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CCAR Convention Convention

Great Privilege and Joy: Rabbi Steven Chester on 50 Years in the Rabbinate

My desire to become a rabbi after graduating from UCLA led me to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, Israel, and Cincinnati, and reached fruition when I was ordained in 1971. My love for Judaism in all its many aspects made me realize that the only way I could live and teach the values of our tradition, as well as become fully immersed in Jewish life, was by becoming a rabbi.

Where has it led?

I had the privilege of serving four congregations in my career: Temple Beth Israel in Jackson, Michigan; chaplain for the Jewish inmates of the state prison system of Michigan; Temple Israel in Stockton, California; and Temple Sinai in Oakland, California. In addition, after retirement in 2011, I became interim rabbi in three other congregations: Temple Beth Ora in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada; Temple Israel in Alameda California; and Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, California. All the congregations I served gave me a positive rabbinic experience, and I feel so fortunate to have served each of them. Each, in its own way, has helped form the rabbi I am today.

Some thoughts after fifty years in the rabbinate: to be a rabbi has been my privilege and joy. I feel privileged that I have become an intimate part of so many lives. I have become part of my congregants’ lives through joyous occasions: a B’rit Milah, a naming, a bar/bat mitzvah, or a wedding. I have become part of their lives at sad times: a serious illness or the death of a loved one. To be with my congregants at these times—to rejoice when they rejoiced, to offer comfort when they suffered—has been an awesome responsibility, an awesome privilege and a blessing for me. It was especially meaningful for me to train and officiate at b’nei mitzvah for those who had either severe physical or learning challenges.

I have had the privilege to have wonderful colleagues. The rabbis and cantors with whom I served in my forty years of congregational life made my rabbinate rich and fulfilling. Sharing with them, learning from them, studying with them, and sharing the bimah with them enhanced my life.

My fifty years has been full of many diverse experiences. I have served on various boards of both Jewish and non-Jewish organizations. I helped found an in-home hospice in Stockton, served on the board for a number of years, and became the grief and mourning counselor for the hospice. I taught Bible at Spring Arbor College near Jackson. I was privileged to be appointed an adjunct professor of Jewish Studies at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, teaching two classes there. 

Leading congregational tours was an important part of my rabbinate. I led eight trips to Israel; two to Cuba; one each to Spain, Morocco, and Central Europe. In Oakland, I led a trip to the Gold Country of California where we visited cemeteries and other Jewish sites that were active during the Gold Rush.

The most important thing I learned in my fifty years of the rabbinate is that the great majority of people are basically good. They care about others, want to live a good life, and wish for a world of peace and justice. I also learned that the board of directors of a congregation are partners with me and not adversaries. We are both working for the same thing: to make a vibrant and vital congregation.

As I think about the future, I look forward to the time when we again can meet in person. I am now living in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic where all of our synagogue activities are virtual. I long for physical contact, for being together at Temple as a live community. I will continue to do life cycle events. Also, I plan to study, teach and travel.

I hope to live long enough to see our ten-year-old granddaughter become a bat mitzvah. I hope to see our country become united instead of divided.

I end with the following: My life has been blessed because I am a Jew, because I am a Reform Jew, and because I am a Reform rabbi. If I had to do all over again, I would do it in the exactly the same way.  I feel so much gratitude for the fifty years I have served as a congregational rabbi.


Rabbi Steven Chester serves as Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Sinai in Oakland, California. He is celebrating 50 years in the Reform Rabbinate.

We look forward to celebrating 50- and 51-year rabbis when we come together online at CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, 2021. CCAR Convention 2021 will strengthen us spiritually, emotionally, and professionally, bringing us together at a time when we need it more than ever. CCAR rabbis can register here.

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CCAR Convention Torah

A Career Dedicated to Teaching and Learning Torah: Rabbi Norman J. Cohen on 50 Years in the Rabbinate

Each year at CCAR Convention, we honor members of our organization who were ordained 50 years ago or more. In advance of CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, we share a blog from Rabbi Norman J. Cohen.

Though it has been fifty-three years since we were ordained by Dr. Alfred Gottschalk, z”l, at Central Synagogue, it seems like yesterday. But as I look back and remember the emotions of that day, which were heightened for me by my mother’s death only months before, little did I know that fifteen years later, Dr. Gottschalk would ask me to join the Administration of the College-Institute. And, as I stood on the bimah of Central Synagogue with Dr. Gottschalk, seated on the bimah was his ultimate successor, Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, then a rabbi at Central. What an amazing snapshot! Three presidents of HUC-JIR on the bimah at one time. Who would have thought that I would also have the honor of serving for a brief time as Interim President of the College-Institute.

