General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism

Unexpected Detours: The Rabbinic Career Path

One morning a few weeks ago, orange detour signs appeared on both ends of my street, making it a challenge to get to  my office.  Road closed – detour, they say, local traffic only.  This is going to be a pain, I thought, when I first saw the signs. I didn’t realize how fascinating it would become. I didn’t realize how much I would learn from the response of patients coming to my office A few people reported inching around the detour sign in hopes that they could get through to my office. One person gave up in advance and parked on a side street.  Another person called in a panic, announcing that she would not be returning for future appointments until the detour cleared.  A few people called in advance to find out whether it would be possible to get through.

Everyone reacted in character, I realized.  It was such a graphic example of how we respond to unanticipated obstacles.  Do we forge ahead? Do we skirt around? Do we avoid?  Do we become paralyzed?  I was reminded of the Midrashic rendition of the groups of fleeing Israelites when they arrived at the Red Sea.  Who wanted to return to Egypt? Who wanted to turn around and fight the Egyptians?  Who wanted to run off to a certain death in the desert? Who wanted to dive in? Like the Jewish people, we have all learned different ways, some healthy and some not, of negotiating the detours that have blocked our paths.

76154_456196075821_3347695_nVery few rabbis have a career with no detours.  I learned a long time ago that no matter the kind of rabbinate you think you are going to have, that is rarely the one you end up having.  Sometimes that is because external circumstances don’t correspond to your needs in that moment.  You want a solo position in the New York metropolitan area but so do 100 other rabbis.  You want to lead a JCRC but the position has fallen victim to Federation budget cuts.  You were hired to be an educator but now the congregation wants to expand the position to include youth group advisor.

Sometimes your personal needs become obstacles in your rabbinate.  You always thought you wanted to be a congregational rabbi but you need more personal time.  Your spouse or partner wants to move and there are no rabbinic positions available in the new location.  You love your small remote congregation but you are single and there is no one to date for hundreds of miles.  You have children now and the perfect job has taken a back seat to the requirement to earn a living.

Or maybe you yourself have changed.  You once loved the challenge of crafting a sermon every week but now you have come to dread it.  You never thought you would enjoy pastoral counseling, but sessions with your constituents have become the highlight of your day.  You love walking through the door of the hospital room but you can’t bear the thought of one more Tu Bishvat Seder.  You jump when the phone rings, praying that it isn’t another funeral. Or you realize that funerals are the most satisfying part of your work.    You have enjoyed working with college students but now you want to forge relationships with people who don’t leave every four years.

I remember joining a professional supervision group because I felt like something was missing in my rabbinate.  I wasn’t sure why, but I wasn’t having the rabbinic experience I had hoped to have.  It was a great relief to join a supervision group and get help with how to be with my congregants. I never intended to finish the program and become a psychoanalyst, but the more I got into the training, the more compelling it became.  The training not onlyenhanced my rabbinate and made me a happier rabbi,  it also made me realize I wanted something different. The training had changed me – or maybe I had already begun to change and the training encouraged it to happen.  I realized I could no longer stay doing what I had been doing. The obstacle in my path had become too great.  I was lucky that I didn’t have IMG_2756to do a complete career about face. I was able to move to a part-time pulpit as I finished training and began my practice.

We know now that few people will have only one career over a lifetime.  People who enter the rabbinate are no different.  When I had my HUC interview in Jerusalem in 1974, Dean Spicehandler looked at my college transcript and commented, “I see you changed your mind about your studies a number of times. What is to say that you won’t change your mind about the rabbinate, too?” In my naivite, I gave him an honest answer:  “Nothing, “ I said.  I think I also remember telling him that I would never be a congregational rabbi because I didn’t want to do funerals.

You can understand, then, why no one is more surprised than I that I have spent 33 years  in the pulpit rabbinate.  I don’t know what kind of rabbinate I anticipated having, but I know this wasn’t it.  There have been detours large and small along the way.  Some have challenged me more than others. But somehow, this path has led me where I needed to go.

Rabbi Ellen Lewis ( has a particular interest in the integration of religious and psychoanalytical concepts and has worked at developing models of clinical supervision for rabbis, cantors, and other religious professionals.  In her private practice, she works with rabbis and cantors in therapy and supervision.  After her ordination at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1980, she served congregations in Dallas, Texas, and Summit, New Jersey, where she was named Rabbi Honorata.  Since 1994, she has been the Rabbi of the Jewish Center of Northwest Jersey in Washington, NJ (  

Rabbi Lewis is also a certified and licensed modern psychoanalyst in private practice in Bernardsville, New Jersey and in New York City. She received her analytical training in New York at the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies ( and at present serves on the faculty of the Academy of Clinical and Applied Psychoanalysis (  She is a Fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors ( She can be reached via email at or in her NJ office 908 766 7586.

