, and ask for help – talk to a trusted friend or a teacher or mentor. Call the CCAR. Get a coach. Take a class in an area in which you need to further develop.

You will grow as rabbis and as people, and the rabbis you become will likely look different from what you can imagine today. Not every day will feel fulfilling and meaningful. But each of you, no matter how and where you serve, no matter how winding your path will be, will grow into your own rabbinic authenticity. You will become a new model of a rabbi – each of you will broaden the definition of who and what a rabbi is, what a rabbi looks like, what a rabbi does, whatever your gender expression or sexuality or color or size or skill, with beards or without, with kippot or without, in congregations or in organizations or Hillels or hospitals or schools or in whatever rabbinic path you follow. Be open to surprising avenues that may unfurl before you. Remember that you don’t need to know everything, and remember too that you never will.

In her poem “Insufficient Knowledge[3]” the poet Bronwyn Lea writes:

You have to start with insufficient knowledge,
yes, this, and yes, praise be, then this,
you have to have that kind of courage.


A breath, a step, a word: it’s to your advantage
to begin. There isn’t time to wait for grace—
you have to start with insufficient knowledge.


Think of the first human to sail over the edge
of the world, or a base jumper departing an edifice:
you have to have that kind of courage.


Break your fists, your back, your brain, punch
yourself an opening. This is all there is:
you have to start with insufficient knowledge


of the heart, that higher organ, which
from time to time catches us by surprise
and we startle with the kind of courage


that will spend it all, not hold back, wage
everything, all, right away, every time, yes.
You have to love with insufficient knowledge,
you have to have that kind of courage.

I share this poem with you today because it speaks to my rabbinic story – the fear of not knowing and not being enough, the impulse toward courage anyway, the voracious willingness to jump all in despite the trepidation, the stretch of opening the heart and being vulnerable. “Punch yourself an opening,” the poem tells us, get yourself in there where you long to be. So much of these twenty-one years since ordination has felt like that. My early years in the rabbinate were a constant master class in assertiveness training as I learned to speak up and be heard, to be in the conversations that mattered, to claim my authenticity and authority as a rabbi, to create my rabbinic self and share it with others.

So now here we all are together. You’re about to start your rabbinic voyage, taking on new responsibilities and challenges. And I’m about to start my new rabbinic adventure as well. None of us know what awaits us. But I do know this. These experiences ahead of us will change us. And from these changes will arise new hopes and new possibilities, new understandings of self, new skills and outlooks, new callouses and muscles. Like it has for me, your path will most likely contain unexpected plot twists. Those children I mentioned, who so shaped my choices upon ordination, are now adults out in the world. As they grew, I grew, as a mother and as a rabbi. The road before me that I once thought was clear, albeit limited, branched out into surprising new directions that I could not have imagined at ordination, standing as I did in the present of that moment. 

So as you step out in the unknown, have courage. And also unapologetic tenacity. And chutzpah. Don’t prevaricate. Practice humility, yes, but not having all the answers doesn’t mean apologizing for who or what you are, or aren’t. Don’t wait for someone else to tell you that you’re ready. 

Go out there into the unknown. Write your rabbinic story. We can’t wait to see it unfold.


Rabbi Hara Person is the Chief Strategy Officer of Central Conference of American Rabbis and Publisher of CCAR Press. Rabbi Person was recently named the incoming Chief Executive of the CCAR and will assume that position on July 1, 2019.

[1]TWC p. 128
[2]TWC p. 122
[3]Lea, Bronwyn, The Other Way Out, Artarmon, New South Wales : Giramondo Publishing, 2008. p.69

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gender equality lifelong learning Rabbis

