Rabbinic Reflections

Rabbi Stephen Pearce: A 50-Year Career Rich In Service and Gratitude

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. 

CCAR Convention

My 50-Year Learning Journey: A Rabbinic Evolution, by Rabbi Richard J. Birnholz

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.

CCAR Convention

Reflection on Lessons That Should Have Been Learned Decades Ago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Reflections on 50 Years in the Rabbinate

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. 

chaplains Rabbis

Reflections on 50 Years as a Rabbi

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.


Reflections from Rabbi Ferenc Raj

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.


Reflections on 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.

Prayer Rabbis

Prayer Revisited

For years, I led people in prayer. It was always clear to me that prayer operates on three levels—personal, communal, and universal.

On the personal level, I have always found prayer (mostly silent prayer, or meditation, while all alone) to be a form of spiritual therapy. In moments of extreme mental pain or extreme joy, it connected me with something much more powerful than myself, and anchored me in a safe harbor. While alone, it reassured me I was never alone.

On the communal level, it connected me with my people – amcha yisrael. Not only those with whom I prayed, but also with the entire Jewish people worldwide. It was always clear to me that personal prayer by itself is not enough. Prayer is much more powerful when it becomes a group experience, a spiritual support system, if you will, in which one does not pray only by oneself, but also as part of a community of faith that is able to fulfill the Talmudic dictum that the world stands on three things—Torah, or knowledge; avodah, or worship; and gemilut hasadim, or acts of love and kindness. All three are interrelated, and all three must come into play to make prayer effective.

As I became a student of religions, especially in recent years as a cruise rabbi, which gave me the opportunity to travel around the world and observe people at prayer everywhere, I found out that millions of people worldwide pray both individually and communally. I also discovered amazing similarities in both personal and communal prayer, East and West. While the form may differ, the essence is the same. All people everywhere pray for healing, for peace of mind, and so on. The two things I took away from this experience are, one, prayer is a universal expression of the human heart, which, in a sense, makes the entire human race one global community of faith; two, both personal and communal prayer continues to play a central role in the lives of people everywhere, as it has for centuries, and most likely will continue long into the future.

This brings us to the third level of prayer, namely, the universal. Here is where I find prayer to fall short of human expectations. By universal prayer I mean praying for what is known in Judaism as tikkun olam, repairing the world, putting an end to violence and war, and establishing a world order of—to paraphrase the Christian expression—peace on earth and good will towards all people. For years, I stood at the pulpit and I concluded the service with the words expressing the wish for a world at peace. As I grew older, I became more and more frustrated by the realization that I was mouthing words, and that the words I was uttering did not have the power to redeem the world.

Back in the 60s, when I first became a rabbi, I was very proud of my colleagues and teachers who played a leading role in the struggle for social change in America. America has come a long way because of their sacrifice, although it still has a long way to go. I am equally proud of my movement for the decision to ordain women, a decision which has greatly revitalized the movement. Thirdly, I am proud of my movement for its continuing work in making our liturgy more relevant and more inspiring than ever before. All these are significant steps towards repairing the world. But there is still one step missing, as I discuss in my new book, Why People Pray. We need to link up with all people of good will around the world, both people of the other faiths and of all movements for social betterment, and pursue a new universal language of prayer, in which there is no triumphalism or exclusivism, but rather the recognition that we are all travelers on a small planet, one species created by one cosmic source, custodians of this small planet, who can no longer afford to wage wars and engage in violence. This will be the first right step towards a true tikkun olam.

Rabbi Mordecai Schreiber, a member of Temple Beth El in Boca Raton, Florida, is celebrating 50 years as a CCAR rabbi.


Discovering Reform Judaism

My religious training began in Istanbul, Turkey in an Orthodox Jewish synagogue to which my parents belonged. I excelled in my studies and became not only a shohet (for chickens only) but also the hazzan kavua of my temple. When I discovered Reform Judaism in law school, it changed my life for ever. Now I could become a religious, as well as an observant Jew, in good conscience. During my military service in Turkey (1959-60), I applied to and was accepted by the HUC-JIR as a rabbinic student. After six months in Paris, where I studied at the Institut International d’Etudes Hebraiques, the now defunct French-Jewish progressive rabbinic school, I came to the States in the Fall of 1961.

After five years in Cincinnati I was ordained as a Rabbi and sent to Buenos Aires, Argentina as the representative of the WUPJ as well as the spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El, a small liberal congregation of about 100 families. It was there that I got married to Ines Goldstein, my now wife of almost 50 years, and where our son Daniel was born. In Latin America I dealt with Orthodox opposition and Conservative competition but was successful in solidifying the foundations of Reform Judaism in Argentina. In 1969, I decided to leave the congregational rabbinate and was accepted as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania where in 1975 I received my Ph.D in Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies. Our daughter, Deborah was born in Philadelphia, where, in addition to my studies, I also became the Education Director of Main Line Reform Temple, in the suburbs, on a part-time basis.

My first full-time job was at North Shore Congregation Israel, in Glencoe, IL as the Education Director of a large religious school (about 800 students). In 1980, however, I decided to have my own pulpit and accepted an invitation to become the Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom of Needham, MA where I remained for 23 years, retiring in 2003. During my tenure, I became active at Camp Eisner, was elected president of the Boston area Reform Rabbis, wrote a number of books on Judaica, served as the editor of the CCAR Journal, and trained many Mohalim/lot.

Since my retirement, I have been in academics, teaching part-time Comparative Religion at Boston College and now Ethics at Framingham State University (closer to my new home in Ashland, MA). In addition to my academic obligations, I continue to blog and lecture, and support, through trips and Skype lectures, a small but emerging Reform congregation in Barcelona, Spain, called Bet Shalom. I also love to spend time with my children and grandchildren, two in the Boston area and two in California.

In the 60’s Reform Judaism had a distinct style and philosophy. Even though there were differences of opinion among us, we all had a general idea of what Reform Judaism stood for: We supported progressive revelation; we believed in the immortality of the soul; we had a common liturgical style and a special prayer book etc. It is in the nature of Reform Judaism to be progressive and diverse. After all, the Centenary Perspective (CCAR, 1976) clearly states that “Reform Judaism does more than tolerate diversity; it engenders it.” Today we have many more theological differences among ourselves. We espouse different perceptions of the divinity, and we are all over the map with regard to ritual practices, making the rabbinate even more challenging.

When I was a congregational rabbi, I influenced my synagogue with my style of worship and thinking pattern. Being a non-theistic religious naturalist, my liturgy, sermons and writings reflected my philosophy, even though I tried not to impose it on others. My rabbinate taught me to be patient with people, empathetic with individuals, and accept greater diversity. I learned to be well organized, prompt with my appointments, always respecting time and place. I also assiduously set aside a few hours a week to study, for without it, I would have nothing substantial to teach.

Looking back, I consider myself very fortunate for having a rich and fulfilling life, and am grateful to the Reform movement in the USA for allowing me to realize my dreams.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D. is celebrating 50 years as a CCAR Rabbi. 


Rabbi Philip Berkowitz – Reflections on 50 years in the Rabbinate

First and foremost, my emphasis in the rabbinate was pastoral. I was blessed to serve two congregations. One in Pontiac, Michigan and the second in the Township of Washington in New Jersey. Early in my tenure in Pontiac (in the 1960’s), I was asked to serve on the Police Trial Board. I was reassured that the need to meet was rare. The first summer we had meetings every evening. Two cases regarding police brutality. The first we found the accused innocent. The second case the officers were found guilty. All of this during civil unrest. On Kol Nidre Eve, Pontiac was under a city wide curfew.  We managed to hold services with the understanding the police not subject us to the curfew. As serviced ended, I asked everyone to go directly home. In event some wished to ride around town, I would not visit them in jail. Such was the tribulations of a young rabbi.

In 1975, we moved to New Jersey where I served Temple Beth Or in the Township of Washington. During my rabbinate there I became involved in helping the homeless. I  also had to deal with a NIMBY (not in my back yard) issue. Temple Beth Or responded to my call. The battle was with local towns to permit congregations to house the homeless. Those battles were also won. In the years that followed, I was elected president of the Inter-religious Fellowship for The Homeless. It was a first for a Jew in Bergen County.

One extraordinary event in New Jersey stands out in my mind. We planned a community program, which had such a large turn out we had to move to a larger location.  We invited Elie Wiesel z’l to address the community. I was honored to introduce him that evening. Prior to the program we sat in a second floor office. We decided to step outside the office a see what was going on. The auditorium was filled. There were hundreds of teenagers there. Many of the came over to greet me. They did not recognize our guest who was nearby.  Elie observed all of this and was impressed with the turnout of young people. He was outstanding that evening. He changed his topic, and spoke to the teenagers. He was at his very best and everyone was moved and inspired.

Looking back on these chapters, they are mild in comparison to events of 2016. I thought I accomplished a great deal, but there is more that must be done. During the span of my rabbinate I prayed from the The Union Prayer Book, Gates Of Prayer, and Mishkan T’filah. So much has changed. Would I conduct worship services today as in 1966? NO! Today I would use more Hebrew and encourage more music. I would recommend the use of live streaming. There is a need that cannot be ignored in order to meet the needs of an aging population.

In 2001 we found a retirement home on the beach in Kennebunk, Maine. We moved there in 2003, the day I retired. In 2004, I became a conductor and volunteer operator at The Seashore Trolley Museum. Shortly thereafter, a president of NAORRR called me and asked if I was alright. Did I have to work to survive financially?  The answer was all was well. I had learned to operate old street cars from all over the world.  I went on to become Assistant Superintendent of Railway operations, a Board trustee, and its vice chairman. Never did envision that kind of retirement.  I have now retired from the Railway, and enjoy life at the beach. From our porch we have seen our 41st president skydive twice, as well as his boat stranded on the sand in front of our home. Such is the joy of retirement that Nancy and I share in beautiful Maine. It is here that our children and our grandchildren join us to enjoy the pleasure of retirement and share the way life is in vacation land.

Rabbi Philip Berkowitz is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth Or, Township of Washington, New Jersey.