Fifty years in the rabbinate! It is a humbling experience watching the years pass by. I am reminded of the story where the rabbi sets out to change the world, and finds that it is beyond his scope. Then he tries unsuccessfully to change his community, then his family, and ultimately realizes he must focus on himself. The challenge of bringing change is great. I find rewards in the small things: a note from a former congregant responding to a sermon on coping with illness, exchanging shots of vodka with a Soviet Jewish immigrant I helped bring to America, the appreciation expressed by a bat mitzvah child, and the friendships that I have developed with congregants over the years.
I see my life as a spiritual journey and challenge congregants to make a spiritual journey of their own. I have tried to be responsive to my congregants’ needs. I have listened to them at moments of sorrow, and brought words of comfort when they suffered pain. I have tried to uplift spirits with sermons, and on occasion, with a humorous remark. I held Jewish healing services for those in need of solace, and I took clinical pastoral education courses to improve my pastoral skills.
I have enjoyed working with children. My student pulpit was as a rabbi in a Jewish school/residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed children where I served as rabbi and counselor. I took pleasure in speaking to children at assemblies, celebrating Shabbat with nursery school students, and preparing b’nei mitzvah. Answering the pensive queries of Jewish youngsters gave me satisfaction. The most important thing we can do is teach our children to be menschen.
Raising the knowledge of our members is an important task. We should foster an adult appreciation of Judaism. American Jews often know too little about their faith. I have offered courses in the synagogue and with colleagues in the community to increase Jewish learning. In Bowie, Maryland, I ran a well-attended lecture series for more than ten years, and in Massapequa, New York, I sought creative ways to enhance adult education. In both communities I’ve overseen a healthy number of adult b’nei mitzvah students. I also led several congregational trips to Israel. Jewish learning can take place in a variety of environments: in building sukkot, in celebrating a Shabbat dinner together, in a Tikkun Leil Shavuot the night before your child’s confirmation.
I have a strong belief in K’lal Yisrael—Kol Yisrael aravim zeh bazeh, All Israel is responsible for one another. I have always sought to work with my colleagues, joining together to teach an Introduction to Judaism course, writing a community seder, or other creative efforts. A rabbi is a sh’liach l’goyim, a representative to the community. We cannot insulate ourselves from civic activities. I have been active in local clergy associations in communities I’ve served. I joyfully accompanied a group of African American clergy from Prince George’s County to Israel, was involved in creating a Black-Jewish s’darim, and tried to forge better relations with the African American community.
In the Washington area, I served as rabbinic advisor to our active Washington chapter of ARZA. For many years, I was a member of the ARZA National Board and attended the World Zionist Congress as a delegate in December 1997. I encouraged synagogue members to vote in the Congress elections and my congregation had one of the highest participation levels in Reform congregations. I joined an ARZA rabbinic mission that met with Prime Minister Netanyahu and Cabinet Minister Natan Sharansky over the issue of the Conversion Law. I feel passionately that Reform Judaism should make a home for itself in Israel. I have also visited Reform communities in Morocco, Eastern Europe, and Brazil where there are overwhelming challenges facing the Jewish communities. My years in the rabbinate nurtured my love for the Jewish people and strengthened my passion for the teachings of the Torah. Our heritage is an incredible gift that our ancestors handed down to us. Our challenge is to teach our children to cherish our faith as past generations have. This is the responsibility that I have assumed as a rabbi and as one who cares deeply for the Jewish people.
Rabbi Michael L. Kramer is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and more of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis in 2023.
When I thought about becoming a rabbi as an undergraduate at CAL Berkely in 1966, I could never have imagined the extraordinary experiences I would have. For fifty years, people have asked me to engage them, teach them, and sometimes lead and interpret a meaningful ritual in their life.
I have served three Reform congregations over thirty years in the Upper Midwest. where I learned what “windchill” meant.
From the outset, the reality of interfaith couples and families became a central focus of my rabbinate. “Intro to Judaism” education and congregational programming have always been a significant concern. Eventually regional and national rabbinic work about gerim/gerut provided me with an opportunity to be a leading advocate for Patrilineal Descent.
University teaching became important, especially Jewish-Christian dialogue, which led to an opportunity to do doctoral work at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago.
HIV/AIDS emerged at a time when those who were among its first patients and deaths were alone and often rejected. I served this tragically unique community, which led to opportunities to lead in how Reform Judaism faced these challenges both in Chicago and nationally. Eventually my work was recognized, and I was asked to serve on President Bill Clinton’s Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, 1996–2000.
I retired from my congregational rabbinate in 2001 because of challenges to my health, and I finished my doctoral work (DMin) at the University of Chicago in 2001.
A state university that settled a class-action lawsuit over antisemitism asked for my help. As part of the settlement, I created a program of campus and community engagement about Jewish culture. Eventually, I became tenured faculty, and retired as Emeritus Professor of Religious and Jewish Studies. Though I tried to bracket my rabbinate at a state university, my pastoral role was called upon by students, faculty, and administration alike. My academic career required teaching about and interpreting Jews, Jewish life and texts, and Judaism to a campus and community of less than fifty Jews.
I helped to bring a unique symphony and choral Holocaust memorial program, “To Be Certain of the Dawn,” to the state university and a nearby Catholic university. We later took more than 250 students and faculty to France and Germany and performed it at Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp with survivors in the audience.
During this period, there was an opportunity in India to continue my HIV/AIDS work with multi-faith organizations who worked among infected children whose parents had died of AIDS. I participated in creating an international NGO that funded and provided service for sixty AIDS orphans in rural India who were all living with HIV/AIDS. Engaging people who had never met a Jew, but invited me to share a meal while sitting on the floor of their hut, added to my life commitment of pluralism.
My ongoing academic participation in the Society for Ricoeur Studies, is another unique experience of my rabbinate. I am the former student of Paul Ricoeur, who insists that philosophers and religious thinkers can and should engage in dialogue with a Jewish thinker.