At that moment of Ordination, it surely would have been impossible to imagine how my life as a rabbi would play out. My goal then was simply to enter our graduate school in Cincinnati and immerse myself in rabbinic text study, hoping to gain a deeper understanding of its various genres. The years studying Midrash and Rabbinic Literature were such a blessing, and in great measure, it was due to the knowledge I gained and the passion I imbibed from wonderful mentors, chief among them, Drs. Eugene Mihaly, z”l, Ben Zion Wacholder, z”l, and Ellis Rivkin, z”l.

Little did I know then that my entire rabbinic career would be bound up with the College-Institute, as a faculty member who also spent twenty-three years working in the administration. And it began with my return to the New York School in 1975, due in large measure to the faith that Dr. Gottschalk had in me, as well as the efforts of Dr. Paul Steinberg, z”l, and Dr. Eugene B. Borowitz, z”l. For thirteen years I served as a full-time member of the Faculty, teaching and advising rabbinic and cantorial students; trying to impart to them not only the knowledge that I gained, but a sense of what it means to be a rabbi, a cantor, really a Teacher of Torah.

Serving as the Director of the Rabbinical School and then Dean of the New York School, and finally as Provost of our College-Institute was indeed a wonderful way for me to channel my rabbinic aspirations. Helping to shape the training and growth of future rabbis, cantors and educators provided me a tremendous opportunity to ensure that future Reform Jewish leaders would become the newest chuliot, links in the Shalshelet HaKabbalah, the chain of tradition and help ensure Jewish continuity. And in the process, I gained so much from so many of the students with whom I was truly privileged to study.

During the years I spent working in the administration, it meant a great deal to work with clergy, education and administrative staff, and faculty who embodied supreme dedication to shaping a seminary which could be a bastion of creativity and commitment to Jewish life. They, in turn, would train leaders who would make a significant difference in the lives of all those whom they were blessed to serve.

Yet, as I reflect upon almost five decades of work at our alma mater, it has been clear to me that the greatest joy and personal fulfillment I experience comes in the myriad of moments in which I share my love and passion for words of Torah. Studying with students and laypeople alike—opening ourselves to every element in the text, biblical and rabbinic, and having it teach us who we are and who we aspire to be as Jews and as human beings—has given me indescribable pleasure. Through my teaching at the College-Institute and in congregations, and the six books I have written, I’ve tried to demonstrate the power of words suffused with k’dushah, the holiness latent in every textual element, which have been transformational for me in my life. The most important insight I have ever gained about the importance of the teaching of Torah came from a comment by Franz Rosenzweig, who noted, “Teaching begins when the subject matter ceases to be subject matter and changes into inner power. We truly teach when we ourselves are drastically changed in the process. We truly learn when our autonomous self is pierced and we move beyond ourselves to the Other.”

And so we praise the power in the universe, in us, which is the source of mayim chayim, life-giving water, Torah:

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu laasok b’divrei Torah.


Rabbi Norman J. Cohen is celebrating 50 years in the Rabbinate. Rabbi Cohen serves as Professor Emeritus of Midrash at HUC-JIR New York.

We look forward to celebrating 50- and 51-year rabbis when we come together online at CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, 2021. CCAR Convention 2021 will strengthen us spiritually, emotionally, and professionally, bringing us together at a time when we need it more than ever. CCAR rabbis can register here.

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CCAR Convention Convention

Convention 2021: Enter with Intention

During a recent CCAR Board meeting, our colleague and board member Rabbi Mona Alfi selected a pasuk from Parashat T’rumah on which to d’rash: “ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם, Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). Included in her chosen source texts was a passage by Mordecai Kaplan, a segment of which follows:

“The presence of the multitude in public worship creates an atmosphere that profoundly influences the individual participant. It stirs up emotions of gratitude and confidence that one could not experience in isolation” (A Year with Mordecai Kaplan, p. 73).

The ensuing discussion invited an evaluation of Kaplan’s (and other commentators’) assertion amidst this continuing stretch of isolation when the concept of “presence” has taken on entirely new meaning. Can a “multitude” comprised of silent individuals, visible in small boxes filling our computer screens, still engender an atmosphere rich with emotion, gratitude, and confidence?  For many, the answer was a definitive “yes.” Even in their silent Zoom sanctuaries and classrooms, colleagues noted that the mere presence of engaged and participatory congregants and students effects greater spiritual meaning and enhances the level of joy for all involved…with one caveat. The present multitude to which Kaplan is alluding is achieved when, virtual or not, individuals actively engage and participate in the worship (or learning, or community-building, or meeting, or…), and not simply log in to check a box or listen passively while trying to work simultaneously on other tasks.