Spiritual Lessons from the Exercise Bicycle

We’re not big romantics in our house, and in a good year, Valentine’s Day may consist of a card featuring golden retriever puppies and a vase filled with pink flowers. But a few weeks ago in honor of this Hallmark-generated holiday, my husband decided to help keep our middle-aged hearts healthy by investing in a home exercise bicycle. Unlike me, my husband is extremely disciplined in his diet and his commitment to physical fitness. I, however, was raised by a mom who believed that Jewish people should exercise their brains and leave cultivation of physical brawn to lesser minds. It’s hard to shake that kind of bias, even as an adult who understands the importance of maintaining a sound body. Of course I want to be in good working order, to be healthy and strong. I’m just not all that coordinated, and I have never been able to find a compelling exercise regimen. In honor of this pagan love festival, though, and for the sake of my heart, I relented and tried one of the streaming exercise classes that was an integral part of this biking experience.
Grudgingly, I approached the spinning bicycle. At first, I couldn’t even put the shoes on properly. Yes, I could handle the Velcro straps at the top of the shoes, but the bottom strap was a bit more complicated and required simultaneous tugging and pressing down on a lever. Clipping my fancy shoes into the pedals was tougher than tap dancing, but one of my sons managed to guide my feet into the correct spots until we heard the reassuring click.  Finally, I selected a class from a menu of incredibly fit instructors. Touted as a beginner’s class, the half hour would have resulted in a brain hemorrhage if I had not modified my input. Daunted, but not defeated, I promised myself that I would try again.
The next day, armed with a larger water bottle and a better attitude, I selected a different instructor. This class went much better, although I still needed to adjust my workout so that I didn’t feel light-headed. I found a computer generated “leader board” ranking my progress against 15,000 other riders to be a demoralizing nuisance, so I slid it off of the screen. This instructor spent time talking about how the bicycle worked, how to hold my back in a more comfortable posture, how to breathe. She told us to listen to our own breathing, push enough, but not hurt ourselves. I was tired and shaky after this ride, too, but I was willing to try again the next day.
As a newbie to the exercise bike, testing out the various instructors has been eye opening. Of course, being an instructor for Peloton, Soul Cycle, or Fly Wheel is not the same as being a rabbi. Yet, there are some fascinating lessons that I’ve learned in my brief foray into biking classes that relate to both leading an exercise class and religious services.
  1. Don’t judge an instructor by her outfit, and try not to judge a rabbi by the way she looks.  Initially, I wanted to reject every perky, Barbie doll looking instructor with the “I Dream of Jeannie” ponytails (okay, they all have those high, endlessly shiny hairdos). I just felt frumpy watching them and expected them to be ditzy. Some fulfilled my expectations and were, in fact, annoying. They posed for the camera, smiled like they were on a Disney kids’ show waiting for a canned laugh, and giggled through some of the class. Not my cup of tea. Yet, other instructors who looked equally beautiful had intelligent comments about breathing, stretching, and fitness in general.  As a female rabbi, I know that many of us, especially, are judged by our appearance. We’re told that our hair is too long or too short, too natural or too processed. We desperately need to wear some lipstick or wear way too much makeup. Our suits look boring, or our dresses are too distracting. Take a breath, and try not to let the appearance get in the way of what a rabbi (or an exercise instructor) is supposed to do.
  2. A rabbi cannot be all things to all people. Peloton would never hire just one instructor to teach all of its classes. One teacher is a biking expert, another has a background as a professional dancer. Some instructors tell you to sing along to the music, and other teachers tell you that if all you want to do is sing to take another class. One instructor shared a cute story about how her daughter helped pick the playlist for the class, and other instructors don’t seem particularly kid friendly. Rabbis are like this, as well. Some rabbis are more intellectual, others love to sing, and others are all about forming a community. We expect our rabbis to somehow fulfill the needs of every congregant simultaneously. There’s just no way this is a reasonable expectation.
  3. The exercise bike experience also taught me something important about leading services for congregants. As the person directing the pace of the prayers, we need to understand that some of the worshippers may be first-timers. They may not even know metaphorically how to clip in their shoes, and we expect them to keep up a ridiculously high speed when they are on the verge of passing out spiritually. Everyone comes to synagogue for her or his own reason. We can’t expect our congregants to engage fully if we are not engaging in the class right along with them. How can a biking instructor or a rabbi know if the resistance is too difficult if he or she is simply looking ahead to announce the next element of the class or service?
  4. So far, every instructor I’ve tuned in to has encouraged riders to “open your heart.” In exercise and in religion, this advice is pretty much on target. And the only leader board you need to worry about is the one in your own mind. I’ll keep up the beginner rides when my kids go back to school next week, but maybe someone out there could please help me get those shoes out of the pedals.