My participation in conferences, took me to Rio de Janeiro in 2011 when I was invited to speak to a Reform congregation, ARI. Now eleven years later, that unexpected Shabbat invitation, led to exceptional personal love and another chapter of my rabbinic life, serving the World Union of Progressive Judaism. I volunteer for Brazilian communities who have no rabbi, and whenever asked, I teach at ARI where it all started.
During retirement I have written and edited two books with a third in preparation. The current crisis in antisemitism has added a new emphasis to my work in Jewish-Christian dialogue. I will co-teach a course at a Protestant seminary that deals with the challenges of preaching and teaching in response to antisemitism.
In 2021, the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, honored me as their alum of the year, the first time a rabbi has ever been awarded this recognition.
These fifty years were more meaningful because of the unconditional presence of my children. Still today, it is the love and respect of my family that I cherish the most.
Rabbi Joseph A. Edelheit is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and more of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis in 2023.
June 2022 brings the Reform Movement and the CCAR the distinct honor of celebrating the 50-year anniversary of the ordination of Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first woman rabbi ordained by a seminary in North America. She paved the way for hundreds of women who followed in her footsteps as they were called to lead Jewish communities by becoming rabbis. June 2022 also marks the 100th anniversary of the groundbreaking CCAR vote allowing that women could and should be ordained as rabbis, though it would take 50 more years for Rabbi Priesand to solidify her place in history.
Here, we share a conversation between Rabbi Hara Person, the Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis—and the first woman to hold that position in the history of the CCAR—and Rabbi Priesand. This interview was conducted at the March 2022 CCAR Convention in San Diego, the 133rd gathering of Reform rabbis.
Rabbi Person: It’s a great honor and privilege to be able to ask you these questions. Can you tell us who or what gave you the hope that you could become a rabbi?
Rabbi Priesand: First of all, I want to say that I decided I wanted to be a rabbi when I was sixteen years old. Unfortunately, I don’t remember why. I think it had something to do with the fact that I always wanted to be a teacher, and over the years, I decided to be a teacher of Judaism. And fortunately for me, my parents said, if that’s what you want, then you should do it. And they gave me one of the greatest gifts I think a parent can give to a child. And that is the courage to dare and to dream, because they were so positive and supportive. I did not think very much about the fact that no woman had ever been ordained rabbi in America. And I wasn’t that concerned about all the doubts I heard expressed in the Jewish community. I just put everything aside. And I think it’s important also to say that I didn’t want to be the first woman rabbi. I just wanted to be a rabbi. I didn’t think of myself as a pioneer. I wasn’t there to champion women’s rights. I just wanted to be a rabbi. And, I’ve not ever really said this very much, but I want you to know then I am probably the only person who never appeared before the admissions committee. And lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what if I did appear and they said, no? What would have happened? I’m not sure why that was. I think it was because I was in the undergraduate program with the University of Cincinnati. I think they didn’t believe that I was going to do it. I think they thought I came to marry a rabbi rather than be one.
I remember going out with one of my fellow students for a long time. And a professor went up to him one day and said, “Well, when are you going to marry or do the school of favor and get rid of her?” So there were a lot of things like that. I remember, never did I go into a social situation in which at least one person didn’t come up to me and say, and tell me why women shouldn’t be rabbis. And I would simply say, thank you for sharing your opinion, and I’d walk away, because I just don’t think that through arguing, you’re not going to get anywhere with somebody who has his or her mind already made up and you just have to do it. So that was how I handled that situation.
And the other bit of hope was, of course, the fact that Rabbi Nelson Glueck, at that time president of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, wanted to ordain a woman. When I arrived on the scene, I guess he paid special attention. He followed my progress. He took care of a lot of little problems in the background that I never even heard about. And I remember that whenever the board of governors was in town, he made certain to call me out of class and say, give a prayer for the board of governors, no preparation or anything. Just give a prayer. And I do also remember leading services. I was the vice president of the student association, and my job was to make certain there were services every day for the whole year. I assigned everybody, but if someone didn’t show up, then I was responsible for doing the service. But it was a wonderful time in those days of experimenting. I actually remember doing a service that was totally on tape. I sat in the balcony, looked down, and the whole thing was on tape. We got to do lots of interesting things. At any rate, when the board of governors was there, Dr. Glueck made certain that I would do the service and the board of governors would see me and come to understand there was going to be a woman rabbi.
I know Rabbi Balin was talking to us, or somebody asked a question about the board of governors voting. I don’t remember any vote ever being taken. I do remember that this decision was a decision of the College–Institute under Dr. Glueck’s leadership. The CCAR, and the UAHC at that time, had nothing to do with it. And therefore our Movement did absolutely nothing to prepare people for the fact there were going to be women rabbis. And Dr. Glueck, I think had in his mind that there should be some preparation, because two years before I was ordained, he started sending me out to congregations around the country to speak.
I’m a very private person, and when you think back, I was twenty-three, and here I am going around the country. I remember specifically going to a Conservative congregation in Texas. A thousand people showed up. So I learned how to deal with questions and crowds and the media that followed me around a lot. I had press conferences at airports. And my goal always was to make it sound like no one ever asked me that question before.
Dr. Glueck unfortunately died the year before I was ordained. I was devastated because in those difficult moments—and people who are the first of something, there are difficult moments—I used to picture in my mind the day that he’s going to put his hands on my shoulders, and I’m going to be a rabbi in Israel. And so it was very difficult for me, but his wife told me that before he died, he said there were three things he wanted to live to do, and one of them was to ordain me. So he is the person who deserves the credit for laying the foundation for the ordination of women as rabbis.
You probably don’t know this because I only found it out a few years ago, but when Dr. Alfred Gottschalk became the president of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, there were faculty members who tried to convince him not to ordain me, even though I had just had one year left, and I had completed the requirements. And fortunately for me, and for all of us, Dr. Gottschalk didn’t listen. And he said on June 3rd, 1972, that he was ordaining me with pride, dignity, and pleasure. And I want to thank my classmates, even though they didn’t show up at this Convention. It’s been a few years since they haven’t been coming; they go to NAORRR, and I always end up having to represent the class of 1972! But I want to thank my classmates, because they were supportive. They always made me feel like I was part of the class. Even if some of them didn’t think women should be rabbis, I didn’t feel any discrimination, or bullying, or any of that. And on the day of ordination, when I was called to the bimah, my classmates very spontaneously stood up to honor this moment in Jewish history. And that is a memory that I always cherish.
