Books CCAR Press Responsa

Claiming the Halachic Tradition: Rabbi Mark Washofsky on ‘Reading Reform Responsa’

Rabbi Mark Washofsky, PhD, is the author of Reading Reform Responsa: Jewish Tradition, Reform Rabbis, and Today’s Issues, now available from CCAR Press. In this excerpt from the preface, he explains the book’s structure and introduces his argument for why responsa—and the halachah they reference—are essential to Reform Jewish life.

I want to invite you to join me in reading some of the most fascinating texts that rabbis have ever written. They are responsa, answers to questions about Jewish religious practice submitted to them by individuals and communities. More specifically, they are Reform responsa, composed by Reform rabbis for an audience of progressive Jewish readers.

Fascinating? Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m prejudiced. Much of my academic career as a student of the literature of Jewish law (halachah) has involved the study of the genre known as rabbinical responsa (sh’eilot ut’shuvot, “questions and answers”), documents dating from the eighth century CE to our own day. And as a member of the Responsa Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis from 1985 to 2017, I have taken part in composing many Reform responsa. I have lived for decades with responsa as both a reader and a writer, so it’s little wonder that I’m partial to them. Nor should it be surprising that I want you to share my enthusiasm… which goes a long way toward explaining the existence of this book.

But why should you share my enthusiasm? That’s a big question, too big for this preface. Think of the book itself as an extended answer. The introduction explains what responsa are and their significance in the history of Judaism. It discusses the nature and history of the genre in general and of Reform responsa in particular. And it offers suggestions as to why Reform rabbis write responsa, why those responsa legitimately claim importance, and why they deserve to be read carefully and critically. The chapters that follow guide us through the reading of Reform responsa on ten subjects that I hope you will find interesting and that provide good examples of how these texts work and how they seek to accomplish the goals that their authors set for them. In the conclusion, I make some inferences and observations about the role that responsa play in Reform Jewish thought and life.

What I can and should do in this preface is to name some of the convictions that have brought me to write this book and that will no doubt be evident throughout its pages. First, responsa are an essential literary tool—maybe the most important such tool—through which rabbis (including Reform rabbis) create Torah and create community. Responsa create Torah because they answer new questions, those that the existing texts of halachah do not explicitly address, or hard questions, which the texts do not resolve in any clear and agreed upon way. Responsa create community because they are essays in persuasion. Responsa writers do more than simply declare their decisions. They argue for those decisions, with the goal of persuading their intended readers to adopt that argument as their own, to form a community around this particular understanding of the message of Torah on the question at hand. Second, Reform responsa resemble traditional responsa in that they are halachic texts, drawing their support from the literature of the Jewish legal tradition. The very existence of a genre called “Reform responsa,” by far the largest body of writing on issues of Reform religious practice, demonstrates the continuing relevance of halachah to Reform Jewish life. And third, Reform responsa differ from traditional responsa. Written by Reform rabbis and speaking to an audience of Reform Jews, they embody a uniquely Reform Jewish discourse, our own way of understanding the halachic tradition and of making meaning within our community. Reform responsa assert our own claim upon the halachic tradition, our refusal to grant to others the exclusive right to interpret that tradition and to say what it means.

Order Reading Reform Responsa here.

Rabbi Mark Washofsky, PhD, is an emeritus professor of Jewish Law and Practice at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. He served as chair of the Responsa Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis from 1996 to 2017. He is currently the chair of the Solomon B. Freehof Institute of Progressive Halakhah. His publications include Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform PracticeReform Responsa for the Twenty-First Century (CCAR Press, 2010), and Reading Reform Responsa: Jewish Tradition, Reform Rabbis, and Today’s Issues (CCAR Press, 2024).

