Categories
Rabbinic Reflections

Rabbi Stephen Pearce: A 50-Year Career Rich In Service and Gratitude

Congregants, students, family, friends, and the readers of my oral history will be the final judges of my five-decade-long career. I look back, and I am mindful of a remark that Mark Twain once made, facing a large intimidating audience: “Homer’s dead, Shakespeare’s dead, and I myself am not feeling at all well.” Nevertheless, I have a responsibility to share some of my recollections to explain why my years of service to so many have been so rewarding.

Celebrants, mourners, students, some of whom have lost their way, and others who commemorated life’s outstanding moments have trusted me and allowed me to enter their private lives, a trust that was never betrayed. When I made a difference, people were quick to let me know and show their appreciation.

I was blessed to serve three very different communities: For five years, Temple Isaiah of Forest Hills, New York, an urban congregation with a diverse population of members, is where my rabbinical journey began. Before I arrived, the congregation had suffered a gradual decline due to problematic rabbinic leadership that resulted in a breakaway congregation. I was a young pup, and members embraced me, treated me like I was their son and grandson, and enabled me to revive and transform the congregation into a robust institution. At this juncture I began my studies for a PhD in Counselor Psychology at St. John’s University, recognizing that seminary training in counseling was woefully inadequate. I also began to teach in the Hebrew Union College’s teacher training program and in its “Add Life to Years” study program for retirees. 

For sixteen years, I served Temple Sinai of Stamford Connecticut, a declining medium-sized suburban congregation in a city with large numbers of corporate headquarters and a sizable Jewish population. Many upper- and mid-level employees of these companies were in the leadership of the congregation. Within a year of my arrival, I completed my doctoral work and was invited to serve as an adjunct professor of human relations at the New York campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

I interviewed for Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco, the oldest Jewish congregation west of the Mississippi River, on Election Day, November, 1992, when President Clinton was the Democratic candidate for US President. The search committee asked me how I thought a rabbi, whose experience as a pulpit rabbi came from serving small- to medium-sized congregations, could make the adjustment to serving one of the largest congregations in the US. I responded, “It depends on whether you think a governor from a small state can be President of the United States,” and they never asked me that question again. I was elected the thirteenth rabbi of the congregation in almost 150 years. In preparation for the Congregation’s 150th year, seven years after my arrival, historian Fred Rosenbaum wrote Visions of Reform, dividing the book into chapters based on the service of each of its senior rabbis. The chapter devoted to my early service to the Congregation was entitled: “The Temple of the Open Door,” in recognition of the membership and management initiatives that I introduced that transformed the temple from a top-down clergy and senior-staff led congregation into a collaborative organization that resulted in huge membership growth from 1,400 households at the time of my arrival to 2,700 households by the time of my retirement. This was made possible by lay leaders who gave me carte blanch to initiate new programs including voluntary dues that enabled potential members to try out the congregation at little or no cost. Whenever I wanted something, the lay leaders who devoted themselves to governance and not management said, “Do what you want, Rabbi, It’s your congregation.” I had wonderful relationships with all of the presidents and lay leaders. In addition, I was able to carve out time to publish several books and numerous articles, poems, op-ed pieces, and reviews. 

I take pride in the many programs that the lay leaders previously never permitted but now embraced, such as a Kol Nidrei Appeal to collect food for the needy and homeless—a total of 90,000 pounds by the time of my retirement. As senior rabbi emeritus and the Taube Emanu-El scholar, I continue to teach, participate in life cycle events programs such as “Chuppah and Beyond,” a series of six two-hour workshops for newly engaged and newly married couples. I serve at the behest of my wonderful successors Rabbis Beth and Jonathan Singer. In retirement, I continue to serve on nonprofit boards.

I have been blessed with a wonderful wife and children who always supported my career, even when my responsibilities interfered with family activities and celebrations, although my children would rather not have been in the public eye as much as they were because of my visibility. My wife is an Assyriologist and permanent lecturer at CAL Berkeley. I’ve often utilized Agatha Christie’s line about her archaeologist husband, Sir Max Mallowan, to describe the advantage of being married to a spouse who studies antiquities. Christie said that the best thing about being married to an archaeologist is that the older you get, the more interesting you become. My oral history housed in the University of California Oral History Collection is entitled Gratefully Yours, recognizing the gratitude that sums up my years of service. 


