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CCAR Convention Convention

Connection, Disruption, Challenge & Hope: Chief Executive Rabbi Hara Person Addresses the CCAR During the Coronavirus Crisis

Each year at CCAR Convention, it’s customary for the CCAR Chief Executive to address the rabbinic membership. However this year, given the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CCAR was forced to move our annual Convention online. The address below is adapted from the words that CCAR Chief Executive Hara Person shared with the digital gathering of Reform rabbis who came together online throughout the country in this time of change and need.


One of the most frequent questions I’ve gotten in the last eight months is: What has surprised you the most about this job? And what I can definitively say is that when I was applying for this job, no one told me I would have to become an expert in pandemic planning. And cancelling our in-person Convention, yeah, not something I ever thought I’d be doing, and certainly not in year one. I really didn’t want to be the first CCAR Chief Executive to cancel Convention; I did check with our posek, Rabbi Dr. Gary Zola, who assured that indeed I was, so that’s another first for me. But Gary also reminded me that the Pope was cancelling mass, and if it was good enough for the Pope, it is good enough for us.

And I assume you can all relate, since I’m guessing this is the first time you are cancelling services, shutting your buildings, postponing events, and doing or not doing according to all the new health protocols we’re suddenly living with. This is a time for firsts for all of us.

I will take a moment to acknowledge that even before we were all working remotely in virus-land, this has been a year of tremendous transition at the CCAR and in many ways still is. I need to acknowledge my gratitude for our tremendous and dedicated executive team: Betsy Torop, Cindy Enger, and Laurie Pinho, who have been my steadfast partners and friends through an already tumultuous year of new beginnings, new hires, and new ways of working at the CCAR—their willingness to teach me, to have patience with my learning curve, to be honest even when it’s hard, and to have faith in our collective future is what makes the CCAR such a strong and exciting organization to lead. And our talented senior staff, Tamar Anitai, Fani Magnus Monson and now Rafael Chaiken, as well as rabbinic staff Dan Medwin and Sonja Pilz, as well as all the rest of our staff—I am truly blessed to work with such a thoughtful, hardworking, and inspiring team of people. I know you don’t know them all—this was going to be the first Convention for many of them—but I hope you’ll get a chance to meet them over the months and years to come. I am lucky to have them all by my side. And I also have to thank my predecessor, Steve Fox, who is the model emeritus. He has stayed out of the way but has been there for me when needed, and I have needed it, especially in these last few weeks.

But right now, we need to talk about today. We need to talk about connection and disruption. We need to talk about possibility and challenge. Suddenly we are being forced to think and plan and rabbi in completely new ways. It’s exciting and it’s terrifying. As Jews, we know that our biggest moments of creativity and innovation come out of times of disruption. When the Temple and the priesthood were destroyed, we got resourceful and created a portable set of texts and practices that we could carry with us wherever we went. How brilliant—and indeed we’re still carrying those with us today.

What bound us together throughout history was our common tradition and practices, the Hebrew language, and our shared faith in the God of Israel. One of my favorite novels is A. B. Yehoshua’s A Journey to End of the Millennium, which describes a clash of cultures between Jews from the East and Jews in the West. And yet, the reason they clash is because they recognize the connection between them – though their traditions differ, they’re merely different threads that together still make up the same tapestry of Jewish peoplehood. They understand that they’re joined together, parts of a whole, which exacerbates their differences. When most people in the world lived in isolated villages, Jews around the world grasped that they were part of a bigger endeavor. As in the novel, Askenazi Jews in Europe encountered Jewish traders from North Africa who appeared once a year to sell their goods. And in this way Jews in one part of the world were aware of Jews in other communities, and even as they viewed some of their practices with suspicion or even distain, they knew that weren’t alone, together they were parts of something bigger. Think too of our history of responsa: Jews living in one part of the world could send a sh’eilah to the academy in Pumbedita or Sura and get a response back a year or so later. A slow connection, to be sure, but a connection.