Rabbinic Reflections

‘Meet People Where They Are and Grow Together’: Rabbi Jerome David on 50 Years in the Reform Rabbinate

A true story: I was in the third grade, or maybe fourth, and I went to Shabbat services with my friend Gary at his Orthodox shul. We are both children of Holocaust survivors. While his family clung to tradition, mine tried to escape it. I was trying to follow the service, but to this day I remember that uncomfortable, sinking feeling of being totally lost and confused—being a stranger in a strange place. I also had this growing awareness that the older kids sitting near me were pointing at me, talking about me and laughing, or so it seemed.  Just then the gabai towered over me, grabbed my siddur, and turned it right-side up! “Here, try this,” he barked. 

I swore then I was not going to remain stupid in my own Judaism. My grandparents were killed because they were Jewish, and I didn’t know the first thing about it. I prevailed on my parents to join a synagogue—a Reform temple, where my rabbi served as a mentor and role model. At my bar mitzvah, the rabbi commented to the congregation, “We now know where our future rabbis are coming from.” A seed was planted. 

I’ve thought a lot about the trajectory of my own life, having recently returned from my high school reunion. 

I thought about how I could have predicted so little of it. If you would have told me when I was a fifteen-year-old kid at Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati, Ohio that I would be here with you, now, celebrating my fiftieth anniversary in the rabbinate, and fifty years at one congregation, I’m not sure what I would have said. 

Could I, arriving at Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, New Jersey in the summer of 1974—my sideburns long, my Midwestern accent thick, my experience non-existent—could I have known that I would stay, not the two years prescribed by my initial contract, but fifty years in the end, through generations, through upheaval, through change, moving from Cooper River to the promised corner of Springdale and Kresson, unifying with M’kor Shalom and becoming Kol Ami?

In the words of our son, Rabbi Ben David, “We all have examples too. I know we do.” You didn’t think it would go this way. You weren’t expecting it either: the news, the sickness, the sadness, the surprises, the professional and personal transitions one after another. Who would ever have imagined? 

One unexpected consequence is how agreeing to pilot the Introduction to Judaism course in the winter of 1979 would turn into a lifelong passion. I’m still teaching the course and so many of my cherished graduates are members and leaders of our congregation. This journey remains a labor of love for me—not only have I instructed, I have learned volumes and have been truly inspired by my students.  

One might say that the prevailing philosophy of my rabbinate is to “meet people where they are and grow together.”  

I am still growing, reaching, climbing, and hoping. 

 Rabbi Jerome David is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and all of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2024.

Rabbinic Reflections

‘Sit Until You Are Called Forward’: Rabbi Harold Robinson Reflects on His 50-Year Career as a Reform Rabbi

It was my first ever Rosh HaShanah dinner as a rabbi, and I was trying to enjoy the meal, but instead was frantically reviewing my sermon and double-checking the cues, and generally full of opening night jitters. Then the phone rang: “Rabbi, what do we do if one of the family has just died at the dinner table? Did the rest of us go to service?” I frantically scrolled through memories of halachah while I extended my concern for the family and offered to come by either before or right after services. And asked for the identity of the caller so I would be able to connect. 

“Oh no, Rabbi, you misunderstood. We were just chatting around the table and wondered what would happen, hypothetically.” I asked myself; “Really? Is this why I became a rabbi?” 

Last month while attending a wonderful lecture at HUC-JIR, Cincinnati, in a room full of colleagues, my phone (on silent) signaled an incoming call. I texted, “Can I call you back in an hour?” All caps response, “NO, NOW!” I stepped out and called back. It was a woman whose father I had buried and at whose daughter’s wedding I was misader kiddushin. She was barely able to get out the words “talk to the police!” I have known the police lieutenant for forty-five years; he grew up across the street from us. The officer said, “Rabbi, her husband just died in a horrible accident.”  

Two days later I gathered with the bereft widow, the four young adult children and their significant others. The family was riven by issues; the children were still coming to terms with each other and their parents. Some had not spoken in several years. I mostly listened for three hours and even taught two texts.  