Passover Pesach Prayer Rabbis Reform Judaism

A Prayer for Pesach 5773/2013

Israel beachWhat’s it going to take to make the waters part?

That’s a good question to ask tonight, beyond the other four.

The waters of complacency, of ignorance and fear

The waters of intransigence, of bigotry and rage

The waters of hostility, of hopelessness and war

These waters divide one shore from the other:

Israelis from Palestinians

Red States from Blue States

Privileged from Impoverished

Gun lovers from gun haters

Jew from Christian from Muslim

Nation from nation and race from race

What’s it going to take to make the waters part?

The waters that keep us from moving forward

The waters that drown dialogue in demonization

The waters that say, “We resign ourselves to the status quo”

These waters are strong enough to swallow an army.

Will it take a Moses with his staff outstretched?

A miracle? A plague?

A prayer, incantation, silent wish?

Petitioning the waves?

Only this:

People united in their faith that change will come when we truly want it.

People unbending in their demand that peace will come when we are ready to will it.

People willing to enter the sea and with God’s help, to make the waters move.

This is what our Pesach means and this is why we pray.

God, strengthen our steps to do more than dip a tentative toe in the water.

Engage our hearts, our soul and might,

And let Your light shine the way.

 Rabbi Jonathan Blake is the Senior Rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York

Israel News Rabbis

Obama’s Trip to Israel: A Rabbi’s Perspective

obama speechI’ve had a running dialogue with a friend in my congregation over the past four plus years.  I know I’m not the only one to have experienced this exchange (or something akin to it.)  My friend, let’s call him “Sam,” will approach me – at the Oneg Shabbat, at other congregational events, when we meet elsewhere in the community, and quite often during our recent congregational trip to Israel (in late December) when Sam joined the group for his first-ever trip to Israel.  The conversation often starts with something like, “So Eric,  “Is Obama good for Israel?”  Sometimes it’s “Don’t you realize that Obama is no friend of Israel?”  Once in a while it’s been, “Don’t you think that deep-down Obama is not only really anti-Israel but perhaps a bit anti-Semitic?”  Recently – every week in the past month plus, it’s been, “So what do you think about Obama’s upcoming trip to Israel?”

Some of you are smiling because you, too, have either been asked, or have yourselves asked some of these questions.  My reply to that last one over the past weeks, not uniquely my own, has been “there are those who’ve been angry with the President for not visiting Israel during his first term in office.  Now they’re angry that he’s going.”

Let me admit, I, too wish our President had visited Israel, as President of the United States during his first term in office.  I don’t know if it would have changed much on the ground – and we’ll never know. But I also remind myself, this was not Barack Obama’s first visit to Israel.  It was President Barack Obama’s first visit to Israel.  We can’t change the past.  “Should have,” “would have,” “wish he would have” don’t help us going forward.  And now, our President has visited Israel.  In fact, he’s only just left on Air Force One for the next stop on his trip.

Like many, I followed the news of the President’s visit to Israel.  I’ve read the various commentaries.  Courtesy of YouTube early this morning I listened to the President’s address at IMG_4022
Binyanei Ha-uma
– the Convention Center in Jerusalem.  It would have taken less time to read the transcript, but I wanted to hear his voice, see his face and hear his interaction with those seated in that hall where I myself have sat at many a performance and conference over the years. I sat down, imagined myself in the audience – both within the hall and beyond – and listened to the President of the United States address those assembled “around me” and those listening in from around the world.  Thus far, I’ve tried to steer clear of the commentary on his speech.  I wanted first to reflect on my own kishkes, my own gut and how I am feeling about what I heard.

I am proud of my President for the message he delivered yesterday in Jerusalem.  Do I agree with 100% of what he said?  Not quite.  But I found his message powerful, honest (and I do believe that he honestly spoke what is in his kishkes).  I also found his message to be respectful of our Jewish heritage, our Jewish past, of Israel’s history, her leaders in generations gone by, and her peoples’ existential realities.  I also found his message to be clear and forthright when it comes to the need for Israel – and others – to not “give up” on peace, no matter how hard the road to peace may be.  I found his call for justice to be consonant with what I believe is at the heart of our Jewish tradition’s value system.  I found his clear-throated call for “two states for two peoples,” and his acknowledgement that this is about the young people, the children and their future to be spot on.