Rabbi Sharon Forman serves Westchester Reform Temple and was a contributor to CCAR Press’s The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality.

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Rabbis

Anticipating Retirement

In five months I will retire from my position and close a 40-year sojourn in the vineyard of the congregational rabbinate – the last 30 years in my current congregation at Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles.

I confess, as I move through the weeks and that final day in June, 2019 comes closer, that I have mixed feelings. I anticipate missing much of what has occupied my time and energy throughout the years, the many people I love and care about, the privileged presence I’ve had in the lives of others, and the multitude of weighty ethical and moral issues that confront us rabbis so frequently. I’ll miss especially the intensity of helping people from the cradle to the grave.

I have learned much about people and myself these past 40 years. I’ve been pushed to the limits of my abilities countless times. I hope only that I have met adequately those challenges. I have learned and taught much Torah and shared as best I can my learning and wisdom with my community.

We have created much together in my congregation over the years and the community has evolved in wondrous ways. I have taken controversial positions vis a vis American and Israeli justice, and though many have disagreed with me (sometimes vehemently), I would hope that they know that my criticism comes from a place of love.

Being in Hollywood, my community is as diverse as any in the country. We include Jews from around the world, all the religious streams, Jews and their non-Jewish spouses and partners,  Jews-by-choice, LGBTQ Jews, Jews of color, people with widely varying degrees of wealth from the most fortunate to the least secure, “Hollywood” Jews who work in television, motion pictures, music, the arts, journalists, educators and professors, politicians and diplomats, physicians and health care professionals, lawyers and judges, financial experts and business people, self-employed entrepreneurs and the unemployed.

I have been fortunate to have had consistently a deeply meaningful and exciting rabbinic career. In five months I will step aside, let others carry on, and give up most of what I do as I embark on the next stage of my life.

I am ready to change my frame of my mind to whatever the future holds for me. I will assure my successor (an interim the first year and a seated rabbi the following year) that I intend to be a great emeritus – meaning, I will not be around much nor will I allow myself to be drawn into discussions with congregants and staff about new directions the new rabbi is taking that help no one – not me, not the congregant, not my successor, and not the congregation as a whole. I trust my lay leadership and my colleagues currently on staff who will remain and carry on.

As a new grandparent too, I realize how important it is for me to hold my counsel unless invited in, to avoid offering advice or being critical in any way. I have had my time. It’s now the occasion for me to move aside.

I have heard horror stories about the behavior of some emeritus/a rabbis who have a difficult time letting go. That will not be me. My hope for my successor is that he or she will be as gratified as I have been doing the sacred work I have enjoyed for so long. If I can help him or her in any way, I will happily and supportively respond – but only when asked.

There is a time and a season for everything under the heavens – so true!

Rabbi John L. Rosove serves Temple Israel of Hollywood of Los Angeles, CA.  

Categories
interfaith Israel Rabbis

Making Strides for Religious Understanding in the Holy Land

Pastor Todd Buurstra, Dr. Ali Chaudry, and I have been making strides together for some time now. Moved by the travel ban that singled out Muslims for discrimination, we organized a prayer vigil that brought together a community of communities representing nine different religions to stand together against hate. A few months ago, after the president announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris Accords on climate change, we held an interfaith teach-in on environmental responsibility that included 10 different religious traditions.

Recently, the three of us were blessed to make pilgrimage to the Holy Land — to walk in the footsteps of the forebears of our three faiths, bear witness to the truths that each of us holds dear, and reflect on the greater truth of the One God that unites us all.

Pastor Todd and I shared our journey with the CCAR Interfaith Clergy Mission to Israel, which included six rabbis, six Christian clergy, and one imam; Dr. Ali joined Rabbi Marc Kline on an Interfaith Clergy Mission with the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ. Though these two missions were organized under different auspices, their itineraries were so similar that it is possible to speak of them as if we had shared the same experience.

Upon reflection, Pastor Todd, Dr. Ali, and I agreed that the most powerful aspects of our journey fell into three categories: Witnessing Faith, Witnessing Hope, and Witnessing Modern Israel — Jews, Arabs, and Palestinians.

Witnessing Faith

I have visited the holy places of other faiths before, but I must confess that such encounters were primarily of academic or historical interest. This time, the experience was remarkably different. Standing side by side with Christian and Muslim friends for whom these sites were part of their living-faith narrative made them come alive with emotion and drama. We were witnessing each other’s faith as we listened to the stories of events that happened in each place and saw them through each other’s eyes.

We spoke openly and soulfully about what these events and places mean to us, how they have shaped us, and also of our struggles to reconcile the contradictions inherent in religious symbolism. I noted the discomfort of my Christian colleagues as they watched coreligionists kissing the burial slab of Jesus. And they saw my distress at how the Western Wall has become a place of exclusion, division, and even violence against those who don’t hew to ultra-Orthodox interpretations. The more we learned and engaged in heartfelt dialogue, the more we returned to the same mantra to describe what we were observing, intoning like a chorus the words, “It’s complicated!” But through all the complexity there was the deep emotion of witnessing each other’s faith that touched our souls. Through the differences we saw an illuminating similarity shining through, and that was the shared experience of God’s presence in the world and in our lives.

Witnessing Hope

News reports from Israel and the Middle East depict a bleak reality of bitter conflict and discord. Rarely do the media offer reason for optimism. But there is much more to the picture than hatred and violent struggle. There is also cooperation, coexistence, understanding, and even loving fellowship between Jews and Arabs, Christians, Jews, and Muslims. It may not make the headlines, but it is there to be seen, and it is cause for hope.

One shining example is the work of an organization called Roots, which was founded by former extremists Rabbi Hannan Schlesinger and Ali Abu Awad. Hannan is a West Bank settler who once believed that the entire Land of Israel was given by God to the Jewish people. He had never met a Palestinian face to face. In fact, he says they were invisible to him. Then, one day, he had a transformational encounter with a Palestinian neighbor that compelled him to understand and embrace the truth that there is another people, the Palestinians, who have a legitimate claim to the same land and a right to their own sovereign state.

We met Hannan along with a young Palestinian man from Bethlehem named Noor Awad. Noor and his family have experienced great hardship under Israeli occupation, and many of his friends have embraced the path of militant resistance. But Noor, too, was moved by a human encounter with his neighbors, Jewish settlers whom he has embraced as partners in the pursuit of peace and reconciliation. At this stage, Roots is promoting dialogue and human understanding, but they realize that this is a precursor to the quest for a political solution that will involve two states that share one homeland.

Witnessing Modern Israel — Jews, Arabs, and Palestinians

From afar, the Middle East takes on a mythic quality. It seems more like a seething cauldron of powerful forces that threatens to overflow and scorch the earth than the actual pastoral landscape of hills and valleys, verdant vineyards, bustling cities, and diverse people living colorful lives day by day. The land of the Bible, the place where Jesus lived and taught and the site of Muhammad’s rise to heaven, is also a thriving modern country inhabited by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It is not a place only of dreams deferred, but also one of dreams fulfilled, though certainly more so for the Jewish people than the Palestinians. But here, too, lies a source of hope. Israel is a model of a people dispersed and despised returning home to build a nation where they can be self-reliant.

That quest has come at a cost. Security is a constant challenge, as we saw when we visited the northern border, where threats loom large from Hezbollah and ISIS in Syria and Lebanon. Standing on the Golan Heights, it was clear to all why Israel had to take control of the hills from which Syrian artillery rained down on Jewish communities in the valley below from 1948-1967.

Similarly, one cannot fully understand what Israel means to the Jewish people unless one goes to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. It brings home with the most painful clarity why the Jewish people believe in the necessity of a sovereign Jewish state. One of the most meaningful moments of our journey was the tearful embrace of a Christian colleague that conveyed to me the depth of that understanding.

