Emeritus: Pope and Rabbi

On February 28, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI gave his farewell address to the crowd outside the very cooly named Castle Gandolfo.

“I am simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on this earth. But I would still, thank you, I would still—with my heart, with my love, with my prayers, with my reflection, and with all my inner strength”

While this was an essential moment for Catholics around the world, rabbis need to pay attention to this too. The Pope is demonstrating on the world stage what it means to be an emertius rabbi.

Watching the hundreds of rabbis at the CCAR Convention, I see my childhood rabbi, now an emeritus, and the emeritus of the synagogue I currently work with. Rabbis will be emeritus for many more years, on average, than in the past as life span and health allow it.

PopeAs the first Emeritus Pope in at least 600 years, Benedict made a slew of choices that will dramatically affect his successor’s ability to lead. Working with rabbis emeritus in several congregations and seeing them in nearby synagogues, their choices, the congregation’s, and the new rabbi’s, among others, enabled the relationship to be a healthy, bright, and productive or sometimes troublesome and even destructive.

While there may not be simple absolutes, I hope the Vatican has developed a series of rules like the guidelines the Reform Movement has. Knowing the Vatican, they are likely in several big books all in Latin. In the URJ/CCAR guidelines, it states (emphasis added), “Only one Rabbi can carry the responsibility for the administration of rabbinic functions in the Congregation. When a new Rabbi is elected and enters into office, this responsibility is automatically transferred to him/her. The Rabbi Emeritus should help to establish the successor in the position, and should guide lay people to understand that the new Rabbi is the Rabbi of the Congregation.” Two popes would be a real challenge as the Pope is infallible. [I suggest you insert your own “rabbi as infallible” joke here – perhaps using “mother thinks he/she is” or “that one lay leader is sure he is not”]

That the Pope has become Emeritus Pope is not a big deal, as long as he focuses on the 1st word and not the 2nd. That he has chosen to continue to wear white is maybe not a great thing. Moving from the red shoes the handcrafted Mexican brown ones? Good idea. Living in Castle Gandolfo (presumably with Gandalf and Dumbledore) is understandable – it’s close to the Vatican, 40 minutes by car, much less by helicopter – but it’s not underfoot (red or brown). Keeping his Pope name, Benedict? Not so keen on that – he’s only had it for 8 years. But maybe he never liked Joseph Ratzinger.

For an emeritus, the ability to create tzimtum – a contraction of one’s self after a lifetime of expansion – is essential in creating the space and authority for the new leader of a community – synagogue or church.

The new pope will have a tricky job in appropriately honoring and celebrating Emeritus Pope Benedict while maintain his unique role. Certainly the emeritus pontiff’s heath will be at play, but even in word and reflection, how the new pope refers to the previous pope will help diffuse any tension and will smooth the divided loyalities of the Catholic faithful. For new rabbis, there is tzimtzum needed too. Appropriate and honored space needs to be created to recognize the previous rabbi.

I have been blessed with the rabbis emeritus I have worked with. One moved away. One lives right near the synagogue. One had an office he came to every day. When the rabbi emeritus refers to the new rabbi as “my rabbi,” it makes a world of difference. I await the emeritus pope’s statements on the newly selected pope.

At its best, the new rabbi-emeritus rabbi relationship is a blessing of collegiality, history, wisdom, and support. We’ll watch it unfold for the first time in Catholic Church on an international stage in the coming months. And we can all learn something from it for our own synagogues.

Rabbi Mark Kaiserman

Congregation B’nai Tzedek, Fountain Valley, CA

CCAR Convention News Rabbis

Leading the Shift: The CCAR Convention Opening Program

Rabbi Steve Fox, Zev Yaroslavsky, Tiffany Shlain,  Dr. David Feinberg, and Rabbi Asher Knight.
Rabbi Steve Fox, Zev Yaroslavsky, Tiffany Shlain, Dr. David Feinberg, and Rabbi Asher Knight.

The stated objective of this year’s CCAR Convention is, in part, “…to engage colleagues in deep conversation on the issues about which they are passionate.”  Tonight’s opening program was designed to initiate this series of conversations by offering short talks presented by thought leaders in other fields: medicine, politics, and multimedia art.  Each of these exceptional figures – Dr. David Feinberg, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, and filmmaker Tiffany Shlain – offered perspectives on how to “lead the shift” by drawing on their own personal experiences of challenge and success.

I loved Supervisor Yaroslavsky’s comments about the messy work of political coalition-building, and was energized by Shlain’s ideas about the overlapping “participatory revolutions” that we see around us today in the world of culture and technology.  More than anything, however, I was moved by the comments of Dr. Feinberg, who is the President of the UCLA Health System and CEO for the UCLA Hospital System.

Feinberg talked about the way he succeeded in transforming the UCLA hospitals after he took the helm – humbly pointing out that he had no formal training and suggesting that he had had no appreciable experience to recommend him for the post.  He spoke about how he brought about a system-wide shift in consciousness by insisting that members of the hospital staff become radically patient-centered at all levels, from hospital parking attendants to neurosurgeons in the operating theater.