As Jews we know how to connect. And as rabbis, all the more so. We know that connection across distance matters. It’s at the core of who we are. Just as our ancestors gained strength knowing that there were other Jews around the world, so too does our connection across physical distance give us strength and nourish our resilience. My father used to always ask me: how are things in rabbi-world. He died before social media became ubiquitous, but he would be amazed to see that there is actually such a thing as rabbi-world. Even in the best of times I have often thought that many rabbis live in two places—in your physical community with the people you serve and of course with your loved ones, and simultaneously in the online world, drawing sustenance from the connection to each other; the sharing of stories and advice and struggles, and just the affirmation that yes, other rabbis are dealing with the same things.

Despite being stuck in my house and apart from you, I’ve felt our connection this past week quite strongly. I was able to share Shabbat with so many of you in a single day from my living room. I started with Australia in the morning, then Israel in the early afternoon, the East Coast of the United States, then the middle of the country, and then the West Coast. And despite the social distancing that we’re practicing, I feel more, not less, connected to all of you, and more connected to our Jewish community as a whole. In the midst of the fear and anxiety is a sense of strength and joy—that from all around the world we’re figuring this thing out, and finding ways to create meaningful and real connections that go beyond our specific communities.

It’s been incredibly inspiring to see how you’re pushing yourselves outside your comfort zones in order to bring comfort to those you serve. The good news is that we no longer live in a world in which physical distances by necessity create emotional, intellectual, or spiritual distances.

My grandmother Gussie was nicknamed Six Month Sadie. Why? Because when her mother, my great-grandmother, Lena, was giving birth to her here in New York, she hadn’t seen her own mother, Golda, back in Europe in several years, and didn’t know that she had died. She named the baby Sadie. But when she learned, some months later, of her mother’s death, she changed my grandmother’s name to Golda, or Gussie. Hence the nickname, Six Month Sadie—a funny story but also emblematic of the distance, both physical and emotional, that was a reality of life for many families at that time.

And here we are, several generations later, where on Friday night, in between synagogue hopping, I went onto Zoom and lit candles with my family—one kid in Boston and one in Berkeley, and my mother and sister in Miami. There is a miraculousness to this technology and the possibilities it holds for us in allowing us to connect in real and meaningful ways while physically separated.

It’s been amazing to see how the new restrictions we’re suddenly living with have not been stumbling blocks—yes, they’re frustrating, and yes, in some cases heartbreaking. And yet, you’re rising to the challenge and showing incredible leadership. We can’t assemble at a shivah house, and so you’re holding online shivahs that bring real comfort and connection. We can’t assemble for a bat mitzvah, so you’re compassionately postponing until it’s safe to do so and finding inventive ways for your students to shine nevertheless. Wan’t have welcoming Shabbat for the tots, so you’re singing into a screen from your couch and uplifting your favorite three year olds. Can’t study Torah around a table on Shabbat morning—no problem, study together from everyone’s dining rooms tables. And on and on.

This is a time for us to be as open as we can be to new possibilities, to go out on a limb, to teeter on the edge of the known and the unknown, to be nimble and flexible and creative. Not everything we’re doing is going to work or be successful. But out of that will come some new ways of working and coming together that are going to transform who and what we are as a Jewish community, and what it is that rabbis do.

And yet, this is also a moment of tremendous fear and uncertainty. We don’t know how long this quarantine will last, and we don’t know what the long term effects will be. Surely there will be hardship for many of us, in the weeks, and over the months and possibly years to come. Some of us will live with the aftermath for a long time to come. Our personal lives and our professional lives will be profoundly impacted in ways we cannot yet imagine. And we at the CCAR will do our best to support you, and help you, and learn our way through this with you.

When the Pinelands in New Jersey experienced a devastating fire, scientists noticed something amazing. The heat of the fire melted the resin in the cones of the pine trees, causing them to burst open and spread their seeds, enabling the forest to regenerate. One of the scientists who studied this phenomenon said: “The system bounces back. Fire has been a part of that area for a long time. There you find species that have adapted to frequent fires; otherwise they get outcompeted by the species that can.”[1]  Throughout our history, that’s who we’ve been as Jews, and especially as rabbis, time after time. We are resilient, we know how to adapt, and we have the capacity to seed new growth.