Rabbi Stephen Pearce is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi.  We look forward to celebrating him and more of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2022 in San Diego, March 27-30, 2022. 

Categories
Rabbinic Reflections

The Sand and the Sea: Rabbi Fred Natkin, on Traveling the World as a Reform Rabbi Chaplain

I have had only two places on my mind, as in the song by Hannah Senesh: the sand and the sea. My first 25 years as a military chaplain with the US Navy took me from the beach of Camp Pendleton, California to overlook beaches in Japan, Vietnam, Great Lakes, Illinois, Hawaii, and Micronesia, to the banks of the Potomac, the Great Mississippi, and ultimately to a beach off the coast of Kuwait. I served on, under, above, and once even beyond the atmosphere in Naval vessels. My time was split between sailors and Marines, using different conveyances to reach, greet, and preach. As well as the hatch, match, and dispatch we glibly talk about.

The sands of Florida has been in my shoes these last 25 years. I have filled in at giant URJ congregations of over 500 families, but I am most proud of maintaining a relationship with a congregation of less than 100 families in Central Florida. I have taught college classes, conducted life cycle events, conducted services, lead small groups, and have been interviewed for local, national, and international media. Maintaining Judaism for generations still is my goal.

My first baby naming at a Marine base became the baby naming for the grandchild of that same family almost twenty years later at the same military facility.

In Florida, I trained an adult to be bat mitzvah only to learn of her birth in Shanghai, China and imprisonment with her parents at concentration camps. I know five generations of that growing family.

The CCAR Committee on Chaplaincy fund allowed me to attend Conventions. CCAR voted against the Vietnam War but made provisions for Reform rabbi chaplains.

I met a lady at a Reform congregation not distant from Camp Pendleton, California, my first active duty military base. Three years and one tour later, I parlayed the 100th CCAR Convention in Cincinnati to a Navy-paid round trip from Japan to get married to her. It was sweet hearing rabbis sing in Yiddish at the Chinese restaurant to my bride and me.

At Great Lakes, Illinois, I encountered more changes in attitude. This time, my commanding officer was upset by learning of my conversations with Rabbi Bertram Korn, the first Jewish flag officer chaplain. The CO believed I violated a chain of command as my supervisor priest did not communicate personally with his ecclesiastical superior. I requested a transfer and was given Hawaii. My tour lasted five years. I went from Oahu all the way to Diego Garcia and back almost every quarter. The schedule was arranged that I conducted Friday night services on Guam, boarded either a military bird or a Pan Am flight, and was in time for Friday night services in Honolulu the same calendar day. A thrill of the tour was to have a three star general be my cantor.

I want to mention five other members of the Conference who were with me throughout my military career and into civilian rabbinate. Jim Apple, John Rosenblatt, z”l, and Bernard Frankel. We followed each other in duty stations or geographic locations.

While I was assigned to the National Navy Medical Center at Bethesda, I was called upon to be present at the return of the bodies from the Beirut bombing at Dover AFB. I was the only military active duty Navy chaplain there throughout the entire process. I was honored and humbled to perform funerals for non-Jewish personnel whose families felt affinity for me. Rabbi E. Arnold Siegel, my classmate, was assigned to the Marine unit which suffered the loss and ministered at Camp Lejeune.

Another classmate, Norman Auerbach, was injured on duty in Okinawa. He became my replacement at Bethesda because of his injuries.

In Millington, Tennessee I fulfilled my duties as a member of the CCAR Commission on Chaplaincy representing the Reform Movement in creation of a unified curriculum for all military Jewish religious schools and the black prayer book produced by the military that we used in Desert Shield/Storm at my last duty station, again based at Camp Pendleton. I have always wanted to maintain and preserve Judaism at every place where I served. If not for me, for the next generation.


Rabbi Fred Natkin is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. In addition to his military service, he faithfully served Congregation Mateh Chaim in Palm Bay, Florida. We look forward to celebrating him and more of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2022 in San Diego, March 27-30, 2022. CCAR rabbis can register here.

Categories
CCAR Press Reform Judaism Technology

CCAR Press Interview: Rabbi Dan Medwin on the Reform Luach App

Rabbi Dan Medwin, Co-Director at the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, shares his thoughts on designing CCAR Press’s Reform Luach calendar app. Reform Luach is available on the Apple, Amazon, and Google Play app stores.