I would like to believe him when he identifies Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad as Israel’s true partners for peace.  I would.  But my kishkes are in a knot on that question.  President Obama’s clear denunciation of Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran, Assad and his acknowledgment of the challenges of Israel’s difficult neighborhood and the events of the past two years in that neighborhood are realistic, not starry-eyed.

I applaud President Obama for his repeated reprise of the unbreakable bonds between Israel and the United States. I believe he means it.  But I also applaud him for acknowledging that the easy road would be unqualified and uncritical support for whatever Israel’s leaders and people do.  Again and again, he noted that ultimately it is for Israel and the Palestinians to resolve their differences and to choose their paths. At the same time, he called for sanity and responsibility as he called for justice and the pursuit of peace – not with blindness, but with open eyes, and a sense of reality to what actions create obstacles that prevent any progress towards what most Israelis and most Palestinians ultimately want – to live their lives.

148591_455673200821_6598853_nDuring our congregational trip to Israel in December we visited a school in the Arab Israeli village of Nahaf, near Carmiel in the Galilee.  We met with Rabbi Mark Rosenstein, who lives in the nearby community of Moshav Shorashim, a small community in the central Galilee, founded in the early 1980’s by a group of young American immigrants. Mark has worked as director of the Makom ba-Galil, a seminar center at Shorashim that engages in programming to foster pluralism and coexistence.   After speaking to our group about the challenges between Israeli Jews and Israel Arabs, he introduced us to a group of Israeli Arab high school students from the village who sat with us, first in small groups, and then in one larger circle to talk about their lives, their hopes and their dreams.  I will never forget “Sam’s” words to me as we boarded the bus after our time with the students which went something like this: “These are wonderful kids.  They deserve a wonderful future. I hope that we can make that happen.”  So today I say to Sam: “How do I feel about President’s visit to Israel?  I feel very good about it.  He called Israel – and the Palestinians — to work towards the same future you spoke of as we boarded our bus that day in December.”

These past few days have been about words, photos, symbolism and yes, politics.  President Obama’s speech in Jerusalem yesterday was also about the affirmation of the enduring and unbreakable bond between our two nations, about the acknowledgment of the enduring thirst for security and freedom which we Jews will celebrate and study in the coming days of Pesach. They were also an straight-forward call to pursue justice and peace that we needed to hear. Bechol dor vador—“in each and every generation we are obligated to see ourselves as having gone forth from Mitzrayim – from Egypt.  May these past few days, and the reflection both here and in Israel, upon what we both have seen and heard be part of our reflection of what it means to us in this Pesach celebration to go forth from our MItzrayim.  Some read Mitzrayim as the “narrow places.” We all have our “Egypt” from which we want to move towards greater freedom and security.  May these days – their images, the words spoken, the symbols – inspire and infiltrate our recounting of the ancient tale as we find our generation place in the “obligation to see ourselves as having gone forth from Mitzrayim.”

Mr. President – perhaps we’ll see you yet again – “Next Year in Jerusalem” – in a city moving closer to that dream we all hold – Ir Shalom – a city of peace. A big dream?  You bet.  But when have we Jews not been dreamers at the same time as we are realists?

(Now I’ll go see what all the talking heads are thinking!)

Rabbi Eric S. Gurvis is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Shalom of Newton, Massachusetts

News Prayer Reform Judaism

Welcoming the New Machzor: Ideas for Purchasing and Engagement

MHaNefesh web
At our congregation in Atlanta, we have already made our arrangements to purchase the new MachzorMishkan HaNefesh – even though it won’t be ready until Rosh HaShanah, 2015. Why? First and foremost – this innovative Machzor will be transformative for our congregation.We have piloted drafts of the Machzor, and are excited to have the real thing in our hands for the High Holy Days.

But we are also making the necessary arrangements to welcome the Machzor into our congregation because the savings are simply too good to pass up! For congregations and institutions that make a 25% deposit by April 1, 2014– the double volume (one for Rosh Hashanah and another – a different color – for Yom Kippur) will cost only $25.20/ set. This is a 40% savings from the list price. That gives us all plenty of time to consider the manner in which we will pay for our new Machzorim.

CCAR has worked very hard to keep the cost of the Machzor as low as possible, and as close as possible to that of Mishkan T’filah. The decision to divide the book into two volumes is a direct response to feedback from Mishkan T’filah. With this kind of a large project, so much goes into the development of the material that whether it is bound in one or two volumes factors very little into the cost and is not reflected in the pricing.

Regardless, buying new prayerbooks is surely a challenge for most of our congregations and communities. But there are creative ways to make it possible. As you begin that journey, I offer the following possibilities:

For congregations in which individual members purchase their own prayerbooks:

 • Consider including the price of the Machzor in High Holy Day materials for 2013 or 2014.