In the midst of all this change and creativity, innovation and disruption, pain and loss and growth, I want to suggest a few basic principles that may help guide you in the days and weeks to come.

1. We will make mistakes. There are no rule books for the reality we’re suddenly living in. We’re not going to get it all right. But that’s going to be okay. We tore down the infrastructure of a conference that had taken us two years to plan and built an entirely new one in two weeks. Not everything has gone according to plan. But it’s pretty darn great nevertheless. I cannot properly express my gratitude to Laurie Pinho, Dan Medwin, Aliza Orent, and the whole CCAR team, but especially Betsy Torop, all of whom have worked tirelessly, first to get us ready for Baltimore, and then to unwind the convention, and then quickly create this online version. You have no idea how hard they all worked to make this happen. Please thank them yourselves when and if you can, even if you don’t know them. Gratitude does not begin to describe what I feel for them, and fatigue doesn’t begin to describe what they feel.

2. Pace yourself. Change is exhausting. Working from home with your kids, also indefinitely home, is exhausting. Trying to get it right and meet everyone’s needs at a time of fear and worry while managing your own anxiety is exhausting. The uncertainty of this moment is exhausting. So give yourself a break, where and how you can. Ask for help, be strategic, create priorities. You’re going to need to pace yourself to get through this.

3. Be forgiving. We have to be forgiving with ourselves and with each other. Nerves are frayed. Skills are being learned as we race full steam ahead. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. Be patient. Rest when you need to. And model this for others.

4. Practice gratitude. We must find opportunities for gratitude in the midst of all this. I want to take a moment to thank, in addition to our CCAR staff, our CCAR Board. I knew I was going to love working with Ron Segal, but little did I know the adventures we’d be dealing with together. I could not ask for a kinder, wiser, menschier partner, and wow am I grateful to Ron for always having my back. Lewis Kamrass, our president-elect, has thrown himself into our teamwork with both feet and I am so grateful for Lewis’s level-headed good advice and caring. And to our whole Board, the support you’ve shown me and our staff is just incredible, and so appreciated, especially in the midst of dealing with your own communities.

5. Summon courage. This is a time for courageous leadership. We must summon every bit of our stores of courage and have faith in ourselves as leaders. You can do this, even if you’ve never done this before. Your people need you to be brave. Find the right people to be your thinking partners, get input, listen to feedback, test new ideas, be willing to be wrong, and trust your ability to figure it out. But also, you don’t have to be brave all the time. It’s also okay to be scared, and feel vulnerable – acknowledging that takes real courage.

6. Care for each other. Let us, as a rabbinic community, care for each other. This is not only a time of fear but also of loneliness. Who within our rabbinic community can we reach out to? Who is emotionally vulnerable and needs some extra support? And then there is the actual virus itself. Some of us may get sick. Some of our family members may get sick. Some of us may lose members of our communities to this virus, or even, God forbid, family members. Let us be there for each other, to rabbi to each other, to be sources of support and caring in times of loneliness, fear, or grief.

7. Grab hope. And we must look for hope and grab it wherever we find it. Our history teaches us that hope is always out there, even if we can’t immediately recognize it, and even in the worst of moments. No matter how bleak things look, we cannot, we must not,  give in to despair. Finding hope is hard, but the search for hope is one of the things that can sustain us in dark times.

In closing I’m going to share a poem by Ada Limón.

Instructions on Not Giving Up

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/27/nyregion/nyregionspecial2/27mainnj.html?searchResultPosition=2

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CCAR Convention News spirituality

‘Isolation Need Not Mean Loneliness’: President Ron Segal’s CCAR Connect 2020 Opening Remarks

Each year at CCAR Convention, it’s customary for the CCAR President to address the rabbinic membership. However this year, given the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CCAR was forced to cancel our annual Convention and move the event online. Below is the address that CCAR President Ron Segal gave to the digital gathering of Reform rabbis who gathered online throughout the country in this time of change and need.