What inspired the creation of the Reform Luach app?

The initial work on the Reform Luach app was done by Rabbi Leon Morris with the help of Cantor Amanda Kleinman. They painstakingly created a detailed collection of valuable information for Reform communities. The app grew out of their dedication and hard work.

What makes this app different from other Jewish calendar apps?

The Reform Movement’s calendar is a combination of the Israel calendar for holidays and the diaspora calendar for Torah readings, with necessary adjustments made to keep both in sync. Other Jewish calendar apps have options for the Israel calendar or the diaspora calendar, but not both. Additionally, page numbers are included for the Reform Movement’s sacred books: Mishkan T’filah: A Reform SiddurThe Torah: A Women’s Commentary, and The Torah: A Modern Commentary.

Are there any special features of the Reform Luach app that users should know about?

The holiday and Torah portions can be downloaded to the default calendar on one’s phone, which can be synced with a larger calendar system (e.g., Outlook, Google calendar, etc.). There are links to read more about each Torah portion at ReformJudaism.org. A handy date converter is also included, which can go from Gregorian to Hebrew calendar and vice versa.

What was the most challenging part of creating this app?

The most challenging aspect of the process was initially understanding the complex interactions and special cases of the Reform Luach, and then translating the exceptions and readings into computer logic that our developers—who were not familiar with the Jewish calendar—could implement in the app. For example, when the eighth day of Passover falls on Shabbat and the following week’s reading is Sh’mini, this week’s reading becomes Sh’mini I, and the following week’s becomes Sh’mini II. However, when the following week’s reading is Acharei Mot, that reading is split into two parts and similarly applied to both weeks.

How do you recommend that people use the Reform Luach app?

There are a number of ways folks can take advantage of the Reform Luach app. Some use it as a quick reference tool to see the upcoming Torah portion or holidays, while others use it to plan their b’nei mitzvah calendar for the year by syncing all of the dates. It’s also a helpful resource for learning more about each week’s Torah portion.

Learn more about more CCAR Press Reform Jewish apps at apps.ccarpress.org


Rabbi Dan Medwin is the designer of the Reform Luach app. Previously, he was the CCAR Director of Digital Media.

Categories
Inclusion LGBT Rabbinic Reflections Women in the Rabbinate

Rabbi Stacy Offner’s Trailblazing Journey to the Rabbinate

One hundred years ago, in 1922, the CCAR passed a resolution allowing women to be ordained as Reform rabbis. It stated clearly and specifically: “In keeping with the spirit of our age, and the traditions of our Conference, we declare that women cannot justly be denied the privilege of ordination.” This resolution was groundbreaking, but it’d be another 50 years before the CCAR’s decision resulted in real culture change and before women were given access to the place they rightfully belonged: on the bimah, behind the Torah, leading the Jewish community. In 1972, the peerless Rabbi Sally Priesand became the first woman rabbi in the world ordained by a rabbinical seminary, shattering the stained glass ceiling and becoming a hero and role model for the women who’ve followed her. Still, to this day, the concept of women rabbis is new enough that women are often still firsts—first woman rabbi in their congregation, first woman rabbi in their town, first woman senior rabbi in their congregation, first woman rabbi to serve on boards. And many women still struggle to be seen as “real” rabbis.

During Women’s History Month—and alwayswe share the stories of women rabbis, their profound wisdom and impact, and celebrate their unique contributions to the Jewish community. The CCAR is proud to be an organization that lifts up women and has done so for 100 years—and counting.


I grew up in Great Neck, New York assuming that the world was Jewish. Well, not the whole world. But my whole world. Every kid in school. Every house on my block. Every family I knew. “Old Mill Road” was known as “Temple Row.” For some peculiar reason, each of the synagogues were located on Old Mill Road. Every kid I knew went to either Great Neck Synagogue (it was Orthodox), or Temple Israel (it was Conservative), or Temple Beth El (it was Reform). 

My family went to Temple Beth El. Or more aptly, my family belonged to Temple Beth El. (Interesting: today more people go to synagogue without becoming members. Back then, people joined synagogues but didn’t go.)  My family was definitely among the “didn’t go-ers.”  Back in the 1950s and 1960s, it was unthinkable not to be a member of a synagogue. My parents were the children of immigrants. Born and bred in Brooklyn. All of my grandparents, were from Poland and had left Poland for America in the early 1920s. My Uncle Aaron was born in Poland. His family was old-fashioned. They kept kosher. They were old-country. My parents were fiercely American. Even though they grew up speaking Yiddish in their home, my parents went to public school and became more American than the pope, to mix a few metaphors. 