 • Include the price of the Machzor on the dues statement for one year, at the beginning of the fiscal year.

 • Purchase the Machzorim, and sell them to members at the list price or higher as a fundraiser (for example, $36 or $50); use the income to purchase more Machzorim or other siddurim, such as Mishkan T’filah for the House of Mourning.

 For Congregations in which the synagogue purchases, stores, and keeps the prayerbooks:

 • Consider moving unrestricted endowment funds into a restricted prayerbook fund.

 • Find a donor to purchase the books, and put a book plate acknowledging that donation, or find 5-10 donors at a smaller level, acknowledging each in a book plate.

 • Allocate funds from the synagogue budget over the next three years.

 • Invite affiliate groups, such as Women of Reform Judaism or Men of Reform Judaism, to help manage or raise funds for the project.

 • Combine forces with a Kol Nidrei appeal (allow a check off for one or multiple Machzorim, which is not a big increase over whatever else someone is able to donate).

 • Hold a gala dinner (honor someone if you prefer), and sell bookplates instead of a tribute book.

 • Sell bookplates over the course of 1-2 years.

 • Allocate funds from annual events, such as Purim Carnival or Chanukah Bazaar to a Machzor fund.

 A final note: I have found that the best way to “sell” the Machzor is to “engage” with the Machzor. To that end, consider the following:

 • Consider piloting one of the High Holy Day services (Erev Rosh Hashanah, Rosh Hashanah, Erev Yom Kippur, Yom Kippur, Yom Kippur Minchah, Yizkor).

 • Incorporate poems, prayers, and readings into divrei Torah, Board Meetings, Shabbat services, bulletin articles, etc. (permission from CCAR requested).

 • Invite a member of the editorial committee to have a Skype conversation with your Board or Ritual committee.

 • Include links to RavBlog ( – CCAR’s blog, featuring Machzor related posts – in your synagogue newsletter. Invite your members to subscribe to the CCAR blog so they can be part of the process.

 • Offer learning opportunities related to the Machzor using materials from Machzor: Challenge and Change, a resource pack of materials on Machzor themes.

For more information on ordering Machzorim, engaging your constituency, or participating in piloting, please send a note to or feel free to email me at

Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor.

Rabbi Peter Berg is the Senior Rabbi at The Temple, in Atlanta, Georgia, and is the CCAR Membership Liaison to the Machzor Editorial Team.

General CCAR Machzor Prayer Rabbis

Machzor Blog: Am I Really This Bad? Am I Really This Good?

Once, while prepping for the High Holy Days at a student pulpit, I had the following conversation with a well-meaning cantorial soloist:IMG_0361

“I want to write a new melody for Unetaneh Tokef,” the soloist began. “It’s such a dirge!”

“Well, actually,” I said. “This prayer is about God sitting on the Throne of Glory, deciding who shall live and who shall die.”

“Oh,” the soloist said. “I guess that’s okay then.”

In that moment I realized, not only the importance of educating our lay-leaders, but also our own reluctance to say or do anything in the synagogue that might drive people further away from Jewish life. This is particularly challenging during the High Holy Days, when we are supposed to be engaged in rigorous self-examination.

Given that the High Holy Days are also that small window in the Jewish calendar when we have our community’s undivided attention, both clergy and laypeople are uncomfortable with the discomfort that the liturgy of the High Holy Days is supposed to arouse. However, I firmly believe that the season of cheshbon hanefesh and the call to teshuva are also part of Judaism’s balanced spiritual diet.

Strangely enough, one of my primary concerns during my involvement in the creation of Mishkan HaNefesh has been limiting the discomfort of a new machzor. Given the steep learning curve my congregants encountered with Mishkan T’filah in weekly Shabbat worship, I am concerned with how they will adjust to a new format when they only use it twice each year. As a member of the Alternative Readings Sub-Committee, I sought out texts that were thought-provoking but also “readable.” Our congregation’s pilot group was vigilant about pointing out sections that were difficult to follow.

However, if our mission is really to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” we need to retain some of the spiritual discomfort that is endemic to the Days of Awe, so that we might strike a balance between recognizing our flaws and realizing our potential.

The tension between these two elements is beautifully played out in the Vidui in the new Kol Nidre service. As we recited the short confession, my pilot group noticed the shift from the more abstract, “Some of us kept grudges, were lustful, malicious or narrow-minded,”  (Gates of Repentance p. 269), to the harsher, more specific “We corrupt. We commit crimes. .. We are immoral. We kill” (Mishkan HaNefesh Kol Nidre draft p. 45a). Some worshippers were actually offended by the direct accusation of crimes they did not commit.