The date on which I delivered my first address as CCAR President was April first. April Fools Day; the parashah was Tazria-Metzora. “Could it get any worse?,” I remember thinking. 

And…here we are.

Considering the present reality of our world and the fact that, this year, I have the great privilege of sharing a few comments in front of a desktop monitor, I realize now how unimaginative I was! 

If ever there was a time when Tazria-Metzora was fitting for the time in which we are living, surely it is this year. With the exception, perhaps, of a handful of U.S. Senators, who could possibly have imagined such a reality: a time when every one of us has essentially been isolated from the camp until such point all have been declared clean. Determining how best to lead our communities while also in isolation is surely not something for which most of us were prepared or trained. This is surely unfamiliar turf for all of us.

These past several months and, no doubt, the months still to come are a staggering reminder about the unpredictability of our world. While recognizing that too many of our colleagues have previously experienced tragic manifestations of life’s caprice, we convene today with the knowledge that all of us—no matter where we live, no matter the nature of our rabbinate, regardless of our age or station in life—each and every one of us is confronting the same unfamiliar, anxiety-ridden, fear-inducing, individually isolating, community-rending pandemic.

I don’t know about you, but I will honestly share that, to be a rabbi at this moment feels overwhelming. Even with the forced cancellation of numerous trips, appointments, meetings, and community functions, and a calendar that at first blush might seem more open than it has in years, it feels like we have never been busier. For in addition to the heightened relational and pastoral needs of those we serve, we are also now buried under an enormous list of decisions to be made on how to transition every aspect of our complex roles and organizations into an online, virtual format. Further, trying to sift through and extract helpful guidance from traditional sources and the constant stream of articles, news programs, op-eds, Facebook posts, and non-stop emails has felt like drinking from a firehose. It’s been…a lot friends, has it not?  

Assuming my conversations and interactions with colleagues are representative, I would daresay that many of us might presently describe our inner life as one of pizur hanefeshpossessing a scattered soul understood by some of our sages to be the consequence of having to simultaneously devote one’s attention to too many things for a sustained period of time, resulting in an inner life that feels scattered, out of balance, and far from the spiritual ideal.  

I think about the 250 or so rabbis and IJS alumni whom I join each weekday for a virtual, half-hour guided meditation in the hopes of merely trying to center myself, and I am further convinced that there are countless scattered souls among us.

However, I also believe that colleagues are eager and need more than ever opportunities to address our own feelings of isolation and to regain a sense of internal balance. Whether through meditation, exercise, reading, or any other means, we surely recognize and understand we will be better equipped to lead during this time of uncertainty and physical separation if we can do so with a calmer soul and more equanimous spirit. I found these very sentiments affirmed in the conclusion of a poem written and posted on RavBlog by our colleague Lance Sussman this past week. “We Shall Prevail: A Poem for Unprecedented Times” ends with these words:

“Now is the time to collect our inner selves
and to be strong alone
until the time comes again
when we can be strong together.

Until then
until that day
Let us resolve that we shall prevail.”

And of course, we will prevail, just as rabbis have done throughout history. Each of us will soon come to a point in time during this pandemic and isolated existence when the number of urgent decisions we have to make will diminish, and the course for our respective communities will have been charted, and…we will actually be able to stop, catch our breath, work on unifying our souls that feel so very scattered, and come to understand and internalize what I know we have been saying repeatedly to those in our communities, that “isolation need not mean loneliness.”  

During this period which none of us has ever known, even as we continue to support those in need, I also believe that ‘to prevail’ means we must not allow this unexpected window of time to pass by unappreciated, without discovering anew the simple miracles of daily life too often obscured from sight. Liberated from the grueling routines that have dictated our lives for however many years, might not this moment awaken in us a spirit of renewed curiosity, hopefully greater humility, and an appreciation that, though physically distant, we are in truth “alone together,” convening both individually and collectively at the same time. 