Admittedly, the learning focused my attention as much on events to come as it did on experiences during the past year, in particular, our approaching CCAR Convention. Contemplating the potential and hoped-for impact of our Convention, even as we gather from our respective homes and individual spaces, the aspirational qualities that Kaplan describes aptly named are a now-familiar longing for countless among us—an atmosphere that profoundly influences the individual participant, one that stirs up emotions of gratitude and confidence not experienced in isolation. That we happen to be gathering by virtual means is, in truth, an inconsequential variable. With the stellar leadership of our colleagues Rabbi Amanda Greene (Convention Chair) and Rabbi Peter Stein (Vice-Chair), this year’s Convention possesses the undeniable potential to make a genuinely needed, positive and enduring impact in each of our rabbinates. However, the remaining variable in the realization of a spiritually renewing, heartening, confidence-boosting, enriching, educational, and joyful gathering rests not in the hands of the Convention planning leadership, but in each of ours. It is our collective determination to be present that will enable the restorative atmosphere we seek.

This past Rosh HaShanah, our congregation’s first pre-recorded service began with an invitation to members to “enter with intention.” Appreciating that it would have been easy enough for people simply to watch passively, as if with popcorn in hand, we encouraged congregants not to allow the fact that the service was pre-recorded to dissuade them from engaging and participating fully and sincerely, as if they were sitting in the sanctuary.

Looking ahead to this year’s Convention, the sages remind us that our mutual commitment to presence, our decision to engage fully and participate actively—to enter the days with intention—will foster an atmosphere in which renewed gratitude, confidence, and joy can well up and flourish. So, if not done already, clear your calendars for the days of this year’s Convention. Treat the few days we have together as if we were sitting together in the grand ballroom of a Convention hotel. The commitment we make to be present—for ourselves and for one another—will ensure this year’s Convention with all of its virtual creativity, realizes its full potential as one of the best Conventions yet.


Rabbi Ron Segal is President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and senior rabbi at Temple Sinai in Sandy Springs, Georgia.

CCAR Convention 2021 will take place online March 14-17, 2021. CCAR Convention 2021 will strengthen us spiritually, emotionally, and professionally, bringing us together at a time when we need it more than ever. CCAR rabbis can register here.

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CCAR Convention

Reflection on Lessons That Should Have Been Learned Decades Ago

Each year at CCAR Convention, we honor members of our organization who were ordained 50 years ago or more. In advance of CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, we share a blog from Rabbi Jay Heyman.

In the fall of 1974, the Chief of Police called and asked me to stop by his office. “Rabbi,” he said, “I don’t want to upset you, but we have an undercover agent in the Klan, and he has told me of a plot to kill you or someone in your family.” So, for the next several weeks, while white fundamentalist Christians, right-wing extremists, and assorted white supremacist groups burned books, blew up bridges, painted Nazi and Klan insignia on public buildings, and generally created mayhem in Charleston and Kanawha County, West Virginia, my family and I were guarded around the clock by at least two and sometimes more uniformed police.

That spring, the Board of Education had selected new textbooks, which included multiethnic and multicultural literature. Local evangelicals saw the new titles as anti-Christian, anti-God, anti-Bible, inconsistent with American values, pro-integration, and filled with doctrines to encourage their children to merge their racial identity with Blacks. Within a matter of weeks, the John Birch Society, the Christian Crusade, the KKK, and American Nazis had climbed out of the sewers to lend moral support. Nor was it long before the entire community found itself embroiled in conspiracy theories involving the satanic banking system and the cabal of the “international Jew.”

Such was the first uprising of white, fundamentalist Christians threatened by 1960s social changes: the civil rights struggle, banning school prayer, the anti-war movement, women’s liberation, sex education. ’Twas an unholy alliance of religious fanaticism and political grievance; not just fringe extremists.

That era remains an enduring memory with me and, since the events in D.C. this past January 6, it is now one that plays even more than a leitmotif in the back of my mind.

Since those opening shots of the culture wars between the urban cultural elites and the rural red state rubes, we have experienced unparalleled affluence and poverty, national insecurity and popular dissatisfaction, growth and consolidation of power, the concentration of wealth and the spread of poverty. But mostly we have been lured into a trance of false promises by an economic system, best characterized as neoliberalism, that has weaponized the struggling, poorly educated, gullible masses of this country, enrolled them to serve an ever more fanatical Republican party, and has now unleashed a demon that threatens the very future of the nation.