“Why does it say, ‘We kill,’” one man said. “I don’t kill!”

Just as jarring was the iyyun (readingencouraging us to praise ourselves al ha-tikkun she-tikanu l’fanecha (for the acts of healing we have done). Set up like the al cheyt, this reading states lists a number of acts of tikkun olam we may have committed in addition to our sins,  “For the healing acts by which we bring You into the world, the acts of repair that make You a living presence in our lives” (p. 49b).

It is a brilliant and beautiful reading, but for us it was just as spiritually troubling as the Al Cheyt. Just as we didn’t like being accused of wrongdoings we had not done, we didn’t want pat ourselves on the back for righteous acts we had failed to do. We felt that the reading should be written in a tense that made it sound aspirational rather than congratulatory. In a way, however, this text also allowed us to engage in cheshbon ha-nefesh, serving as a reminder of all we may have failed to do on that list!

Engaging with this Machzor in its formative state was an incredible opportunity to think about the messages we need to hear—or are uncomfortable hearing—during the High Holy Day season in order to inspire us to perform teshuva. Both the confessional texts and the congratulatory texts allowed us to ask ourselves the same essential questions: “Am I really this bad?” “Am I really this good?”

It also made me think about the messages my congregants hear from the pulpit. I’m told that rabbis give the same High Holy Day sermon, over and over again. I’ve realized that mine is not “you are good” or “you are bad,” but “you can change.”

Leah Rachel Berkowitz is the Associate Rabbi at Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, NC.

She served on the Alternative Readings Sub-Committee of the Machzor Committee. She blogs at



General CCAR Prayer Reform Judaism

In Praise of the Rabbinic Robe

Rabbi Ellen Lewis BlogMy black  pulpit robe has served me well in my rabbinate. It has seen me through two pregnancies and three congregations (actually six congregations if you include student biweeklies). It is older than my children.  It has traveled many miles and was once lost for 6 weeks in the unclaimed luggage room at Newark Airport.  Although it has been restitched countless times, the pocket lining continues to shred,  allowing tissues and lozenges  to make their way through the holes and  become unreachably bunched up inside the bottom seam.   I fear my old friend has become irreparably worn out.

When I took my first pulpit job in 1980,  the new decade heralded the trend of discarding the rabbinic robe.  It was too Protestant, too  archaic and too  removed for our more intimate time. I tentatively shared this information with the chair of the Rabbinic Search Committee in Dallas.   In  his memorable Texas drawl,  he said, “I can handle hiring a female rabbi but I can’t handle hiring a female rabbi who doesn’t wear a robe.”  That was the end of that discussion, and frankly, that was fine with me.

Wearing a robe meant not having to think about what to wear on the pulpit. That fact  alone would have offered salvation to  any woman  living  in Dallas at the time.  During my five years there, I  felt perpetually and inevitably underdressed.  Dallas in the 80’s was the city of the accessory.  My congregants shopped at Neiman Marcus (Stanley Marcus’ mother had been a devoted member of the congregation) before the store  moved outside the borders of Texas. Even the saleswomen were temple members, making shopping that much more of a complicated procedure.

So the robe thankfully removed me from the congregational social competition. But more than that, it allowed the congregation to see me as a rabbi, not as a woman rabbi.  The robe unified the three rabbis (two older men and I) as we stood on the pulpit.  Congregants could imbue us with whatever emotional and spiritual transferences their individual psyches required.  Yes, they could still see my shoes (you could write a book about how people comment on the shoes worn by female rabbis and cantors) but they were too polite in that southern way to comment to me directly.  One time, a distant aunt visited Dallas and came to Shabbat services.  In the receiving line, she gave me a long look and observed, “Your cousin wears a robe, too, but his is white with gold trim.” That was how I found out that  my cousin had moved to the Himalayas and become a serious Buddhist.

The robe issue might seem insignificant given the challenges we face in our profession, but it is symbolic  of other  gender-related issues in the rabbinate. Those of us who were ordained in the early days of women in the rabbinate had high hopes that our charting the way would relieve our younger female colleagues from having to fight the same battles.  We have become increasingly aware that, when it comes to the rabbinate, issues of gender run deeper than we had first thought. Eliminating the rabbinic robe might have resolved some very real theological issues but has also created new ones.

During these last few years of patching my black pulpit robe, I vowed that I would not buy a new one.  If I got to that point, I knew I would have to revisit the choice of whether to wear a robe at all.  And so my robe will retire from the pulpit along with me this June 30. It will be just a pulpit retirement for me, not a full retirement. But for my robe, it will mean the end of a long and satisfying career.

Rabbi Ellen Lewis ( has a particular interest in the integration of religious and psychoanalytical concepts and has worked at developing models of clinical supervision for rabbis, cantors, and other religious professionals.  In her private practice, she works with rabbis and cantors in therapy and supervision.  After her ordination at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1980, she served congregations in Dallas, Texas, and Summit, New Jersey, where she was named Rabbi Honorata.  Since 1994, she has been the Rabbi of the Jewish Center of Northwest Jersey in Washington, NJ (  

Rabbi Lewis is also a certified and licensed modern psychoanalyst in private practice in Bernardsville, New Jersey and in New York City. She received her analytical training in New York at the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies ( and at present serves on the faculty of the Academy of Clinical and Applied Psychoanalysis (  She is a Fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors ( She can be reached via email at or in her NJ office 908 766 7586.



CCAR on the Road Ethics Israel

Israel: Reaffirming Hope

This past January I had the privilege of serving as the co-chair, along with Arnie Gluck, of the CCAR’s trip to Israel.  One of the foci of the trip was social justice in Israel, and as the trip approached, I grew increasingly concerned that I was about to spend a week hearing about everything that is going wrong in a land I love.  I am delighted that the feeling with which I returned was hope.  And last week, the CCAR Convention’s panel on Israel reaffirmed that hope.   While Israel’s challenges are profound, many of the people in Israel who are working to address them, including our colleagues, are deeply inspiring.

MK Ruth Calderon
MK Ruth Calderon

One of the biggest problems in Israel is the treatment of women.  But panelist David Siegel, who serves as the Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles (serving all of Southwestern USA), delivered a message of careful optimism.  He referred to one of my role models, Dr. Ruth Calderon, whose introductory speech in the Knesset has now been viewed on YouTube almost 225,000 times. If you have not yet watched it, drop everything, and do so now (there are subtitles).

MK Ruth Calderon’s speech demonstrated the power of so many things that I hold dear: Jewish teaching, progressive Judaism, strong female leaders, the ability of words to touch lives.  Her speech was a potent reminder that sometimes strength lies not in physical force, but in being a great teacher.  And that gives me hope.

The international attention to her speech has been analyzed along with the response to the arrests of participants in Women of the Wall (WOW), signaling that there is not only an increased awareness of women’s issues in Israel, but that there is enough momentum for us to engage in a discussion of both values and tactics. Panelist Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, our incoming National Director of Recruitment and Admissions and President’s Scholar at HUC, is a staunch supporter of WOW, and pointed out how their struggle has become a case study in some of the most salient questions facing Israel, including the role of women, the legitimacy of non-Orthodox Judaism, and the relevance of diaspora Jewry.  I am not so naïve as to think that these issues will be quickly and easily resolved, but as women in Israel are standing up in the Knesset and at the Kotel, Jews around the world are paying attention.

It is quite possible that, as Rabbi Gilad Kariv (IMPJ’s Executive Director) suggested at the panel, the increased attention to WOW, which has been active for 25 years, is partly due to

Women of the Wall
Women of the Wall

Jerusalem’s illegally segregated buses.  There is a lot that must be done to combat gender segregation in Israel, but I am encouraged by the work of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), which won the supreme court battle to make segregation on public buses illegal, and has sent hundreds of “Freedom Riders” (including our CCAR group in January) to monitor whether the anti-harassment and anti-segregation laws are being upheld.

Adding to the influence of these politicians, activists, and advocates, are Israeli Reform rabbis serving in congregations, including Rabbi Maya Leibowitz of Kehilat Mevasseret Zion.  She said at the panel that these rabbis “are change agents for the soul of the country.”  As they help their congregants reclaim a Jewish spiritual life, they are also helping them to reclaim a message about social justice that is deeply rooted in our tradition.

Before closing the panel, Rabbi Gluck solicited the panelists’ requests to American Reform Rabbis.  These included:

  • In messaging on Israel, tough love is good, but it can’t always be tough–when we criticize Israel, we also need to say what we’re proud of
  • Engage all levels of government
  • Bring Israel to the pulpit
  • Teach our communities about not just the start-up nation, but the “bottom up״ nation
  • Strengthen the commitment of Reform Jews to Israel, particularly by arranging home hospitality when we bring congregants to Israel
  • Remember that WZO elections are vital in Israel and encourage our congregants to register to vote
  • Send our young adults on Birthright trips
  • Join WOW at the Kotel for Rosh Chodesh
  • Don’t stop asking where the check is for Rabbi Miri Gold, whose historic victory in June 2012 entitled her to government funding for her work that she has not yet received
  • Continue to support Israeli institutions that are doing great work, and invest in the Movement.