So I grew up in a household that was NOT observant and NOT religious and NOT kosher. We did NOT honor Shabbat in any way, but my parents were very proud of being Jewish. All their friends were Jewish. They joined a temple once they had children. And since they were blessed with two boys and a girl, they made sure that their two boys had bar mitzvahs. I still had to go to Sunday school, but when it came to the twice-a-week afternoon component that focused on Hebrew, I didn’t have to go. My brothers did. I was given a choice, and at the very wise age of seven, I said no. Besides, the only girl who went to Hebrew school was Marcie Harmon and she was the cantor’s daughter. Why would I do that?

A condition of my going only to Sunday school was that I had to stick it out through Confirmation in the 10th grade. I hated Sunday school. It didn’t mean anything to me. It wasn’t even where I could experience being Jewish because everybody in my public school was Jewish anyway. 

When I got to Confirmation, there was a requirement that you had to go to services once a month. I lived for the onegs. The services were—sorry—unbearable. Somehow I learned, mid-year, that if you went to the youth group service, it would “count”’ for the monthly service requirement. I knew it’d be shorter (though I didn’t know if they had onegs there!) but I figured I’d try it.

I walked in, and there was a band on the bimah. Two guitars, a keyboard, and a drummer. They were playing “My Sweet Lord.” I guess you could say that George Harrison made me who I am today. I enjoyed the service, I liked the kids, and I got involved in the youth group. (Just this past February, we had a Zoom youth group reunion. Fifty of us were on the screen. Our youth advisors and our rabbis were also there.)

I had two rabbis: Rabbi Jacob Rudin and Rabbi Jerry Davidson. I didn’t know it at the time, but Rabbi Rudin was the senior rabbi. He looked like God. Or at least, if asked to draw a picture of God, I think everyone would have drawn a picture of Rabbi Rudin. Rabbi Davidson was the young, hip rabbi. Both were extraordinary rabbis. 

To this day, I read Rabbi Rudin’s book of sermons every year before the High Holy Days to inspire me. I also quote him at every rabbinic installation I’ve ever been privileged to address. He first said these words to an ordination class of the Hebrew Union College in 1959. They have been in my heart ever since. He implored these about-to-be-rabbis with this advice: 

“If you do not love those whom you serve, you will not be successful.  If you do not care passionately, you will not convince your hearers that they should.  If you preach from outside your subject, you will leave your hearers outside.  If you preach from within, you will take your hearers into that same inner place.”

It was in my junior year of high school that I decided I wanted to be a rabbi. I had powerfully spiritual experiences in my youth group. My public high school allowed me to take Hebrew and Yiddish for my foreign language courses. I was also empowered to create my own curriculum and thereby study seriously, one-to-one, with my rabbi who introduced me to Rashi. 

Both of my rabbis were great. It was 1971. There were no female rabbis….in the world. I had no female role models, except of course, my mother, who always said I could be anything I wanted to be. Being a rabbi was not what she had in mind. More like President of IBM or the United States. But she came along, and so did my father. They never ceased to be proud of me. 

I had one secret though. I was gay. Ironically, I never worried that being female would keep me from being a rabbi. But being gay? That was another story. I worried. A lot. I confided in my friends. I wrote a letter (remember those?) to my high school confidante when we were each at our respective summer camps. I shared my anxiety. Her response—and this is a direct quote because I saved the letter: “What good does it do the Jewish faith for sincerely dedicated and concerned people like yourself to be alienated because of a Neanderthal attitude towards Lesbianism?”

I appreciated her logic. I decided to walk through that door. I had no idea what would hit me after I entered.

But first, I had to go to college. Kenyon College was the best choice I could have made. No Hillel. Barely any Jews, but a great Religion Department and the most Talmudic environment for learning that I have ever experienced.

Noted for its English department, I remember proudly turning in my first English paper— I believe it was on Tess of the d’Urbervilles. When I got it back, it had a big red letter grade that did not make me happy. I had researched and researched. At the end of my paper, my professor had written: “What of it?” I went to speak with him after class and he said, and I am quoting from memory:  “If I wanted to know what some important scholar has to say about Tess of the d’Urbervilles, I could look it up myself. I want to know what YOU think.” That became a very important lesson in my life. Kenyon College taught me how to think. 