The reorientation that Feinberg brought about was massively sprawling in its scope, but he suggested that it could be boiled down to focusing hospital employees’ attention on improving one single statistic: the number of patients who responded positively to a simple question: “How likely are you to recommend us to a friend?”

Feinberg’s idea is not a new one; in fact, it was documented and explored at length by Fred Reichheld several years ago in his book The Ultimate Question (Harvard Business School Press, 2006).  Reichheld argued that the way customers answered this question would be the most revealing metric that predicted a company’s long-term growth and profitability.  But Feinberg has been uniquely successful because he recognized that this mode of assessing a business’s success and effectiveness can be translated effortlessly to the healthcare field as well.

I’d like to suggest that the same thing is true for the not-for-profit realm, and specifically for the landscape of Jewish communal institutions.

I wonder what Jewish life would be like if our communal leaders – clergy, lay staff, and volunteers alike – spent their time being obsessively focused on improving their constituents’ answers to that question.  What would our communities feel like if we were single-mindedly devoted to exceeding members’ wildest expectations of us and our institutions?  What could the future become if every Jewish professional set out to turn every interaction as an opportunity to turn constituents into evangelists, to transform them into walking billboards for our organizations, celebrating the wonderful services we provide and the inspiring missions we embody?

I have participated in numerous conversations with colleagues who lament declining membership numbers, shrinking dues revenue, and an overall diminution of k’vod ha-rav, the respect traditionally accorded rabbis as spiritual guides and communal leaders.  The beauty of Feinberg’s approach  is that it recognizes that prospective patients are influenced most powerfully and effectively by the testimony of their friends and peers – not necessarily by the expertise of doctors or hospital staff.  The same would be true if we succeed at carrying this approach into the world of Jewish communal work; unaffiliated, unengaged, and uninterested Jews in our communities are much more likely to be convinced to walk through our doors if they receive impassioned recommendation from a friend whose judgment they trust.

Feinberg’s strategy proved revolutionary, which is particularly exciting given the simplicity of the approach.  Its success and its simplicity both recommend it to us rabbis, who have nothing to lose and everything to gain from employing it.  When I leave Long Beach and return home to my own organization, I will look forward to doing my part to “lead the shift” by concentrating on improving the way my constituents answer this simple and potent question, and I hope that my colleagues across the country will do the same.


Rabbi Oren Hayon is the Greenstein Family Executive Director at the University of Washington Hillel.

Ethics General CCAR News Rabbis

Immigration Reform: A Renewed Call to Action

potsdam01Immigration is an age old topic that we as Jews have been considering from the beginnings of our history.  Welcoming the stranger is not a new concept for us.  We know that the Torah commands us “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 2:20).  For Jews in particular, we understand and empathize with “welcome the stranger” as we are a people oft denied basic liberties throughout our history in the Diaspora.

Now fast-forward thousands of years.  Many of you, like me, are the children of immigrants who came to this country as strangers.  My parents fled a war-torn Europe that offered them no hope; that sought to take their lives because they were Jews.   America for our parents was the Goldeneh Medina, a place of that offered them a new life with economic and religious opportunity.   Growing up, we always heard the stories that helped us know that the United States was a beacon of light and hope to them, as it was to generations who arrived before them and as it must be in the future.

While the waves of European immigrants faced their own trials immigrating to this country, and far too many have been turned away, there is no doubt how blessed we are that the United States opened its borders to European refugees.   And we remember those who fought the battle to open the doors of immigration which at times were closed, as well as our relatives and others turned away because of quotes and other restrictions

Today, the U.S. immigration system is broken.  We turn away or kick out those who can help build our intellectual, economic and social infrastructure; we IMG_3829criminalize those who seek a better life and deprive them of basic liberties; we subject far too many to policies and enforcement that are unfair and demeaning.  And, bottom line, we do not effectively prevent unauthorized immigration.

Our core values push us to fight for the right of the immigrant to be treated fairly and justly.  The Reform Rabbinate has for years pushed for a comprehensive approach: improve border security and immigration law enforcement, provide for a just and fair path to citizenship for those in the country without legal documentation, provide basic protections for workers, and be inclusive of LGBT families.

These are not new concepts.  For nearly 100 years, the CCAR has “urged our nations to keep the gates of the republic open” (CCAR Resolution, 1920).  In 2006, the Reform Rabbinate again declared that the CCAR:

  • Affirms that the United States is a nation of laws, to be enforced and respected to maintain a civil society. At the same time, we expect that — especially in a Constitutional republic founded on principles of human dignity — the laws must be both just and equitable.
  • Applauds and supports our nation’s leaders who call for comprehensive immigration reform, which would include a guest worker program and a path to earned legalization.
  • Commits itself to advocacy for an immigration law that improves border security, provides for guest workers, and for a “just and fair path to citizenship.”