David Siegel, Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, Gilad Kariv, and Maya Leibowitz each, in their own way, provided sophisticated analysis of Israel’s challenges, but also provided hope, and the inspiration to act on it.

 Rabbi Ariana Silverman serves Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield, MI.


Rabbis Organizing Rabbis: The Power of Acting Together

Rabbi Joel Mosbacher
Rabbi Joel Mosbacher

Do we want to truly act as a Movement?

That was the hard question a few rabbis asked each other in a hotel in Chicago in the fall of 2011.

We all had had experiences acting as individuals who were part of a conference, as individuals who came together periodically in hotels all over the country, to share those experiences and learn from each other. But while we couldn’t fully imagine what we meant, we knew that wasn’t it. So we tried the question in different ways– with ourselves, and then with a broadening circle of rabbinic colleagues.

Have you ever wanted to act on an issue but couldn’t because you were alone?

If you could act on an issue together with 400 other rabbis, what would that feel like?

If you could act on an issue together with 400 other rabbis, what would that issue be?

 An amazing thing emerged as we began to test drive those questions. We began to sense that we were on to something– a hunger for connectivity, a desire to amplify our voices for justice at the center of the rabbinate, and a need to do so with colleagues in a way that hadn’t been done in decades.

A year and a half of exploration ensued. It wasn’t always smooth or easy. We challenged each other on the viability, on even the advisability of such an effort. We asked the most important thought partners in our Reform Movement what they heard in their questions, and they responded generously with encouragement, excitement, support, and more hard questions that made us get clearer on the vision we had.

What began to emerge was a vision of rabbis engaged in deep conversation, challenging as that might be across North America. We began to hear common themes– the desire to act powerfully as a rabbinate, and a remarkable sense that, as diverse as we are, we all want the same essential things for our world. And we began to see the outlines of the kind of power we could bring to bear on the most critical justice issues of our day.

I believe that we will look back at the Long Beach CCAR Convention as a defining moment in the Reform rabbinate. We will look back on a plenary in which more 541053_10151326700004506_2031580770_n
than 300 rabbis held their breath (not an easy thing for us rabbis) and cried tears of indignation when we heard the story of a “dreamer.” We will not soon forget the moments when we were called to “Nishmah,” to reflect on our own immigration stories, thinking at first we did not have them, and soon realizing just how deep our own stories actually were. And we will, none of us, forget those thought leaders standing in unity with all of us as we said together, “Na’aseh,” let us act as one.

A year and a half has brought us to this moment, and in so very many ways the journey and the real work and opportunity has just begun. There are so many hard questions that we must still answer. But there is a question we answered in Long Beach, and it is a question and answer that has the potential to define our legacy and change the world. The question we couldn’t answer, 12 of us in a hotel lobby in Chicago was, “Do we want to act as a movement?” The resounding answer in Long Beach was, “yes.”

Let us begin, together.

To join the efforts of Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, text Naaseh to 877-877

and join the Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Facebook group

Rabbi Joel Mosbacher is rabbi of Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah, New Jersey.

CCAR Convention Ethics Immigration News

Rabbis Organizing Rabbis: Immigration Reform

Zacil addressing Rabbis at CCAR Convention.
Zacil addressing Rabbis at CCAR Convention.

When Zacil finished speaking, I could see they eyes of four hundred fellow rabbis welled up with tears. This undocumented immigrant courageously described living in her shadowland of America, a parallel country to the land of opportunity discovered by my great-grandparents, a land ruled by the principle that–regardless of high school graduation or a university degree–the highest aspiration of person without papers was living in perpetual fear while toiling tirelessly as landscaper or maid.  When Rabbi David Saperstein rose to speak following her standing ovation, he simply stated, “There are eleven million Zacil’s living today in America.”  And so immediately, beginning with over 250 rabbis sending a simple text message to become part of Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, our Central Conference committed ourselves to work for comprehensive, humane and common sense Immigration Reform.

I helped form Rabbis Organizing Rabbis to move the work of tzedek back to the center of my rabbinate, to the center of the Reform Rabbinate.  I knew I wanted to work closely with colleagues on sustained campaigns to bring greater justice to our world; I sensed so many colleagues shared a commitment to tikkun olam that we were just waiting for the moment to act together and reclaim our Reform Movement’s mantle as leaders in repairing our world.  But by the time I wiped the tears from my eyes at hearing Zacil’s story, by the conclusion of a convention which 300 colleagues joined Rabbis Organizing Rabbis,  I was simply grateful that a dedicated and wide-ranging community was ready to get busy in the work that Torah calls us to do: to see to the welfare, the dignity, the humanity of the stranger, the oppressed.