I genuinely believe we need this heightened awareness to confront as a rabbinic community what is increasingly understood to be a watershed moment in our history, when the character and nature of future Jewish communities as well as where and how Jewish communities convene are being defined literally before our very eyes.

Throughout Jewish history, with every disruption in the world, rabbis have reshaped, redefined, and recreated Jewish life and expression to ensure Judaism’s survival and continued relevance. I know I am not the first to suggest that the time has come for us to do so again. For with each Shabbat service we appropriately and necessarily livestream, every adult learning session and Hebrew class we offer online, all of the b’nei mitzvah students we now tutor solely through Skype or in Google Hangout rooms, every committee meeting, board meeting, and convention which we hold via Zoom, even the instances of pastoral outreach to those whom we can no longer reach in person…with all of these monumental efforts that many have been forced to implement for the first time, we have, albeit unintentionally, also helped to dramatically expand accessibility to Jewish life and to ensure Judaism’s relevance more than ever before.

In his column printed in last week’s Forward, our colleague Jeff Salkin astutely noted ‘The coronavirus is transforming Judaism… This is our Yavneh moment, a time when we have] to rethink Jewish life, expression, and service.” We surely recognize that, when this pandemic eventually passes, neither we as individuals, nor our congregations, or agencies, or Hillels, or communities, will be—or can be—the same again.

Though nothing can replicate the spiritual and emotional significance of physically being together in community, or ever replace the efficacy of actually reaching out to hold the hand of someone in need, still, having employed new modalities to connect with and engage people throughout our communities, including those who had previously determined our congregations’ or organizations’ offerings were either too limited or not in their budget, having discovered new and creative ways to respond to the needs of our diverse community, we need to understand and greet this moment with an open-hearted and open-minded spirit, not with a sense of foreboding. This is a defining moment in the life of the Jewish community and the ways in which we as rabbis and Jewish professionals respond now, and how we must continue to respond in the future, are how we will foster appreciation, nurture greater loyalty, and most significantly, ensure our and Judaism’s continued relevance. 

So here we are, members of our CCAR, alone together, “Zooming” in hopefully from some comfortable place, connecting in a manner we did not originally intend and could never have predicted. Unquestionably, many of us are greatly missing the long-anticipated opportunity to reconnect and learn and pray together with one another in Baltimore. However, this moment provides us with another opportunity, to realize the words of parashat Vayakhel read just this week and bring to this virtual Mishkan that we are building together across the miles the sincere and genuine gifts of our hearts. Among those gifts is surely one of gratitude for the members of our Convention Planning Committee (under the leadership of Chair Alex Shuval-Weiner and Vice-Chair Amanda Greene) who have labored for well over a year to plan our in-person gathering. Certainly, gratitude goes as well to our talented CCAR professional leadership for making the courageous decision to convene online and especially to Betsy Torop and the entire CCAR staff, who planned and executed this online convention in two weeks’ time, while also working from their homes.

This moment is a unique opportunity for the CCAR, for unexpectedly, a new window has opened and provided us a glimpse of where—and how—we as a Conference must surely continue to evolve in order to remain accessible and relevant to all of our CCAR colleagues in the future, to all of our CCAR colleagues.

With Pesach a little more than two weeks away and thoughts of virtual seders already in mind, perhaps new inspiration might emerge this year from the theme of liberation—liberation from the rushed, often stressful routines of our lives and communities (at least until a month ago), and a transition to the next still-to-be-defined period in Jewish life.

Having personally had the great honor of working closely with an incredibly dedicated CCAR board and gifted staff, I have great confidence in the CCAR’s ability to help shape and successfully guide us into this new moment, confidence that is significantly emboldened by the fact we are led by Rabbi Hara Person. I could not have asked for a greater privilege than to serve in this capacity as Hara assumed the responsibilities as our Chief Executive. Brilliant, thoughtful, reflective, and strategic, Hara is precisely the right rabbi and leader to help us navigate the next era in the life of our Conference. With her steady hand and our shared spirit of curiosity, trust, and faith in one another, we will emerge from this unprecedented moment, prepared to define anew and write this next chapter together. May it indeed be so.  

