Rabbi Zoë Klein is the author of Candle, Feather, Wooden Spoon: New Jewish Stories, now available for pre-order from CCAR Press. In this excerpt from the introduction, she discusses what inspired the collection and how readers can make the book their own.
On the night before Passover, it is traditional for families to hide pieces of bread in a ritual called b’dikat chameitz (searching for leaven). Children search for crumbs with a candle and use a feather to sweep them onto a wooden spoon, all of which are then put in a paper bag. The paper bag with the items inside is burned the following morning, signifying that the home is ready for the holiday to begin.
I have always loved the candle, feather, and wooden spoon. While not on par with the royal flush of seder plate sacred symbols (shank bone, bitter herbs, charoset, parsley, and egg), in their own gentle way, they indicate that we are ready to begin this story of freedom. For me, they represent the process of storytelling. First comes the light of an idea, then the quill with which to write it down, and at last it is ready to be spooned out and shared.
I also love that all three objects are fairly mundane. Candles are common. You can find feathers amid fallen leaves and weeds. And there is probably a wooden spoon floating around everyone’s cookware. Judaism is about elevating the mundane to the sacred, helping us transform mindless action into mindful intention. Stories have the same power of transformation. The famous Jewish story of a person scattering feathers from a pillow and then fruitlessly trying to gather them all back together becomes the simple but effective tool to transmit the important value about speaking kindly and not spreading rumors.
This collection’s first part, “Candle: Stories That Shine New Light on Tradition,” explores Jewish texts and teachings from new vantage points. The second part, “Feather: Modern Stories That Take Flight,” explores identity and relationship through a modern Jewish lens. The characters in these stories may remind you of people you know or yourself. The final part, “Wooden Spoon: Stories That Stir Food for Thought,” mixes story with philosophy in an attempt to taste the transcendent.
The stories in this collection are intended to be shared, interpreted, and discussed. In the same way that musicians use their artistry and unique style to make a known melody their own, you are encouraged to adopt and adapt these stories, add your voice, and make them yours. Judaism has an extraordinary oral tradition evolving from generation to generation, with each new storyteller adding flavor, color, and texture.
You are a storyteller, with your own voice and experience to add.
At the end of each story in this collection, there are a number of questions designed to encourage self-reflection, conversation, and engagement. So take a candle (or a reading light!), a feather, and a wooden spoon and search these pages for morsels, parables, and words of Torah. And keep telling your stories.
Rabbi Zoë Klein serves Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, California. Rabbi Klein is the author of Drawing in the Dust: A Novel (Gallery Books, 2009), The Goblins of Knottingham: A History of Challah (Apples & Honey, 2017), The Scroll of Anatiya (Wipf and Stock, 2009), and the collection of short stories Candle, Feather, Wooden Spoon (CCAR Press, 2023). Her poems and prayers are used in houses of worship around the world.
In synagogues, as a faculty member at URJ camps, and at the URJ Biennial, I came to the realization that we were not hearing from the prophets. My own rabbinic education also lacked such focus, even though we in the Reform Movement spoke of “Prophetic Judaism.” It was an issue beyond Jewish literacy; it was an issue of not being called to action. At a conference run by the Religious Action Center in 2018, the final (brilliant!) session was an offer to take the microphone, share an idea about social justice, and invite others to join you for an hour to work on it. Over the following year and a half, on and off, our small group continued to work on it, and that eventually led to my proposal to CCAR Press.
Was there something new you personally learned while working on the book?
Many things! I learned about the history of the haftarah cycle and how the term “Prophetic Judaism” came to be. I was reminded how the haftarah has the flexibility to connect to any part of the Torah portion, which is an invitation for creativity. I learned how much insight contributors can share in a mere 250 words, and I was exposed to many of the alternative texts for the first time.
What was the most challenging part of editing this volume?
With 179 contributors, there were a lot of emails! Because of the skills of the CCAR Press team, who were the professionals, the most challenging part for me ended up being helping potential contributors understand what this book was seeking to accomplish.
How did you determine which additional Jewish American holidays would receive haftarah readings?
We had an open call and gave the examples of Independence Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Pride Month, Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Juneteenth, and Mother’s/Father’s Day. Forty-two holidays ultimately appeared in my inbox, characterized by authenticity, passion, insight, and vulnerability.
How do you hope readers will use Prophetic Voices?
I hope that it will bring the prophets and prophet-like voices beyond the bimah and the sanctuary into our daily lives. Each interpretation ends with a call to action. Some are direct, some are indirect, and some are questions, but overall the idea is to reclaim Prophetic Judaism as a verb.
The subtitle for this book mentions “renewing and reimagining” the haftarah cycle. What do you mean by that?
“Renewing” refers to better understanding and finding relevance and inspiration from the prophets of the traditional haftarah cycle (such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Amos). “Reimagining” refers to allowing haftarah, which means “conclusion,” to go beyond the N’vi-im (Prophets) section of the Hebrew Bible to texts that deserve to be “between the blessings.” Those texts include verses from the K’tuvim (Writings)—such as Job and Psalms—and expand into Jewish texts from the Talmud, poetry across the ages, music lyrics, fiction pieces, official government declarations, speeches, and more. These not only conclude the Torah reading but punctuate it. Furthermore, the book offers three new haftarah cycles: the Omer cycle, the Elul cycle, and the Winter cycle (from Thanksgiving to Chanukah).
The 134th annual Convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis was held February 20-26, 2023 in Israel, where over 250 Reform rabbis gathered in person. At this Convention, the CCAR also installed its new 2023-2025 Board of Trustees with Rabbi Erica Asch serving as President. Here, we share Rabbi Asch’s powerful sermonaddressing the Reform rabbinate.