We who have benefited from the status quo for such a long time seem to have forgotten what happens when the populace becomes fed up with not being seen, being denied equal opportunity and a fair share of economic benefit. It is so easy to forget what has always happened historically when the peasantry becomes impoverished and starving. That’s when the pitchforks come out. And Jewish history reminds how easily that pent up anguish and frustration can be ill-channeled through propaganda by those in with money and power.

Even before our current health and economic crisis—when our politicians were reassuring us of the basic prosperity and health of the economy—soup kitchens were filled to the brim, homeless shelters unable to accommodate all those needing shelter, emergency rooms overflowing with the uninsured. Millions of Americans have worked two jobs for decades for minimum wage and still do not earn enough to provide for their family’s basic needs.

The Reform Movement in which I was raised in the 1950s and 1960s prided itself on the notion that “ethical monotheism” meant living an obligation to build a better world. The imperative of tikkun olam should have reminded us not to forget seeking justice, speaking truth to power, confronting evil, bigotry, and greed in the great tradition of our biblical prophets. We have had strong social justice narratives, but all too often we have been largely silent about the political changes and widening economic chasms. Our values of compassion, justice, and concern for the poor are inconsistent with any politics dedicated to helping the wealthy become even wealthier at the expense of the poor and the middle class. Support for politicians who want to cut services while keeping tax cuts for the wealthiest is not consistent with Jewish teachings about caring for the most vulnerable of society. Indifference to the suffering of others is ungodly according to rabbinic tradition. The work of repairing the world is holy work. The work of economic and social justice is spiritual work. And that is what we are called to do.


Rabbi Jay Heyman is celebrating 50 years in the Reform Rabbinate.

We look forward to celebrating 50- and 51-year rabbis when we come together online at CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, 2021. CCAR Convention 2021 will strengthen us spiritually, emotionally, and professionally, bringing us together at a time when we need it more than ever. CCAR rabbis can register here.

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CCAR Convention

Growing A Congregation and Watching It Bloom: Rabbi Mayer Perelmuter on 50 Years in the Rabbinate

Each year at CCAR Convention, we honor members of our organization who were ordained 50 years ago or more. In advance of CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, we share a blog from Rabbi Mayer Perelmuter.

Upon reflection, I am so grateful to have been in one congregation over the majority of these years. It enabled me to grow and develop a congregation and to see Temple Isaiah through some difficult financial crises, until it blossomed into the largest and most active Reform congregation in Queens, New York: The Reform Temple of Forest Hills.

Here are some of the accomplishments of which I am most proud:

  • I hired and trained numerous rabbinic interns who are currently religious leaders throughout the country.
  • I instituted a temple covenant with our board of directors and committee leaders, developing a humane, sensitive, way to agree and disagree as we worked together. 
  • I expanded the temple covenant with our lay and professional educational leadership, to be part of the religious school classrooms; this covenant continues to be the opening lesson in our religious school to this day. 
  • Our Mitzvah Day committee started out as a “senior group,” but with my advocacy and encouragement, it became an intergenerational event that included and partnered with the Religious School Parents’ Association. To this day, Mitzvah Day is our most celebrated intergenerational event in the congregation and is known throughout Queens.
  • Prior to the High Holy Days in 1994, Temple Isaiah’s roof was leaking, and the sanctuary was unusable. In partnership with our board, we made the decision to build an ark and move the services to a local college. The lesson that the congregation learned continues to this day: “We celebrate together as a congregational family, not as a building.” This was the rationale that enabled me, in partnership with our board leadership, to convince Temple Isaiah congregants to merge with three other struggling Queens congregations to become the Reform Temple of Forest Hills in 1995.
  • I loved establishing a men’s study group to complement the active women’s groups in our congregation. This weekly men’s study group, which drew diverse ages and very curious intelligent men, was provocative, challenging and exciting for me, and continues to exist today.  
  • I learned so much from my congregational leaders, from my rabbinic interns, cantors, and most important, from my congregants. My involvement, pastorally with them was among the most meaningful aspects of my rabbinate. I treasure the relationships that developed through the numerous life cycle events, sometimes over three generations; the joys and sorrows that I was privileged to share with these people have influenced my life and have enabled me to cope with my own challenges in life as I grow older.  