When I left, they were once again a family, tearfully embracing each other and me. This really IS why I became a rabbi! Silently, I thanked my days at HUC-JIR fifty years ago, my studies with Rabbis Mirsky and Katz, and especially conversations in the Bumming Room with you my fellow students that started me on the path that brought me and that family to that important moment.  

Most of all, I cherish the study of texts. At this moment I harken to the wisdom of Vayikra Rabbah 1:5: “Rabbi Joshua of Sichnin in the name of Rabbi Levi expounded the verse ‘For it is better it be said to you: Come up here, than you be humbled and sent down before the prince’ (Proverbs 25:7). Rabbi Akiba taught in the name of Rabbi Simeon ben Azzai: ‘Take your seat two or three lower and sit until you are called forward: rather that than if you had placed yourself higher and be told to move back. Better that people call you up, come up, than say go back, go back.’” 

It was hard but worthwhile advice to follow when I thought I knew more than I knew, and still hard but worthwhile advice to follow when I actually know even more than I imagined I knew. In almost every circumstance it has been better to be asked for advice or an opinion than to gratuitously offer one. Though it is often a struggle.  

Still, I am learning from Miriam, my beloved wife, who teaches from P’sachim (99a): “Silence is fitting for the wise … ‘Even a fool, when he holds his peace, is considered wise; and he that shuts his lips is esteemed as a man of understanding’ (Proverbs 17:28).”  

Rabbi Harold Robinson is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and all of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2024.

Rabbinic Reflections

Rabbi Harry D. Rothstein: Finding the Divine in a Hospital Room

Life is funny in some ways. I was born into a secular Jewish family in Brooklyn, went to New York City public schools, all the while playing hooky from afternoon Hebrew school. And here I am fifty years in the rabbinate. God has a sense of humor.

I graduated from Brooklyn College and was accepted by Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, receiving ordination in 1974. When I was accepted into the College–Institute, I was told that I would be prepared for the pulpit. Yet, my most profound and spiritual experiences have been as a hospital chaplain. Life can have its twists and turns.

While I initially served in pulpits in New York State, since 1987 my positions have been as a chaplain in psychiatric centers, prisons, hospice, a cancer hospital, and acute care hospitals, and as a volunteer for a suicide prevention hotline. During my chaplaincy I earned four units of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), my Board Certification through N’shamah, the Association of Jewish Chaplains, and received a Doctor of Ministry in Pastoral Counseling from Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion.

While I have written about pastoral care in professional publications like the Journal of Palliative and Supportive Care and in Caring for the Human Spirit. I find the most meaningful experiences in pastoral care to be not writing, but being with patients. When a patient says that they could not have been discharged without my help, that is the day I know I have earned my salary. The experience of offering pastoral care has made me less judgmental and more compassionate, not only as a professional, but as a person.

My chaplain colleagues will sometimes report that from time to time when they engage with a hospital patient, not often but sometimes, all seems to fall away. For a moment it no longer matters that they are sitting in a hospital room. It no longer matters that they are a chaplain nor that they are conversing with a sick person. Their daily schedule, or any method of pastoral care, seem to fall away. Rather they are merely two human beings engaged in speaking with each other. This moment is divine—sometimes.

When I walk into a patient’s room, I believe that the Shechinah walks with me.

At that moment, I am just one human being speaking with another human being. For me, this is where God lives.  

I was raised in a family where we were taught that the greatest service was service to others. The rabbinate and chaplaincy have given me opportunities to live up to my upbringing.

Rabbi Harry D. Rothstein is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and all of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2024.

Rabbinic Reflections

Calling It a Career: Rabbi Stephen Fuchs on the Moments that Matter in His 50-Year Rabbinic Career

Ecclesiastes reminds us, “There is a time for every purpose under heaven (3:1).”

When I turned seventy-seven last year, it dawned on me with stark clarity that it was time to bring down the curtain on my tenure as spiritual leader of Bat Yam Temple of the Islands in Sanibel, Florida, and retire.

I will always, of course, be a rabbi, and I will await in wonder to see what new plans the Eternal One has in store for me.

