Sea Level: First-timer Reflections on the CCAR Convention

I am not a big-hotel person. Wandering through long hallways, going up and down in mirrored elevators and walking on endless carpeted floors does not somehow enhance my sense of well-being or joy. When I first got to the hotel, I had to find out where the convention was actually happening and the answer was: “Take the elevator to C level.”

Now in Israeli geography, when you live not too far from the lowest spot on earth, the term “sea level” has a life of its own: driving to the Jordan Valley in Israel, whether to the Sea of Galilee in the north or the Dead Sea in the south, the signs indicating “sea level” are your reference to how high or low you are going. So I guess “sea level” made perfect sense to me. I was lucky enough that there were other people going into the elevator so I had a quick chance to realize my mistake without embarrassing myself too much, although I was already getting disoriented to the point that I wasn’t sure whether we were going up or down, the elevator sign just indicated it was EZ.

On the right level I still found myself more than once following the cool CCAR footprints on the floor to find myself in the right place at the wrong time (or vice versa) which gave me a chance to re-evaluate Heschel’s idea about sacred time versus sacred space, since in this case I needed a combination of both to make things happen. With this little sense of disorientation, I finally made it to Monday morning prayers, to enter a huge ballroom marked by its heavy chandeliers shedding somewhat dim light, carpeted floor and windowless walls, a setting I found not at all like my preferred setting for prayer. Not having windows was the hardest. I was well aware of the demand to have windows in a place of prayer, since at one point in our community in Rosh Ha’ayin, the option of praying in a miklat – a bomb shelter, came up, and I used the demand that there be windows to reject that option.

But then, as often happens, the magic just happened. I was carried by the music, the spirit, the joy of being together and the words of Torah, and it made me completely oblivious of the setting. It was symbolic for me that Rabbi David Stern, the elected CCAR president, related in his D’var Torah to the feeling of disorientation, of not knowing where the four directions or the four winds are, or being ‘wind whipped’. In that case, he said, quoting from Brachot tractate, you need to direct your heart to heaven to re-orient and re-connect yourself. This idea made me think of the small ritual of covering yourself with Talit, the prayer shawl, at the beginning of the Morning Prayer: you first wrap yourself completely, losing all sense of orientation, and then re-open the tallit regaining a new orientation, which has to do with turning your heart to heaven. I also realized that the word orientation might have originally indicated finding the orient, the Mizrach, the direction where (for those who used that term!) Eretz Yisrael and Jerusalem are.

In turbulent times, Rabbi Stern related, when we experience a sense of being ‘wind whipped’, we need to take our sages’ advice and find ways to re-orient ourselves, to create our own compass (מצפן) and our own consciousness (מצפון) so we are able to discern good from evil.

For me it meant going back to our base line or what I was referring to as sea level.

Rabbi Stern concluded by mentioning the Sulam, Jacob’s ladder. Each of us, he argued, need to place his ladder with its legs steadily standing on the ground but its head aspiring to reach the sky. It made me think of Jacob waking up the morning after the ladder dream and realizing: God dwells in this place and I didn’t know.

God definitely dwelled in that place and I didn’t know.

Rabbi Ayala Miron serves Bavat Ayin Congregation in Rosh HaAyin, Israel and teaches at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem. 


I Want us to Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable

“I want us to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

April Baskin’s hope for our movement (expressed near the end of Wednesday’s breakout workshop on Racial Justice) is a personal goal as well, and this year’s convention has afforded me ample opportunity to have my comfort challenged in all the right ways. In the short span of a few hours on the conference’s final day, I was pushed with respect to Israel/Palestine, Race, and Gender and Sexuality, and I am grateful for each uncomfortable moment.

The first push came during our Israel-focused morning. Hanan Schlesinger and Ali Abu Awad shared their truths with us, letting their stories and their friendship testify to the power of growth that comes from discomfort. In their words, and in the program that followed, I more clearly saw my own truths for what they are: partial, the “amot shevurot” of which David Stern spoke on Monday. I found myself wondering whether his important reminder that “a uni-vocal Zionism is a failed Zionism” might be extended even further. How am I, a Progressive Zionist, called to be in relationship not only with fellow Zionists of all stripes, but also with those people (of all faiths) who do not embrace Zionism for any of a number of reasons?