I spent the first semester of my junior year in college in Israel, living on Kibbutz Usha, outside of Haifa. I picked a lot of grapefruit, ate a lot of falafel, learned Hebrew at the kibbutz ulpan, and went twice a week to the University of Haifa. I fell in love with everything about Israel, and when I came back to the United States I explored joining Garin Arava, a group of young Reform Jewish Americans who were trying to establish the first-ever Reform kibbutz in Israel. Which path should I follow? Rabbi or Kibbutznik?  Both afforded me the opportunity to live a serious, liberal Jewish life in community with others. Matthew Sperber, a Great Neck classmate of mine, was also in Garin Arava. He ended up starting what became Kibbutz Yahel in 1977. He still lives there. The headline of a recent article about his life reads: “His Mother Wanted Him to Be a Rabbi, But He Went to Build a Kibbutz.” I decided to apply to rabbinical school. 

Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute for Religion has four campuses: New York, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem. My family had moved from Great Neck to Santa Monica, so I figured I would go to rabbinical school in Los Angeles. 

If I got in. I wasn’t worried about the academics and I wasn’t worried about the Hebrew. I was worried about the psychological testing you were required to undergo. Among the battery of tests was the Rorschach. In one of the inkblots, I saw two people kissing each other. I was convinced they would identify me as lesbian and there would be no rabbinical school for me. Oh, I neglected to say, but surely you realize—in 1977 there was NO CHANCE that a gay person would be accepted into rabbinical school. Zero. None. 

I worried and worried, but a family friend who was also a psychologist, assured me that the inkblot was called, in the biz, “the love card.” “They just want to make sure you see love,” she said.  Which I did.

I hated my first year of rabbinical school. I loved being in Jerusalem, but none of my classes did what Kenyon College had done. It wasn’t about thinking. It wasn’t about meaning. It was more about cramming and regurgitating. Thank God for Jerusalem. The city became my classroom and I was eager to learn. 

Back in Los Angeles, school was better. But I was closeted. I still couldn’t be my whole self. So, I took a leave of absence to see if I was better suited to be a bank teller. I went to San Francisco for the year but never made it as a bank teller. I got a job with the Union for Reform Judaism and developed retreat programming for students all over the Bay Area so they might have a better time in Religious School than I had experienced. 

I returned to rabbinical school, but this time in New York. The campus is right off of Washington Square and I figured that would be a better environment in which to plant myself. I was still closeted. The College made it very clear, in no uncertain terms, that if they learned that a student was gay they would be expelled. I confided in friends, I came out to my parents, but while I didn’t fear that my good friends would break my confidence, they feared that my own yearning to be open would ruin me. As Rachel Kadish wrote in The Weight of Ink, her recent book about the Inquisition: “Truth-telling is a luxury for those whose lives aren’t at risk.”

I was ordained May 24, 1984.  I stepped off the bimah at Temple Emanuel on Fifth Avenue in New York, and onto an airplane headed to Minnesota to become the assistant rabbi at Mt. Zion Temple in St. Paul. My motto: “To know me is to love me.” Surely, once we get to know each other, everything will be okay. 

I had a blessed four-year tenure at Mt. Zion Temple. I loved the temple and the people who comprised it. We flourished together. Though it was not yet an official federal policy, I think we lived happily together under the rubric of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” 

Falling in love with Nancy Abramson changed all that. While Nancy and I still jointly adhered to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy, our decision to live together pushed Mt. Zion members over the brink. Rumors started to fly and complaints started to be registered with the senior rabbi at the time. He and I had such a good relationship that I had shared my sexual orientation with him back in my first year, and he was okay with that, as long as it remained a secret. It wasn’t a secret anymore and there were an awful lot of complaints, he told me, and so, he told me, I would have to go. And now, get this: I understood! Of course, I would have to go.

But thankfully, when my departure was announced, there were members of the congregation who did NOT understand. There was a ruckus. On Thursday, February 18, 1988, I received a phone call from Clark Morphew. He was the religion editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. We had a relationship over the years. He told me, not unkindly, that there was going to be an article in the next day’s paper.