February 25, 2023: Parashat T’rumah teaches us the importance of bringing our unique gifts and talents to the community. In the parashah, the Lord commands the Israelites to build a Mishkan and calls on each of them to contribute their own special offering. This passage teaches us that every one of us has something valuable to offer, and it is our duty to share it with others. As we reflect on our own gifts, let us be willing to share them with our community, and strive to make a difference in the world with what we’ve been blessed with.
At this point, some of you might be a bit concerned about my sermonic abilities. Others might have guessed that this opening paragraph was not actually written by me, but by ChatGPT. Perhaps you were tipped off by the clichés, the awkward grammar, or the use of the word Lord. I think it is safe to say that ChatGPT has not yet passed the Turing test invented by mathematician, computer scientist, and philosopher Alan Turing in 1950. The test was simple: Can a computer successfully pretend to be a human being in a text-based conversation? While ChatGPT did not fully capture my sermonic brilliance, I appreciate that it got me started.
I imagine that many of us, whether we are newly ordained or recently retired, have given some better-written version of that opening paragraph. We have preached—just as Moses asks and the Israelites answer, bringing their own unique gifts with a full heart—please bring your own unique gift to our community. In our sermons, we are Moses, exhorting the Israelites to build our community. But in our jobs, we are not Moses. Rather, we are the Israelites, bringing, with care, our own gifts to the communities we serve.
When Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus was installed as CCAR President in 2009 in Israel and spoke on this parashah, she taught us: “…these gifts are essentially who we are and what we do as rabbis. These gifts that we bring are the gifts of our minds and our hearts and our hands and our souls. These gifts are our sweat and our tears. These gifts are our energy and our time. This is why we are rabbis: because our hearts are so moved.”
We are rabbis because our hearts and souls are so moved. And sometimes, maybe often, our gifts are received with love and compassion, whether we bring a thought-provoking sermon, an insightful teaching, or a caring pastoral presence. On good days, we build communities where we help to make the lives of those we touch a little better, and our world a little bit more just, and perhaps then God dwells with us.
But sometimes, maybe often, we bring our unique set of gifts and they are not accepted. We are a brilliant strategic thinker, but our congregants want someone who can sit on the floor at Tot Shabbat. Our vision for the organization upsets our board chair who wants us to “stay in our lane.” Our big new program flops, and our abilities are questioned. Sometimes we suffer untenable job situations in silence because we are too scared that if we say something, we might not get another job. Sometimes our contract isn’t renewed. But more often it’s the little difficulties that wear us down—the feeling that our gifts aren’t acknowledged. What happens when our hearts are moved and we bring our unique combination of gifts, the gift of ourselves, and we are rejected?
What happens when the gift of ourselves is rejected? This devastating possibility never occurs to our commentators. In all the discussions of various colors of wool and what exactly are those t’chashim, they give no thought that gifts for the Mishkan could be refused. In our Torah portion, unlike our lives, every gift is accepted and valued.
While being a rabbi is often rewarding, it can also be heartbreaking. The last few years, in particular, have not been easy. When we face difficult situations in our communities, we desperately want things to be better. If they were able, I have no doubt the dedicated staff of the CCAR would rectify all of the challenging professional situations we face. They do their very best. But our staff can’t change the leadership of an organization, or curb the behavior of difficult personalities, or make others embrace the gifts we bring.
We work as hard as we can to make our communities the picture of compassion and acceptance we see in our parashah, but ultimately we are not in control. We cannot single handedly change the culture of the places we serve.
However, we are in control of our own rabbinic community. Together we have the power and the obligation to make the CCAR a place of compassion, understanding, and support. Our actions shape this community.
One of my first official encounters with the CCAR left me in tears. I was in the midst of undiagnosed postpartum depression and the response I received was not only not pastoral, but felt cruel. That was not the intention, but I left feeling hurt and disrespected. “They don’t understand me,” I remember thinking. “They don’t care about me.” I could have justifiably slammed the door and never looked back; or let that hurt, which I still feel, color my impressions to this day. But around that time, I had another encounter, not with CCAR staff, but with two rabbinic colleagues who also had a newborn. This baby was their third and as we sat together on the floor, with our infants, outside the opening dinner at a CCAR Convention, they told me that I could do this; I could be a rabbi and a parent. They assured me that I would find my way. And another colleague not only told me that having a child is hard—which I needed to hear—but helped me to find meaningful, part-time work in the city where I was moving. And these experiences, too, are part of the narrative of my involvement with the CCAR. Because the CCAR is not just staff, it is all of us. We all help to shape our shared rabbinic community.
Many of us have struggled within this small group. We have experiences where we have not felt heard or understood or valued by colleagues; where we felt our gifts have not been accepted. We may have felt as if only the senior rabbis of large congregations were given kavod within the Conference. Maybe we thought we had to pretend that everything was fine even when it was not. Maybe we live outside of the United States, like so many here this morning, and don’t feel that the larger Conference recognizes us. As a part-time organizational rabbi with no discretionary fund, I went to my first convention thanks to the generosity of a colleague. As I talked to my classmates, many of them assistant rabbis in large congregations, I thought their lives were perfect. Moses valued all gifts equally, but it didn’t feel like that was the case for me. Was my gift worthy?
How often have we had these internal doubts? These narratives are so difficult for us to carry and they are unfair. Unfair to ourselves because we diminish our own gifts. Unfair to others because we don’t show them our own struggles, and in showing them, give our colleagues the chance to lift us up. Fifteen years later, it is that conversation on the floor, and many more like it at the back of the ballroom, in restaurants, and over phone calls and Zoom screens that have kept me going.
There was certainly a time when new ordainees were expected to sit silently in the back row (not by choice) and listen quietly to the g’dolei hador, but that is not our Conference today. We have a board, and a leadership, and a Conference made of people on a variety of rabbinic paths, and each person brings different gifts to our community. We need and value them all. Our Conference has changed. We talk about wellness. We understand the pastoral aspects of placement. We recognize the variety of ways we serve as rabbis. We are not perfect, but we are different, and we do ourselves a disservice when we don’t recognize and embrace the way that, together, we have changed our rabbinic culture.
Our culture can continue to change only when we bring the full gift of ourselves—messy, complicated, and fundamentally human—to this space. Nineteenth-century commentator Rav Chaim of Volozhin teaches that God’s intention in building the physical tabernacle is to show us that just as the Mishkan is made of holy materials, our own actions should be equally holy—then God will dwell with us. Similarly the Malbim, writing in the 1800’s, who would have been horrified to be quoted by a female Reform rabbi, but nevertheless teaches some wonderful Torah, reads v’shachanti b’tocham not as I will dwell among them, but I will dwell within them. It is the action of bringing our gifts that will create a holy community where God dwells with us. That brings us back to ChatGPT and the Turning test.
In his podcast “Cautionary Tales,” economic journalist Tim Harford brings up a little-known incident from 1989, a text chat between a student at Drake University in Iowa and a chatbot at University College in Dublin known as MGonz. MGonz was not, as Harford says, “a gentle conversation partner.” Their one hour and twenty-minute conversation was peppered with obscenities and insults and included a lot of boasting about their sex lives. MGonz, because it was programmed to insult, passed the Turing test with flying colors. But here Harford makes a provocative argument about our inability to distinguish if we are interacting with a chatbot or a person. “If it’s impossible to say which is which, that’s not because the bots are so brilliant, it is because we humans have lowered ourselves to their level.”
It is not that chatbots have passed the Turing test, but rather that we humans have failed it. Too often our conversations mirror what could be done by a chatbot—oneg chit chat, passive listening, returning the conversation, over and over again, to what we want to discuss. This happens not just in our communities, but with one another.
Talking to one another in real and meaningful ways is risky, for sure, but it is ultimately rewarding. In a world where we might often feel like we can’t be our full and authentic selves at work, where our role can be a barrier, we have a chance, with one another, to pass our own Turing test. To share how we are really doing, to support one another, to question respectfully. To say something that could not be mistaken for a computer; to invite one another into genuine relationships. We can jump into real interaction with all the risks and all the rewards that are possible. We have the opportunity to bring our full selves, our proudest moments, our missteps and our uncertainties, to this community.
In order to build our Mishkan we just need the gifts of ourselves—messy, complex and dedicated. Some of us will bring brilliant sermons, some inspired teaching, some meaningful worship. Someone will offer a loving question. Someone else will bring a kind word when it is desperately needed. We don’t know what the next year will bring for us personally, professionally, or as an organization. But if we place gifts of ourselves at the center of this community and accept the gifts of one another, then the sacred space we create will make the journey ahead easier for us all.
Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus graciously shared her entire sermon with me.
Rav Chaim of Volozhin in Nefesh HaChayim, Gate I, 4:18.
Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser (Malbim) on Exodus 25:8 Vaasu li mikdash.
The 134th annual Convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis was held February 20-26, 2023 in Israel, where 250 Reform rabbis gathered in person. Here, we share CCAR Chief Executive Rabbi Hara Person’s moving address about the direction of the CCAR, the meaning of gathering in Israel during the largest civil protests in history, and the need to speak out for justice in an Israelof our highest aspirations.
February 26, 2023: Parashat T’tzaveh reminds us of the importance of the Ner Tamid, the light that is to burn at all times, throughout the ages. When I was ordained, reaching this milestone of twenty-five years seemed impossibly far away. Today, thinking back to who I was twenty-five years ago, I find myself looking for my Ner Tamid, the light that has remained constant throughout this journey and binds that new rabbi to who I am today.
There’s so much to be grateful for in my most unusual career. These twenty-five years have been incredibly fulfilling, hard, and challenging, never boring. Getting to spend twenty-one years publishing Jewish books for the Reform Movement was an incredible gift. Having had an unusual route through HUC-JIR, not doing the typical year in Israel, and then being part of two different classes, I never had the same sense of “class” or “classmates” that most of you have had, though I love my two classes and congratulate both my class of 1997 on their Doctorate in Divinity from last year, and the class I was ordained with in ’98 on their upcoming Doctorates. But getting to develop deep relationships with colleagues, who have made me a better rabbi, and really a better person, who have become mentors and friends, has been another gift of these twenty-five years.
I decided to become a rabbi because, while I was in grad school for something else, I realized that it was the rabbinate that was aligned with my deepest values. My personal Ner Tamid, that which filled my life with light, was located in the Jewish world. Going to rabbinic school seemed to be the way to fulfill my personal purpose, a way to connect with the ideas and values that were essential to who I was. My road to the rabbinate was not straightforward, and my career has been unexpected and unusual, but I am so grateful to have had the opportunities to learn and grow, to stretch and yes, to struggle, as a rabbi these twenty-five years, and to have, God willing, much more still ahead of me.
These last several years have been so hard, and indeed, there has been much struggle. And yet out of this time, some incredibly generative work has grown. I am very proud of us as a Conference, in the ways that we continue to push ourselves to learn, and to be better than we were the year before. For all this work and more, I want to recognize the CCAR staff who are here with us, and those who we weren’t able to bring this year.
There is so much important work underway, work that continues to make us a stronger and better Conference. The innovative growth in the area of wellness and support, under the leadership of Rabbi Betsy Torop, with Julie Vanek and Rabbi Dusty Klass, and assisted by Ariel Dorvil, is extraordinary. The wealth of classes, trainings, support groups, and gatherings is breathtaking. And of course, Betsy and Julie, together with the Israel Convention Committee, put this extraordinary week together for all of us.
The long awaited release of the Clergy Monologues video and discussion guide, created by the Task Force on the Experience of Women in the Rabbinate, will soon be available, thanks to the work of Tamar Anitai—only a small part of her portfolio. This will be a great resource to spark important conversations about gender, equity, and bias in your communities. We are grateful to everyone who has helped bring this project to fruition, including the Reform Pay Equity Initiative. If you’re feeling good about this week’s press coverage, that’s also thanks to Tamar.
Our development team, led by Pamela Goldstein, with the support of Samantha Rutter and Sarah Stern, works hard to find ways to fund all the incredible work we’re doing. The needs are ever greater, and none of that is possible without funding. So many of you have helped, both with your own contributions to the Annual Giving Campaign, as well as with introductions to those in your communities who are inspired by what we do to serve rabbis. Thank you for helping us fulfill our mission.
Laurie Pinho, and her team of Jaqui Dellaria and Michael Santiago, keep us on track in more ways than you can imagine. If you’ve interacted with Laurie, you know how lucky we are that she’s part of our executive team, and I’m so glad that Laurie is here with us this week, not only doing more than you can imagine behind the scenes, but also experiencing Israel for the first time.
In a changed landscape, Rabbi Leora Kaye and Rabbi Alan Berlin, assisted by Rodney Dailey, and with Rabbi Dennis Ross advising in the area of interim work, are doing a fabulous job managing rabbinic searches and advising colleagues on their careers. Before Convention, I was on the road visiting rabbis and congregations for about seven weeks. And I’m hearing so much positive feedback about the ways we’re now able to serve rabbis, and the congregations and institutions where rabbis lead. Our new model of two full-time professionals in this department, as well as the shift in the focus of our work within it, is already making a big difference.
It is amazing that we are able to have trained counselors on our staff to support you professionally and personally, including Rabbi Rex Perlmeter and Rabbi Don Rossoff, now joined by Rabbi Dayle Friedman. I’m very sad that Rex will be retiring this summer, but so grateful for all his help in establishing this program and leading the way.
And of course we have done, and are continuing to do, significant and meaningful work in the area of ethics. With the hiring of David Kasakove, our Director of Rabbinic Ethics, and Cara Raich, our Ethics Advisor for Inquiries and Intake, both former attorneys, we now have a whole new CCAR department. I’m very grateful for the support from you as we’ve moved as quickly, as carefully, and as thoughtfully as possible to revise our Ethics Code and update our system. That process is still ongoing, with the Ethics Task Force working on several proposals for change. It’s amazing how far we’ve already come in a short time, with much more on the way.
I have to also add that Rabbi Steve Fox is an amazing emeritus, available when needed and so respectful of boundaries. Especially given the craziness of these past three years, it has been such a gift to have Steve there when needed as an advisor.
And I can’t speak about staff without mentioning my assistant, Rosemarie Cisluycis, whom many of you know as Roe. Roe has no easy task managing me, and I’m grateful for her patience, organizational skills, and sense of humor.
The CCAR couldn’t do anything without our devoted staff team. But it is the partnership with our volunteers that really make the CCAR who we are. I thank everyone who has been part of our work in any capacity. Rav todot. I especially want to take a moment and thank Rabbi Mara Nathan, Rabbi Lev Hernnson, and the whole Convention Committee team. All I can say at this moment is: Wow! Kol hakavod. I am so grateful to all of you! And while I’m on thank yous, we are also grateful to everything J2 did to make this week happen, and look forward to more years of growth and collaboration together.
And our board is truly the backbone of the CCAR. This board, for the last two years under the leadership of Rabbi Lewis Kamrass, and now led by Rabbi Erica Asch, CCAR President, is an active working board. To be on the board is not an honorific, but a real commitment to dig in and move the CCAR forward. I am so grateful for the partnership of Lewis, Erica, and the whole board, and the tremendous commitment they demonstrate to the well-being of the CCAR and our members.
For the last three years, the board has been involved in an additional change process as well. The vice president positions have been rethought and revised to better meet the needs of who the CCAR is today. For example, we now have a vice president of varied rabbinates, in recognition of the many different ways that our members serve as rabbis.
Moreover, beginning with Rabbi Ron Segal’s leadership as board president and then under Lewis Kamrass’s board presidency, the board decided that it was time for a review of the mission, last revised in 2008, and at the ways in which the mission is carried out. At the last in-person meeting in December, after a three-year strategic visioning process of deliberation and study spanning two boards and two presidents, the board passed a new mission for the CCAR, along with a set of core strategies that lay out the top-line ways in which we achieve the mission.
This new mission is: The CCAR supports and strengthens Reform rabbis so that our members, their communities, and Reform Jewish values thrive.
The core strategies, formerly called pillars, are:
Reform Movement Leadership
This revised language is not a radical new vision—rather, it is our organizational Ner Tamid that provides clarity and a reemphasis that reflect the needs and aspirations of the CCAR of today. The vessel may be new, but the light within remains unchanged. I am very proud to be part of an organization that undertook such a deliberate and intentional process, and asked many hard questions in order to arrive at these new articulations of our purpose. This sharper focus will help us in the years to come, as we seek to always stay true to our mission and purpose.
There are also new initiatives in different areas, and I’m going to share one that I’m particularly excited about. When what we lovingly call “the Plaut Torah Commentary” was published in 1981, it was truly a gift to us from those who brought it forward—Plaut, Bamberger, Hallo, and all those who made it happen. Can you imagine our Reform community without this commentary, which was such a pioneering effort in its time? And then there was the revised edition in 2005, out of which came the bar/bat mitzvah booklets that so many of you rely on. And in 2008, The Torah: A Women’s Commentarywas published to tremendous acclaim—a truly groundbreaking work. It was my honor to have worked on all of those projects and to have provided those very necessary and beloved resources to our community. But the scholarship featured in the Plaut is from the ‘70s, and some of it is, well, dated.
Torah is our central sacred text, the light in in our midst. Torah is critical to our mission as Jews and as rabbis. And because we are a forward-thinking Movement, it is now time to plan for our gift to the next generation, the next Reform Torah commentary. This is an ambitious, huge project that is going to take tremendous resources. But indeed, we must do it. There is much that is still to be decided in the months and years to come. But some key decisions have been made. I am delighted to share that Bible scholar Dr. Elsie Stern has been named the chief editor of the project. HUC-JIR Bible scholar Dr. Daniel Fisher-Livne will be working with her. There will be other scholars involved as well, and that list is still being determined, as are many questions about approach, the types of commentary, writers, and so on.
Because this project isn’t ambitious enough already, we are also creating a brand-new translation—the first translation that will truly be a Reform Movement translation and not licensed from another source. That part of the work is already well underway, led by our colleagues Rabbi Janet and Rabbi Shelly Marder, under the supervision of Daniel Fisher-Livne and Elsie Stern. We will be running the first of several pilots this coming fall—this first round will focus on the translation.
And lest you worry, we are not limiting the planning of this commentary to just a print book format. Right now the focus is on developing the content, which can be purposed in many different ways. I am extremely excited if not also a bit daunted about the work that lies ahead on this project. And I will keep you informed as it develops.
So, there is much change happening in many places within the CCAR. In an increasingly complex and uncertain world, we can no longer depend on the ideas, structures, and resources that we assumed were always going to be there, and were always going to meet our needs. Needs change, the topography changes, and we change. Just as each of us evolves and grows during the course of our careers, the CCAR as an organization must rethink those givens, and redetermine our purpose, our goals, and our tools. That is the change process we have been in these past three years—it is exciting, sometimes scary, and even at times daunting, but necessary for the good of the CCAR.
What is visible as the throughline in all this work that I’ve shared this morning are the essential values that undergird and guide all of it in the midst of great complexity. What is there for us to grab onto while the storms surge around us is the clarity of our mission, our values, and our commitment to staying focused on our purpose of serving rabbis, so that rabbis can serve the Jewish people. This clarity of purpose is our Ner Tamid, the light that continues to burn brightly even as change swirls around it.
And speaking of complexity, I can’t stand here today, in Tel Aviv, and not also address where we are and what we’re doing here at this complicated moment in the history of this Land, this place with which we each have our own personal relationship and unique story.
My Israel story goes back to 1973, fifty years ago, when I came home from Yom Kippur services. I was nine years old. I had gone to services with my mother while my father stayed home to watch football. And as we walked into the room where he sat, the game was interrupted by breaking news. What I still remember so clearly was my mother crying out: “They’re doing it to us again!”
That was the day that I learned that there was a Jewish country called Israel. I’m sure I had heard about it before, but I hadn’t paid much attention. My parents were not Zionists. They were busy taking part in the great story of making it in America, my father the son of Russian socialist immigrants, and my mother a daughter of long-time American Jews of German ancestry on one side and second generation European jumble on the other. They had never been to Israel. It just wasn’t in their consciousness, that is until it was on the news, being besieged.
I had no idea what my mother was talking about, but as she cried, she explained to me that Israel was under attack. And I was confused—confused that my mother was so upset about a war taking place across the world, and confused as to why, if there was a Jewish country, we didn’t live there.
That day changed the trajectory of my life, because I decided then and there that when I was old enough, I was going to live in Israel. And I began to read about it voraciously over the next years, biographies, novels, history. I was fascinated, in particular, with the idea of the kibbutz, and couldn’t wait until I was old enough to go live on one.
As soon as I could go to Israel, I did. At nineteen, I set off for a year on Kibbutz Tzora, taking part in the late NFTY college program, CAY, as I know some of you also did. That year had a huge impact on my life: because of that year, my children are half Israeli. I then returned to Israel for several years after college, living in Jerusalem and studying art in Tel Aviv.
It was while living in Israel that I really became an adult, and it was also where I decided not to become a rabbi, because while living in Israel, I realized that I could have a rich, dynamic Jewish life without needing to become a Jewish professional—a very healthy realization.
All of this is to say that Israel is deeply woven into my personal history. And in this land so deeply seeped in the past, there is something about being here that conjures up so much about who we have been as individuals, and as a people, and who we may still become.
As I stand here today celebrating my twenty-five years in the rabbinate, having reaffirmed that choice eventually after my initial decision to not go into the rabbinate, I no longer feel that sense of bright connection to Israel portrayed on the Bloomingdale’s poster in 1979. My relationship with Israel is much more nuanced today, certainly more than it was when I was nine or fifteen and had not yet ever been here, but also more complicated than when I was in my twenties and living here. I still have a love for Israel, a fondness and a connection, but there’s a different comfort level than I once had. I struggle with how to reconcile the Israel of my dreams and of our collective aspirations: the Israel of poetry and medical miracles; of art and innovation and green valleys full of anemones; the Israel of progressive values and generous hospitality, with all the ways in which Israel can be infuriating, opposed to our shared values, denying of pluralism, equality, and democracy. How do we express our outrage and disappointment, or as we heard during the demonstrations in Tel Aviv, the sense of bushah, shame? How do we stay engaged with this country that feels less and less welcoming, less and less connected to who we are or what we want to be, and yet still calls to us?
I know that our partners here in Israel share our highest aspirations and hopes. And I want to acknowledge them—our friends at IMPJ, IRAC and all the Reform rabbis here in MARAM. We should all be proud of their incredible work, and grateful for what they do every day: advancing pluralism, fighting against discrimination and oppression, standing up for civil rights of minorities, working toward peace and co-existence, and civil society, fighting for accountability, and doing the tachlis, often thankless work of building Reform Judaism in Israel. The work you are involved in here on the ground every day brings the light of our shared core values into the darkness, and provides hope. And we thank you for your help with putting this week together.
Being in Israel is a reminder of what is essential to us as Reform rabbis. As rabbis, we can’t just engage with Israel as the Disneyland of Judaism. Israel can’t just be the place to practice our Hebrew on cab drivers, to stock up on Judaica, and to enjoy rugelach from Marzipan. We can’t romanticize Israel as the place where we can experience “authentic” Jewish life. We also have to speak out for our most deeply held values just as we do at home. Just as we speak out for justice at home, we have to speak out for justice in Israel. Just as we believe in speaking up for the powerless at home, we must pursue that in our relationship to Israel as well. Just as we engage in the work of racial justice at home, we must hold that as a value here too. As people who love Judaism, the Jewish people, and Israel, we must do our part to keep the Ner Tamid of our highest values burning here too.
Moreover, we have to be willing to have difficult conversations with each other about Israel without falling back on accusation and polarization. We have to learn to live with disagreement and be open to different perspectives and narratives. We have to be able to move beyond terms like “pro-Israel” and “anti-Israel”—the reality is much more complex than those two binary positions. We have real enemies out there: witness on the one side our experience at the Kotel, or the “Day of Hate” in the United States. The energy we spend on demonizing each other about how we interact with Israel is a distraction, a waste of our resources. We have to get comfortable with having a large, open tent, here in the CCAR, in our home communities, and in our families. Gone are the days of Israel, The Dream. Israel, the Reality, is complicated, often antithetical to the very values we hold dear, and frankly, often unwelcoming to who we are.
But that doesn’t mean we have to reject those whose perspectives doesn’t align with ours, or give up on the Israel we believe is still possible. We have to keep learning, we have to keep listening, and we have to keep speaking out.
When we originally planned this Convention, of course we had no idea what a challenging moment this was going to be in Israel. But here we are. As rabbis, we understand nuance and complexity. We can hold the contradiction of today’s difficult truth, that we object to what the new government is proposing to do in regard to civil rights, human rights, pluralism, the judiciary, and so much more, and we can still believe in the potential of Israel, an ideal not yet reached but worth striving for.
My Israel story today is not what it was in 1973, or in 2003, and neither is my rabbinic story. All of our stories keep changing, as we keep changing and as realities keep changing. Earlier this week, Merav Michaeli reminded us of the famous quote from Gold Meir, that as Jews we can’t afford to be pessimists. Rather, our job as Jews is to be eternal optimists. What is unchanging in the midst of it all is hope, the light that flickers but does not go out at our core. As rabbis, our job is to speak out against the injustices of today, while keeping in sight the potential of a better tomorrow. No matter how hopeless things seem, no matter how grim the current reality, our job is to nurture the Ner Tamid within us, to keep that light of hope for a better future alive even in, or especially in, the darkest of times.
Tuesday, March 14, 2023, is Equal Pay Day, marking how far into the year women need to work to earn the same amount as men earned in 2022. Rabbi Liz P. G. Hirsch, recently named incoming executive director of Women of Reform Judaism, shares her contribution to Prophetic Voices: Renewing and Reimagining Haftarah: a contemporary haftarah reading—WRJ’s 2015 “Resolution on Pay Equity”—and accompanying commentary for Equal Pay Day. In addition to alternative readings for the traditional haftarot, Prophetic Voices includes new haftarot for each Shabbat, holiday, and many events on the American Jewish calendar.
From “The Women of Reform Judaism Resolution on Pay Equity,” 2015
Given the profound injustice of unequal pay, Women of Reform Judaism reaffirms its commitment to achieving pay equity and calls upon its sisterhoods to:
Urge the swift adoption of legislation that would provide women who face sex-based wage discrimination with a straightforward, accessible path for recourse, including but not limited to:
Barring retaliation against workers who disclose their wages, so that workers can more easily determine whether they face wage discrimination, and
Ensuring the right to maintain a class action lawsuit, providing women with the same remedies in court for pay discrimination as those subjected to discrimination based on race or national origin.
Work with synagogue leadership to enact just compensation policies for clergy and staff at all levels, or, where they already exist, to ensure that these policies properly guide the compensation, interviewing, hiring, firing, and promoting of clergy and staff.
Implement sisterhood or congregational programs to empower women with tools to address pay inequity they may face in their professional lives outside the synagogue.
Take a leadership role to advocate for pay equity in their Jewish community and in their broader local community by forging partnerships with Jewish, other faith, and secular organizations in those communities.
You Shall Not Defraud Your Fellow
Rabbi Liz P. G. Hirsch
Not unlike our Jewish holidays, EqualPay Day is not fixed to one calendar date of the year. It moves according to the specific calculations of the wage gap each year. Black EqualPay Day, Latina EqualPay Day, and Native EqualPay Day are consistently later in the year, emphasizing the wider wage gap due to greater pay discrimination faced by women of color in the United States.
As the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism notes, “EqualPay Day is not a holiday to celebrate, but rather a day we use to bring attention to the ongoing injustice of pay discrimination in the United States . . . mark[ing] how far into the new year women must work to receive in wages what their male counterparts earned in the previous calendar year.” The haftarah reading for EqualPay Day is an excerpt from the Women of Reform Judaism’s 2015 “Resolution on Pay Equity.”
Our values, principles, and resolutions are the roots of the Reform Movement. With our text, we affirm our sacred commitment to gender equality and economic justice.
There is much work to be done. According to an analysis by the National Partnership for Women and Families, as of March 2020, “women in the United States are paid 82 cents for every dollar paid to men.” The resolution first calls upon us to take a legislative strategy, supporting current bills and policies that work to reduce the gender wage gap. We can look to the work of our Religious Action Center for the most current legislation in need of our advocacy. Significantly, the resolution also requires us to hold up a mirror and examine the policies and practices of our own institutions to ensure we are modeling pay equity in every way. To that end, seventeen organizations have joined together to form the Reform Pay Equity Initiative, which is developing best practices for addressing the gender wage gap.
As we learn in the Holiness Code, the heart of our Torah, “You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning” (Leviticus 19:13). May we work toward a day when all people are paid equally and justly.
Every two years, the Central Conference of American Rabbis welcomes a new Board of Trustees to do the important work of representing and supporting the diversity of the Reform rabbinate and their ever-changing needs. This year, at the annual CCAR Convention—held in Israel at the end of February—the new Board was installed.
This new group of Board Members includes rabbis in different rabbinic roles, from spiritual leaders of large congregations to solo rabbis managing small but vibrant congregations, as well as a freelance rabbi, a rabbi-educator, and a rabbi working in an academic setting. This group also represents a wide swath of North American communities, including Canada.
Under the leadership of CCAR Chief Executive, Rabbi Hara Person, and new CCAR President, Rabbi Erica Asch, what this Board shares is a passion for leadership, collaboration, and a vision to help sustain the Reform rabbinate of today and build the rabbinate of tomorrow.
We welcome this new CCAR Board! May they be blessed as they begin this sacred work.
Let my people go that we may serve YouFor Rabbi Sally Priesand (HUC-JIR 1972) and Lisa Feld (HCRS 2023)
Remember girdles? Remember the anger
we weren’t supposed to show, or even feel?
Remember sitting and waiting to say Bar’chu
as someone counted, Not one, not two . . .
The being invisible, the tears blinked back,
fiercely. Remember the love, the innocence
assaulted, hearing for the first time, those words,
and those words, and those, such words
in a holy book, demeaning me, you, us?
All these years later, I feel the pain, rising,
constricting, afflicting. Remembering. Searching
for a reason to stay: love is stronger than death.
Tears became anger—that word—the ultimate
weapon. She’s an angry woman (so we can
ignore her, put her down, close our ears and hearts).
Blessed be the allies, calling for the first time
from the bimah—Taamod! The ones who broke
through the tight circles on Simchas Torah
and passed us a scroll to hold, to dance with.
The ones who said yes, yes, yes. And yes.
And we, the wrestlers—I won’t let you go
till you bless me. The lust, the longing, to learn,
to leyn, to lead, to bensch, to be counted, to be
called, to locate our wisdom, to inhabit our power
and our tenderness, to build holy communities,
fully and richly as ourselves, as Jewish women,
as rabbis—I won’t let you go till you bless me.
Now, and going forward, now, and for tomorrow,
My heart soars, it flies, it bursts. From Sally to Sandy,
to Sara, from Amy and Amy to Annie, to Ariel,
Deborah, Devorah, wave after wave after wave,
I see joyous throngs—there’s Rachel, and Hara, Jen,
Jamie, Jessica, Jan, and Kara. There’s Sharon, and Sharon,
and Sharon! Too many to name—we’re just getting started!
For so long, the world was unimaginable with you in it,
now, we cannot imagine a world without you.
We bless the work of your hands, we bless
the work of your hearts. We are blessed, to be here,
still, just at the beginning.
Commissioned by Women’s Rabbinic Network in honor of Rabbi Sally J. Priesand
Merle Feldis an acclaimed poet, playwright, educator, and activist. Her previous works include her memoir A Spiritual Life and the poetry collection Finding Words.
These Words: Poetic Midrash on the Language of Torah was driven by imposter syndrome. Who am I, after all, to write a book teaching about the deeper meanings of the language of Torah? I’m not a rabbi. I’m not a Torah scholar. I have no Jewish day school foundation. I’m not a linguist or etymologist. I’m a poet-liturgist-lyricist. I write poems, songs, and prayers. Why, oh why, did I suggest this?!
So, I threw myself into the task of learning about individual words of Torah, often spending eight, ten, twelve hours a day in books, online, and engaging in conversations about Torah, Hebrew, Talmud, midrash, and the Sages, old and new. At times, the learning took me well beyond any text I’d previously encountered. The deeper I dug, and the further afield it took me, the harder I felt I needed to work.
Days became weeks. Weeks became months. Hundreds of hours learning Torah became thousands. Some evenings I’d dream about the words. Some mornings I’d wake with a poetic midrash spilling out of me. At times the learning led me to a poem. At times a new poem led me to a word of Torah. I entered some sort of Torah trance, which was thrilling and frightening.
When it was done—a first draft suitable for submission, anyway—I set it aside for a week in order to read it with “fresh eyes” before sending it to CCAR Press. The poems were beyond anything I’d ever written. And the divrei Torah on each Hebrew word looked completely foreign to me. How did I write that? Clearly, the work of learning how to study Torah at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies paid off.
In retrospect, the fact that CCAR Chief Executive Rabbi Hara Person, CCAR Press Director Rafael Chaiken, and the chair of the CCAR Press Council, Rabbi Donald Goor, trusted me to write this book is beyond my comprehension. Perhaps, if one day my work warrants a retrospective, some journalist may say something like, “Although his previous work was regarded and beloved, These Words was when he truly discovered his poetic voice.”
When I look back on the fifty years since my ordination, I realize that I have been very fortunate indeed. My rabbinic positions, with one wonderful exception, have been most rewarding and all have been within the institutions of our Reform Movement, beginning with nine years at HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles campus, three years as assistant dean, and then six more as associate dean.
In 1982, I accepted Rabbi Alex Schindler’s invitation to become the regional director of the Pacific Southwest Council of the URJ (then still known as the UAHC), covering congregations from San Luis Obispo, California to El Paso, Texas. When Rabbi Schindler was succeeded by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, I moved to New York and became the senior vice president of the URJ, retiring (or so I thought) in 2008. It was Al Pacino who said in The Godfather series, “Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in” and, indeed, I was asked to serve as the interim director of rabbinic placement, a position I held from 2009 to 2011.
I may be the only CCAR member who has been on the payroll of all three Movement institutions organized by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise! In any case, I found each of those positions to be fulfilling, satisfying, and growthful—and each produced lifelong friendships with rabbinic colleagues. In each, I came to appreciate the importance of rabbinic-lay relationships, the component parts of rabbinic leadership, and that success in the rabbinate depends less on facility with challenging texts and more on essential menschlichkeit and good old-fashioned “people skills.”
At the outset of this essay, I referred to a “wonderful exception” to my institutional positions. Through a delightful bit of serendipity, in 1993 I was invited to lead High Holy Day services in a new, not-yet-fully organized group of Jews in Singapore. I went, thinking that it was a one-off opportunity for an unusual experience, never—never!—imagining that it would lead to a twenty-one-year tenure as the visiting rabbi in what would become the United Hebrew Congregation in that fascinating Southeast Asia city-state. Toward the end of those twenty-one years, I convinced the lay leaders that the community’s numeric and programmatic growth required the presence of a full-time, in-residence rabbi, and then had the joy of “installing” my successor. In retrospect, the experience of taking a congregation in its “infancy” through its “adolescence” into “adulthood” brought me a great sense of satisfaction and joy.
I should mention one other highlight of my years at the URJ, namely the opportunity to develop the newest of the Union’s sleepaway camps in Snohomish County, WA, not far from the city where I grew up (Bellingham, WA). Camp Kalsman, situated on 299 acres in a gorgeous setting, serves Reform Jewish families from Alaska to the Northern California border and from Western Washington through Idaho and Montana. I kvell when I have been able to visit—seeing youngsters benefit from a place where “Jewish identity formation” happens so beautifully! I also am amused to see the signpost naming the main road through the camp in my honor: Lenny Lane (with no apparent apology to The Beatles!).
All this being said, I do have some significant concerns regarding our Reform Movement and its congregations in the years ahead. It’s not clear to me these days that people care so much about what it means to be part of a “movement.” It’s also not clear about the potentially long-lasting effects of the Covid pandemic on our congregations. I worry about the growth of antisemitism and about distressing political developments in Israel. Worries to one side, I do enjoy retirement and I do look back on my fifty years in the rabbinate with great satisfaction and joy.
Rabbi Lennard R. Thal is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We celebrate him and all of the CCAR members who reached this milestone in 2023.
CCAR Press’s Editor, Rabbi Annie Villarreal-Belford, provides a glimpse into her new role and past experience, recommends some of her favorite CCAR Press books, and shares some of her other interests and hobbies.
Tell us about your job as CCAR Press Editor. What is your role at the Press? As the new Editor at CCAR Press, I am working as part of a team focused on producing books that both support Reform communities and reflect the ideas, theologies, congregations, and clergy of those communities. I have the opportunity to work with our incredible members and ensure Reform rabbis’ voices are uplifted, and I serve as a developmental editor of our books to help the clarity and impact of those voices.
What attracted you to CCAR Press? In so many ways, working at CCAR Press feels like a homecoming. I was a writing major in college and worked as a rabbinic intern for two years at the URJ Press under Rabbi Hara Person, now Chief Executive of the CCAR. In just the short time I have been at CCAR Press, I have been deeply impressed with the Press staff and their commitment to our mission and incredible knowledge base. To put even more icing on this very sweet cake, the staff of the CCAR has been gracious, welcoming, and encouraging.
You were previously the rabbi at Temple Sinai in West Houston. How does your experience as a congregational rabbi inform your editing approach? Servings as a congregational rabbi for the past eighteen years in both small and large congregations has given me a unique perspective and insight into the nitty-gritty details of how rabbis and congregants might use our books. I feel quite lucky to have not only my personal experience as a congregational rabbi, but also the many voices of colleagues and congregants, shaping my approach.
How do you like to spend your time outside of work? I love being surrounded by nature, whether that is taking care of my plant babies, exploring a national park, hiking in a state park, or camping under the stars. I read a lot, bake a lot, and love playing board games. Most of all, I love spending time with my family—my wife, Joy; our three amazing kids; and our three crazy dogs.
Rabbi Annie Villarreal-Belford joined the CCAR Press team in July of 2022. She is a longtime member of the CCAR Press Council and a contributor to Inscribed: Encounters with the Ten Commandments (CCAR Press, 2020). A graduate of the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), Rabbi Villarreal-Belford was ordained at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and holds a doctorate in Pastoral Logotherapy from the Graduate Theological Foundation.