My afternoon was spent thinking about Racial Justice with April Baskin and Rachel Laser, and about LGBT Justice with Rebecca Stapel-Wax of SOJOURN. In each session, practical advice was joined with exercises that forced me to confront my own biases and privilege. What do I like about being white? What are my earliest memories about the notion of “gay?” What feelings do I associate with my first remembered experience of encountering a transgender person? These aren’t easy questions to ponder, and they are even harder to reflect upon aloud. Kudos to April, Rachel, and Rebecca for creating the spaces in which this important work could happen. Their work will help us to become more sensitive, inclusive, and just rabbis.

From my seat by the gate as I wait to fly home on Thursday (a different, and most unwelcome, sort of discomfort!), I feel tremendous gratitude to everyone whose hard work and dedication made #ccar17 so rewarding…and so uncomfortable, in all the right ways.

Rabbi Larry Bach serves Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, North Carolina.


What Happens When We Listen?

Our world has become filled with talking.  We have to push our thoughts and opinions out into the world in an effort to convince others that we are right.  However, when we are talking we are not really listening.  When we are talking, we are often arguing over the heads of others and responding without even thinking about what the other is saying, we just want to be right and be sure the other is wrong.  It is as if we are holding up an identity card that immediately shows others what we believe and what our thoughts on a certain subject might be.  Others hold up these same identity cards, we walk away and relationships break down.

When we listen, we build relationships and human connection. On Wednesday at Convention, we witnessed that and we lived that.  Listening to the incredibly deep changes that Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Ali Abu Awwad have gone through in their lives is remarkable.  If they can change so can we.  For an Israeli settler Orthodox rabbi to go from never seeing a Palestinian to breaking bread with Palestinians and creating grassroots change is almost unheard of.  For a Palestinian to go from a agitator and someone who was shot by an Israeli soldier to say, “I want to defend Judaism and the right Jews have to their land, at the same time I want to defend my own state,” is a profound acknowledgement and acceptance of the other’s narrative and existence.

Hanan and Ali’s words are a reminder that two opposites can come together and make peace.  The American Jewish Community has witnessed disconnect and a breakdown when it comes to Israel.  If Hanan and Ali, two seemingly bitter enemies, can see the other, why can’t we? We need to create a culture of civil discourse not disagreement.  We were inspired to learn today that Civil Discourse is rooted in listening emphatically and actively.  When we hear the stories of another and ask people to clarify where they are coming from, we create human relationships.  When we listen in order to understand and not respond, we create human relationships.

Our tradition is rooted in understanding.  We learn in Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:3 that the Sanhedrin was physically set up in a semi-circle so that every member of the Sanhedrin could see the face or the profile of the other.  Such a set up ensures the interpersonal relationships would not be interrupted during debate.  Today, seeing the face of the other is felt in hearing one’s story and connecting personally.  Seeing the face of the other is listening without trying to respond and listening for understanding and emotion.

What happens when we listen?  We engage in civil discourse, we hear and see the other, and we build a relationship with a fellow human being.

Rabbi Rick Kellner serves Congregation Beth Tikvah in Columbus, Ohio.  


Shining a Light into the Darkness

As American life becomes darker for many, as hatred, bigotry, and anger gains an  historic foothold in public discourse and public interactions, we gathered – more than 550 Reform Jewish rabbis – seeking to comprehend this moment in history. At the Central Conference of American Rabbis convention in Atlanta, we discovered once again that the lessons of the past often offer insight into the present. Perhaps, as the teaching goes, this insight can help point the way for us into the uncertain future.

Thus we listened with rapt attention as one of this generations great prophets, Joseph J. Levin Jr., co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, gave us a peek into the background of some of the extremism and hatred that has claimed a place in American life. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the great watchtower of American life, based in Montgomery, Georgia, speaks truth to power, shining a light into the darkness.

Mr. Levin, a nice Jewish boy, told us his back story: about how as the grandchild of immigrants who fled the czar’s ethnic cleansing nationalistic movement, he was a young man who struggled through an American life buffeted by the winds of racial bias and bigotry. It was a time of poisonous hatred when the Ku Klux Klan was active and burning crosses, and when Jews had to have their separate country clubs. Back then  the ideal of purity and separation of the races permeated so much of American southern life; it found the voice among the predecessors of today’s alt-right, white supremacist groups. Back then, “states rights” was the acceptable code word for those who wanted to pursue anti-federal segregationist policies.