Rabbi Mayer Perelmuter is celebrating 50 years in the Reform Rabbinate. He is Rabbi Emeritus of The Reform Temple of Forest Hills in New York.

We look forward to celebrating 50- and 51-year rabbis when we come together online at CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, 2021. CCAR Convention 2021 will strengthen us spiritually, emotionally, and professionally, bringing us together at a time when we need it more than ever. CCAR rabbis can register here.

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CCAR Convention Convention

Gratitude & Lifelong Learning: Rabbi Philip Kranz on 50 Years in the Rabbinate

The rabbinate, as realized, was everything that I expected it to be and much more. What appealed to me, initially was the fact that the congregational rabbinate would allow me to serve Judaism through a number of different activities in a variety of different settings. That expectation turned into a reality which I celebrated every day of my active ministry. I championed, more than anything else, the importance of ongoing Jewish education, both for the rabbi and the congregants. I made adult education a hallmark of my rabbinate. I also continued to enrich myself as a student of Judaism, continuing my learning on a daily basis. I came to realize, early on, that my knowledge of Judaism was the most important thing that gave me authenticity as a rabbi.

The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion trained me well, but I did not draw deeply enough from that experience, and I committed myself to a lifelong program of Jewish learning. Teaching and learning makes my rabbinate significant until this day. There were so many outstanding rabbis who served as mentors and role models. Only now do I realize how much I owe to my own rabbis, growing up, Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver and Rabbi Daniel Jeremy Silver, of blessed memory; to Rabbi Sidney Brooks, of blessed memory, who mentored me during the critical years of my student rabbi days; Rabbi Samuel Egal Karff, of blessed memory, whom I served as assistant and eventually succeeding as senior rabbi; and Ronald M. Segal who was my assistant for ten years and who succeeded me as senior rabbi and who now serves as president of our Conference. I was equally enriched by my teachers and my students. “My lines truly were fallen unto me in pleasant places.”


Rabbi Philip Kranz is celebrating 50 years in the Reform Rabbinate.

We look forward to celebrating 50- and 51-year rabbis when we come together online at CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, 2021. CCAR Convention 2021 will strengthen us spiritually, emotionally, and professionally, bringing us together at a time when we need it more than ever. CCAR rabbis can register here.

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CCAR Convention

The Aha Moments: Rabbi Jeffrey Lazar on 50 Years in the Rabbinate

There is almost something preposterous about trying to sum up 50 years in the rabbinate. The relationships and friendships formed are at the core of the past half century. Lives that have touched me and vice versa. 

Experience and the presence of good people have guided me over the years to what I would describe as memorable and gratifying moments.

Like December 19, 1977, when Robbie Werney, a child with Down’s Syndrome, read eight verses from Torah on the occasion of his becoming a bar mitzvah. His mother had helped us establish a special needs program within the religious school. Robbie revealed the spark of God that existed in him and made believers out of those who doubted that something like this could be done.

Or sharing a morning with a group of sixth grade parents on writing an ethical will, what to say to their children as they became the newest links in the chain of our people’s tradition.

Or speaking to a group of teachers on how to ask thoughtful questions to their students, engaging them in the arduous task of thinking through the use of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Asking Questions.

What each of these memories has in common is the “aha moment,” the personal connection, the belief in others. To help others see possibilities, to achieve something they didn’t think possible, isn’t that what a rabbi, a teacher does? How grateful I am for those.


“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
                            – Leo Buscaglia


On the occasion of 50 years in the rabbinate, I toast my classmates and colleagues with “L’chayim!”


Rabbi Jeffrey Lazar is celebrating fifty years in the Reform Rabbinate.

We look forward to celebrating 50- and 51-year rabbis when we come together online at CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, 2021. CCAR Convention 2021 will strengthen us spiritually, emotionally, and professionally, bringing us together at a time when we need it more than ever. CCAR rabbis can register here.

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Holiday Rituals

Purim When You’re Not in the Purim Mood

This Thursday evening, the Jewish world begins celebrating the raucous holiday of Purim, when silliness prevails over seriousness and levity wins the day. But some years, Purim feels harder than other years, and levity just doesn’t feel accessible on demand. This year, many of us are thinking back mournfully to Purim last March—our very last uninhibited communal gathering before we went into lockdown and life as we knew it changed forever. Since that gathering, Covid-19, has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands in our world, leaving loved ones to grieve in solitude—without hugs and touch, familiar rituals, or company. Lives have been disrupted, insulted by the harsh effects of the Covid-19 economy and its prolonged, painful fallout. This Purim may feel like a hard one to throw yourself into.