Thank you for the sincere privilege and honor of continuing to serve as president of the CCAR.


Rabbi Ron Segal is President of the CCAR and senior rabbi at Temple Sinai in Sandy Springs, Georgia.

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Convention

How Inviting Is Baltimore? Baltimore CCAR Rabbis Welcome You to Come to Convention 2020 and See For Yourself

Forbes listed Baltimore as one of the “Coolest Cities to Visit.”  Nothing earth shattering has changed since that 2018 notice.  There has been a lot of focus on the outstanding quality of Baltimore’s medical centers and universities; on our noteworthy and sometimes quirky art museums, our start-ups and our rush of millennials.  There is a lot of good to enjoy and experience in Baltimore.

Oh, we assume you have heard about our challenges. Those have gotten a lot airtime of late.  Baltimore shares similar issues with so many American urban centers, regarding challenges in public education, equal access to health care, racial and economic disparities, and more.  Our great city is struggling to get a handle on violence, even as it trends down in so much of our country.  Yup, our current mayor stepped in when his predecessor resigned under a cloud.   And yes, we are on our fifth police commissioner in as many years.

We know this sounds like a strange list when talking about how inviting our city is.  However, Baltimore is inviting precisely because everything in the first paragraph is true and because our city is actively working to face up to the realities in the second paragraph.

An explosion of social change efforts confronts our challenges here.  Consider these home-grown Baltimore initiatives, in their own words:

  • The Elijah Cummings Youth Program in Israel is an elite two-year leadership fellowship for high school students in Baltimore.  They gain first-hand cross-cultural knowledge and skill.
  • Thread engages underperforming high school students confronting significant barriers outside of the classroom by providing each one with a family of committed volunteers and increased access to community resources.
  • Center for Urban Families connects fathers to their children, creating opportunities for economic and financial security through work, and providing access to other key interventions and supportive services.
  • Baltimore Cease Fire By agreeing to sacred weekends without murder, and by receiving the resources needed to help us avoid violent encounters, we all will eventually agree to honor the sacredness of EVERY day and put an end to murder.

These organizations and so many more are working to address challenges of economic disparity, healthcare access, educational opportunities, police-community relationships, and so much more. Baltimore has these kinds of initiatives, just as your community does as well.

As the month of Av approaches, Lamentations’ initial cry of “Alas, Lonely sits the city” recalls words that Stephen Mitchell places in the mouth of Rabbi Elazar.  “Only words of lament of the destruction of Jerusalem remain. Why shouldn’t they be given to all the other cities as well?” (Congregation, Edited by David Rosenberg, 1987, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc, p.385) As words are spoken about a city with challenges, let us consider the words of that city and the actions of its citizens.  Let Baltimore be defined primarily by Baltimore and its own efforts at improvement and progress, imperfect as they may be.

How inviting is Baltimore? Quite inviting… inviting of visitors, of innovation, and of hope.

Join us for CCAR Convention 2020 in Baltimore, March 22 – 25, 2020. Click here to learn more.


This blog was written by several Baltimore Area CCAR Rabbis.

Categories
Convention

Apologies to Marie Kondo

Recently the self-appointed organizing guru, Marie Kondo, stated on her Netflix show Tidying up with Marie Kondo, “ideally keep less than 30 books.” Needless to say, this caused a great deal of consternation and a bit of a kerfuffle in the social media world. Some of the best responses included those asking follow up clarification questions like: does she mean per shelf or per night stand? Kondo replied by stating, “If the image of someone getting rid of books or having only a few books makes you angry, that should tell you how passionate you are about books, what’s clearly so important in your life.”