Yes, Israel is a complicated reality. Yes, there is so much more to do to realize the promise of peace and dignity for all the people who are destined to share that holy land. But we, three faith leaders from Central New Jersey on a pilgrimage to the roots of our respective faiths, discovered the greater truth of all our faiths that was forged on that sacred soil — that we are all children of the One God, sisters and brothers who must learn to love one another and share the gifts that God has given us.

Rabbi Arnold Gluck serves Temple Beth-El of Hillsborough, New Jersey.

Categories
Israel Rabbis Social Justice

Speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘Appoint for yourselves cities of refuge’

Jewish history is peppered by tragic events. These are just a few:

1182 – the expulsion of the Jews of France
1290 – the expulsion of the Jews of England
1306 – the great expulsion from France: tens of thousands of Jews infiltrate into Belgium and Spain
1351 – large numbers of Jews infiltrate into Poland
1492 – the expulsion from Spain: tens of thousands of Jews infiltrate into Central Europe, North Africa, and the Ottoman Empire, including my own family, which is scattered in Austria, Italy, and Crete
1507 – the expulsion of the Jews of Italy, Sicily, and Sardinia
1881-1914 – hundreds of thousands of Jews infiltrate into Europe and the United States
1939 – the SS St. Louis, carrying 939 Jewish refugees, sails from country to country begging for asylum

We are all the children, grandchildren, and descendants of asylum seekers and refugees! Refugee-hood is embedded in the Jewish DNA and accordingly we cannot stand by and remain silent in the face of expulsion.

Israel is currently home to 26,563 asylum seekers from Eritrea, 7,624 from Sudan, and 2,638 from various other African countries. Of these, 7,000 are women; approximately 2,000 are victims of torture in Sinai and of trafficking in women; and approximately 1,500 are single men imprisoned at the Holot detention camp. The population of minors is around 5,000 – 7,000.

The Migration Authority is recruiting immigration inspectors who will be responsible for distributing deportation orders, organizing documents for “voluntary departure” and other administrative functions, and examining the RDC applications that have already been submitted. Since January 1, 2018, the authorities are not accepting any new asylum applications. In the present stage, children, women, and parents responsible for their children’s well-being are not to be deported.

When the authorities wish to foment hatred among the majority against a specific group, they accuse the group of constituting a threat to society at large: They are taking our jobs; they are parasites (or worse – a cancer in the back of the nation); they are criminals who are ruining our neighborhoods; they will take over the country; they are the reason for unemployment/crime/diseases, and so forth. Pharaoh made exactly the same allegations against the Children of Israel:

“And he said to his people: ‘See, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, in the event of war, that they also join themselves unto our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land.’” (Exodus 1:9-10)

The State of Israel was one of the sponsors of the UN Refugees Convention at a time when Europe was flooded with Jewish refugees in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Israel defines itself as a “Jewish state.” Yet now Israel intends to deport thousands of asylum seekers from Africa who fled for their lives. By so doing, it is violating the Biblical commandment “Do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood” (Leviticus 19:16). Israel plans to deport the asylum seekers to countries that are still recovering from bloodbaths and are not capable of absorbing an additional traumatized population.

As we stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai we declared: “We will do and we will understand.” We undertook to observe the constitution that turns us into a nation. At that moment, not knowing that we ourselves would time after time find ourselves strangers in a strange land, we promised that in our own land we would show great love for the stranger.

In Exodus we read: You know the heart of a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). The word “stranger” appears 92 times in the Bible in various forms, underlining the sensitivity of Jewish tradition to the condition and status of the non-Jew. Now, as a sovereign people in our own land, we have forgotten this!

Some 90 years before Herzl wrote The Old New Land and the Jewish people began to dream of establishing its own state, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch commented: “Therefore beware – so the text warns – of making rights in your own state conditional on anything other than on that pure humanity that dwells in the heart of every human being per se. With any limitation in these human rights, a gate is opened to the whole horror of Egypt.” (Commentary on Exodus 22:20) Violating the rights of asylum seekers and deporting them to the unknown is the “horror of Egypt!”