The time is now for action – a unique opportunity in our society.  This week the Reform Rabbinate is taking concrete steps forward.  In the next few days and weeks, you will hear much more about Immigration Reform from the CCAR as we initiate Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, a joint project of the Reform Movement’s social justice initiatives: the Justice and Peace Committee of the CCAR, the Religious Action Center, and Just Congregations.   Reform Rabbis will receive support so to take action as individuals; involve community members (congregants and other constituents); engage and partner with the broader community; and, lead publicly and support the leadership of others.

The important work of Rabbis Organizing Rabbis offers the opportunity to unite the collective strength of the Reform Rabbinate – and the communities we lead — to unite on this truly important issue. The time has come press President Obama and Congress to pass meaningful immigration reform. I urge you to join in this important cause.


General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism

Rabbinic Gratitude: This is Not Really About the Weather

I am going to start with a story about snow but the weather is just a pretext for where I want to go. So bear with me while I begin.

We cancelled services the last Friday night in January.  The forecast predicted snow and ice right at the time my congregants and I would be driving to and from services.  The president called and told me he just didn’t feel comfortable having services.  The driving would be too hazardous.  And so we agreed to cancel, no small decision in a small rural congregation whose services are only biweekly to begin with.

26997_329528405821_2088627_nFrom the time I was hired almost 20 years ago, the congregational leadership was direct about how they handled weather challenges.  Most of our members drive fair distances to the temple, they said; we don’t want them to feel obligated to come to services  if it means endangering their lives. So if the weather is bad, we cancel services. And you, rabbi, you live further than we do.  If the weather is okay out by us but bad by you, don’t come.  They were true to their word. We once had a bar mitzvah scheduled for early December when the forecast predicted a snowstorm. As we got closer to that Shabbat, the family called. Can we move the bar mitzvah to March, they asked? And so we did.

That was only one of the many reasons  I took the position but it was a major one.  In my last congregation, they claimed never to have canceled services. The previous rabbi had lived within walking distance of the temple, so he could walk up and open the building regardless of the weather.  If no one showed up, he just locked up and went home. All this was apocryphal, of course. I later learned that he had canceled services many times over the years. But the congregational non-cancellation myth lived on.

Since I lived about 15 minutes from that temple, however, inclement weather presented me with a greater challenge.  I wasn’t the only staff member with a conflict. The cantor commuted out from New York City. The organist had a 30-minute drive from his home in New Jersey. So I raised the issue with my leadership.  How do we decide whether to cancel services, I asked.  But there was no conversation to be had. We never cancel, they said. Even when the rabbi, cantor and organist have to drive to the temple, I asked. Yes, they said.

One day in March when I was still working in that previous congregation, there was a freak snowstorm. We knew it was coming.   The warning had come days in 227224_8511245821_1509_nadvance. And so I asked again: what do we do if we have a blizzard on Shabbat. And I received the same answer: we never cancel services.  As I drove to the temple Shabbat morning, the first flakes had begun to fall. The bat mitzvah family had already received word that their florist, caterer and photographer were canceling.  Family members and invited guests were stranded at airports around the country.  The cantor, the organist and I all made it. I recall that the worship that morning felt almost defiantly intimate in the way that communities sometimes band together when they face a common threat.

By the time Shabbat morning services were over, a foot of snow had fallen.  When I walked out the front door of the temple, the president  himself (somewhat guiltily) was shoveling snow off of my car.  I held my breath as I drove home over icy roads.  The moment my car skidded down one particularly steep hill was the moment of my epiphany.  It’s one thing if they don’t care about my life, I realized; but it is another thing if I don’t care about my life.  I knew right then that this was the wrong congregation for me.

It wasn’t about the snow, of course. It was about feeling that I wasn’t valued the way I needed to be valued. It was about feeling like the hired help, not the rabbi. It was about not being able to have the conversation.  It was about not having a venue for discussing and resolving conflict.  It was about being unable to create the covenantal partnership of which I dreamed.  And it was about not being willing to sacrifice my life for someone else’s fantasy of what the rabbi should be.

My present congregation and I have a different kind of partnership.  When we canceled that Friday night at the end of January, I had already done the preparation. The cantor and I had met to plan the service.  I had learned the Torah and had prepared something to say. The president and I were both disappointed that we had to cancel, but we were also in agreement that the value of a life – mine and theirs – superseded Shabbat.

We made the same decision this past Shabbat, on a snowy February weekend. Canceling feels a bit more poignant to me since I am aware that my shabbatot in this congregation will end come July.  But it also heightens my sense of gratitude for being in a place where we can have the conversation.

 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 General CCAR Prayer Rabbis

What Makes for Great Prayer?: Reflections on the NFTY Convention

2013-02-15 20.03.26Last week, I was given a wonderfully challenging task as the CCAR rabbinic staff member at the NFTY Convention:  Take fifty participants from the Youth Engagement Conference and a two-hour prayer lab session, and plan multiple services for about 900 NFTY Convention participants.  While seemingly impossible, I jumped at the opportunity.   After all, we produce Visual T’filah and all the prayer books for the Reform Movement – I could do this!