And yet Purim’s coming, whatever our mood. It’s always a curious proposition when a Jewish holiday comes along on which a strong emotion is commanded: whether the command is to “rejoice on your festival,” revel on Purim, or be tragically sad on Tishah B’Av. We know what the mood in the room is supposed to be, and that sanctioned mood confronts us, as individuals, with a choice—whether to participate with the community when this is what the community is meant to feel, or whether to just sit this one out. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, our tradition almost always lands on the side of participation. 

This traditional Jewish preference for participation in the prescribed emotion of a special day expresses itself in a host of ways. For instance, when we’re in shivah—the first week of mourning after a death, and Shabbat rolls around, which is meant to be a day of joy and contentment, we are not to display the outward signs of grief that we do the rest of that difficult week. During the first year of mourning for a parent, we are not to join in the dancing and singing at a wedding, lest we appear happy in the face of our loss, but we are still encouraged to attend the wedding ceremony and even take on a role, like serving the meal afterwards. Poskim hold that our suffering may only be increased if we suffer the additional loss of communal participation, especially in an event we were once looking forward to sharing with people that we love.

Jewish people are always shocked when they hear that a festival like Pesach or Sukkot cancels the formal mourning period—the seven days of shivah or the thirty days of shloshim after a death. How can this be? Our grief doesn’t stop, but we stop expressing it? For the sake of participating in a festival whose joy we’re really not in the frame of mind to absorb? My soul used to writhe against the thought of this practice. Until one year, I was at a Jewish convention, the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial, and on the second morning, I lost a beloved uncle unexpectedly; he died after what should have been a routine surgery and recovery. I didn’t know what to do with my grief—should I just go home? Was it wrong to stay? Did my family need me? Would I even get anything out of being at the festival? (And yes, when 5,000 Jews show up for a convention that only meets every two years, travel there, and look forward for months to learning and singing and joining in stirring worship together, yes, that is our contemporary Jewish chag—our pilgrimage festival of holy time together.) I wasn’t sure I wanted to give up all I’d invested to be there, or all that I’d hoped it would fill me with spiritually. The truth in my heart was that I wanted to stay, because this wasn’t just some party—it was, rather, exactly what my soul needed to cope and begin to heal. My purposes for being there hadn’t changed with my uncle’s death. In fact, they’d amplified: I longed more for connection, more for communal opportunities to pray, more for a community to say Kaddish alongside other mourners, and a shoulder to lean on. More, for moments of levity to pull me out of my own head and take me to another place, if only for fleeting moments of relief.

The Biennial—festive though it was—was exactly where I needed to be, and my religion gave me permission to be there. I didn’t ignore my grief. My shivah wasn’t cancelled in that sense. In what was probably one of the first online memorial services, I “gathered” with my broken relatives on my computer screen, while in my hotel room colleagues from rabbinical school and past congregations where I’d interned sang and chanted psalms. My roommate and I planned the ceremony together, which was in itself a healing act and a learning experience, as she faced my raw grief so ably and compassionately. And in the days that followed, I let my mind be carried off to wherever the speakers took me—my rabbinic teachers, the keynote address by President Obama, the musicians that made my heart soar and my eyes sore from crying.

Somehow, the tradition knew that’s where I needed to be despite all, and because of all, that life had thrown at me that week.

So how should we approach the unrelenting expectation of festivity on Purim, if we happen to find ourselves in a struggling state of mind? If you are someone for whom levity feels possible, delight in it fully. Laugh heartily. But if you’re not in such a place, after a difficult year, then maybe Purim offers a different but healing path, and blessings you have yet to discover. Perhaps sitting it out will only increase loss and exacerbate pain, because something will be happening that you’re meant to be a part of. Where there’s a place carved out just for you. 

You don’t have to feel happy every minute in that place. A curious rule on Purim is that we should not send mishlo-ach manot—Purim gifts—to someone in mourning, because we shouldn’t force joy upon them while their dead lie before them—and yet the mourner is not exempt from the Purim mitzvah of sending gifts to others. We’re also taught that while a mourner on Purim needn’t act silly and rejoice, they should still partake of the Purim feast. Our forebears knew how much a communal meal could nourish body and soul.

Our sages found ways that we could grow spiritually, even in the darkest times, by participating in the life of the community even when we’re not in the mood.  Our participation is perhaps a prayer for finding levity again after a hard year—and in those days, for the Jewish people, they were all hard years. The wisdom they gleaned and passed down to us is our guide in times of confusion. May their memory bless our days.