There was a lot of snow on the ground when I woke up that next day. I walked down our driveway and pulled the newspaper out of the mailbox. I opened it. My knees started shaking. Front page. Headline. Lesbian Rabbi Fired. So much for “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

First worry: our kids. They were in fourth grade and seventh grade. What would happen to them? That evening, Jill’s best friend’s parents came over with flowers. Charlie’s best friend’s parents came with a box of chocolates. Nancy and I cried. So much hate, and so much love.

Our family’s world was imploding and exploding around us. But I truly felt the fierce power of the biblical words: those who sow in tears will reap in joy (Psalm 126:5). And at the end of the day, that is exactly what happened: those congregants at Mt. Zion Temple who felt they’d lost their spiritual home created a new one. They called it Shir Tikvah, Song of Hope. In June of 1988, Shir Tikvah became the first mainstream congregation to hire an openly gay rabbi. Together, over twenty years, we grew the congregation from 40 households to 400 households. 

I loved my congregation, and I poured myself into my work. We were true partners in creating meaning in people’s lives, shifting the world towards justice, and living and breathing Jewish values and teachings. Nancy and I assumed we’d one day retire in Minnesota, she from her amazing career in mental health, and me from Shir Tikvah. We’d live happily ever after and one day be buried in that beautiful Jewish cemetery around the corner from where we lived. 

But that was not to happen. Out of the blue, I received a phone call one day from the President of the Union for Reform Judaism. I was recruited to be a Vice President at the URJ. It was an opportunity of a lifetime. Instead of being the rabbi of one congregation, I would be rabbi to the 900 congregations that formed the URJ. Besides: our daughter and son-in-law now lived in New York and my parents had come back to New York, where my mother was now living with terminal cancer. It had always plagued me that I wouldn’t be able to walk with her through her final days and this was an opportunity to do just that.

Nancy and I packed up our Prius and moved to New York City. We did have more time with our children, and yes, our first grandchild was born and we were able to be right there. Nancy and I spent time with my mother daily. She died ten weeks after we came to New York. 

I missed synagogue life. I missed holding the Torah. I missed being able to make a difference in people’s lives. Being a bureaucrat, I discovered, was not for me. 

But what to do? Shir Tikvah had been my “one and only.” I wasn’t convinced that I could go back to synagogue life. So I decided to try it out by serving as an interim rabbi at Adath Emanuel, a congregation in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey. I loved my time at Adath. I loved being back at the synagogue, standing on the bimah before the open ark. I loved it so much that I knew I wanted to seek a long-term relationship with a congregation.

And that is where Temple Beth Tikvah comes into the story. It felt like a match made in heaven. The people. The values. The potential. The history. The hope. Nancy and I were taken with it all. 

You are all a part of the rest of the story. Nancy and I have treasured our years with you. We have grown together and learned together and been challenged together. There have been births and b’nei mitzvah, weddings, and death. There has been illness and recovery. There has been a pandemic, and still, we are building and growing. 

And soon, there will be a new chapter. A new chapter for Temple Beth Tikvah and a new chapter for Nancy and me. In Mishnah Pirkei Avot, the rabbis discuss the proper relationship with the Torah. It counsels that the Torah should never be a kardom lachpor, the Torah should never be a spade to dig with. In other words, don’t use it to make a living. Rather, the best experience of Torah, the best learning of Torah, is torah lishmah, Torah that is learned for its own sake (Pirkei Avot 4:5).

It’s a tricky path, but I have been blessed to have my life’s work be Torah. And soon, upon retirement, I look forward to the sweetest Torah of all, that which is lishmah, Torah for its own sake. 

I feel twice blessed. It has been a privilege to make a career of Torah and to be personally sustained and anchored by Torah at the very same time.

Rabbi Stacy Offner served as the Rabbi of Temple Beth Tikvah from 2012 – 2021. Rabbi Offner is also the Founding Rabbi Emerita of Shir Tikvah Congregation in Minneapolis. A Magna Cum Laude graduate of Kenyon College, Rabbi Offner earned both her M.A. and Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa, from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. For more about women in the rabbinate, read The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate.

Categories
Rabbinic Reflections

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

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

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

Many of my key remembrances include:

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

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

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

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

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

For that, I’m still grateful.


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

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

Categories
Rabbinic Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Rabbinic Reflections

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Rabbinic Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Rabbinic Reflections

Rabbi Peter Grumbacher on a Charmed 50 Years in the Rabbinate

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

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

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

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

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

It’s been a charmed rabbinate for me.