Working with my colleague Rabbi Noam Katz and Jewish musician Dan Nichols, (and joined by Rabbis Erin Mason and Ana Bonheim) we were tempted to provide a handful of creative service examples (e.g. drumming, yoga, Visual T’filah) and to plan the services as quickly as possible.

But the conference was on youth engagement and simply presenting options and saying “pick one and go plan a service” did not seem to be an appropriate fit – and not consistent with CCAR’s current approach toward engaging people in prayer with many different Visual T’filah options.  It was a lab, after all; we did not want to focus too much on product, but rather the service experience by the NFTYites.

We initiated the YEC prayer lab by asking the participants “what makes for great prayer?”

2013-02-18 09.43.15This conversation was modeled upon a version of Open Space, one of the frameworks for intentional conversations guiding the CCAR convention beginning just a few weeks after NFTY Convention.

YEC participants stood up one at a time and offered to host conversations around a topic of prayer particularly interesting or exciting to them.  Topics included Hebrew in prayer, who is the service leader, using apps & cellphones in services, engaging through multiple intelligences, and more. Rather than utilizing the moment to plan a service, we spent our time talking about great prayer.  The prayer lab participants were fully engaged, far more than if we had simply given them pre-determined service options, and we provided an amazing model for them to bring back to their youth groups.

And it worked! YEC prayer lab participants exclaimed that this was one of the highlights of the conference for them.  One even said, “This is exactly what I needed.”  Even more, the prayer experiences they crafted were some of the best moments of NFTY convention for the participants.  One teenager said in reflection, “This was my first real moment of transcendent prayer.”

As the Youth Engagement professionals gathered at the end of the conference for a debrief and wrap-up, I was asked to summarize our learning and said:  “We often hear that ‘if you build it, they will come.’  If you build a great service or program, the youth with come. But we learned through this prayer experience that ‘if you build it with them, they’ll already be there!”

CCAR Convention CCAR on the Road

CCAR Conventions, Then and Now

CCAR Convention, 2012
CCAR Convention, 2012

I wonder how many CCAR conventions I have been to over the years.  I remember the first.  It was in Pittsburgh and I had just been ordained. As I walked up to the L-Z registration line, I was scared and excited until a lovely volunteer pulled me aside.  “The registration line for the wives is over there,” she said kindly while pointing across the room.   This memory surfaced recently when I  told a friend I was going to the CCAR conference and she asked if I enjoy it.  I do now, I said.

Those early conventions are pretty much lost in the haze of the years, but I remember moments like that.  Since there weren’t many female rabbis, we all ended up being cycled and recycled through the various committees.  In those years, there would only ever be one woman on any given committee. I remember once being on the Nominating Committee and suggesting two female names.  We already have a woman, I was told.

All that seems like ancient history now although it was a mere 30+ years ago.  For all that we wonder at times whether anything has changed, it turns out that much has changed, at least when it comes to the CCAR. We now come together with intention, defined by what we do as rabbis, not by our gender or sexual orientation.   We take for granted that two of the five rabbinic members of our senior CCAR  staff are women.  Our immediate past president is a woman.  Women have chaired our convention planning.  The WRN is an ex-officio member of the CCAR board. The brochure for this next conference calls the CCAR  “the organization for every Reform rabbi, retired, community-based, congregational, part-time, portfolio and full-time.”

The year I was directed to the wives’ registration line at that Pittsburgh Conference, the overwhelming membership of the Conference held congregational positions.  My friends in Hillel simply didn’t bother coming since there was nothing there for them in the program (as well as a feeling of being invisible in contrast to the pulpit rabbis).  The part-time rabbinate existed only for retired rabbis who still wanted to keep a hand in pulpit life.  The rabbinate was a much narrower place.

And, in a not-so-well-kept secret,  it turns out that not all male colleagues enjoyed CCAR conventions.  Many of my friends joked about the “how big is yours” syndrome.  They complained that the very convention that should allow us to relax and be ourselves often turned out to be a bastion of judgment and competition.  They also wanted to talk about their personal doubts, their professional conflicts, and the challenges of balancing the rabbinate with family.  They, too, yearned for a different, more truly collegial experience.

For many years after I left the full-time congregational rabbinate, I stopped coming to CCAR conventions.  All kinds of considerations came into play. I served a part-time congregation without the financial resources to send me to conferences.  I would have had to cancel patients in my private practice, which had both economic and psychological consequences.  Since I was self-employed and funded my own vacations, I needed to be selective about how much time I spent away.  If the choice came down to going to the CCAR convention versus going to visit my children, my children won.

Rabbi Ellen Lewis at 2012 CCAR Convention with Rabbis Michael Weinberg, Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus, and Rabbi Steve Fox.
Rabbi Ellen Lewis at 2012 CCAR Convention with Rabbis Michael Weinberg, Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus, and Rabbi Steve Fox.