And so, three Reform rabbis – Rabbi Susan Silverman, Rabbi Nava Hefetz, and Rabbi Tamara Schagas – have launched an initiative called Miklat Israel (“Israel refuge.”) The goal of the initiative is to urge the general public in Israel to defend asylum seekers facing lethal danger.

In just two weeks, 1,000 families and individuals from throughout Israel promised to hide asylum seekers. We also contacted the kibbutz movement and some 1,500 members of kibbutzim across the country have also agreed to help.

We are in regular contact with the leaders of the asylum seekers’ communities and are working in full cooperation with them. Jewish tradition demands that we cherish the sanctity of every human life, created in God’s image – and all the more so the lives of people liable to be deported to uncertainty and danger. We believe that the decision by the Israeli government to deport the asylum seekers is a grossly unlawful one, and that we must struggle to remove this proposal from the agenda of Israeli society.

We urge you, our sisters and brothers in North America and around the world, to join our campaign to defend the asylum seekers in Israel. Make your voices heard loudly and help us avert the evil decree. You can contact us at miklatisrael@gmail.com

“Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and they that return of her with righteousness” (Isaiah 1:27)

Rabbi Nava Hefetz serves Miklat Israel, and is the Director of Education at Rabbis for Human Rights

 

Categories
CCAR Convention Rabbis spirituality

50 Years a Rabbi: A Path Less Traveled

Martin Buber’s philosophy and Hasidic spiritual revival, along with my attraction to intensive small group experiences, brought me to rabbinical school. Five years later, as a senior at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, I had my life mapped out: I accepted a Fellowship to the Social Psychology Department at the University of Michigan, along with an appointment to the part-time congregation there. But Richard Levy, an upper-class mentor at HUC, urged me to meet with his senior rabbi, Leonard Beerman, z”l, even though I insisted I was not available to be his next assistant.

Nevertheless, Leonard offered me the job, and then brought me to Los Angeles to meet some members of Leo Baeck Temple, a congregation famous for its social activism and non-theological teachings. Just before I was to return to Cincinnati, having once again declined his offer, Leonard said something like, “When I was beginning my career, I wish I had been able to be with someone who could help me with things like weddings and funerals.” Suddenly feeling how very unprepared I was, I said, “Okay. I’m coming.”

Not everyone was happy with my sudden change of direction, but, months later, when I met with a father and three children who brought with them the suicide note of their 41-year-old wife and mother, I gratefully marched into my senior rabbi’s office and laid out the situation. “What do I do?” I asked. He thought for a moment, then said, “I have no idea. Let me know what you do.”

It took me a long time to get past my sense of betrayal and realize what a gift Leonard had given me. In many ways, that moment pushed me onto my own path, needing to trust my own instincts and access a deeper Wisdom.

Pursuing my interest in small-group process, I became a Sensitivity Group leader. In the context of that intense training, some of the shells around my heart broke open, and things began to change both personally and professionally. Returning from a week at Esalen Institute in December 1969, a rockslide on Highway One shattered my basic sense of reality with what I later learned was called an OOBE, an out-of-body experience. Although it was some time before I would share that with others, I awakened to an identity beyond the limits of my physical self. Because of the profound clarity of that realization, I began learning and practicing meditation, hoping to revisit that sacred space less dramatically. I was no longer the same person who had been hired by Leo Baeck Temple a year and a half earlier, and I declined an offer of a third year.

This time, I followed Richard Levy into the Hillel environment, and at Cal State University, Northridge, I worked with Rabbi Michael Roth, a yeshiva classmate of Shlomo Carlebach, who would become my primary teacher, mentor, and friend, until his death in early 2017.