When I announced I would retire the first time in 2012 from my position as senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford, Connecticut, people asked, “What will you do now?” I honestly answered, “I am not sure. I’ll read more, write more, and beyond that, we’ll see.”

I could never have imagined the blessings the “we’ll see” had in store for me these past twelve years: serving as president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, which enabled me to visit more than sixty-five communities on five continents teaching about and advocating for progressive Jewish values; serving as guest rabbi in Milan and Florence, Italy; spending significant parts of five years teaching and preaching in Germany; and then serving for six years as rabbi of Bat Yam Temple of the Islands.

Among the highlights of our years in Germany have been the invitations to teach with Vickie about the Shoah in German schools, and to speak in the synagogue and in churches and at Kristallnacht commemorations in Leipzig, Germany, the city where my father, Leo Fuchs, of blessed memory, grew up and was arrested and imprisoned on November 9, 1938.

Our tradition teaches that King Solomon wrote three biblical books: Song of Songs, a book of love poetry when he was a young man; Proverbs, a book of wisdom in middle age; and Ecclesiastes, with its sober look at life as an older man.

Although I cannot claim Solomon’s wisdom, I have been blessed to find true love as a young man, and the loving marriage I have shared with Vickie for all fifty years of my career years, has sustained me through the many joys and the few disappointments of my career.

I have tried my best to share what wisdom I have gained in my sermons, lectures, and in the college and seminary teaching I have been invited to do over the years, and in the seven books I have written.

Upon ordination in 1974, I became the first full-time rabbi of Temple Isaiah in Columbia, Maryland, a synagogue launched by my beloved mentor, Rabbi Richard S. Sternberger, z”l, UAHC Mid-Atlantic Regional Director.

Beginning in 1986, I became senior rabbi at Congregation Ohabai Sholom, known as The Temple, in Nashville, Tennessee. I will always be grateful that the congregation funded my graduate studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School, which culminated when I earned a DMin in biblical interpretation in 1992.

In 1997, I became senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel until I became rabbi emeritus in 2012.

Now that I am older, I look back on my fifty-year rabbinical career and reach the important conclusion Ecclesiastes teaches: “Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity (1:2).” How true I find those words today.

What is truly important to me now is not recognition or material rewards. I do not deny that I have striven for and enjoyed a measure of those things, but the joy does not last that long, and looking back, they matter very little.

What I shall always cherish, and what will always matter, are the times when something I did, wrote, or said made a real difference in someone’s life. It was in those moments or when someone reminded me of them, that I truly felt God’s pleasure. Participating in our son Leo’s ordination in Los Angeles last May, is a wonderful retirement present and a memory I shall always cherish.

As they did back in 2012, people ask me, “What will you do now?”

For the time being I am proud to become Bat Yam’s rabbi emeritus.

In addition, I would add, “I’ll read more, write more, and beyond that, we’ll see.”

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and all of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2024.

Books CCAR Press Reform Judaism

How Disruption Shaped Jewish History: Rabbi Stanley Davids and Dr. Leah Hochman on ‘Re-forming Judaism’

Rabbi Stanley M. Davids and Leah Hochman, PhD, are coeditors of Re-forming Judaism: Moments of Disruption in Jewish Thought, recently published by CCAR Press. In this interview, they discuss the book’s development, the unique topics addressed by contributors, and the future of Judaism.

What was the inspiration behind Re-forming Judaism?  

Rabbi Stanley Davids: I am proud of my place within Reform Judaism, but I remain amazed and frustrated that so many of our people, lay and professional alike, don’t really understand how we fit within the flow of Jewish history. It is in the very DNA of Judaism to be able to encounter the shifts and changes in religious thought and within the lands where we live—and to dramatically reposition Judaism. The status quo was always a potential death knell; flexibility, creativity, and devotion to our core values allowed us to rise above both physical and intellectual rubble and to move our mission forward. When I found a true partner in Leah Hochman, I knew that we could craft a message that would have significant value and resonance.