While all of the above reasons seemed valid at the time, I also confess that I wasn’t as drawn to going to the convention as I am now.  For many years, the CCAR didn’t feel like the organization for every Reform rabbi, or at least not the organization for this Reform rabbi. The happy confluence of women’s entering the rabbinate and society’s undergoing parallel shifts has sparked many positive changes in the rabbinate and in our conference. We all know that there are changes yet to come, as acknowledged by the title of this conference (Rabbis Leading the Shift: Jewish Possibility in a Rapidly Changing World).   I am happy about returning to these conferences.  I am excited about seeing old and new friends.  And yes, I plan to enjoy it.


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.

Ethics General CCAR Reform Judaism

What is – and isn’t – a Rabbi’s Job?

I never imagined that I would be a rabbi of a small congregation.  And yet, for the past ten years I have been the rabbi of a congregation of 150ish families.  (Sometimes it’s 135, sometimes 152 – one thing about the small congregation is that we tend to count obsessively.) There is much about life in a small congregation that I love.  I love that I know everyone – not just their names, but oftentimes their stories too.  I love that it’s easy to notice – and therefore reach out – when someone seems to disappear for a few weeks.  I love that everyone feels like they own the place – people congregate in the kitchen, unlock, set up, and lock the building for b’nai mitzvah, take out the trash on their way out on Friday night.  (Along with leading services on Shabbat morning, teaching book discussions and Hebrew classes, and deciding to take on projects like creating a misheberach tapestry).  

I sometimes struggle with my role as a rabbi in a community with little paid staff and a do-it-yourself ethic. We spend an inordinate amount of time stacking, moving and setting up chairs.  I have moved more chairs – put them into circles, straightened them, added more, taken some away – then I can count. Last Friday night, when cleaning up from the Oneg Shabbat, I was asked, “Rabbi, I think the vacuum cleaner bag is full.  Do you know where the new ones are kept?”  (Variations include, “Rabbi, there is a light burned out in the ladies room.  Do you know where the light bulbs are?”  “Rabbi, do you know how to un-jam the photocopier?”) 

Although I don’t know how to un-jam the photocopier, I do know where the light bulbs and vacuum cleaner bags are kept and sometimes there I am on a Friday night rummaging through the supply cupboard.  Other times, I smile and just say ‘’I don’t know” to these requests.  Sometimes, if it’s been a particularly taxing week, I’ll say, “I’m sorry, I must have been having coffee when that class was taught at rabbinical school.”  


Rabbi Torop (center) in the synagogue kitchen making pancakes

I often wonder why people think that being the rabbi means that I know the answers to any of these questions.  Is it because I am the most identifiable ‘staff’ member?  Is it because I am there more than anyone else?  Have I failed to sufficiently practice tzimtzum – and so I find myself at the center of everything, even while believing that I don’t want to be? Is there a gender element as well?

Ten years into my relationship with this synagogue, I still feel ambivalent about all of this ‘non-rabbinic work’.   On the one hand, there are only so many hours in the day and shouldn’t I spend them doing the things that I am uniquely able to do – teaching torah, preaching, pastoring? If I allow myself to be drawn into caretaking, not only is my ability to do other things diminished, but it makes it easier for others to step back, to abdicate responsibility.

On the other hand, what is ‘non-rabbinic work’?   I don’t feel that I am above the jobs of cleaning and copying and shlepping just because I am ‘The Rabbi’.  And surely, working hand in hand with members of our community, taking care of the basic needs as well as the loftier ones, is itself a form of teaching and role modeling?  There is no one paid to do this work – we are all responsible – and figuring how to apportion the responsibilities, share the jobs, and pick up the pieces that get neglected is a challenge that is surely part of creating community.  This is only one of many balancing acts that I struggle with in my small congregation – and if there was a class at rabbinical school in how to keep the proper balance, I must have been out having coffee when it was taught.


Rabbi Betsy Torop is a Rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Brandon, Florida.

Ethics Israel News

And Let Them Make a Sanctuary: Remembering Rabbi David Hartman


This week we have buried a giant of Judaism.  Rabbi David Hartman, z”l, died on Rosh Chodesh Adar and was buried in Jerusalem.  Rabbi Hartman was my teacher and the founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute where I have been privileged to study over the last number of years.  Rabbi Hartman was a firebrand! An Orthodox rabbi who was anything but orthodox in his thought and deeds.  He challenged your mind and the status quo. He was passionate about learning and critical thinking.  He was demanding of his students and often said provocative things to rile up the conversation. He demanded excellence. He was a force to be reckoned with.

Rabbi Hartman had made aliyah to Israel in 1971 with his wife and five children.  He had been a pulpit rabbi in Montreal and the Bronx.  He had attended Yeshiva University, been ordained a rabbi and had a Ph.D. in philosophy.  He was a prolific writer including works of philosophy and theology such as his book about his teacher and philosopher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik; Hartman’s own theology in “A Living Covenant” and two important works about the great philosopher and legalist, Maimonides.  His latest books,  The God Who Hate Lies, and From Defender to Critic: The Search for a New Jewish Self show his own increasing impatience with the Orthodox status quo and its increasing hostility to change and innovation that Hartman found among the rabbis of the Talmud!