Because spirituality and meditation had become primary for me, but were not core agendas of synagogue life, I entered a graduate program at the California School of Professional Psychology in Los Angeles, where I could more openly pursue my spiritual and psychological interests. Away from the professional rabbinate, I found a surprisingly natural way of being rabbi, counseling and officiating at life-cycle moments for faculty and fellow students. Since that time, I have focused on sharing the spiritual authenticity at the heart of Jewish tradition, developing a psycho-spiritual approach to Torah. My work has included the founding of two meditative synagogues (Makom Ohr Shalom in Los Angeles in 1978, and Bet Alef in Seattle in 1993); practicing as a therapist and spiritual counselor; becoming, along with Pastor Don Mackenzie and Imam Jamal Rahman, an Interfaith Amigo; and authoring or co-authoring a number of books.

While I retired from congregational life at the end of 2009, I continue to write, do counseling, travel with my Amigos, and work as an independent teacher of a universal spirituality based in Jewish text and tradition, seeking universal teachings from other great spiritual paths in order to support the healing of person and planet that needs to be. I am deeply grateful for the road less traveled on which I have found myself.

Rabbi Ted Falcon is celebrating 50 years in the rabbinate at the upcoming 2018 CCAR Convention. 

Categories
Rabbis

What is the State of Your Mindset? Becoming a Superb Supervisor

As an Assistant Rabbi in a mid-sized congregation Devora Silver (name fictionalized) excelled at being an inspiring writer, insightful teacher, compassionate pastor, and innovative developer of programs. Devora spent the first decade of her career receiving lots of praise and enriching the lives of her congregants by “doing” the work of rabbi-ing.

When the opportunity arose, Devora accepted a senior position at a mid-sized congregation with an Assistant Rabbi, Cantor, and Educator. In preparation, she read some books about supervision and sat down with a few colleagues who gave her some tips for managing others.

Six months into the new job Devora knew something wasn’t working. Her colleagues and board members criticized her for “micro-managing.” She was working extraordinarily long hours, not only doing her job but doing others’ jobs as well. When asked about this by the congregational President, she would say, “I have a strong background in curriculum development so it’s best if I redesign the confirmation class” or “I need to make sure nothing goes wrong, so I’m going to officiate at this ceremony.” Although Devora had the skills and the smarts to succeed as a senior rabbi, something was lacking – a supervisory mindset. She had not made the mental shift from thinking like an individual contributor to thinking like a “player-coach.”

Like Devora, many rabbis believe that becoming a great senior is a matter of learning some new managerial skills. But while skills are essential for supervisory success they are insufficient. Here are four questions to assess the state of your mindset. On a scale of 1 to 10, to what extent do you agree with the following statements?

  1. I feel most fulfilled when I am achieving outcomes and enriching congregants’ lives through the efforts of others on my team. This question helps you assess your source of self-esteem – the kinds of activities from which you gain your sense of personal worth and contribution. The most effective supervisors gain an equal if not greater sense of fulfillment by achieving results through others’ efforts.
  2. I believe it is important to delegate to people who are not necessarily as talented as I am at doing a particular task. This question is about comfort with delegation and your willingness to have something achieved at a different level of quality (often, not even noticeable to congregants) in order to support someone’s professional growth.
  3. I am comfortable defining goals and success standards, and then letting go of “how” a team member goes about achieving what’s been assigned. Your answer this question is an indicator of your need to control details and have things done the way you would do them.
  4. Whenever necessary, I deliver difficult messages to members of my team in ways that might cause them to feel uncomfortable – even dislike or resent me. Rabbis in particular struggle with this one because their identity is so tied to easing suffering. However, as a supervisor you must sometimes cause discomfort in others in order to foster accountability and drive change. This question is about overcoming your need to be liked.

As a senior rabbi, you will always be an individual contributor. That won’t change. But what must change over the course of your career, if you hope to lead others, is your mindset. Can you learn to feel satisfied by achieving goals through others’ direct efforts rather than through your own? Can you let go of the details and delegate to people who will do the job differently, even less skillfully than you would? Are you willing to deliver a difficult message which may elicit anger, sadness or even conflict? To the extent that you struggle with the answers to these questions, stepping into a supervisory role becomes more than the next career challenge. It becomes a journey of psychological and spiritual development – one that inevitably invites you into deeper levels of self-awareness and creativity.