Dr. Leah Hochman: Stan has long been interested in the multiple paths by which Jews and Judaism have come to be where and how they are. The book is his brainchild; he put together an exploratory committee of really smart people to think through some of the ways Jews tell the story of intellectual growth (and decline). Using disruptions in Jewish religious thought as a framework brought the project together. Nothing in history happens in a straight line; Judaism’s (and Jews’) ability to pivot, re-form, respond, and grow has ensured its vibrancy and continuance.

What was the editing process like? Did you learn anything new from working on this book?

SD: Our wonderful collection of authors represented widely diverse fields of expertise. They had a true passion for their subject matter. The editing process was at times quite grueling. We had to reduce the chapters to an acceptable size. We had to point out where many of our potential readers would not have the skill set to understand technical allusions. We knew that we were creating a book that did not have to be read chapter by chapter, but still, the chapters had to be in conversation with each other. I treasure what I learned—and the inspiration that I gained—from each chapter and from each author.

LH: We were extraordinarily lucky that so many talented thinkers were not only interested in the project, but were generous with their participation in its completion. Stan and I, along with the deeply committed CCAR Press editorial team, met several times to think through the organization of the book, who might contribute, and how to ensure a balance of topics, authors, and themes. The entire process occurred during the COVID shutdowns—pre-vaccine to post-Omicron—and was marked by disruptions of illness, personal loss, and changes in the CCAR office. I learned that Stan is a fierce champion of what matters and that persistence requires a whole lot of effort. It was a long haul, but thankfully, also an enormously fruitful one.

Are there any disruptions discussed in the book that readers may find surprising?

SD: I can speak only for myself, not for our readers. Surprising? So many. How the Torah emerged as a massive response to disruption. How Pauline Christianity helped shape post-Churban (destruction of the Second Temple) Judaism. How the world of Sephardim confronted very different disruptions—and thus shaped a culture quite different from the world of the Ashkenazim. How an understanding of the dynamics of gender and of synagogue music was dramatically enhanced by our own camp movements. And how adaptations to previous disruptions must be carefully studied so that we can navigate tomorrow’s world.

LH: I think all of them are surprising! I have learned an enormous amount from each of these chapters—they zero in on precise moments of growth and adaptation and unpack those moments to showcase how ingeniously our forebearers have created and preserved a sense of Jewish purpose and intentionality. Stephen Smith’s article on Holocaust witness testimony might be the most immediately surprising, but honestly, there is something for everyone in these essays.

Why is it important that we, as Jews, understand the various disruptions that have gotten us to this point in our history?

SD: Disruptions keep on coming. Sometimes they are products of natural disasters. Sometimes they are products of radical internal challenges to how we interface with the non-Jewish world. Sometimes they are the product of radical shifts in how the Western world understands the meaning and purpose of existence. Sometimes they arise as responses to horrible wars and to brutal assaults against us. We cannot understand who we are and where we are going if we cannot understand how we got “here” from “there.”

LH: We are currently living in a time period of deep concretization of story—such and such happened, in so and so way, and that’s that. And we are deepening the trenches between multiple versions of similar stories. I think it’s crucial for all of us to remember that we have choices in how we respond to the disruptions of today and that we can learn a lot from a careful and thoughtful look at our pasts.

What disruptions are we experiencing today?

LH: What a question! It feels ineffective to call the October 7 massacre, and the ongoing war in Gaza, a disruption. We had barely understood our losses from the pandemic and the full nature of the threats to individual autonomy in the US, when American Jewry needed to shift its focus to the crises in Israel and the exponential rise in antisemitism here. The twenty-first century has been wildly disruptive in virtually every way.