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


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

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

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Books CCAR Press Social Justice Torah

Teaching and Preaching with The Social Justice Torah Commentary

Rabbi Barry H. Block is the editor of the new CCAR Press book The Social Justice Torah Commentary, which delves into the many ways that the Torah can inspire us to address today’s social justice issues. In this post, Rabbi Block discusses how the book’s diverse lessons have influenced his own sermons throughout the past year.

On many Friday nights in the last year, contributors to The Social Justice Torah Commentary have been de facto guest preachers at Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock.

For more than a year now, I have been in the unique position of having access to the brilliant work of our CCAR colleagues and other contributors to The Social Justice Torah Commentary. The last of the chapters was completed in late 2020. Transforming the content into a physical book takes a while, particularly in this era of contraction in the printing industry and global supply chain issues.

The book’s chapters have deeply influenced my own rabbinate over the last year; I hope this will be replicated as rabbis and others now have their hands on the full book.

I give formal sermons most Friday nights, and the authors of The Social Justice Torah Commentary have provided me with content that I have shaped into these sermons. I suspect that colleagues who speak more informally could similarly benefit from the book.

Last fall, when the Supreme Court forced the City of Philadelphia to continue contracting with a religious foster care agency that discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation, I preached on “Religious Certainty and Religious Liberty,” drawing both on that week’s portion, Vayeira, and Rabbi David Segal’s insightful piece on that parashah for the book. I turned back to Rabbi Segal’s entry this year, as we face a historic threat to abortion rights. In 5782, my sermon for Vayeira was entitled, “Abortion Rights: Bound to the Altar”. While both of those sermons drew on the same chapter in the book, neither recapitulated Rabbi Segal’s central argument in full. Instead, crediting Rabbi Segal repeatedly in each sermon, I shared some of his words—and, more importantly, texts that he provides.

In other cases, I have shared an author’s entire thesis more fully. Before I received Rabbi Reuben Zellman’s draft for Parashat Mikeitz, I had somehow never thought of Joseph and the cupbearer as formerly incarcerated people who had been given extraordinary opportunities to succeed after imprisonment. I shared Rabbi Zellman’s perspective rather fully last December, in a sermon titled “Joseph and the Cupbearer: The Potential of Formerly Incarcerated People”.

Rabbi Mary Zamore’s entry on harassment-free Jewish spaces for Parashat Vayikra is so compelling that I taught it even though the week of reading that portion wasn’t the right time. Shabbat HaGadol, when we read Parashat Tzav (close enough to Vayikra!), would be the occasion for me to share her wisdom in a sermon I entitled “Harassment, Bullying, and Jewish Institutions”.

In no case have I merely recited another author’s work verbatim as my Shabbat sermon. Instead, I have shaped kernels of these chapters into drashot that would fit the congregation I serve and the season when I have preached.

More recently, Rabbis Alan Freedman and Ellie Steinman and Temple Beth Shalom in Austin blessed me with my first scholar-in-residence opportunity since the pandemic began. My Friday evening sermon was based on The Mussar Torah Commentary. However, for the Shabbat morning Torah Study, I prepared a Sefaria source sheet based on Rabbi Naamah Kelman’s entry for Parashat Chayei Sarah, “Torah’s Precedent for Women’s Agency.” Rabbi Kelman focused on how women’s agency is taken away by the marriage and divorce laws of Israel’s chief rabbinate. Teaching in Texas in 2021, though, the matter of women’s agency is most relevant to the struggle for access to abortion.

Later that same Shabbat, our attention had turned to Parashat Tol’dot. In his chapter about systemic racism and water rights, Rabbi David Spinrad draws on Isaac’s digging and naming successive wells—and importantly, on Nachmanides’ midrashic reading of that story. Kernels of his work, encapsulated in a Sefaria sheet, were the perfect material on which to base a conversation about whether and how rabbis can properly speak on issues of the day: “Politics or Social Justice: Should Rabbis Preach about Issues of the Day.”

I hope that these examples, only a few of the many, many times I have employed the content of The Social Justice Torah Commentary over the last year, will inspire CCAR colleagues and others to draw on this new book to bring Torah and the prophetic voice for a brighter future to all the communities we serve.


Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. He is the CCAR’s Vice President for Organizational Relationships and also edited The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life (CCAR Press, 2020).