Rabbi Person: Thank you so much. Can we talk about the maror? That’s the hard one. What was bitter in your early rabbinate? And in what way has the taste changed or lasted?
Rabbi Preisand: Well there were thirty-five men in my class in Cincinnati. I was the last person to get a job, but I think I got the best job of all. And that was because the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York opened up late and they all had jobs. One of my very favorite quotes is from Albert Einstein: “Coincidence is God’s way of being anonymous.” So I always thought it was appropriate that I would go to the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue because of its reputation for equality and social justice. And Rabbi Ed Klein, the senior rabbi, alav hashalom, he really taught me how to be a rabbi. And I owe a great deal to him. He was always very pleased to be introduced as the first equal opportunity employer in the American rabbinate. I stayed at the Free Synagogue for seven years, which is probably longer than I should have stayed as an assistant. But quite frankly, if I think about it now, I didn’t really want to go through the placement process. And I said, I’m happy here. I might as well stay here. And then, Rabbi Klein suffered a stroke at a board meeting. I left with him to the hospital, and it was difficult. He had a lot of rehab, and he was never really the same again, but he still participated. I remember very specifically helping put his robe on him, and putting him in the wheelchair, wheeling him up to the bimah, getting everything ready, and he would do whatever he was able to do that particular day. In the meantime, basically, I was running the synagogue. I was hoping that when he was ready to retire, that I would be given a chance to be the senior rabbi. And that was not to be, and it was very messy and unpleasant and people went to him while he was in the hospital and said, “Sally is walking on your grave.”
And, you know, I loved him. It had nothing to do with any of that. I would have stayed another ten years as his associate if that’s what it took. But neither the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, nor any other synagogue, would accept a woman as the senior rabbi at that time. And I’m telling you the story, because for two years, I was not able to find a job, and I served as a chaplain at Lenox Hill Hospital, and I accepted a part-time position at a synagogue in Elizabeth, New Jersey—a synagogue of older members who were always very warm and welcoming. At that time, that was the only time that I almost decided to leave the rabbinate. I was very frustrated, and I was very unhappy. I didn’t feel that our Movement did anything at all to prepare people for women as their spiritual leaders. And it was very difficult for me. And I remember going to the placement commission to meet with them. I walked into the room, there were sixteen men around the table, and I said, “I hope, you know, you’re part of the problem.”
I’ve never been afraid to be straightforward. And I went to see Rabbi Malcolm Stern, who was the placement director. At that time, I wrote a scathing article for Reform Judaism Magazine. He wrote, “You make some important points, but if you publish this article, your career is over. He said, “But I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to rewrite the article for you, and it’ll come from me.” And he sat down right at that minute at his typewriter. That’s how long ago it was. And he changed the article around, and it was published under his name. So, I feel it’s very important to, in my case, being the first, to remember the men who helped along the way, because they were there. And I have always felt that it’s important for senior rabbis, for example, to help their female assistants or associates move on. And if you’re lucky enough to have the kind of senior rabbi that I had, you’ll learn a lot, and you’ll be ready to take the next step. So that’s the only real bit of bitterness that I feel. Obviously, I’m grateful that I didn’t drop out of the rabbinate.
Rabbi Person: So are all of us. So let’s talk about matzah, really afikomen, which is about surprise or discovery. What surprises were there in your early rabbinate?
Rabbi Priesand: After those two years, when I couldn’t find a position, I ended up in Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, New Jersey. I almost didn’t even go for the interview for a really stupid reason—the name. I said, “Tinton Falls? Where’s that?” So, I went there, I had a wonderful interview, I answered their questions, and I also told them that I wanted to be a partner with them.
Back when I was growing up, rabbis would say, “This is what we’re going to do.” And everyone would say, “Thank you, rabbi. Yes, that’s what we’re going to do.” And that was it. And I just wanted to be a partner and go to the committees and discuss with them what we’re going to do and move forward together. And they were willing to accept that. But one of the things that they thought—and I guess I also thought—was that this was just going to be sort of a stepping stone. And when I was in rabbinic school, all they talked about in terms of success is you have to go to some large congregation somewhere that, you know, you got to move up to that “E congregation.” And I thought because I was the first that it was my obligation. People at Monmouth Reform Temple taught me a different message about success. And I think that was kind of a surprise for me. And that message to me was, “success is we doing better today than we did yesterday?” That’s it. And it’s, “are we growing? Are we doing our best? Are we learning from our mistakes? Are we counting our blessings in such a way that we make our blessings count?”
Monmouth Reform Temple helped me understand that. We created a temple family, and one of the things they miss about me now is they, they used to love hearing me say “I have an idea,” and they would work on it with me and follow through. And that is one of the reasons I stayed, because they allowed me to be creative and to experiment and to have ideas. And I am very fortunate to have had a wonderful rabbinate. I entered HUC-JIR because I wanted to be a congregational rabbi. Monmouth Reform Temple helped fulfill that dream to the fullest extent. They kept me grounded, and they never thought of me as the first woman rabbi. I was just their rabbi. But on the other hand, there were moments when they realized I had other responsibilities. And I will tell you that I am here because even though I’ve been ordained, I mean, I’ve been retired for fifteen years, my retirement contract says that the temple will continue to pay for me to come to all these conventions because they understand that it is important for me to do that.
Rabbi Person: What a blessing.
Rabbi Priesand: It’s a very much a blessing.
Rabbi Person: Yes. And a good model for all of us.Standing at the sea, the Midrash teaches that women took timbrels when they left. What artifacts, texts, or pictures representing your early years have you brought with you or would you like to talk about, and what aspect of your journey does it represent?