SD: October 7 is a disruption that will reshape Israeli understandings of themselves, American Jewish understandings of ourselves, and what Israel will mean to us tomorrow. The political climate in America represents a massive shift in Jewish comfort in this, our home. We are being forced to confront a resurgent antisemitism, along with a sense that we are being marginalized from groups and communities that once were our greatest allies. Denominationalism is rapidly diminishing as a key factor differentiating one Jewish community from another. The role and purpose of synagogues and the notion of a discipline of worship are fading. Cross-generational commitment to what once was considered normative is weakening. And here’s the key point: history teaches us that we have no idea as to what major disruptions lie just beyond the corner. We dare not confront such uncertainties unprepared. This book is both a warning and an enormous source of hope.

Rabbi Stanley M. Davids is rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanu-El of Greater Atlanta. Leah Hochman, PhD, directs the Louchheim School for Judaic Studies at the University of Southern California and is an associate professor at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. Rabbi Davids and Dr. Hochman are coeditors of Reforming Judaism: Moments of Disruption in Jewish Thought (CCAR Press, 2023).

Rabbinic Reflections

Then You Remember: Rabbi Dennis Sasso Reflects on 50 Years as a Reform Rabbi

Some years ago, I wrote about stages of the rabbinate. I called the first stage “I want to change the world;” stage two: “I want to touch your soul;” stage three: “Wow! I can make a difference;” stage four: “What’s it all about?,” and stage five: “Integration.”

In the “I want to change the world” stage, I was ready to unpack and transmit everything I had learned in rabbinical seminary and make every congregant a maximalist Jew. I had so much to teach, so many good ideas, if people would only listen. As we mature, we realize that our presence is more important than our ideas, and our compassion more important than defending faith and tradition. 

The rabbi then discovers that there are issues in the lives of vulnerable human beings and begins to own the role of pastor, entering the stage of “I want to touch your soul.” We are not just enactors of rituals and ceremonials, preachers of theology and ethics, but spiritual counselors whose caring and appropriate words and gestures, whose loyal presence, can help to ease the burden and double the joys of our congregants.

“Rabbi” means teacher. As I was graduating college, I considered an academic career, but soon realized that it was being with people gathered for prayer, celebration, and memory, for the performance of acts of justice and kindness, that most compelled me. I cherished my involvement in academia and writing, but I preferred being a mentor, a guide, and fellow traveler with the Jews of today. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan reminded us, “The rabbi should not be a walking sarcophagus of dead ideas about religion, but an interpreter of the experiences… of religion that are understandable and relevant.”

With the passing of years, the rabbi becomes a leader who “can make a difference” in the broader community, sometimes drawing strong reactions. A mentor warned me, “Some people will love you without reason, and some will hate you without cause. Be yourself. You will know when you have done well.” Rabbi Israel Salanter warned, “A rabbi whose community can never agree with him cannot be their rabbi; but a rabbi who never disagrees with his community is not fit to be a rabbi.”

There will be times of doubt when a rabbi questions ideals and vocation. It’s the “what’s it all about?” stage. Then, you remember…

you remember the love in the faces of new parents holding a newborn and praying for health and joys;

you remember standing on the bimah with a nervous thirteen-year-old, offering blessings and assurance;

you remember moments under the chuppah, with a young couple with whose parents you also had stood under the wedding canopy, celebrating the ongoing chain of tradition and love;

you remember being at the hospital bedside of an elder chanting prayers he had cherished and sung, moments at the graveside of one who died too young, or of a senior taken by Covid, whom the family could not visit during the final days and hours.

you remember the open phone conversation with a grieving family standing near a beloved mother about to be taken off life support—the tears, the love, the last breath.

Carl Sandburg observed that “Life is like an onion. You peel it a layer at a time and sometimes you weep.” And so, you remember the layers, the joys, the tears, the grace, and the strength that sustained you as you sought to sustain others.

As the years flow, a rabbi enters a stage of “integration.” Soren Kierkegaard reminds us that some things are true when they are whispered, but not true when they are shouted. Mature religion is less about the exclamation sign and more about the question mark. With humble and grateful spirit, we enter the stage of “integration”—the feeling, the awareness, that our rabbinic self and persona are one. 

Being a “Rabbi in Israel,” even now in retirement, is not what I do, but who I am—a servant and teacher in love with Judaism and the Jewish people, our culture, our spiritual values, our memories, our moral imperatives, our answers, our questions, our gifts of hope and imagination to shape a better world. Let us imagine…

Rabbi Dennis Sasso is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and all of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2024.

Rabbinic Reflections

Rabbi Allen Bennett: 50 Years of Joys and Rewards of Chaplaincy, Pulpit, and Interfaith Work

I graduated in the largest ordination class in HUC-JIR’s history.

I was one of the very few graduates that year, if not the only graduate, who intentionally chose not to seek work in a pulpit setting. I elected to enter a one-year residency program in Clinical Pastoral Education (hospital chaplaincy) in Rochester, Minnesota, after which I remained as the Jewish chaplain at the Mayo Clinic-affiliated hospitals for the next two years. Unbeknownst to me when I went to Rochester, I was also expected to serve as the rabbi of B’nai Israel Synagogue there, something no one thought to mention to me during the application process.

I loved my chaplaincy work and learned a great deal from the synagogue work. But when I had an opportunity to enter a doctoral program at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, I jumped at it and moved west. Realizing that I needed to support myself while a graduate student, I took jobs as the Director of Adult Programs at a Jewish Community Center in San Francisco, a clerk in a Jewish book store, a clerk in a Jewish-owned insurance brokerage, the rabbi at Sha’ar Zahav (San Francisco’s first LGBTQ+ synagogue), the Associate—and then Executive—Director at the San Francisco office of the American Jewish Congress, the Executive Director of the JCRC of the Greater East Bay and, finally, as the rabbi of Temple Israel of Alameda. I retired from Temple Israel in 2012.

Throughout my rabbinate, I was drawn to hospital chaplaincy. I became the (volunteer) chair of the Chaplaincy Advisory Board of Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, and served in that position for ten years. I now serve on the chaplaincy committee of Kaiser Hospital in San Leandro because I still enjoy the world of chaplaincy so much.

Relatively early on in my time in the San Francisco Bay Area, I got to know an Orthodox rabbi who was the unpaid President of the Board of Rabbis here. He was a wonderful character who was a role model in the way he tried to support and care for local rabbis regardless of their denominational affiliations. It was because of him that I became intimately involved with our Board of Rabbis, eventually serving at various times as both President and Executive Director, and even now in retirement, I continue my affiliation and strong support of the organization.

As far back as my earliest days in Minnesota, I became involved in interfaith work, initially with the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition of Minnesota, and then with the local interfaith councils. Once I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, my involvement in civic affairs has always been based in interfaith work. I was, and remain, involved in several interfaith and interreligious organizations in the area, working on immigrant rights, reproductive rights, homelessness issues, LGBTQ+ issues, and other social justice issues.

At this point in my life, my greatest joys involve volunteering in chaplaincy-related programs, supporting local rabbis, and interfaith social justice work.

Rabbi Allen Bennett is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and all of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2024.

Rabbinic Reflections

‘Walk Humbly with Your God’: Rabbi Ronald Gerson on 50 Years a Reform Rabbi

At the outset, I would like to express how grateful I am that God has brought me to this fiftieth anniversary of ordination. I am grateful to have lived this long. And, I am very saddened for those colleagues in our class who did not live to see this day. 

When I think of the verse that has meant the most to me—and guided me—these years, it would be the famous words of the prophet Micah: ”It has been told you what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justly, and to love mercy, AND TO WALK HUMBLY with your God” (Micah 6:8). 

HUMILITY. As the years have gone by, we have seen this quality diminish more and more around us. Sometimes in religion and sports; especially in the world of politics. Political debate has become less about policy and more about individual bragging. 

I have tried to, in my rabbinate, be humble in words; and to be an example of humility for three congregations. I have tried to follow Micah’s admonition. I hope that I have succeeded. 

Thank you, O God, for the rabbinate You have given us all. 

 Rabbi Ronald Gerson 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 2024.

Rabbinic Reflections

‘The High Places Along the Way’: Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn Reflects on His Jubilee Year in the Reform Rabbinate 

“Every rabbi has 3,000 years of intelligent ancestors. If you do not become increasingly more a learned rabbi, you betray the heritage of those who gave you birth… Count that day lost in which you have not opened a Jewish book. If you do not learn, you cannot lead…”

Such is but a sample of Dr. Jacob Rader Marcus’s sermon, “The Larger Task,” which he delivered at our ordination on June 1, 1974. I met Dr. Marcus in 1966 when I was registering for the pre-rabbinic program sponsored by the University of Cincinnati and the HUC-JIR. He was my beloved mentor, and I am proud to say that due to my personal intervention, Dr. Marcus decided to accept our class’s invitation to be the speaker on ordination day. Many times, throughout these past 50 years, I have reread the text of his inspiring charge to us. 

We were the largest and perhaps one of the most theologically disparate classes in the College’s history. I was one of the two “Classical Reformers,” though I grew up in a traditional Jewish household, located in, of all places, Glen Burnie, Maryland, where my father’s parents settled in 1914. I say “of all places” because the Cohns made up the entirety of Glen Burnie’s Jewish community. We were members of Temple Oheb Shalom on Baltimore’s Eutaw Place, about an hour’s drive away. 

According to my mother, as a child I only behaved when I was being fed and, remarkably, when we were at Temple. I vividly remember as a six-year-old being transfixed by the sound of the temple’s cantor and choir accompanied by the pipe organ. One of my major regrets is the current “exile” of the pipe organ and the replacement of the majestic and distinctive music of our Reform tradition in favor of sing-along camp music! I am very grateful that the majority of my rabbinate was happily spent with fabulous congregations which were welcoming and understanding of my left-of-center liturgical preferences! 

Taken as a whole, I believe that the overwhelming majority of our congregants from these historic temples I have been honored to serve in Atlanta, Macon, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, and now as a biweekly in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, will remember me as a warm, intelligent, and approachable rabbi, an articulate preacher, a creative and impassioned teacher of both children and adults, one who enthusiastically endorsed the welcome of LGBTQ+, interfaith, and Jews by Choice, and who never hesitated to share his faith, his hopes for our Jewish people, and his dream of Prophetic justice for all of God’s children. There were surely instances when this audacious welcome was not appreciated by all our members, but I held firm. 

I was honored to publicly represent our faith at the local, state, and national level. I was privileged to be founder and chair of the New Orleans Human Rights Commission for many years, and I was selected by MSNBC as an ethics consultant and a panel member of the internationally televised show “The Ethical Edge.” My dream of creating a New Orleans Holocaust Memorial was in fact realized with the support of our congregation, Temple Sinai, the New Orleans Jewish Federation, and the Holocaust Survivors organization. Designed by the world-renowned artist, Yaacov Agam, the memorial in Goldring/Woldenburg Park is visited by 700,000 visitors a year. 

Well, these are those “high places along the way” as our colleague, Rabbi Alvin Fine put it in his wonderful poem “Life Is a Journey.” 

Surely the greatest accomplishment, which I cherish above all others, is 52 years of loving marriage to my best friend, without whom my dream of a worthy rabbinate would never have been possible—Andrea Levy Cohn. She has been my partner, my critic, and my strength all along the way since we met in Cincinnati as undergrads. Together, we can be proud of the family we have raised: daughters, Dr. Jennifer Cohn Kesselheim and Debra Lynn Kraar; their devoted husbands, Aaron and Eric; and our five loving grandchildren, Maxwell, Ryann, Sydney, Noah, and Leo.  

Fifty years in the rabbinate—truly a shehecheyanu moment! 

Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and all of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2024.