Larry Dressler is the founder of Blue Wing Consulting and an author of two books on collaborative leadership. He serves as an advisor and teacher to Reform rabbis around the country. Larry has worked with emerging leaders and teams in diverse organizations, including at Nike, Facebook, Auburn Seminary, and the Global Greengrants Fund.

 

Categories
chaplains Rabbis

Reflections on 50 Years as a Rabbi

I was ordained a rabbi on the Shabbat before the Six-Day War erupted in Israel in 1967.  Little did I realize then how powerfully that event would transform American Reform Jews for generations. Since that time, we have reclaimed once-discarded traditional rituals and have embraced Zionism enthusiastically.

After ordination, I became an Army chaplain for two years, first at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia. In that capacity, I officiated at all Jewish burials at Arlington National Cemetery, many of which involved Vietnam casualties- a painful, frustrating assignment. I was told the name of the deceased and the grave site, but nothing more. Yet I was expected to eulogize the deceased when I arrived at the grave site. After that experience, I committed myself to learning as much as I can about the deceased prior to the service to give him/her an appropriate final tribute.

While at HUC-JIR, I envisioned becoming a congregational rabbi, with an emphasis on scholarship, preaching, and teaching and without much attention to social action. Vietnam changed all that.

At Ft. Belvoir, as a military officer, I became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War and was punished for my actions by being reassigned to Korea.

Discharged in June, 1969, I interviewed for seven pulpits, three of which were assistant-ships. During that process, I discovered that I am not temperamentally suited to be an assistant rabbi and needed a solo congregation. My first pulpit was Temple B’nai Israel, in Galveston.

I continued my anti-war protests, in Galveston and received considerable affirmation from many members of my congregation. While engaged in social justice causes, I still maintained a commitment to scholarship. In 1975, I received my DHL degree, having written a dissertation on the noted medieval biblical commentator, Obadiah Sforno.

In 1976, I became Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, where I served for 26 years. I succeeded Rabbi David Jacobson, who had served the congregation for 38 years. He and his wife, Helen, were revered community leaders who supported and encouraged me during my tenure. I have tried to do the same with my successors.

From 1984 to 1990, I was editor of the Journal of Reform Judaism (now the CCAR Journal), and am grateful I could disseminate the wisdom and insights of my colleagues through this medium.

I often felt the sting of subtle anti-Semitism during my formative years. Therefore, I pledged to devote my life to combating bigotry and prejudice and to advancing interfaith understanding wherever I served. Fortunately, both Galveston and San Antonio are renowned for their healthy inter-religious climate.

I have also tried to avoid the turf battles which plague many Jewish communities and to cultivate mutually respectful relationships with rabbinical colleagues and members of all other local synagogues.

Since my retirement in 2002, Lynn and I have spent our summers at Chautauqua Institution. At this “adult brain and soul camp,” as Lynn calls it, in western New York State, I am a member of the staff of the Department of Religion. I was once named Theologian-in-Residence and have lectured there frequently. Chautauqua is the ideal setting for my interfaith work. Though its foundation is Christian, about 30% of its current participants are Jewish.

Serving as a rabbi for half a century has been a privilege and an honor. In no other calling does one gained instant entry into people’s lives, during their times of trials and triumphs.

Having been raised in western Pennsylvania, I still can’t believe that I have spent my entire civilian rabbinate in Texas. The Jewish people here are warm, gracious, and caring, but many are culturally more Texan than Jewish and tend to be more politically conservative than elsewhere.

I close with the insightful observation, “Dor dor v’dorshav– Each generation requires its own interpreters.” My rabbinate has been exceedingly rewarding and fulfilling. Yet, I realize that the Reform Jewish world has changed so significantly since my ordination 50 years ago that I doubt if I could be an effective pulpit rabbi today. Fortunately, HUC-JIR is producing a new generation of rabbis who are more attuned to the needs and aspirations of contemporary Reform Jewry.

Rabbi Samuel M. Stahl is celebrating fifty years as a CCAR Rabbi.