Mr. Levin reminded us that bigotry and hate, even the ascendent anti-Semitism of today, that we thought had been relegated to the far edges of American life, grow out of the olden days of his upbringing. He drew lines between the toolkit of the Jim Crow era and the overt bigotry in today’s discourse.

We shook our heads in disbelief as he recounted recent public statements of today’s hate groups, easily located through links on the SPLC’s website, which might have well have come from yesterday’s racist hate groups. We shook our heads in agreement as he urged us to consider that questions about whether this national leader or that might actually be a racist is not the point. Rather he suggested, such discussions serve only hide the deeper, more dangerous problem: that the hatred of today being articulated today, publicly and openly, is eroding the pluralistic, all embracing, open society that Jewish values imagine and which should characterize America life.

The nechemta (the solace and hope) came in the firm of a rousing combines chorale concert of singers from the Temple and the Ebenezer Church, whose integrated singing and music reminded us that when good people reach out and work together, the harmony and melody are sweet, healing and hopeful.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes serves Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California.


B’dibur Echad

 I tried to leave the room without making any noise at 6:40 this morning. Nevertheless, my husband called out, “Where are you going so early?”

“To the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion Alumni Breakfast” I responded.

“Why so early?” “Do you really need to be there?”

While I had no good answer to the first question, the second was easy.

Yes, I need to be there! The Alumni breakfast is my favorite part of the CCAR Conference. It’s not because of the scholarship (which was great – thank you Aaron Panken).

No, it’s the roll call. It always strikes a chord that reverberates in my soul.

Rabbi Walter Jacob, Class of 1955

As colleagues Chuck Briskin and Jim Prosnit called out each class year, starting with current students and then transitioning to the most recent ordinees, my heart filled with anticipation. 2016. 2015, 2014…. Every class has its own character. When my year (1997) came, we stood up and cheered.

Then I sat back and watched. As each class ascended, I thought of the legacies created and the lives moved. I reflected on our shared experiences as well as the unique visions. I was mindful of the journeys we had endured. And I was thankful for the scholars that inspired us.

The roll call ended with Walter Jacob, Class of 1955. As he stood (to a rousing ovation), I wondered …. When Walter attended his first CCAR conference, what luminaries stood at roll call whose careers spanned over 60 years? Were there rabbis ordained by Isaac Mayer Wise?

We are a living bridge to both yesterday and tomorrow. That’s why I got up at 6am to attend this breakfast. I take my place with such honor as part of this chain. It’s a sacred and shared, somewhat ironic responsibility. After all, we transform the world while keeping it stable – b’dibur echad.

Rabbi Zach Shapiro serves Temple Akiba in Culver City, CA.

Do Not Be Afraid: Stand Firm and Witness Deliverance

Most years I want to go to the CCAR convention.  But this year, this year I had to go. I needed to see my friends and colleagues. I needed  to pray with them and  to learn with them.  I needed my soul to be nourished and to be in a place where I could sit still long enough to hear the still small voice give me words of hope. And I knew that for that to happen, I had to be with my chevrei in Atlanta.

The Tanach tells many stories of encounters with God, where individuals hear the Divine call and responded “Hineini!” – Here I am. Those were important encounters, but there is only one moment that transformed us as a people and gave us our purpose, and that is when we stood together at Sinai. Sinai happened because we were willing to come together for a purpose larger than ourselves. At Sinai we were called upon not only to be in a covenantal relationship with God, but a communal relationship with each other as well.  Sinai required us to stand united for a goal that was greater than any single one of us, greater than any one generation. Sinai required us to see ourselves as acting beyond the now, and understand that we are part of a legacy that requires that we forever remember before whom we stand.

I thought of Sinai this morning as I sat in a session with Atlanta’s Mayor Kasim Reed, and Reverend Raphael Warnock and Rev. Natosha Reid Rice of the Ebenezer Baptist Church.  They spoke of justice, the need for moral leadership and moral clarity. They spoke about redemption, hope and courage.  And most of all, they spoke of the need for us to stand together and to speak up for each other and with each other.