Rabbi Nicole Roberts is Senior Rabbi of North Shore Temple Emanuel in Sydney, Australia.

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Holiday News Social Justice

Reflections on Purim in 2021: COVID-19 and Modern-Day Genocide

This year, the lessons of Purim feel truer than ever.

This pandemic will not prevent us from celebrating Purim (socially distanced, of course). But Purim needs to be more than celebrated; it needs to be observed. Exchanging disease prevention masks for Purim masks during online celebrations is not enough. To observe Purim is to protest ethnic cleansing and genocide.

We know—viscerally, painfully—that religious freedom is not a lesson from ancient stories but an ongoing quest even today. While many of us are fighting antisemitism in our home countries, we are also in solidarity with the Rohingya people of Burma, who have been persecuted for decades. A predominantly Muslim ethnic minority in Burma (Myanmar), the persecution escalated to a full-blown genocide in 2017, and in the wake of the military coup just a few weeks ago, their dreams of one day returning to their homeland grows fainter. The military in Burma overthrew the democratically elected government a few weeks ago in a coup—the same military who, for years, has been carrying out the genocide against the Rohingya people and oppressing other ethnic minorities.

Right now in Burma, people from all ethnic backgrounds are joining together in civil disobedience in response to the coup—and their methods look familiar. People are taking to the streets banging pots and pans. The videos of these peaceful, noisy protests are inspiring: ordinary people are making noise. Listening to a m’gillah reading on Purim, we rejoice in shaking our groggers when we hear Haman’s name—making noise to express our solidarity with each other, and to find joy even in the midst of recalling painful stories. People all over Burma are making noise now—maybe not with groggers, but we are connected to them just the same.

With holidays like Purim to bolster us and our people’s recent history to ground us, Jews today know deeply the importance of standing up with and for people who face genocide, who face state-sanctioned persecution because of their religion. The suffering, mass murder, and forced displacement of the predominantly Muslim Rohingya community speaks deeply to us and compels us to act. We know we need to make noise. We need to act.

But we can be grateful to live in a world where action is possible. That’s why the CCAR is now a member of the Jewish Rohingya Justice Network: a network of thirty Jewish organizations from across the U.S. all taking action against the ongoing genocide.

This Purim, we are not only thinking about the Rohingya genocide as we read from the m’gillah once again and shake our groggers. I’m also holding how much the world has changed since last Purim, and what lessons we can learn from Purim in a pandemic.

Holocaust survivor, author, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel struggled with the problematic nature of Purim. How is it that a people who has suffered so greatly can make a holiday out of a state-sponsored genocide plot and the fighting that followed? Why is it that a people that values learning, wisdom, and fine distinctions created a custom calling on us to get so giddy that we cannot tell the difference between “blessed be Mordechai” and “cursed be Haman”?

What does it say about our love of justice that not only the villain, but his ten sons too are killed once the king changes sides in the conflict? It doesn’t sound all that Jewish, does it? We were blessed to have Wiesel for as long as we did, but it would have been fascinating to read the insights he had to offer on the meaning of Purim during a pandemic. We now inhabit a reality where wearing a mask is not reserved for holidays and parties but a discipline of daily life. Like the Persians of the M’gillah, the American public has been fed misinformation about minorities while as recently as January antisemites and racists had ready access to the inner courts of power when they attacked the U.S. Capitol.

What would Wiesel, who spent Purim of 1945 in Buchenwald, struggling to stay alive for liberation a few weeks later, have to say about Purim 2021? We will never know the answer. What we do know is that Wiesel devoted his life’s work to bearing witness to genocide in the hope that future ones could be prevented. A modern-day prophet, he preached a message about the perils of apathy, complicity, and inaction. He told us to make noise when people are suffering because of their ethnicity, their religion. Like the prophets of old, his message was and remains all too often unheeded, and millions of people have paid the price.

Even in the midst of this joyful holiday, we mourn those lost to genocide. And we mourn those we have lost to the pandemic. We must bear witness to their deaths by making the world a more just and compassionate place. We must analyze the systemic failures that kept us from preventing more deaths and scrutinize the missed opportunities that would have saved more lives. So, too, we must be mindful that COVID-19 has not meant a hiatus from genocide and ethnic cleansing. The Rohingya face an uphill battle, as do the Uyghurs in China, and the Yazidis in Iraq, who remain in peril while powerful nations procrastinate instead of using their power.   