Rabbi Priesand: I didn’t bring them with me because almost all of my memorabilia is now in Cincinnati at the American Jewish Archives, where they’re creating a major exhibit, which will be opening in May during Jewish heritage month and continuing, I believe throughout the rest of the year. Now, if you can get there, if you can take your congregation there, you should. Because it has everything. I mean, it has all these articles from the beginning: “Mini-skirted Rabbi,” and my mother always loved “My Daughter, the Rabbi,” and my favorite was “Rabbi Sally Came to Hollywood, and Hollywood Fell at Her Feet.” So, all of these things that have been packed away for a very long time and whatever I didn’t take there, is in Monmouth County right now, where I live. The Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County has an exhibit of other memorabilia that I saved for them. The exhibit is on just the things that I did in Monmouth County, because one of my goals when I first came was to allow Monmouth Reform Temple to be a Jewish presence in the community. That was very important to me. And so I am involved still in a lot of community organizations. I tell people, look, I retired from the synagogue, but not from the community.
Rabbi Person: I wonder if you can just speak for just a minute about the trading card.
Rabbi Priesand: Yes. Those of us who were at the WRN celebrations got to see the trading card. I would have brought it, but it is in Cincinnati. It’s called Super Sisters cards. In 1979, two women who were teaching came up with an idea after I think one of their daughters said to them, “Why aren’t there things like trading cards, baseball cards for girls? Why don’t any of these cards have any women on them?” So these two women got a grant and came up with a stack of trading cards. On the front is a picture of the person. And on the back are what I always refer to as their stats. And they have a quote from the person. Sometimes you can still find it on eBay, which by the way, over the years, I’ve signed a lot of cards. People used to request them either in person, or they’d send me a photograph or ask would I send them a photograph that I autograph. Well, you know, I was very gracious about it. I tried to do all of that. And recently, I think I was looking for a Super Sisters card on eBay, and there’s my autograph on an envelope for $149.00. I was going to say it, just come to me. I’ll give you one for free!
Also, in terms of artifacts that are just two others that I want to mention quickly. After Rabbi Glueck died, his wife sent me a beautiful letter explaining how important my ordination would be. And I have always had that framed with a picture of Dr. Glueck ordaining someone above my desk. That’s also in Cincinnati.
And the other thing I remembered the other day; I don’t know how it was when you were ordained. I guess people sometimes call this the “cherish it” ceremony. To me it was meaningful. And I remember that we each held the Torah and said something. And, my quote that really has come with me throughout my life is “say little and do much.”
I have a letter opener that my family’s best friends—I grew up with their children, they lived next door, a Lebanese Catholic family. They had eight children, and we stayed friends all our lives. The mother of that family came to my mother’s 100th birthday. They’re the ones who gave me that letter opener with “say little and do much.” So that has been something that I have tried to do throughout my life. And it’s been very important to me.
Rabbi Person: It’s a beautiful thing. Thank you so much for sharing that with us. Now, I think you have some—I’m not going to call them artifacts, because they’re current— but some contemporary pieces you’d like to share.
Rabbi Priesand: Yes. I’m very happy to tell you that I heard from our colleague Sandy Sasso today, and the Women’s Rabbinic Network invited her to write a book about me. It’s a children’s book. You may be aware of her series about Regina Jonas called Regina Persisted. There’s Judy Led the Way, and mine is calledSally Opened Doors. The book is ready on Amazon. It’s all illustrations. It’s fun. And at the end I convinced them to put a picture of me with my dog Zeke sitting on the corner of the bimah. It’s going to be a great gift for kids. It really is. I hope you enjoy it. And the second thing, and I think Sandy may be listening in: Sandy, I love it. I consider you to be among my family, and I always feel your love and respect, and it means a lot to me. I cherish it. Thank you so much.
Rabbi Person: Thank you, Sally. Really. Thank you. I have something I want to share. First of all, I want to thank—you can see on the screens, these five women’s organizations that have sponsored this and the reception to come. And I’m so grateful to all of these organizations for their ongoing support and for all the incredibly important work that they do for all of us out in the community. I want to really say a special thank you to the sponsors. In addition, we have begun a project which is not done, but it will be done in 2022. And that is, we are publishing a book called The First 50 Years: A Jubilee in Prose and Poetry Honoring Women Rabbis. We’re really looking to make this a festive, celebratory way to mark what is an incredible moment in history.
And to that end, we have many, many, many people who have become sponsors not only of this program, but also of the book and whose names will appear in the book. And we are so grateful to everyone who is part of that in your honor and in honor of all of our Vatikot.
Thank you. And thank you to all of those women, our Vatikot, for everything you’ve done for the community and for all of us. Thank you.
Congregants, students, family, friends, and the readers of my oral history will be the final judges of my five-decade-long career. I look back, and I am mindful of a remark that Mark Twain once made, facing a large intimidating audience: “Homer’s dead, Shakespeare’s dead, and I myself am not feeling at all well.” Nevertheless, I have a responsibility to share some of my recollections to explain why my years of service to so many have been so rewarding.
Celebrants, mourners, students, some of whom have lost their way, and others who commemorated life’s outstanding moments have trusted me and allowed me to enter their private lives, a trust that was never betrayed. When I made a difference, people were quick to let me know and show their appreciation.
I was blessed to serve three very different communities: For five years, Temple Isaiah of Forest Hills, New York, an urban congregation with a diverse population of members, is where my rabbinical journey began. Before I arrived, the congregation had suffered a gradual decline due to problematic rabbinic leadership that resulted in a breakaway congregation. I was a young pup, and members embraced me, treated me like I was their son and grandson, and enabled me to revive and transform the congregation into a robust institution. At this juncture I began my studies for a PhD in Counselor Psychology at St. John’s University, recognizing that seminary training in counseling was woefully inadequate. I also began to teach in the Hebrew Union College’s teacher training program and in its “Add Life to Years” study program for retirees.
For sixteen years, I served Temple Sinai of Stamford Connecticut, a declining medium-sized suburban congregation in a city with large numbers of corporate headquarters and a sizable Jewish population. Many upper- and mid-level employees of these companies were in the leadership of the congregation. Within a year of my arrival, I completed my doctoral work and was invited to serve as an adjunct professor of human relations at the New York campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
I interviewed for Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco, the oldest Jewish congregation west of the Mississippi River, on Election Day, November, 1992, when President Clinton was the Democratic candidate for US President. The search committee asked me how I thought a rabbi, whose experience as a pulpit rabbi came from serving small- to medium-sized congregations, could make the adjustment to serving one of the largest congregations in the US. I responded, “It depends on whether you think a governor from a small state can be President of the United States,” and they never asked me that question again. I was elected the thirteenth rabbi of the congregation in almost 150 years. In preparation for the Congregation’s 150th year, seven years after my arrival, historian Fred Rosenbaum wrote Visions of Reform, dividing the book into chapters based on the service of each of its senior rabbis. The chapter devoted to my early service to the Congregation was entitled: “The Temple of the Open Door,” in recognition of the membership and management initiatives that I introduced that transformed the temple from a top-down clergy and senior-staff led congregation into a collaborative organization that resulted in huge membership growth from 1,400 households at the time of my arrival to 2,700 households by the time of my retirement. This was made possible by lay leaders who gave me carte blanch to initiate new programs including voluntary dues that enabled potential members to try out the congregation at little or no cost. Whenever I wanted something, the lay leaders who devoted themselves to governance and not management said, “Do what you want, Rabbi, It’s your congregation.” I had wonderful relationships with all of the presidents and lay leaders. In addition, I was able to carve out time to publish several books and numerous articles, poems, op-ed pieces, and reviews.
I take pride in the many programs that the lay leaders previously never permitted but now embraced, such as a Kol Nidrei Appeal to collect food for the needy and homeless—a total of 90,000 pounds by the time of my retirement. As senior rabbi emeritus and the Taube Emanu-El scholar, I continue to teach, participate in life cycle events programs such as “Chuppah and Beyond,” a series of six two-hour workshops for newly engaged and newly married couples. I serve at the behest of my wonderful successors Rabbis Beth and Jonathan Singer. In retirement, I continue to serve on nonprofit boards.
I have been blessed with a wonderful wife and children who always supported my career, even when my responsibilities interfered with family activities and celebrations, although my children would rather not have been in the public eye as much as they were because of my visibility. My wife is an Assyriologist and permanent lecturer at CAL Berkeley. I’ve often utilized Agatha Christie’s line about her archaeologist husband, Sir Max Mallowan, to describe the advantage of being married to a spouse who studies antiquities. Christie said that the best thing about being married to an archaeologist is that the older you get, the more interesting you become. My oral history housed in the University of California Oral History Collection is entitled Gratefully Yours, recognizing the gratitude that sums up my years of service.
Rabbi Stephen Pearce is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and more of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2022 in San Diego, March 27-30, 2022.
The African proverb: it takes a village to raise a child pretty much describes my 50-year rabbinic career because of all the people who helped me get here.
My classmates were the first to rescue me when I arrived at HUC-JIR. Though New York City was only a few thousand miles from Austin, Texas, I felt like I had been dropped into an alien world. But my new classmates, all from the northeast, helped me find housing and jobs, welcomed me into their parent’s homes, showed me where to find Hebrew textbooks on the Lower East Side, and then spent five years explaining the meaning of course work that was totally foreign to my classical Reform, southern mindset.
Meanwhile Dr. Cohen and Dr. Borowitz z”l helped my HUC-JIR transition in significant ways. By teaching about power politics, Dr. Cohen helped me differentiate between the political and the spiritual in Jewish texts. This distinction made the “sacred pronouncements” in the texts more believable because I could finally understand theological narratives in their historical context. I think my students over the years appreciated this insight as much as I did.
The “God question” was also an early stumbling block to my rabbinic career, but here Dr. Borowitz z”l came to my aid. His existentialist explanation of knowing God in moments when we let God in, as opposed to having to prove God as a concept, immediately resonated with me. I liked the Buberian notion that personally experiencing God’s presence, despite the existential risk involved, was “proof” enough that God is real. This paradigm has been one of the most valuable accessories in my rabbinic tool kit.
Fortune further unexpectedly shined on me when I reached out to Rabbi Harry Danziger while navigating my assistantship at Temple Israel in Memphis. Harry had preceded me there, and, in addition to having been loved by all, was known for his extraordinary wisdom. Harry quickly became my friend and career-long mentor. He gave me sage advice and at a critical time in my rabbinate. He said two things: First, a rabbi’s greatest gift to people comes from just being there for them. The words and prayers are important, but a rabbi’s spiritual presence says more than words ever can. Second, if you first give your congregants time to feel comfortable with you, the rest of your time with them will take care of itself. This advice has served me well whenever I have moved or launched a new initiative. Harry was teaching Relational Judaism long before it became popular.
At Beth Israel Congregation in Jackson, Mississippi, congregants helped me refine my curriculum-building skills. They met with me once a month to develop lessons for a seventh through ninth grade, three-year, rotating religious school program. I introduced raw ideas and they massaged them into effective lesson plans until we felt they would work. And they did. I won the NATE Samuel Kaminker Memorial Curriculum Award for Outstanding Informal Education as a result, but my congregants deserve much of the credit for the cooperative effort. Best of all, I learned the value of partnering with lay leadership, which was particularly important in Jackson for another reason. I went there near the end of the Civil Rights struggle when the Jewish community still faced attacks from the Klan. I quickly learned that I had to coordinate my pronouncements with the best interests of the congregation lest I put my congregants at risk. This collaborative mindset then carried over into my rabbinate as a whole and has reaped benefits I never could have anticipated.
My introduction to Congregation Schaarai Zedek in Tampa came by way of a behind the scenes recommendation from another classmate. It has been the gift that keeps giving. My congregants here opened their hearts to Donna and our family from day one. They gave us a forever home, where we could feel appreciated, supported, and loved.
To put it bluntly, I had no idea how to lead a large congregation. My leadership saw this and decided to patiently teach me, skill by skill, with each new president and executive committee adding a new one.
And then my lay leaders did something even more important. By providing a safe environment in which failure was an acceptable option, I learned to do the same for my expanding team and for all my congregants. My leaders though never spoke of failure. They referred instead to “accepting people and outcomes.” I adopted this phrase and attitude and am convinced that using it widely became the “secret sauce” propelling our growth.
It took me a full 50 years to grow into my rabbinate and I am incredibly grateful for the “village” that made my evolution possible.
Rabbi Richard J. Birnholz serves as Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Schaarai Zedek in Tampa, Florida. He is celebrating 50 years in the Reform Rabbinate.
We look forward to celebrating 50- and 51-year rabbis when we come together online at CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, 2021. CCAR Convention 2021 will strengthen us spiritually, emotionally, and professionally, bringing us together at a time when we need it more than ever. CCAR rabbis can register here.
Each year at CCAR Convention, we honor members of our organization who were ordained 50 years ago or more. In advance of CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, we share a blog from RabbiJay Heyman.
In the fall of 1974, the Chief of Police called and asked me to stop by his office. “Rabbi,” he said, “I don’t want to upset you, but we have an undercover agent in the Klan, and he has told me of a plot to kill you or someone in your family.” So, for the next several weeks, while white fundamentalist Christians, right-wing extremists, and assorted white supremacist groups burned books, blew up bridges, painted Nazi and Klan insignia on public buildings, and generally created mayhem in Charleston and Kanawha County, West Virginia, my family and I were guarded around the clock by at least two and sometimes more uniformed police.
That spring, the Board of Education had selected new textbooks, which included multiethnic and multicultural literature. Local evangelicals saw the new titles as anti-Christian, anti-God, anti-Bible, inconsistent with American values, pro-integration, and filled with doctrines to encourage their children to merge their racial identity with Blacks. Within a matter of weeks, the John Birch Society, the Christian Crusade, the KKK, and American Nazis had climbed out of the sewers to lend moral support. Nor was it long before the entire community found itself embroiled in conspiracy theories involving the satanic banking system and the cabal of the “international Jew.”
Such was the first uprising of white, fundamentalist Christians threatened by 1960s social changes: the civil rights struggle, banning school prayer, the anti-war movement, women’s liberation, sex education. ’Twas an unholy alliance of religious fanaticism and political grievance; not just fringe extremists.
That era remains an enduring memory with me and, since the events in D.C. this past January 6, it is now one that plays even more than a leitmotif in the back of my mind.
Since those opening shots of the culture wars between the urban cultural elites and the rural red state rubes, we have experienced unparalleled affluence and poverty, national insecurity and popular dissatisfaction, growth and consolidation of power, the concentration of wealth and the spread of poverty. But mostly we have been lured into a trance of false promises by an economic system, best characterized as neoliberalism, that has weaponized the struggling, poorly educated, gullible masses of this country, enrolled them to serve an ever more fanatical Republican party, and has now unleashed a demon that threatens the very future of the nation.
We who have benefited from the status quo for such a long time seem to have forgotten what happens when the populace becomes fed up with not being seen, being denied equal opportunity and a fair share of economic benefit. It is so easy to forget what has always happened historically when the peasantry becomes impoverished and starving. That’s when the pitchforks come out. And Jewish history reminds how easily that pent up anguish and frustration can be ill-channeled through propaganda by those in with money and power.
Even before our current health and economic crisis—when our politicians were reassuring us of the basic prosperity and health of the economy—soup kitchens were filled to the brim, homeless shelters unable to accommodate all those needing shelter, emergency rooms overflowing with the uninsured. Millions of Americans have worked two jobs for decades for minimum wage and still do not earn enough to provide for their family’s basic needs.
The Reform Movement in which I was raised in the 1950s and 1960s prided itself on the notion that “ethical monotheism” meant living an obligation to build a better world. The imperative of tikkun olam should have reminded us not to forget seeking justice, speaking truth to power, confronting evil, bigotry, and greed in the great tradition of our biblical prophets. We have had strong social justice narratives, but all too often we have been largely silent about the political changes and widening economic chasms. Our values of compassion, justice, and concern for the poor are inconsistent with any politics dedicated to helping the wealthy become even wealthier at the expense of the poor and the middle class. Support for politicians who want to cut services while keeping tax cuts for the wealthiest is not consistent with Jewish teachings about caring for the most vulnerable of society. Indifference to the suffering of others is ungodly according to rabbinic tradition. The work of repairing the world is holy work. The work of economic and social justice is spiritual work. And that is what we are called to do.
Rabbi Jay Heyman is celebrating 50 years in the Reform Rabbinate.
We look forward to celebrating 50- and 51-year rabbis when we come together online at CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, 2021. CCAR Convention 2021 will strengthen us spiritually, emotionally, and professionally, bringing us together at a time when we need it more than ever. CCAR rabbis can register here.
Probably the greatest change in my life was the day Dr. Alvin Reines defined religion in Philosophy class as: “Man’s response to his finitude, his infinite striving and his finite factuality.” His elongated explanation changed my life due to the fact that for years I had struggled with my father’s suicide when I was 10 years old. Suddenly I had a cause and a mission to my life. I could bring comfort to the bereaved and a repurpose to those dealing with the death of a loved one. My life’s path suddenly took me on an adventure of trying to assist youth and adults preparing for the inevitability of the death and to reconcile this loss through mourning customs. A piece of this exploit took me into the world of teenage suicide and its devastating and profound impact on everyone; parents, fellow students and the community. My quest became as to what contribution I could make to prevent the next suicide? Utilizing members of my congregation, together we produced a video and called it Inside I Ache. This described not only the warning signs of suicide but that friends knowingly must break a confidence and tell someone in authority when they recognize such signs. This video began my adventure into the world of thanatology and my writing about death and dying issues, i.e. my book on Clergy Retirement: Every Ending a New Beginning, or The Suicide Funeral.
My rabbinate was also dedicated to offering a wide range of spiritual experiences through services filled with music and a sense of holiness and awe. We were once dubbed ‘the hugging congregation’ and awarded 4 stars by a newspaper reporter who made it his mission to go around and rate congregations in Cleveland. I also have a deep love of teaching adults and young people and have felt a sense of satisfaction by inspiring 9 of my students to become rabbis. I was highly involved in social action projects and perhaps felt most rewarded with the yearly observance of both Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday and the yahrsite of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Our Temple and Antioch Baptist Church, a large, prominent church in Cleveland yearly held a MLK service and other discussions. As a result of this interaction, their pastor, the Rev. Marvin McMickle and I became the best of friends. I was invited to speak at each of his milestone celebrations at his congregation, and he at mine, and was prominently involved when he ran for the U.S. Senate. During my thirty-five years with Temple Emanu El, I led them to work cooperatively with other congregations and personally developed a community adult education program and a joint high school. I have a deep commitment to Israel and am on the local Jewish National Fund Board of Directors, as well as having served for many years on the National Rabbinic Board for Israel Bonds and am a member of AIPAC. I have lived in Israel twice for a year a piece and have traveled there about 30+ times. Prior to my retirement from Temple Emanu El, I positioned the congregation to make the transition to a new building in a suburb closer to where many young Jewish couples were living. On a lighter note I have twice been dubbed Cleveland’s “Funniest Rabbi” at the bi-annual fundraising event at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage.
I have continued my involvement in Judaism through serving as a monthly rabbi in Sharon, PA for 10 years, as an interim rabbi in Lexington, KY, and as a High Holy Day replacements in Rochester, NY, Virginia Beach, VA and Birmingham, AL, as well as being a rabbi on cruise ships that have taken us to Antarctica, India, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates. We have traveled to Africa, Australia, Alaska and Vietnam.
Elaine and my children number 5 with one daughter living here in Cleveland, three sons in Denver and one son on Long Island. We have 9 grandchildren spread around the country and no great grandchildren as of this writing in 2019.
It has been a wonderful and meaningful life being a rabbi and if I could choose it over again I would do it in a heartbeat.
Rabbi Daniel A. Roberts is celebrating 50 years in the rabbinate at the upcoming 2019 CCAR Convention.
I was ordained a rabbi on the Shabbat before the Six-Day War erupted in Israel in 1967. Little did I realize then how powerfully that event would transform American Reform Jews for generations. Since that time, we have reclaimed once-discarded traditional rituals and have embraced Zionism enthusiastically.
After ordination, I became an Army chaplain for two years, first at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia. In that capacity, I officiated at all Jewish burials at Arlington National Cemetery, many of which involved Vietnam casualties- a painful, frustrating assignment. I was told the name of the deceased and the grave site, but nothing more. Yet I was expected to eulogize the deceased when I arrived at the grave site. After that experience, I committed myself to learning as much as I can about the deceased prior to the service to give him/her an appropriate final tribute.
While at HUC-JIR, I envisioned becoming a congregational rabbi, with an emphasis on scholarship, preaching, and teaching and without much attention to social action. Vietnam changed all that.
At Ft. Belvoir, as a military officer, I became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War and was punished for my actions by being reassigned to Korea.
Discharged in June, 1969, I interviewed for seven pulpits, three of which were assistant-ships. During that process, I discovered that I am not temperamentally suited to be an assistant rabbi and needed a solo congregation. My first pulpit was Temple B’nai Israel, in Galveston.
I continued my anti-war protests, in Galveston and received considerable affirmation from many members of my congregation. While engaged in social justice causes, I still maintained a commitment to scholarship. In 1975, I received my DHL degree, having written a dissertation on the noted medieval biblical commentator, Obadiah Sforno.
In 1976, I became Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, where I served for 26 years. I succeeded Rabbi David Jacobson, who had served the congregation for 38 years. He and his wife, Helen, were revered community leaders who supported and encouraged me during my tenure. I have tried to do the same with my successors.
From 1984 to 1990, I was editor of the Journal of Reform Judaism (now the CCAR Journal), and am grateful I could disseminate the wisdom and insights of my colleagues through this medium.
I often felt the sting of subtle anti-Semitism during my formative years. Therefore, I pledged to devote my life to combating bigotry and prejudice and to advancing interfaith understanding wherever I served. Fortunately, both Galveston and San Antonio are renowned for their healthy inter-religious climate.
I have also tried to avoid the turf battles which plague many Jewish communities and to cultivate mutually respectful relationships with rabbinical colleagues and members of all other local synagogues.
Since my retirement in 2002, Lynn and I have spent our summers at Chautauqua Institution. At this “adult brain and soul camp,” as Lynn calls it, in western New York State, I am a member of the staff of the Department of Religion. I was once named Theologian-in-Residence and have lectured there frequently. Chautauqua is the ideal setting for my interfaith work. Though its foundation is Christian, about 30% of its current participants are Jewish.
Serving as a rabbi for half a century has been a privilege and an honor. In no other calling does one gained instant entry into people’s lives, during their times of trials and triumphs.
Having been raised in western Pennsylvania, I still can’t believe that I have spent my entire civilian rabbinate in Texas. The Jewish people here are warm, gracious, and caring, but many are culturally more Texan than Jewish and tend to be more politically conservative than elsewhere.
I close with the insightful observation, “Dor dor v’dorshav– Each generation requires its own interpreters.” My rabbinate has been exceedingly rewarding and fulfilling. Yet, I realize that the Reform Jewish world has changed so significantly since my ordination 50 years ago that I doubt if I could be an effective pulpit rabbi today. Fortunately, HUC-JIR is producing a new generation of rabbis who are more attuned to the needs and aspirations of contemporary Reform Jewry.
Rabbi Samuel M. Stahl is celebrating fifty years as a CCAR Rabbi.
It has been my destiny to always serve congregations in cities and towns that start with the letter “B”: Budapest, Hungary; Brooklyn, New York; Belmont, Massachusetts; and Berkeley, California.
In Budapest, under Communism I learned perseverance, and that it is our duty to always pursue justice even if there are personal risks. I came to realize that learning is a gift no one can take away from you and that we must always follow our dreams. And I learned by its absence, the great importance of freedom.
In Brooklyn I learned that even in a free society not all are treated equally and that it is incumbent upon us to stand up for the oppressed. It was in Brooklyn that I began the journey of becoming an American Rabbi while still remaining true to myself and to my European heritage. I also learned that freedom of religion brings its own challenges; when asked: “What is your religion?” one can choose “none” as the answer.
While I was not free in Budapest, I was still able to enjoy freedom of spirit. Neither the Nazis nor the Communists could take away my spirit, my love of learning and teaching, my faith in God and in the future of the Jewish people. In Brooklyn, I was able to teach, guide and inspire both young and old as we faced together the challenges of assimilation in America that still threaten the continuation of our religion.
In Belmont I found my own Rabbi, Earl Grollman, the Rabbi Emeritus of the congregation. He became my close friend and confidant. Earl lovingly taught me about crisis management, death and dying, and bereavement counseling. How often, as I comforted my congregants and friends, Earl’s words have echoed in my mind: “Never say to a person who comes to you to share his or her burdens: ‘I know how you feel’, because you don’t.”
In Berkeley I was given the greatest gift: complete rabbinical freedom that allowed me to be myself. The congregation supported me in my decision to complete my PhD dissertation and gave me the time to do it. Nowhere else have I witnessed such hard working lay leaders and staff. Nowhere else have I seen such deep commitment to social action. Nowhere else have I seen such dedication to study, to community, to our people and to our faith.
We rabbis are teachers whose ultimate task is to teach by example. These are the questions that each of us should ask ourselves: Do I only say the words or do I live by them? Is my life truly guided by Torah?
In the Book of Isaiah, we read God’s words: Anokhi, anokhi hu m’nachemchem…. I, I am the one who comforts you. What can we learn from the repetition? Scholars have interpreted it to indicate that we each possess a public “I” and a private “I.” If we are sincere, these two personas are in unison. It is our task to be able to bring our “two selves” into alignment with one another and with God’s hopes for us. We must ask ourselves if what we say, in other words our public image, is in concert with what we do, our private self? How often I talk about loving God, Torah and Israel and of living a life of mitzvot. Anokhi, anokhi… Is my life imbued with reverence for the Blessed Holy One? Do I perform the mitzvot or do I merely tell others to do so? Are Rabbi Ferenc and the man Ferenc Raj one and the same? In all my 4 “Bs” I have striven to be a role model and as I look forward, I hope God will give me the strength, wisdom and determination to continue on this path.
I am grateful to God who gave me the opportunity to teach in two continents and bring the Torah to our people. I am grateful to God for my wonderful family, for my teachers, colleagues and students from whom I learned so many invaluable lessons. I am grateful to God for all life’s experiences – both the bitter and the sweet – that have allowed me to “go from strength to strength.”
Rabbi Ferenc Raj, PhD is celebrating 50 years in the rabbinate.
Because my classmates and are celebrating our 50th year in the rabbinate, it’s not at all surprising that I find myself in a reflective mood.
After all, a half of a century seems to be a very long time in most of our lives; and, thinking about so much which has happened to us – individually and collectively – since Dr. Nelson Glueck declared that we were ready to serve as rabbis during our unforgettable Ordination Service at Cincinnati’s Plum Street Temple in 1967, it is only natural that most of us are experiencing a torrent of memories washing over us right now.
Ever since Dale Panoff advised all of us that the CCAR plans to honor us during its annual gathering this coming March in Atlanta, over and over again two related questions have surfaced from the depths of my very being:
“Have I used the rabbinate as a vocational vehicle to propel me from one opportunity to another in my determined desire to serve God, our unique Jewish people, and so many of God’s other wondrous peoples?”
“Or, did the rabbinate use me to play a number of extraordinary roles in a quest to enhance the totality of my own life while I have been engaged in trying to lift up adults and children whom I’ve encountered in those congregations I’ve led and in communities which have been allowed me to shine a light into some very dark places throughout this journey that has thus far spanned 50 years?
I may have thought that I was in total control of my career/vocation; however, when I carefully consider its constant twists and turns I am left with the realization that nothing has happened either solely under my direction or merely by happenstance.
Instead, the road which I’ve traveled was really not only of my own choosing but it has been influenced by a confluence of sacred and secular forces, as well as by a variety of challenging situations that I’ve encountered along the way.
During this half-century – particularly when my heart and mind have been open to all kinds of possibilities – the rabbinate has permitted me to be emotionally, intellectually and spiritually grow and to clearly see the world as it really is.
It has been then when I have enthusiastically responded to the needs of a vast array of persons and groups, and when I have been constantly emboldened by the ultimate realization that I have been doing work assigned to me by God.
Have there been times of confusion, of disappointment, of exhaustion? Of course!
But, most often they have occurred at those times when I have failed to energize my better self or when I have tried to satisfy some superficial ego need instead of being totally in touch with my reality and remembering that what I must do is to actualize some potential – mine and/or other folks.
Of uppermost importance have been those young people and adults who have turned to me for guidance, support, and a clear vision of what they and I are able to achieve when we keep our cooperative efforts viable and exclusively focused on an assortment of worthy end goals.
At the heart of what I began to become 50 years ago was essentially the beginning of an evolving affirmation; it has been rooted in the belief that all of us, dear colleagues, have been ennobled by the teachings and demands of Judaism’s biblical and contemporary prophets – those consistent advocates of human rights and social justice, who – according to Abraham Joshua Heschel – taught those who would listen to them that “the self is not the hub but the spoke of a revolving wheel.”
I have witnessed how that wheel is constantly propelling all of us towards a better tomorrow. And, I have been reminded over and over again that ours is the responsibility to make sure that – without exception – it is used to convey each and all of God’s progeny to a place where an abundance of blessings awaits us whenever we give evidence that we deserve them.
So, reflecting on everything that has occurred during this span of a half-century – even when I never for a moment ignore those losses which I have been forced to sustain – if you were to ask me: “Allen, how are you?” without hesitation, my instantaneous response is: “I am blessed!”
Rabbi Allen I. Freehling serves as Rabbi Emeritus at University Synagogue in Los Angeles, California and is celebrating 50 years in the rabbinate.