Perhaps some of Rabbi’s Hartman’s greatest gifts were his daring in creating an Institute that helped rabbis of all denominations become better rabbis, educators become better educators and creating a space for scholars to explore their learning by writing and research. Studying at his feet a Reform Rabbi like me was able to encounter an Orthodox colleague and share a page of Talmud together while he challenged us to think critically of our past and prepare for a Jewish future.  The Shalom Hartman Institute is a special kind of sanctuary. It is a place of true learning and encounter with God and our tradition.

David Hartman loved rabbis.  He loved rabbis of all sorts.  But he had no time for rabbinic pomposities. Instead he tried to make Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon as well as Rambam engage in a dialogue with each of his students.  As a Reform rabbi I always was amazed that Rabbi Hartman eventually adopted a position long held by our movement-whether it was his growing appreciation for the contributions of women to the tradition or his demand that all Jews matter and the chief rabbinate of Israel had it completely wrong to exclude Reform and Conservative Jews.  Hartman was ortho-prax but Reform in his outlook as Judaism lived in the 21st century.

He was an ardent Zionist who loved Israel and understood that it like all nations are a work in progress.  He conveyed that to us his students whether we were Jewish or of other faiths.  Remarkably, Hartman encouraged not only intra-faith dialogue but interfaith dialogue in the land of Israel.  Perhaps more common in North America but a rarity in Israel.

Philosophers and teachers are not usually institution builders.  But Rabbi David Hartman did so and his son Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman leads and builds the imagesinstitution his father began.  The Shalom Hartman Institute is a special place of Jewish learning and life that has changed my rabbinate but more importantly changed me as a Jew. My learning there has deepened my own faith in these troubling times. It has made me a more ardent Zionist, even with Israel’s challenges, successes and failures. My studies at the Machon has deepened my love for the experiment we call the Jewish Democratic State of Israel and allowed me the opportunity to see it in its fullness.  My studies at the Machon have widened my circle of rabbinic colleagues and challenged me to think more openly about the  idea that the Jewish people has always had many different kind of Jews.  There are many voices and many paths through and to Torah.  This is a message of my teacher Rabbi Hartman and the influence that he has had on so many. He built a unique kind of sanctuary, a place where regardless of denominational ties, we could be in concert with one another.

This week’s Torah portion is T’rumah in the book of Exodus.  It describes the instructions for building the Tabernacle in the desert. God instructs Moses to tell the children of Israel to bring their gifts forward so they can build a sanctuary for God.  The Torah portion outlines the many kind of gifts, gold and silver, yarn and fabrics that are the materials that will make up the Tent that will be the place of Divine dwelling.  The sacrifices will be eventually be made there. The ark of the covenant which will be fashioned from all of the materials donated will hold the recently given Ten Commandments. And it is this exact space between the cherubim that God’s presence will dwell and speak to Moses, Aaron and the Children of Israel.

This Tent of Meeting is in some ways like the Machon that Rabbi David Hartman built.  It is a place to encounter God and our tradition. It is a place made up of the many gifts of its scholars and teachers and students.  It is a place to have an encounter with the Divine Holy One through our texts and our colleagues and Eretz Yisrael.  The Shalom Hartman Institute has become truly an Ohel Mo’ed-a Tent of Meeting, a place to meet with teachers, Talmud and Torah and theology and a place where the disciples of Rabbi David Hartman gather to engage with each other.  I am proud to be one of those students who is a disciple of Hartman- never satisfied with the status quo, ready to challenge any kind of orthodoxy, even my own. May Rabbi David Hartman’s memory and teachings continue to inspire us and may his work continue to be a blessing to us and to our world.

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Machzor Blog: Parades and Prayer Books – Considering the Music in the New CCAR Machzor

Many years ago, even before I thought of attending cantorial school, I applied for a job with Macy’s department store in New York City to be an associate in the 346036616_640
division responsible for the Thanksgiving parade. As part of the interview process, I was told how planning for the parade goes on year–round, with the next year’s parade preparation beginning the day after the current parade concludes. The giant helium balloons are just barely in their crates, the marching bands aren’t even back on their planes, and the Thanksgiving festivities are being organized for the next year!

For many of us who lead services, the planning of High Holidays is a similar venture. True, there are no marching bands and giant helium filled balloons, but the preparation for these Yamim Noraim– the Days of Awe – is a continuous, ongoing process. As a cantor, I am constantly reviewing new music, thinking of new liturgical possibilities, and along with the rabbis envisioning how to bring the message of the High Holidays to our community in ways that will enrich all of our lives and touch our souls.