Rev. Warnock said: “Interfaith work is uniquely important in this moment. …. When we stand together on principle we gain moral credibility and authority. And we’re strong when we stand together. We need to stand together more often, and get to know each other.  And even those who don’t believe, we need the witness of atheists too. …Because in a real sense what they bear witness against is the false God.”  Rev. Warnock reminded us what we learned at Sinai, we can accomplish more together than by ourselves.

Rev. Reid Rice urged us that now is the time to “Put words into action. Put faith into action. Private faith requires public action.”  Revelation happened outside for the heavens and the earth to witness for a reason. Faith is not supposed to be private, it needs to be lived out loud and in the world.

When Rev. Warnock reminded us of the powerful words written by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to his fellow clergy in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” I was struck by how relevant and true his words continue to be. Like the prophets of old, Rev. King’s words call out to us:  “We are tied together in a single garment of destiny.”

I came to Atlanta to be with my chevrei. But what was revealed to me was that I also needed to hear Mayor Reed, Rev. Warnock and Rev. Reid Rice, because the Torah they were teaching was the same torah of hope and courage that I remembered hearing when we stood together at Sinai.

Rabbi Mona Alfi serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento, California


On Being a First Timer

What is it like being a first timer at Convention 2017?

It’s thrilling because I have so many new colleagues (and there are so many of you here, I cannot believe there are more!).

It’s profound because, let’s face it — being in the presence of so many gifted teachers, preachers, and leaders is heady, challenging, and soul-stirring all at once.

And it’s humbling. Because I am discovering how I fit in to this new group. I am a second career rabbi, bringing to my rabbinate a unique intertwining of wisdom and training.

But is it enough?  Will I be enough? To paraphrase a midrash shared with convention attendees on Monday morning  by incoming CCAR President David Stern, when our holy work springs from the essence of who we are, the Divine is revealed.

My holy work is publishing text. In doing this work, my goal is to support each and every one of you and your communities. I do it, as part of the amazing CCAR Press team, by creating worship and practice resources, and by thinking ahead to the ways in which Judaism’s sacred inheritance can be best taught and interpreted for today’s world.

Being a first timer is to be filled with gratitude for the privilege to serve, and to do this work.

Rabbi Beth Lieberman serves as executive editor at CCAR Press.


CCAR 2017 Convention: “We Need Some Midwives Right Now!”

There’s a saying attributed to Rabbi Elliot Kleinman that the weather at convention is always “72 and fluorescent” (I’d say it’s closer to 65—bring a sweater) because there is so little time to explore the city in which the conference is held.  But from the moment we got started this morning, I knew that this year was going to be different.

We are in a city with such a rich, varied, and complicated history.  So it made sense that we began our journey with an exploration of Atlanta’s historical landmarks, in an Etgar 36 tour called “The Long Arc of Civil Rights Through the Eyes of Jewish Atlanta.”

We began at the Pencil Factory, the site of a murder that was wrongly pinned on Jewish businessman Leo Frank, who was convicted and then lynched in 1915.  We visited the Naming Project, makers of the AIDS quilt. At both sites, we spoke about how easy it was for the “other” to be victimized, whether by acts of violence, in the case of the former, or by “shame, stigma, and silence” in the case of the latter.

The highlight of our visit was stopping by the grave of Dr. King and then attending worship services at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King and his father had served as preachers. This morning, the preacher was Reverend Dr. Traci deVon Blackmon, who gave a passionate “drash” connecting the story of the Hebrew midwives in Egypt, which she called “Sheroes of the Exodus,” to our modern-day struggle for justice. (Full disclosure: I wrote my thesis on this story, so I geeked out pretty hard at this).

The Pharaoh’s command to the midwives to kill the Hebrew baby boys, she said, was one of the first recorded incidents of “racial profiling.” The Pharaoh, not realizing the contributions that the Hebrews had made to his nation in the past, demonized the Hebrews and tried to break them. “Only fearful leaders create oppressive policies,” Reverend Blackmon said, “but often the thing that was meant to break you is what makes you stronger.”