In a workshop, my colleague and friend, Rabbi Larry Bach shared with us a teaching from Deuteronomy 6:

And it shall be, when Adonai your God brings you into the land which sworn to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you great and goodly cities, which you did not build; and houses full of all good things, which you did not fill; and wells dug, which you did not dig; vineyards and olive trees, which you did not plant; when you shall have eaten and be full, then be wary lest you forget Adonai, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.

Larry challenged our complacency, we comfortable citizens of these United States who are not wary Deuteronomy’s warning and frequently forget we are but a generation or two removed from the immigrant experience.  I was forced to think back through the many family stories I have forgotten to try and recall how my ancestors made it to America’s shores.  I remembered the story of my great-grandfather, who [and I appreciate the cosmic irony here] ran away from Russia rather than go to the seminary his parents wanted him to attend.  I had always heard how, in sneaking out of Eastern Europe, he was forced at a certain point to hide from Cossacks in the straw and hay of a mattress lining.  He saved his own life when not making a sound as the Cossack’s bayonets pierced his stomach, causing blood to pool in his shirt and amid the straw.  He carried that scar the rest of his life, across the Atlantic Ocean, and through Ellis Island to America.

I really don’t know if my grandfather was an illegal immigrant or not.  I don’t know how or if he got his papers squared away legally.  But I have realized, thanks to Larry Bach and Deuteronomy, that my great-grandfather must have skirted or violated innumerable laws and ordinances in escaping the oppression of Russia and making his way to safer shores.  I have come to see that I had forgotten: I am the heir of illegal immigrants, real human beings who fled real horror to discover in America a better way of life for their children, and their children’s children.  Quite literally, for me.

So I commit myself, along with countless colleagues, to work for comprehensive and humane Immigration Reform.  Not just because it is the right thing to do; not simply because it will be the first campaign of Rabbis Organizing Rabbis.  I am doing this for my great-grandfather, for my family, and for me.  I will no longer forget who I am, and what my identity compels me to do.  I am the stranger, and knowing what it feels like to be oppressed, I must work on behalf of strangers, aliens, those in the shadows, everywhere.


Rabbi Seth M. Limmer is rabbi of 
Congregation B’nai Yisrael of Armonk, New York.  


CCAR Convention General CCAR News Rabbis

Organizing: The 21st Century Rabbinate

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been attending CCAR conventions for a Bar Mitzvah of years, since ordination in 2000.

I attended a session called “Praying With Our Feet:  Reclaiming the Rabbinic Mantle as Agents of Change in the World,” at which my classmate and colleague Rabbi Seth Limmer spoke.  Seth, the Chair of the CCAR’s Justice and Peace Committee, talked about the efficacy of collaboration and the principles of Organizing in amplifying the power of the rabbinic voice in confronting the issues of importance in today’s society.

Rabbi Seth Limmer
Rabbi Seth Limmer

“Our first campaign as Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is… comprehensive, humane, common sense Immigration Reform,” Seth pronounced to much applause.  As I see Seth up there, and think back over our thirteen years in the rabbinate, I am drawn to a single question.

To wit: What are the big shifts in the Reform rabbinate since 2000?  It’s as fitting a time as any to ask the question — not only because of the conveniently Jewish 13-year milestone which naturally recommends a moment of contemplation of the past years of evolution and even revolution; it is also appropriate that I would pause here after 13 years to consider the shifts in rabbinical leadership since the obvious secular boundary-marker of the year 2000 itself, the last year of the 20th century and the gateway to the 21st.

I would isolate the theme that we gathered in Long Beach to consider:  the use of Community Organizing principles in our spiritual leadership.  13 years ago, no one in the Reform Movement was speaking this language — the language of Organizing, the language of using relational meetings to build broad-based consensus and develop strategies for action, thus leveraging congregations’ power, mobilizing people of conscience, and thereby giving us a shared model for our Social Justice work. Nowadays however the language of Organizing is our lingua franca. In Westchester, we have used Organizing to develop a growing coalition of churches, synagogues, and other institutions outside the faith community to work for the greater good of our county and to confront Social Justice challenges including mandated access to kindergarten throughout New York state, a boon to beleaguered school districts that must sometimes consider cutting kindergarten under budgetary pressures; we are also using Organizing principles to mobilize action around gun violence prevention.

I’m eager to read comments on this subject: how has Organizing shifted your rabbinate? Your congregation? Your community? And what are the other big shifts since 2000?

Rabbi Jonathan Blake
 is the Senior Rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple in 
Scarsdale, New York.