One of the challenges cantors face in the planning of our High Holiday services is the incredible wealth of musical material from which to choose. The palette of 991091
Jewish music is ever widening and broadening as each year new compositions are composed. One of our roles as shalichei tzibur – messengers of the congregation- is to determine which musical settings of our prayers meet our needs and the congregation’s in best portraying the text. An ongoing question as I
prepare for the High Holidays is: “Does this setting of this particular prayer meet the specific needs of my community at this moment in the liturgical arc of the High Holidays?” This requires that I cull through many musical settings of these prayers always attempting to find balance between tradition and modernity, contemporary music and Mi Sinai tunes, the familiar and the unknown.

At the present time, I serve as the cantorial representative to the CCAR’s editorial committee for a new High Holiday machzor. This new High Holiday prayer book will feature substantial changes from Gates of Repentance and is the first High Holiday prayer book written for the Reform Jewish community in over a generation. Based on the layout of Mishkan Tefillah, the new machzor features the now familiar multi-vocal approach to prayer by featuring Hebrew text, an English translation, interpretations of the prayer, and in many cases additional explanation and illumination. The new CCAR machzor not only presents modern interpretations of many of the High Holiday prayers, but it also includes many traditional ancient and medieval liturgical poems (piyyutim). As a member of this committee, I am constantly aware of not only of the theology and philosophy presented by the editors and authors of this new machzor, but I try to imagine what will the services actually sound like. As part of this project I wonder: How does the addition of new text and new prayers affect the sound, the music, and the melody of the High Holidays? Are we as cantors prepared to meet the musical, artistic, and liturgical challenges that a decidedly 21st century machzor proposes?

An illustration of these very real challenges is manifest in the presentation of the text for Avinu Malkeinu. Gates of Repentance includes some of its verses, but the new machzor attempts to include more of the traditional text as it informs the liturgical and theological movement from Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur. How will we adapt the much loved and familiar setting of Max Janowski’s Avinu Malkeinu to a new machzor, for example?

Listen Listen1

Will this traditional interpretation of Avinu Malkeinu fulfill our needs as a community of worshippers alongside contemporary interpretations of the same prayer?

Listen Listen2

Will comparatively new settings of Avinu Malkeinu better serve our needs as a congregation as they present a different view of the text?

Listen Listen3

Perhaps an Avinu Malkeinu that mixes traditional melody with contemporary harmonies will be an Avinu Malkeinu that provides the mystery and majesty we seek during these Days of Awe.

Listen Listen4

We as a community of clergy and congregants need to not only explore the musical settings currently available, but we need to encourage a new generation of composers to share with us their interpretations of our hallowed prayers. The new CCAR machzor will pose both considerable and exciting challenges to our High Holiday worship, and as a community we will meet these challenges by re-imagining tradition while considering the new. As we look forward to publication of the new machzor perhaps the words of Rav Kook may serve to guide us: “May the old become new and may the new become holy.”

  1. Avinu Malkeinu, by Max Janowski. Sung by Cantor Lisa Levine. From Gems of the High Holy Days.
  2. Avinu Malkeinu, traditionalmelody, arranged by Elliot Z. Levine. Sung by The Western Wind with Cantor Alberto Mizrahi. The Birthday of The World, Part II: Yom Kippur (WW 1872).
  3. Avinu Malkeinu. Composed and sung by Cantor Meir Finkelstein. From Sh’ma Koleinu.
  4. Avinu Malkeinu. Composed and sung by Cantor Ramon Tasat. From Teshuva Liturgical Explorations for the Days of Awe.

Cantor Evan Kent, a 1988 graduate of the HUC Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, has been the cantor at Temple Isaiah for twenty-five years.  Evan is also on the faculty of HUC-LA and is a doctoral candidate at Boston University where he is studying how music at Jewish summer camps helps to inform Jewish identity. In July 2013, Evan and his husband, Rabbi Donald Goor, will be fulfilling a life-long dream of making aliyah to Jerusalem.

Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor.  For more information about participating in piloting, email

This blog post appeared previously on the URJ Ten Minutes of Torah.

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Israel Blog: Flames of Passion

Reform Mechina Students in Jaffa
Reform Mechina Students in Jaffa

On Rosh Hashanah 2006, following the Second Lebanon War, I spoke about my sense that I could simply stand at the bimah, say “Israel,” sit back in my seat, and we would all witness fireworks as people reacted from all sides with their feelings for, against and about Israel. It’s a sad reality that for so many in our Jewish community, Israel evokes such strong and passionate feelings. For many, there is a sense that we can no longer talk with one another civilly about the subject. In the round of house meetings held throughout my Temple Shalom community two years ago, we learned that one wide-spread concern is that civil discourse is all-too absent in our society these days. In the coming weeks, we will launch a project in which we will have the opportunity to direct our questions, feelings, concerns and passions about Israel into what we hope will be a congregation-wide opportunity for learning and civil discourse. We will have an opportunity to hear the first of a number of incredible speakers who will help us to move beyond headlines and talking heads to learn, and then challenge ourselves to engage one another in facilitated conversation around what we’ve heard and the questions, concerns and passions we each have.

However, as I sit here in Jerusalem, I am drawn to a different sense of the power of passion when it comes to Israel. It is the power of the passions of people I have met over the past week during the CCAR Social Justice and Solidarity Mission in which I was privileged to participate, and in the days since as I have shared coffee, meals and conversation with both friends and strangers from many walks of life in and around Israel, and in more recent days, Jerusalem. There are passions here beyond those found in the political sphere, which came to a head of sorts with last week’s elections. Yes, one can easily tap into abundant passion surrounding discussions of politics. And there is the fever which sweeps Israeli society around its sporting events (I write as the Israel Soccer Cup Final is beginning at Teddy Stadium across the street from where I am sitting and writing these words.) Rather, I am speaking about the passion I encountered in the people, of all ages and of many different backgrounds I have met during the past week.

Some examples: At the beginning of our CCAR Mission we met with the students at our Israel Progressive (Reform) Movement’s Mechina in Jaffa. In Israel, the mechina programs, which abound, are a sort of gap-year for high school graduates, before they begin their military service. The Hebrew word mechina means “preparation,” and the concept behind these programs is to give these young people an opportunity to learn, and do community service, all while maturing a bit before they enter the Army. The Reform Mechina program, has grown from 4 participants in its first year a decade ago, to the 50 students currently in the program. They study Judaism, Jewish texts and explore their Jewish identity, and they spend much of their time volunteering in the Jaffa area — in schools, in community centers, in nursing homes, and in many more settings, working with Jews, Christians and Arabs. These incredibly impressive 18-19 year olds choose to spend a year of social and communal service, for which they pay, while deepening their identity and sense of commitment.

Tira, an Arab-Israeli village in the center of Israel. Dr. Fadila was raised in Tira, one among a number of Arab-Israeli Villages in an area known as “the Triangle,”

Dr. Dalia Fadila
Dr. Dalia Fadila

a wholly Arab area located in the heart of Israel. She received her Masters degree and Doctorate focussing on minority identity and status in society at Bar Ilan University (functionally an Orthodox institution) in Ramat Aviv. Dr. Fadila was the first Arab-Israeli woman to be appointed to a position in higher education in Israel. She has served in various teaching and administrative positions at Al-Qasemi Academy, an Arab College of Education in Bake El-Gharbiya, another Arab village in “the Triangle.” She served for a time as Acting President of the college and currently serves as Provost. An expert on organizational development and a researcher of American literature, women’s literature and ethnic studies, Dr. Fadila is deeply concerned with promoting quality education for Arab students and has established a network of private schools for teaching English called Q Schools – English Language and HR Development which utilizes a unique approach to learning/teaching English suited to Arab students and stemming from the need of these students to develop personally and professionally. The Q stands for quality. Sitting in her school in Tira, we watched and listened to a woman who believes she can changes the lives of young Arab students, and the Arab community through her network of Q Schools which to date has touched the lives of some 2000 students in just a few short years. Listening to Dr. Fadila was like watching flames dance as she captivated us and inspired the members of our group with her passion for education and with her belief that education can change lives and the world. While she is realistic that life for Israeli Arabs has a ways to go, she believes that change will be advanced by instilling a sense of pride, confidence and self-esteem, along with the tools for young Arab students to prepare themselves for life and careers in the 21st century. Dr. Fadila also serves on the faculty at the Israel Defense College in Herzilya. She is a tireless, passionate educator who is changing the world around her one life at a time.

Rabbi Aharon Leibowitz
Rabbi Aharon Leibowitz

There’s also Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, a young modern-Orthodox rabbi who is standing up to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and its Kashrut supervision as he seeks to help shopkeepers and restauranteurs run quality establishments without having to get caught up in the often tangled web of intrigue surrounding kashrut certification in Israel, which is widely known to involve extortion and graft. Or I could write about Elyasaf, a young social entrepreneur who has engaged in creating a number of start-ups in this “Start-Up Nation,” the most recent being Salon Shabazzi in Jerusalem’s Nachlaotneighborhood. The establishment hosts an alternative radio station (a remnant of 2011′s social protest movement); allows local artists and craftspersons to display and sell their wares, provides a cafe for the neighborhood which is also a meeting place for an incredibly diverse range of people; and by the way, has a washer and dryer in the basement, which neighbors are free to use. Elyasaf’s passion is for bringing people together — young and old, gay and straight, men and women, Christians, Muslims and Jews — you get the idea. And it is working!

Elyasaf at Salon Shabazzi with CCAR Mission members
Elyasaf at Salon Shabazzi with CCAR Mission members

We can be passionate about our feelings and concerns surrounding Israel. But this week I learned that there is abundant passion in Israel — for Israel and for change in Israel. These are stories we need to hear. We have to look and listen beyond the headlines and the politics which can all-too-often be discouraging. These are the stories of real people, real Israelis — Jews, Christians, Muslims and others whose passion can light flames in and for us to carry beyond the all-too-frequent challenges that many feel about this neighborhood over here.

More to come . . .

Rabbi Eric Gurvis

Rabbi Eric Gurvis the Senior Rabbi of Temple Shalom in Newton, MA.