The midwives would not be broken, and they would not do the acts of violence that Pharaoh asked of them, because they feared God, and “when you fear God, there are some things you just won’t do.” Reverend Blackmon also gave an interesting interpretation that the reason the midwives told Pharaoh that they missed the births of the Hebrew women was not because they were lying, but because they would spend that time praying, so that they could determine what God wanted them to do.

“It’s decision time,” Reverend Blackmon said. Like the midwives, she said, we have to decide whom we are going to serve, because, “It doesn’t matter who is in office, as long as God is on the throne!”

Reverend Blackmon then went through a long list of people she considered “midwives for justice”: Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Congressman John Lewis, and members of the church itself. She urged the congregation to join their ranks, saying, “We need some midwives right now!”

The theme of this year’s conference is, “Being a Rabbi in Turbulent Times,” and will feature conversations about social justice and professional ethics. Reverend Blackmon’s words helped us to ground our own pursuit of justice in the story of the Exodus, and asked us to consider who it is we serve, what it is we will (or won’t) do, and how we will be partners in bringing life into the world.

Rabbi Leah Berkowitz serves Vassar Temple in Poughkeepsie, NY .


What I’ve Learned from 27 Years of CCAR Conventions

I remember my first CCAR convention vividly. It was 1991, the first year after my ordination. I was serving a congregation in Melbourne Australia, where there were fewer rabbis in the entire country than in my ordination class, and (at that time) no other women. The convention was in South Florida and my strongest memory is of a long afternoon by the pool with some of my classmates. I remember walking into a plenary knowing almost no one and feeling joy that I could retreat to the community of friends I knew best.

Fast forward many years. My rabbinic network is much larger. The WRN, regional kallot, several moves, my local rabbinic community, my work on CCAR conventions and the CCAR board have resulted in relationships I never imagined I would have. And one of the great blessings of my work as the CCAR Manager of Member Services has been the chance to meet and get to know even more of you.

And yet, there is still something about walking into a room full of rabbis at convention and thinking ahead to lunch and dinner that brings me back to the moment of entering my junior high cafeteria and feeling anxiety about finding a spot at a lunch table. That feeling that everyone must have “plans” and if I don’t make them I’ll be alone has never quite disappeared, despite my growing network. And asking to join even a good friend who has plans for dinner somehow makes me feel like a gate-crasher, despite being warmly welcomed.

In conversation with many of you, I have come to learn that I am not the only one who carries these feelings walking into convention. These feelings persist despite the great strides that the CCAR has made in nurturing a culture that truly embraces a desire to facilitate relationships. And over the years since my first convention in 1991 I have seen these changes. When I walk into an elevator, people look me in the eye and greet me. When I sit down in a plenary or workshop, the people sitting next to me introduce themselves and begin conversation. Programs deliberately work to create opportunities for meaningful dialogue not just with the friends that surround us, but with those whom we do not yet know. CCAR board members offer opportunities to members to go out to dinner together; these are sincere offers, reflecting a true desire to meet and get to know the members they serve.

The CCAR, however, is both an organization and a group made up of individuals.  We have to ask ourselves what our role is in helping to create an environment in which no one feels alone in a crowd. We can ask “What kind of work do you do?” instead of “How large is your congregation?” Put down the phone when someone sits next to us and after the introductions, consider asking, “What are you working on that excites you?” “How are you being impacted by the current political climate?” “What do you like to do outside of your work?”  If you go to the bar late at night and see someone walk in alone, ask them to join you.

I know that this feels artificial, like a youth group mixer.  And many of us are cynical about the impact of these efforts. As a congregational rabbi, I image that this is how members of my congregation feel when I encourage them not to just talk to their friends at the Oneg Shabbat, to go up to the individual standing alone near the door, who may be having the junior high school flash back. But there are really only two choices:  working to break down barriers, or being at least partially responsible for the loneliness that persists amongst those who are supposed to understand us best.

We’re all familiar with the response of the Israelites at Sinai – na’aseh v’nishmah (Exodus 19:8).  Let’s overcome our cynicism, shift our comfort zone and reach out with open hearts; the meaning and understanding of these actions will unfold and shape us for years to come.

Betsy Torop is the CCAR Manager of Member Services and a congregational rabbi in Brandon, Florida.