To follow Esther’s example requires us to use our privilege and our access to advocate for others rather than just worrying about ourselves. Thank you to CCAR and the Jewish Rohingya Justice Network for giving American Jews a voice against modern-day genocide, so we can continue Wiesel’s work of bearing witness. Today, call your senator and ask them to move forward legislation that would support the Rohingya people, and all ethnic minorities in Burma. When you shake your groggers at Haman’s name this Purim, picture the Burmese people shaking their groggers against modern-day Hamans, and feel the warmth of continued solidarity even across generations and continents. Wishing you a Purim of happiness, holiness and hope.


Rabbi David Wirtschafter serves Temple Adath Israel in Lexington, Kentucky.

Categories
Social Justice

Black History Is American History

When Black History Month arrives each February, I remember an exchange from a 2009 60 Minutes Morgan Freeman interview with Mike Wallace. In it, three important statements about the condition of racism in the United States emerge. Here is a brief YouTube clip of their exchange. It goes something like this:

:00 Wallace asks, “Black History Month you find…”

:04 “Ridiculous,” answers Freeman bluntly. “You’re going to relegate my history to a month? What do you do with yours? Which month is White History Month?”

:16 Wallace is stunned. He’s tongue-tied. He stammers. “I’m Jewish,” he says.

:20 “Okay, which month is Jewish History Month?” asks Freeman.

Wallace: “There isn’t one.”

“Oh, why not? Do you want one?” Freeman asks.

“No, no, I uh…” mumbles Wallace.

:29 “Alright. I don’t either,” affirms Freeman. “I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history.”

Let’s say it again: Black history is American history. That it is relegated to a single and separate month is the first statement about the condition of racism in America. Instead of digging into Freeman’s powerful point that Black history is American history, and to relegate it to a month is to diminish the rich history and countless contributions of African Americans in this country, Wallace swings and misses:

:36 Wallace asks, “How are we going to get rid of racism?”

By turning to a question of racism, Wallace’s seemingly innocuous question unveils an unspoken truth about Black History Month. People think its purpose is to be an antidote to racism. It is not. To see Black History Month as a way of ending racism in our country is to implicitly claim that there would be less racism if folks just saw and understood that Blacks are just as good and worthy as everyone else and have contributed to our country in innumerable ways far beyond Dr. Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson. Black History Month as a remedy to racism is a racist idea in and of itself and is the second statement about the condition of racism in our country. As Dr. Ibram X. Kendi has said numerous times, “The only thing wrong with Black people is that we think something is wrong with Black people.”

Black history is American history, and it is misguided to believe that Black History Month could serve as a remedy to racism. The clip from the 60 Minutes interview with Morgan Freeman adds one final statement about the condition of racism in our country:

:37 Wallace asks, “How are we going to get rid of racism?”

“Stop talking about it,” Freeman answers. “I’m going to stop calling you a White man. And I’m going to ask you to stop calling me a Black man. I know you as Mike Wallace. You know me as Morgan Freeman.”

Here, Freeman unwittingly evokes a perspective that is no longer right thinking. It never was. Like Freeman’s opinion, I was also raised during a time when colorblindness was seen as a curative to racism. However, that was never true. It is harmful. Children as young as three years old see color differences and, being socialized in a society that is systemically racist, are unconsciously taught to prefer White over Black. The final statement about American racism to be learned from this brief clip between Morgan Freeman and Mike Wallace is this: to fail to see the color of someone’s skin is to erase a core component of their identity. The covert racism hiding in our biases and stereotypes will not be overcome by pretending we don’t see color. It will certainly not contribute to the dismantling of systemic racism in our society.

This February, ask yourself: Why does Black History Month exist? On the whole, does it help construct an anti-racist society? Pay attention: How are the stories and histories of Black Americans told? In the process of honoring their legacies, are there subtle implications that they are being elevated to prove Black worthiness? Finally, we must see color. Colorblindness perpetuates racism because it pretends that we and our institutions are without bias, prejudice, and stereotype.

As a Reform rabbi, b’tzelem Elohim—that we are all created in the image of the Divine and therefore possess equal worth—demands that I speak out when I witness harmful acts of racism. As an aspiring White antiracist, it is my obligation to take action and use my privilege to fight oppression always—not just one month out of the year. Our covenantal relationship with God commands us to never turn away from the struggle and to inspire and guide our children to carry on for the rest of their lives. I implore you to see, honor, and lift up our differences and be a committed ally in the ongoing fight to dismantle racism.


Rabbi David Spinrad serves Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia.