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Rabbinic Reflections

Goodbye, Vanity… and So Much Else

Rabbi Lisa Rubin shares a personal reflection on the surreal nature of processing October 7 and the personal and professional challenges and strain of living in a world that’s forever changed.

THEN:  

When the Nazis came for me in my dreams, I bit the arms of the soldier who had me in his grip. I bit him again and again. I eventually broke free, and ran until I was awake—drenched and terrified, with terrible tooth and jaw pain. My front teeth veneers had cracked, and now fell out. My dentist said a hockey puck couldn’t have done much better.  

A few weeks later, when I was still using Fixodent to attach my temporary teeth each day, the eye surgeon said he needed to operate.   

Me: Surgery for a little stye

Him: It’s clinging to your tear duct, and you keep crying, so it’s agitated and compromising the integrity of the duct. 

I was still enjoying a general anesthesia fog when I vaguely heard the procedure went well and I shouldn’t wear eye makeup for seven weeks. Wait. What? I looked at my husband. “Did he say seven?” He nodded. “Just while the stent is in.” For those who don’t know me, there is no time I am not wearing makeup. I felt the tears well up (the duct worked!). “Did my teeth at least stay in during surgery? Are they in now?” They did, and they were.  

As I got up in the middle of the night for eye drops, I tripped and broke my toe. And dislodged my dentures.  

~~~ 

I am usually the person you want in a crisis. Calm, resourceful, and competent, I’m an expert at compartmentalizing. I can always do the next right thing.  

And yet, the catastrophe that befell Israel on October 7, and the aftermath, has been one of the most excruciating things I’ve ever had to process. Like so many of us, I’m walking around in a stupor—anxious, unsettled, exhausted. Calm and resilience elude me. My body is protesting prolonged strain. 

Maybe epigenetics is to blame. My grandfather narrowly escaped Hitler. His sister and mother— and scores of extended family members—died in Theresienstadt. While I know this family history (and even visited the camp many years ago), I’ve never truly felt it. The details were facts, not feelings; history, not the present. “The latent transmission of trauma is manifesting under stress,” my doctor said. Both tear ducts did their thing. “Hang in there,” she added.  

My profession certainly doesn’t help. I am a rabbi working in New York City. I walk through NYPD to get inside our building. I pass through retired NYPD to clear our security. My commute is often disrupted by protests. Counseling hours have exponentially increased, considerably lengthening the work day. I start my regular classes thirty minutes early to give students a chance to connect and talk through their anxieties.  

What could be on par with the loss and devastation of October 7? The universe answered with two personal, tragic blows. 

On the morning of December 10, Rabbi David Ellenson, z”l, was laid to rest. He was a giant in the Jewish world—my world. He was president of my seminary when I was in graduate school. No one was ever as lucky as me to study under and be ordained by Rabbi Ellenson, except every other one of his thousands of students. Each obituary and eulogy got it right: he was a blessing to humanity.  

On the night of December 10, a lifelong friend of my husband was killed in a freak accident. I adored Rajeev Shah, z”l. A pediatrician, devoted friend, and family man, Raj was one of the rarest people with his warmth, decency, and integrity. All that is good in the world manifested in Rabbi Ellenson and Raj. Yet the same world, represented so favorably in these souls, snatched them both away in a heartrending and untimely way.   

My lower back went out from grief. I was moving into my new office and unpacked one too many books. As I laid on the floor—my very own Rock Bottom—with fake teeth, an eye stent, a taped toe, a seized back, and a shattered heart—I wondered verbatim from Psalm 121, “From where will my help come?”   

NOW:  

So much is still unknown: The fate of those precious hostages. The remedy for the virulent antisemitism worldwide. The future of Israel. The reckoning on university campuses. A host of other things. 

I pray that acknowledging a new year on the secular calendar is invigorating. I hope fellow Jews and clergy colleagues have found a way to refill their reservoirs; find their strength. I hope everyone realizes they are not suffering alone.  

My personal health has not fully resolved, but I’m getting there. My new teeth look natural enough. My back can once again support me, and my toe can withstand exercise. My eye is a work in progress. 

Like a camera lens set not to allow the maximum amount of light in, my eyelid curiously opens two millimeters less than before surgery (and less than the healthy eye). That seems perfect. The world will always look a little darker to me, anyhow.  


Rabbi Lisa Rubin was ordained from HUC-JIR NY in 2007. She first served Temple Beth El of Great Neck, NY before becoming the founding Director of the Center for Exploring Judaism at Central Synagogue in Manhattan in 2010.

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Rabbinic Reflections

‘A Blessed, Holy Reward’: Rabbi Steven Moss on 50 Years in the Reform Rabbinate

My journey as a rabbi started at the age of twelve when I wrote a letter to Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, at that time located on West 68th Street in NYC. I wrote to the college letting it know that I was ready to start my rabbinic studies. The school, of course, wrote back to me saying that I needed to apply after graduation from college. What was amazing was that at my interview, they took out that letter that I had written many years before.  

There were many influences in my life that led to my writing that letter. I always had spiritual interests. Prayer was a part of my personal life from my earliest years. I did go to Hebrew school for many years and was active in the choir and Temple life. Although my grandmother’s grandfather, Rabbi Wolf Zev Turbowitz, lived during the nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, I do believe that he had a spiritual influence on my life.

His picture hung on my grandmother’s Brooklyn apartment wall. As I would pass by, I could feel his presence not only in the room but in my life. Over the years, I have been able to obtain many of his books, as well as handwritten manuscripts. I even visited his grave in Kraziai, Lithuania, where he served as Av Beit Din. 

In many ways, the directions of my rabbinate were set during my seminary years at HUC-JIR. During my second year, I became chaplain at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan where I remained as chaplain until 2000. During my third year, I took a student pulpit in Oakdale, Long Island, serving B’nai Israel. I retired from B’nai Israel forty-seven years later. 

In 1975, my wife Judy and I moved to Long Island. I became very involved in community activities, including serving three times as president of the Suffolk County Board of Rabbis, and chair of the Suffolk County Jewish Community Coordinating Council.  

One of the most engaging parts of my rabbinate started in 1986 when I became chaplain to the Suffolk County Police Department. In 2019, I was named Chief Chaplain Emeritus and truly enjoyed serving the community in this capacity.  

I also served the Suffolk County community as chair of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission from 1991 to 2019, and chair and founder of the Suffolk County Anti-Bias Task Force. I also founded an important program called STOPBIAS which educated over 500 defendants, both juvenile and adult, who had committed bias or hate crimes. 

In 2019, I retired from B’nai Israel. Judy and I continued our life in Boynton Beach, Florida, in a home we had purchased many years before. During the next three years, which were those COVID years, I spent the time studying, teaching on Zoom, and publishing three books. In 2022, however, the opportunity came along to take a pulpit here in Florida, in Delray Beach. I applied to Temple Sinai for the position, and I recently signed a multi-year contract. I also serve as chaplain to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and the Delray Beach Police Department. I guess I could say I got tired of retirement. 

Looking back over these past fifty years since ordination, I can say I have absolutely no regrets. Many times during my career, I could have left the congregational rabbinate and taken on a full-time position as chaplain, but I did not. There is truly something blessed, holy, and rewarding about being a pulpit rabbi. One has the incredible opportunity to become intimately involved in the lives of congregants during the most joyous, as well as most sad moments of life 

I have no doubt about the influences my parents had on my life, but none of this would have been possible without the support and love of my soulmate, my wife Judy. We met in high school, and it is she who has been my guiding star to help me on this journey for which I am blessed to have taken.  

I do believe the journey is not over. I am looking forward to whatever lies ahead. 


Rabbi Steven Moss 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.

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Books CCAR Press Israel

Renewing the Journey of the Jewish Year: Rabbi Dalia Marx on ‘From Time to Time’

Rabbi Dalia Marx, PhD, is the author of From Time to Time: Journeys in the Jewish Calendar, now available from CCAR Press. In this excerpt from the preface, she meditates on Jewish time and discusses how the book contains a multiplicity of voices. 

What is time? What is this slippery, uncontrollable element in our lives? The thing that sometimes flies at top speed and sometimes refuses to budge? The thing that moves babies to start turning over on their bellies, sit up, stand, and grow into children, that causes the young to grow tall and adds the graceful touch of silver hair to older people? How can we define the constant, inscrutable flow that we call “time”?

Ever since ancient times, people have endeavored to understand time and control it by dividing it into measurable units: hours, days, months, and years. This division grants us a certain sense of control over our lives and that unrestrainable demon we call time. Holidays and observances enable us to focus attention on experiences and memories, to sort and store them in particular emotional and intellectual drawers. Taking stock of our lives is what Jews do on Yom Kippur, but Purim should have a good measure of lighthearted celebration. How would our lives look if every day were Purim or, alternatively, Yom Kippur? There has to be some kind of order. Measuring time and subjecting it to discipline is the basis of all culture. “Teach us to count ourdays rightly,” says King David, the sweet singer of Israel, “that we may obtain a wise heart” (Psalm 90:12).[1]

The goal I have set for myself with this book is to open windows and doors to our calendar, to air out rooms that have been closed for a long time, to illuminate hidden places, and to do my part in broadening our shared tent, as the prophet Isaiah put it, “Enlarge the site of your tent, let the cloths of your dwelling extend. Do not stint! Lengthen the ropes, and then drive the pegs firm” (Isaiah 54:2).

Each month in the year has its own character, its own special flavors and aromas. I have tried to bring them into these pages. Each chapter is a deep dive into one of the Hebrew year’s twelve months, according to a fixed structure: a kavanah (intention) prayer, an introduction, a “Poem of the Month,” sections (which I call iyunim) that examine a series of topics, and a “Prayer of the Month.” The kavanah is an intention-setting prayer or meditation that spells out my wishes for all of us during each particular month. The short introduction to each chapter, labeled “At the Gates of . . . ,” previews the iyunim sections. In each chapter, I have highlighted a poem, song, or piyyut (liturgical poem) written for or mentioning the month’s events. The iyunim sections address various subjects that arise from the nature or events of the month. The Prayer of the Month might be a prayer recited during a particular month or another prayer that illuminates an aspect of the month. There are numerous sidebars alongside the text, where I have placed midrashim (exegesis), supplementary piyutim, thoughts, and additional materials.

Friends who read drafts of the various chapters commented that I adopt different styles and voices in the different iyunim sections. I was happy to receive those responses. Pluralism and diversity are important elements in the message of the book. I profoundly believe in the power of these values. Different topics require different voices and varied approaches. By design, the narrative voice in this book is sometimes personal and sometimes academic. Sometimes the perspective is historical, and sometimes it is cultural and religious.

It is also important to me to challenge the supposed contradiction between what is considered “religious” and “secular,” presenting the entire range of the Jewish discourse in Israel and beyond. Even if there is a degree of criticism here and there, it was always written out of love and belonging.

As a Jewish woman born in Jerusalem, a rabbi and a scholar of liturgy, and a professor at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, it is important to me to weave together both old and new, feminine and masculine, Western and Eastern, familiar and less familiar throughout the book. I sought to include Jewish voices from different eras and places that express a range of positions and trends of thought. The criterion for focusing on specific subjects, additional texts, and poetry was first and foremost the quality of the material rather than a technical attempt to present all voices. I was happy to see that what emerged from my keyboard reflected the beneficial and fruitful diversity I had hoped for. I have not attempted to encompass everything. After all, this is not an encyclopedic work. I merely wanted to offer suggestions for thought, conversation, and even healthy debate.

Originally, this book was written by an Israeli for Israelis, but this translation attempts to offer insight not only into Israeli culture and religious expression but also more broadly into Jewish culture and Jewish religious expression. This English volume also seeks to be inclusive of the experiences of people who live in English-speaking countries. At the same time, many of the prayers and poems appear in both English and Hebrew, because I want to share the power and beauty I find in the Hebrew language. Even if you cannot read the Hebrew, I hope that the image of the original text is powerful in and of itself. …

I invite you to come along on this journey through our calendar year—the Jewish one, the Israeli one—ancient but always in the process of renewal. You can read the book from cover to cover, take it month by month, or even iyun to iyun, reading about each month’s special days and events as they arrive. I do not expect you to agree with everything I wrote. In fact, I will be happy if what you read stimulates your own new thoughts and encourages you to set off on additional journeys to ancient and modern destinations, both far and near.


Rabbi Dalia Marx, PhD, is the Rabbi Aaron D. Panken Professor of Liturgy at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Jerusalem. She is the chief editor of T’filat HaAdam, the Israeli Reform prayer book (MaRaM, 2020). From Time to Time: Journeys in the Jewish Calendar was first published in Israel in 2018 as Bazman and has been translated into German, Spanish, and now English.


[1] See the classic essay on time by the sociologist Norbert Elias, An Essay on Time, ed. Steven Loyal and Stephen Mennell (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2007).

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Books CCAR Press

New Pathways to Classic Prayers: Alden Solovy on ‘This Joyous Soul’

Alden Solovy, author of This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, reflects on the goals behind the project, how worshipers can use his work in tandem with Mishkan T’filah, and how the book offers a sense of hope.

What inspired This Joyous Soul?

The book was inspired by my deep love of prayer, both as a form of creative expression and a path to connection with the Divine. Along with that, the book was driven by my desire to open new pathways into our classic prayers. The artistry of our prayerbook—Mishkan T’filah: A Reform Siddur—served as the backdrop and canvas for my writing.

This Joyous Soul is structured to reflect the morning service found within Mishkan T’filah. How can readers use it in tandem with the prayer book?

In key sections of Mishkan T’filah, the left-hand pages offer alternatives to the traditional prayers found on the right-hand page. This Joyous Soul was written as a source of new “left-hand pages,” offering new poetry, meditations, interpretations, challenges, reframings, and flights of fancy based on our classic prayers. You can use This Joyous Soul side-by-side with Mishkan T’filah to enliven your prayers. Rabbis can use these new “left-hand pages” in communal worship. The book can be used as a study text to deepen your understanding of our prayer tradition. My core hope, however, is that congregations will place copies of This Joyous Soul in prayer spaces alongside Mishkan T’filah. That is my vision and ultimately why I wrote the book.

The subtitle of This Joyous Soul is “A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings.” What does this mean to you?

Jewish prayer, throughout the ages, maintains a brilliant balance between the traditional themes, content, and tone of our centuries-old prayer book, while remaining open to new expressions of spirituality in each generation. This Joyous Soul is an exploration of our common, modern experiences—in life and in prayer—in dialogue with the age-old yearnings of our people. This Joyous Soul (which has the nickname “Joyous”) offers modern expression to classic prayers as handed down for millennia. Rabbi Sally J. Priesand explains this balance in her introduction to the book.

What was the most challenging part of writing this volume?

Prayer is an intimate, personal experience. At the same time, congregational worship is a shared, communal experience. I wrote Joyous to be both a doorway into deepening one’s individual prayer practice and a volume that would resonate so strongly with Mishkan T’filah that congregational rabbis would bring the book into prayer spaces, put it in the pews, and place it on the sanctuary bookshelf alongside the siddur. My goal—to write a volume of new prayers that could be used equally well both in private prayer and in communal worship—was the core writing challenge. This volume is the result.

How can this book speak to difficult times such as the one we’re living in now?

In a word: hope. Joyous is infused with hope for ourselves, our families, our congregations, the Jewish people, all peoples, the world, and the future. There is hope without end, from the opening to the close of the volume. There are prayers of gratitude, wonder, and renewal—all leading to hope. The prayer “For Peace in the Middle East” is one example. Yet let me quote the last stanza of the book, from a prayer called “Let Tranquility Reign”:

Let these prayers ascend

To the lofty heights,

So that the nations

And peoples of the earth

Will rejoice in holiness,

Will rejoice in splendor,

And will rejoice, together, in righteousness.

Sitting at my desk here in Jerusalem, worried about the future of Israel and the rising global tide of antisemitism, there is no balm more healing, no prayer more joyous, than the hope of a better world. To that, let us say, “Amen.”


Alden Solovy is a liturgist who made aliyah to Jerusalem in 2012. He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New DayThis Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient YearningsThis Precious Life: Encountering the Divine in Poetry and Prayer, and These Words: Poetic Midrash on the Language of Torah, all published by CCAR Press.

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Books CCAR Press

What Is the Shir Shel Yom (Psalm of the Day)?

Rabbi Debra J. Robbins is the author of New Each Day: A Spiritual Practice for Reading Psalms, now available from CCAR Press. In this excerpt from the introduction, she examines the history and purpose of the Shir Shel Yom (Psalm of the Day).

I don’t know if the great modern Hebrew Israeli poet Lea Goldberg had a spiritual practice of reading a biblical psalm each day. In one of her poems, she sings like the Psalmist, “Teach my lips . . . a hymn of praise . . . lest routine set my ways,”[1] suggesting that even this inspired writer of poems needed a source to give voice to the world she saw around her in early twentieth century Palestine. It was a world filled with the diverse beauty of fruit trees, the decay of leaves at the turn of the season, the injustices of war, poverty, and suffering of neighbors, yearning for hope and peace. She turned her personal observations and universal feelings into poems, much like the ancient psalmists did, echoing their language in her hymn of praise, as her blessing, to the Holy One who renews our days.

Drawing on the description of a biblical ritual described in the Mishnah, around the second to third century of the Common Era, Jewish tradition developed the custom of Shir Shel Yom (Psalm of the Day), adding a cycle of seven psalms, biblical liturgical poem/songs, to the daily morning liturgy. The rabbis who selected and placed these psalms may or may not have been Lea Goldberg’s teachers, but they certainly have been mine. Reading a different hymn of praise each day helps ensure that we don’t see the new day as the one before. The seven-day cycle propels us forward, inviting us to notice the bright beauty of creation and the darkness that shrouds human systems of justice. This routine allows us to look into ourselves and beyond ourselves—to see others as vulnerable regardless of how vulnerable we may feel—in the community that needs us.

I like routines and have learned from Lea Goldberg that the best ones should not be too routine and completely set our ways. The cycle of Shir Shel Yom offers the ideal balanced practice: the psalms remain constant, but the person reading them and the surrounding world are new each day, making it impossible for “routine to set our ways.” It is always Psalm 24 on Sunday, 48 on Monday, 82 on Tuesday, followed by 94 on Wednesday and then 81 on Thursday. Friday is assigned Psalm 93, and the week culminates on Shabbat/Saturday with Psalm 92. The psalms identified two thousand years ago have amazingly remained the same, but what has not endured beyond the briefest of explanations of the choices is the answer to the question “Why these seven psalms?” I’ll share six possibilities, confident that you, the reader, will provide a seventh as a result of engaging in this practice.

  • With 150 psalms to choose from, why not start with Psalm 1 and just keep reading one a day for 150 days and then begin again? A cycle of 150 doesn’t match anything in the natural cycle of Creation, but a cycle of seven matches God’s days of Creation from the Torah and the human creation of the “week” to reflect it.
  • Some of the psalms are very long—Psalm 119 has 176 verses—and others are short— Psalm 117 has plenty of power packed into its two verses. The Shir Shel Yom package of seven is well-balanced: the shortest selection is five verses (Psalm 93 for Friday) and the longest only twenty-six (Psalms 94:1–95:3 for Wednesday).
  • The content of the 150 psalms is as diverse as human emotions and experiences, and the seven selected are well curated to reflect the possibilities and trajectory of daily and weekly life, keeping the focus on arriving at Shabbat.
  • Certainly in biblical times, and at least until Johannes Gutenberg began to print Bibles in 1454, very few individuals owned their own books or could read; in contrast, the singing of psalms—biblical poems set to music—was accessible to all. Mastering a repertoire of seven, in addition to some of the others for special occasions, was a manageable lifetime achievement.
  • Another option might have been to allow each person to select their own seven psalms. This (at least for me) is daunting, and I’d likely spend my lifetime simply trying to choose rather than engaging in the practice.
  • Most compelling is the connection that comes with the practice. These seven may not be my favorite psalms, but they are the treasures and traditions of my ancestors, like the pearls I wear that belonged to my great-aunt or the recipes I make from my grandmother’s cards on Passover. I feel connected across time to all the generations before me who have offered the same poems—in different languages and using different translations—for more than two thousand years. I feel connected with others in my generation whom I will never know, but with whom I am in relationship as we share the same practice, engaging with the same text every day.

I have come to love these psalms and the steady flow from week to week that comes with their practice. On this Monday I am not the same as I was the Monday before, and the light is not the same and the temperature is not the same; events in the world, in my life, have all shifted in ways large and small. And a Tuesday in November, between Election Day and Thanksgiving, is not the same as the Tuesday in January after Martin Luther King Day, or in August during the Hebrew month of Elul, when our time to prepare for the High Holy Days draws near. Each week and each month is different, but Shir Shel Yom anchors us and gives us a secure mooring as our lips learn, over and over again, to offer blessing.


Rabbi Debra J. Robbins serves Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas. She is the author of Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year (2019) and New Each Day: A Spiritual Practice for Reading Psalms (2023) from CCAR Press.


[1] The entirety of this poem by Lea Goldberg (1911–70) can be found in Mishkan T’filah: A Reform Siddur (New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2007), p. 145, adapted. Thanks to Rabbi Jonathan Slater for identifying the original publication in Barak Baboker, as part of a three-part collection Shirei Sof HaDerech, published around 1955. This poem has been set to music by Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller.

Categories
Books CCAR Press Torah

Challah as a Creative Language: Rabbi Vanessa Harper on Shaping Challah into Torah in Her New Book, ‘Loaves of Torah’

Rabbi Vanessa M. Harper, author of Loaves of Torah: Exploring the Jewish Year through Challah, offers a preview of the book and reflects on how to creatively engage with Torah.

The most important preparation I had for the rabbinate (aside from my training at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, of course) came from my experience as a preschool teacher. And one of the most important things I learned in that role is that play and the exploration of different creative languages—like clay, paint, movement, song, cooking, etc.—are not only vital to our development when we are children, but that they open up entirely new pathways of thinking, learning, teaching, and experiencing the world even when we are adults. 

One of my soul’s creative languages, as it turns out, happens to be challah dough. This discovery gave rise to @lechlechallah—an Instagram-based project of interpreting Torah and Jewish tradition through intricate challah designs and accessible commentary—which in turn gave rise to a book of Torah commentary, Loaves of Torah: Exploring the Jewish Year through Challah.

Loaves of Torah is, at its heart, an invitation to engage with Torah differently. As with @lechlechallah, the first thing you see when you open to a chapter is the image—a shape made from what is recognizably (in most cases!) challah dough, but not in the typical form we’ve come to expect; and each one an interpretation or teaching of Torah, though again, not in a form we typically expect Torah to take. It’s playful and serious, contemporary and traditional, immediately accessible and requiring interpretation all at the same time—much like Torah itself! 

The images invite one into the written commentary, which expounds upon the same verse as the midrashic challah image; the commentary is intended to be fresh and accessible to students of Torah at many levels. The really good stuff is what comes next: the questions for further study and the prompts for exploring the themes of the parashah or holiday through a creative medium or approach of your choosing. These are the invitations to the reader to take Torah into their own hands—not just to look at my response to the text, but to use it as inspiration to create a response of their own, in whichever language they wish to express themselves, whether it’s in words or a different creative medium (pro tip: there are a few years’ worth of Torah study discussion questions and classroom activities in here). And yes, there is a challah recipe, as well as instructions for how to shape the basic building blocks of my challah designs, for those who want to try their hand at making their own interpretive challot.

During the Revelation at Sinai, we read of the Israelites’ experience that “all the people saw the voices (ro-im et hakolot) and the flames and the voice of the shofar and the mountain smoking” (Exodus 20:15). That the Israelites saw sounds at Sinai is already interesting, but that they saw kolot, voices, is especially so. The Rabbis expound on this phenomenon in Sh’mot Rabbah, teaching: “Come and see how [God’s] voice would go out among Israel: each and every one according to [their] strength….Since the manna, which was one type, changed to many types according to the need of each and every one, all the more so, the voice…would change for each and every one” (5:9). The Rabbis teach that God spoke to each Israelite in a different voice at Sinai—hundreds of thousands of individualized voices of God speaking at once, using the precise language that each soul would best understand. Every person standing at Sinai that day experienced the same Revelation, but no two people experienced God’s voice in the same way. So too, all of us, whose souls were also present at Sinai, carry a different divine voice within that reveals a unique facet of Torah.

Each of these pieces of revelation is precious, and each comes with a different divine voice. A person’s Torah, therefore, is only revealed when we create space for the language that their soul speaks to flourish. My deepest hope is that Loaves of Torah creates some of that space for new Torah to be revealed by inviting more languages, more voices, into our Jewish learning and living spaces, as we continue to shape the collective Torah which we will pass on to the next generation.


Rabbi Vanessa M. Harper is Senior Director of Adult Jewish Living at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and Reform Rabbi in Residence at Gann Academy. She is the author of Loaves of Torah: Exploring the Jewish Year through Challah (CCAR Press, 2023).

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Rabbinic Reflections Statements

Remembering Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD, z”l: ‘At the Turning: Reflections on My Life’ (2014)

The Central Conference of American Rabbis mourns the death of our beloved rabbi, teacher, and friend, David Ellenson, PhD, z”l (1947–2023). The former president and chancellor emeritus of our Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi Ellenson was a mensch of the highest order who imparted wisdom and kindness in addition to sharing his voluminous knowledge and scholarship.

Rabbi Ellenson was a devoted and generous member of the CCAR and a friend to CCAR Press. His forewords or afterwords appear in three CCAR Press volumes: The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival, The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality, and From Time to Time: Journeys in the Jewish Calendar. In fall 2014, to mark the close of his first term as HUC-JIR’s president, CCAR Journal published “A Tribute to David Ellenson,” with articles by Rabbis Robert Levine and Rachel Adler. The issue also contained an autobiographical piece by Rabbi Ellenson entitled “At the Turning: Reflections on My Life.” We share excerpts of that piece in his memory.


The forces that have animated my life and work cannot be understood without recourse to my family and my past as a Jewish boy growing up in the South during the 1950s and 1960s and the multilayered world I experienced. Everything in my world talked about difference and exclusion. My grandparents had all emigrated from Eastern Europe to the United States in the early 1900s. My maternal grandparents had settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while my paternal grandparents improbably came to Newport News, Virginia. My parents, Rosalind Stern and Samuel Ellenson, met at Harvard Hillel in 1945, immediately after World War II, and they married in 1946. A year later, I was born, and six months after my birth, my father, a degree from Harvard Law School in hand, returned with my mother and me to Newport News, where he began the practice of law….

To this day, I cannot fully capture how very much I love the South and the Peninsula. The approximately 2,000 Jews located on the Peninsula lived peacefully and prosperously among more than 150,000 gentiles…. My entire extended family lived in the same pleasant neighborhood, and my childhood and adolescence were filled with family gatherings and events at which aunts, uncles, and cousins were present. …

I was and remain at some very deep level of my being a Virginian. However, I was also a Jew and that was “the rub.” I never felt I fully belonged. My being a Jew in a Christian world made me an outsider and different from the time I was a small boy, an observer even as I was an eager participant in the larger world. It left me feeling alienated even as I was overwhelmingly social and active.

In sum, the fabric of my identity was fraught with tensions. The inequities and evils I witnessed as a child and as a teenager in matters of race and gender and the sense of being an outsider as a Jew to the gentile culture in which I was raised all left a permanent mark on me….

* * *

I enrolled [eventually] in the Religious Studies Department of the University of Virginia, where I received an M.A. degree… There, for the first time, I read the works of Durkheim and Weber, where I was provided the beginnings of a vocabulary that would allow me to frame and illuminate my concerns. It was also equally clear to me that I had so much more to learn if I was to ever explore seriously the nature of what it was to be a Jew in the modern world.

This led me to move to Israel for two years. The first year I lived on Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek in the Jezreel Valley—where I worked in the fields and advanced my spoken Hebrew—while, in the second year, I enrolled in the rabbinical program at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. Although I seriously considered remaining in Israel and making aliyah at the end of that year, I decided to return to the United States, where for the next four years I would pursue rabbinical ordination at HUC-JIR in New York and doctoral studies in Religion at Columbia University….

The precise character of my [doctoral] work was shaped by two men. Towards the end of my formal graduate education in 1976 and 1977, I came under the tutelage of Fritz Bamberger of HUC-JIR and Jacob Katz of Hebrew University, who was then at Columbia as a visiting professor…. [Professor Bamberger’s teaching made] me aware that the hermeneutic of tension I have employed in all my work is embedded in a narrative that emerged from my own childhood experiences as a Jewish boy in Virginia…. Professor Katz provided me with the content and even more importantly the methodology that would guide and inform my work for decades to come. [He] pointed out that Germany was the crucible in which modern Judaism was born. It was here that the conflict between an inherited Jewish tradition and a highly acculturated Jewish community first played itself out… Indeed, it is a primary reason that I wrote my dissertation on Rabbi Hildesheimer, an Orthodox Jew completely committed to Jewish tradition, who received a doctorate from a German university and who was completely comfortable in Western culture. A study of his life would indicate precisely how Jewish religious tradition could be and was adapted to the demands of the time and place in which he lived. In so doing, I could hold up a mirror to my own being and provide a case study of how Judaism could be adapted to the modern world….

My decision to employ his model to study Rabbinic responsa and prayer book compositions in Western Europe, North America, and my beloved Israel reflect my deepest personal commitments to Judaism and the State of Israel. It also led me to believe that academic scholarship was a vital means to illuminate an understanding of life for myself, my Jewish community, and others in the larger world…

* * *

As a Jew who is commanded every day to remember my bondage and my exodus from Egypt… I cannot forget the books of my Jewish past, nor do I want to. Instead, I hope that my children and my students and their descendants, as our daily liturgy phrases it, will be “yodei sh’mecha v’lomdei toratecha” (knowers of God and students of Torah). My years as president of the College-Institute have been an extension of my entire life and all my values. I have aspired as a Jew born in America and connected deeply both to Israel and the larger world to place myself and my students in a chain of Jewish tradition that is humane and inclusive. Rabbi Leo Baeck provides me with a language for that aspiration…:

Every generation by choosing its way, its present way, at the same time chooses an essential part of the future, the way of its children…. Ways bind, wind, and wander. When a man forms his life, he begins to create community. He is not only born into community as if by fate, but he has now been called to the task of molding it.

My own Jewish way has wandered. Surely, the ways of my own children and grandchildren as well as my students will wander as well. Nevertheless, I and they are also bound, and my way, just as theirs, emanates from those who lived before us. I have tried—through my researches and through my work as a teacher and as president of the College-Institute—to honor the way I have inherited even as I have struggled to mold a direction for a way that reflects who I am. I look forward with confidence to how the students and graduates of HUC-JIR… will mold their own directions for the Jewish people and humanity in the days ahead.

Read the entire piece here.


Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD, z”l (1947–2023), served as president of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion from 2001 to 2013 and again from 2018 to 2019. He was a prolific scholar of modern Jewish thought and history.

Categories
Israel Rabbis Organizing Rabbis

Only at Night Can One See Stars: Rabbi Barry Block on the Israeli Spirit

On Shabbat morning, November 18, 2023, CCAR Chief Executive Rabbi Hara Person, Rabbi Judy Schindler, and I visited Elana and Eyal Kaminka at their home in Tzur Hadassah, a town not far from Jerusalem. Their son, Yannai, of blessed memory, was killed by Hamas terrorists on October 7, and we were paying a condolence call. The Kaminkas are members of K’hilat Shir Chadash, a Reform congregation where Yannai celebrated his bar mitzvah seven years ago. On our visit, which followed Shabbat morning services at Shir Chadash, we were accompanied by Yael Schweid and Naomi Ben Ari, two Israeli Reform rabbinic students who are also members of that congregation and friends of the Kaminka family. Yael had trained Yannai for his bar mitzvah.

Yannai was a lieutenant in the Israel Defense Force. He would have turned twenty-one during shloshim, the thirty-day period of mourning after his death.  

On October 7, Yannai was serving at the Army’s Zikim training base, adjacent to a kibbutz by the same name. Guard posts on the base that morning were staffed by basic trainees under Yannai’s command. Yannai quickly perceived the danger, and he ordered all the trainees to shelter. Officers and sergeants would take their places. One of the sergeants was hit, and Yannai rushed to her aid and to provide backup. Yannai was killed, alongside six others, only one a trainee. Ninety trainees and thirty civilians on the base were saved by their heroism, as was the entire population of Kibbutz Zikim.[i]

My teacher, Micah Goodman, says that on October 7, the State of Israel did not exist. Israelis were there, but the state was not. Soldiers were there, but the Israel Defense Force was not. The state broke its contract with its citizens—above all, those who have bravely made their homes and built their lives within and near Israel’s internationally recognized borders, including communities adjacent to the Gaza Strip.[ii]

Civilians waited in their safe rooms for hours—in some cases, more than a day—for the Army to arrive. Too many were killed or kidnapped as they waited. Where was the IDF? In the Occupied West Bank, protecting Israeli settlers, including extremists who established their settlements illegally. Where was the government? Consumed with a tactic previously well-known only in Latin America, intent on an auto-coup,[iii] transforming their democratic election into an autocracy, free from judicial review. Where was Prime Minister Netanyahu, whose longstanding promise to Israelis has been that he and only he could keep them safe? He was and remains consumed with keeping himself out of jail, despite several indictments on corruption charges, and now he’s also busy deflecting responsibility for the October 7 catastrophe from himself to his subordinates.

But soldiers like Yannai were there on October 7, and they saved lives. Imagine how many more lives could have been saved if brigades had not been moved from the Gaza border to the West Bank in the days, weeks, and months leading up to what Israelis are calling “that black Shabbat.”

I had been in Israel twice in 2023 before my visit in November. In February and in July, I was inspired by the Israeli protest movement. From January through September, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the street every Saturday night to protest the Netanyahu government’s antidemocratic judicial coup—or, put another way, to stand up for the democracy of the Jewish State. Throughout those nine months, Israelis demonstrated that, if the government would not protect the State of Israel, the people would. It was the most powerful demonstration of Zionism I had ever seen.

Now, the protest movement has transformed itself into a massive civilian aid society. In so many ways, throughout the last two months, Israelis in need have been able to turn to their “family,” to the extraordinary Israeli people if not to their government, and to our Jewish people around the world.

On October 7, before the Army even reached some of the communities that had been attacked, and with Hamas terrorists still in the country, the protest movement mobilized to meet the needs of survivors. It has never stopped. Onetime protestors now provide the infrastructure, the organizing capacity, and much of the human capital behind the extraordinary effort to keep the hostages at the top of the nation’s agenda, apparent government indifference notwithstanding.

Our little group was privileged to join our Israeli Reform rabbinic colleagues at Moshav Beit Ezra, not much more than fifteen miles from the northern border of the Gaza Strip. There, we spent a few hours pruning and weeding in a hothouse filled with tomato plants. We had responded to an “agricultural emergency call-up,” an effort styled after military mobilizations, this one intended to save Israel’s farms and the state’s food security from the disaster of losing their workforce after October 7. That work will need to be sustained for many months to come. In 2023, first with democracy demonstrations and now with volunteerism, Israelis have demonstrated that they can do it.

Eyal Kaminka, the father of Yannai, of blessed memory, is a management consultant who formerly served as Director of the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem. He is also a poet. Yannai had turned the last line of one of his father’s poems into his personal motto: Rak balaila ro-im kochavim, “Only at night can one see stars.” An ironic smile creeps across Elana Kaminka’s face as she describes that she has always urged her four children never to get a tattoo. Now, though, she receives constant WhatsApp messages from Yannai’s friends and supporters, sending photos of his motto now tattooed on their arms.

We are living at what has become a dark time for the Jewish people in Israel and around the world. Thankfully, we can see the stars. They are the people of Israel. Am Yisrael chai. The people of Israel live. Let the people of Israel continue to shine through this darkest of nights.

Amen.


[i] My recollection of conversation with Elana and Eyal Kaminka is supplemented here by Nikolas Lanum, “Mother of fallen Israeli soldier recounts how her son died protecting others: ‘We still love him so deeply,” Fox News, October 23, 2023, https://www.foxnews.com/media/mother-fallen-israeli-soldier-son-died-protecting-others.

[ii] Paraphrase of Micah Goodman’s comments to the Union for Reform Judaism North American Board, October 29, 2023.

[iii] Noga Tarnopolsky, speaking to our group, November 20, 2023.


Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. A member of the CCAR Board, he is the editor of  The Social Justice Commentary and The Mussar Torah Commentary, CCAR Press.

Categories
Books CCAR Press Social Justice

Guarding and Tending the Land: Rabbi Andrue Kahn on ‘The Sacred Earth’

Rabbi Andrue J. Kahn, editor of The Sacred Earth: Jewish Perspectives on Our Planet, reflects on the inspiration behind the project, the unique approaches taken by the book’s contributors, and why Jews can play an essential role in the fight against climate change.

How did you get interested in the topic of climate change?

I have always found nature to be a source of spiritual richness. Growing up in Tacoma, Washington, a particularly beautiful part of our country, I sought out the sense of gravity, mystery, and wonder in our parks and beaches. As I grew older, I maintained that sense of connectedness to wild spaces, but never really considered the place of Judaism within that nexus. As associate rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, I was approached by a particularly passionate congregant, the indefatigable Peg Watson, who wanted to push our community to get more involved in environmental justice. She connected us with Karenna Gore at the Center for Earth Ethics, and through many conversations and much planning, it became clear to me that the best way to awaken our community towards greater commitment to and involvement in protecting our ecosystem was to cultivate resources for individuals to connect their Jewish identity and practice more closely with the more-than-human world of plants and animals, mountains and oceans, and forests and deserts.

What can readers learn from The Sacred Earth?

The most important lesson within The Sacred Earth, reiterated throughout every page, is that Judaism has always seen humanity as part of the intricate web of intermeshing life on this planet, and that God is the creator of the entire system. Many have posited that Judaism has no Earth-based ethic due to our exile from the land of Israel, the geographic locus of our genesis as a people. In reality, this volume helps us see that our state of exile has given us a valuable viewpoint on humanity’s relationship to the planet. Our presence in every ecosystem—and our ability to be contributors and partners with others in guarding and tending the land—has given us a global perspective well before globalism became the norm.

Can you describe some of the different approaches taken by contributors to The Sacred Earth?

The Sacred Earth is as full of approaches as it is of contributors! From poetry, to reflective biographical essays, to halachic thought, to kabbalistic mysticism, to practical guides for ritual practices, each chapter is its own gateway into more deeply understanding our role as Jews on our shared planet.

Why is it important that we, as Jews, engage in environmental activism? 

Just as is true with so many other justice causes, environmental activism is deeply important for the Jewish people to engage in both for our own interests, and for the wider interests of the world. We are part of the wider network of communities that links all people and places throughout the planet, and are therefore responsible for maintaining that system. Beyond our universal commitments, the truth is that Jews all over the world are and will continue to be deeply impacted by the ongoing climate shifts. Even our ancestral and spiritual homeland itself is at deep risk of being uninhabitable within my lifetime if we continue trending towards greater rise in global temperature. Finally, our Torah teaches us that humanity was charged with the responsibility of guarding and tending the world, and there is no better way to maintain our connection to this mitzvah than to join with our fellow humans in working to protect against further destruction.

What gives you hope that we can rise to the challenge of addressing climate change?

When I look at the history of our people and our resilience in the face of thousands of years of challenges, it becomes clear that the Jewish people’s ability to survive and thrive everywhere and everywhen is undeniable. The unsustainable practices that have led to climate change will inevitably lead to their own demise. Our beautiful planet is incredibly resilient, if on its own timeline rather than a human timeline. Ultimately, the question is whether we as a species are willing and able to change how we approach our planet, our relationship to its inhabitants, and our modes and methods of consumption before we are forced by the ongoing shifts to make the changes under duress. What gives me the greatest hope in the face of these challenges are the many people who are devoting their lives to changing minds, hearts, and systems. The Sacred Earth is full of the thought and passion of just these kinds of people, tzaddikimin our midst, and I believe that whether we change by choice, or change by force, these tzaddikim will continue to work towards a better, more just world.

Rabbi Kahn and select contributors to The Sacred Earth are available to visit communities for speaker events and book clubs. For more information, please email bookevents@ccarpress.org.


Rabbi Andrue J. Kahn is Associate Director of Yachad and Adult Education at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, NY. He is the editor of The Sacred Earth: Jewish Perspectives on Our Planet (CCAR Press, 2023).

Categories
High Holy Days

Finding Joy, Purpose, and Hope in 5784’: CCAR Chief Executive Rabbi Hara Person’s High Holy Day Message to Reform Rabbis

Rabbi Hara Person, Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, shares her gratitude for the unending work of CCAR members, and shares her hope that they find joys both big and small as the new year 5784 begins.


To the Reform rabbis of the CCAR,

These High Holy Days are full of joy, reflection, and gratitude. The ability to be reflective, to write ourselves anew, is an incredible gift that we get to re-experience every year at this time.

The Psalms exhort us to “worship God in gladness, come into God’s presence with shouts of joy” (Psalms 100:2). As part of my personal High Holy Day prep, I’ve been reflecting on the idea of joy, which, though so profoundly central to our personal and professional lives, can be a challenge. Perhaps it’s because of the stress of the world that bears down on us; perhaps it’s because of all the many things wrong in the world and in our lives. Perhaps it’s because it can be so hard to live up to the best versions of ourselves to which we aspire. Perhaps it’s because our internal monologues tell us we’re not good enough, or deserving enough.

Additionally—and on so many levels—these are difficult times we are living in. As rabbis, we take so much upon ourselves. Because we take seriously the mandate to help heal the world, and there is so much healing to be done, it can feel overwhelming. Joy can often feel out of reach, even unattainable. There are so many reasons to struggle with experiencing joy.

Yet with all the uncertainty around us, I see what you are doing. In all the ways that you are serving the Jewish people, in congregations and communities around the world, in the military, in hospitals and healthcare settings, in schools and at camp, on college campuses and in all kinds of mission-driven organizations, in the early days of your rabbinic career and in retirement, I know that you are giving all you’ve got to bring inspiration, hope, and healing.

I am so grateful to you all. And dare I say that seeing all that you do as a rabbinate brings me more than a small amount of joy, and hope.

I recently came across a piece in the Washington Post by Richard Sima about something he calls “joy-snacking.” He writes, “By mindfully tuning into the pleasant, nice and sometimes routine experiences of every day, we can transform an otherwise mundane moment into something more meaningful and even joyful.” Apparently, there are scholars who study joy—who knew? One of their findings is that when people experience the small joys of everyday living, they find greater meaning in life, feel more connected, have a sense of purpose, and are more likely to flourish.

So, as we enter this new year with our hearts open and our souls determined to chart a positive and purposeful path in 5784, I invite you to consider this concept of “joy-snacking.” We each have the agency and indeed the responsibility for the care and feeding of our own souls, not only the souls of those we serve. Finding the small quotidian joys in the course of our daily lives is part of that process. Even as we focus on the heavy lifting that we each individually have to do as our part of helping to repair this very damaged world, this divided society in which we live, our beloved Israel in such pain, and in some cases the very communities in which we serve, we also have to push ourselves to find those moments of joy that uplift us, give us meaning, and help us keep going so that we have the energy and motivation for the hard work that lies ahead.

And there is much hard work ahead. As rabbis we are called to heal, to speak out loudly and courageously against injustice, to give voice to the voiceless and hope to the hopeless. We’re asked to do so much, and we ask a lot of ourselves. That work can’t be done without properly nourishing our own souls. Finding those glimmers of gladness and joy is also part of our mandate as rabbis, for it not only helps ground us and gives us purpose, but it also helps us connect to the Divine and reminds us of why we do this work.

The poet Rahel points us to finding those tiny joys, which add blessings to our days.

Tiny Joys
Tiny joys, joys like a lizard’s tail:
a sudden sea between two city buildings in the west,
windows glittering in the setting sun—
everything blessed!
Everything blessed.
A consoling music in everything,
in everything mysteries and hints—
and everything waiting for corals of beautiful words
to be strung by the imagination on its string.

[Tiny Joys, by Rachel Bluwstein, Found in Translation, transl. Robert Friend
(Milford, CT: Toby Press, 2006]

In this new year, may you find the tiny joys—and maybe some big joys, too. May all of those joys bring meaning and help you focus on what matters. May you find blessings and purpose in all that you do. May you have the strength to be a voice for justice, and may you continue to be a blessing and an inspiration.

Wishing you and yours health, happiness, and hope in 5784.