I like to joke that one of the reasons I became a rabbi was because in this profession, book addiction is not only socially acceptable but also required. Aside from a variety of Torah Commentaries, Codes, and general books on Jewish history and philosophy, my office, like many of yours, is an a eclectic mix of topics from sociology and psychology to the luminaries of Hollywood and the early years of the comic book industry. I think this is in part because ours is one of the last professions where we are expected to know a little bit about a lot of topics.

This is one of the main reasons why I so enjoy coming to convention. I enjoy hearing from experts and scholars in their fields to help me learn just a little bit more than I knew before I attended. I am particularly excited for our Beit Midrash, our day of study at HUC-JIR. We will have the opportunity to learn from a number of professors from all four of our campuses both in lecture presentations and also in guided chevruta study. What is just as powerful, is as one of the committee members who has been working on this program, the number of our professors who are equally excited and honored to be presenting to us. It looks to be an amazing day of learning.

The theme of the convention is the “130th Birthday of the CCAR and the 200th Birthday of Isaac Mayer Wise.” More than that, our hope, as the committee, is to look at our past in order to be better equipped and prepared to take on an ever more dynamic future. The very nature of what it means to be a rabbi in the 21st century is changing constantly and evolving in ways that I am sure would both surprise and confound Isaac Mayer Wise. However, I am also sure that he would feel that the future of the movement and the rabbinate is in no better hands than ours.

To this end, I for one, am excited to learn from our teachers and our colleagues not just at the HUC-JIR Beit Midrash, but also at the General Workshops and all of the other sessions we are working so diligently to offer. If individually, we each know a little bit about a lot of things, this means collectively, we know a lot more about a lot of things. Aside from connecting with friends, eating good food, and learning more technical skills, I feel CCAR Convention is one of of our greatest opportunities simply to learn for the sake of learning and to continue to build upon that collective knowledge. And who knows, maybe by the end of Convention, we also will get some more book recommendations to add to our shelves. I for one am looking to see if I can get at least 30 more great book ideas, apologies to Marie Kondo, but books and learning are a big part of my passion in life.

I hope to see you there.

Register For Convention Now

— 

Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff serves The Reform Temple of Rockland in Upper Nyack, New York. 
Categories
Convention

Planning for CCAR Convention 2019 in Cincinnati

Initial planning and brainstorming for a CCAR convention begins 18 months prior to a convention, when the convention committee gathers in the city where the convention is set to take place. When members of the 2019 CCAR Convention Committee gathered in the Queen City and the home of Graeter’s Ice Cream in the fall of 2017, we gathered with excitement because of the prospect of celebrating two significant milestones – Isaac Mayer Wise’s 200th birthday and the 130th anniversary of the CCAR.

A Convention site visit is filled with opportunities to meet with local colleagues and local community leaders as we work to brainstorm the high level learning experiences that we all expect from our annual rabbinic gathering. What would make 2019 in Cincinnati unique? Learning at HUC, prayer at Plum St. and a celebration of our founder, Isaac Mayer Wise, would be memorable moments, but what would the enduring impact be of our learning together? To help us frame our thinking and planning, we reached our to our colleagues, Gary Zola and Jonathan Cohen (former Dean of the HUC’s Cincinnati campus) to teach us about Isaac Mayer Wise and his legacies. Not only did we discover that few of us knew much about his life, aside from founding the major institutions of our movement and his work on Minhag America, but thanks to the wisdom of our wonderful teaches we uncovered Wise’s legacies that we would use as a starting point for our learning goals that helps guide our planning for convention.

Rabbis Zola and Cohen taught us that among Wise’s many contributions to Jewish life in America, four significant legacies include: liturgical innovation, educational expansion, equality of women, and the Americanization of Judaism.

Using these lessons as a guide we created the following five goals:

  1. Build upon the legacy of Isaac Mayer Wise: Where were we? Where are we? Where are we going?: We will explore the following aspects – integration of Judaism into America, the training and education of rabbis, modern understandings of Jewish text and literature and how they apply to contemporary issues, liturgical innovation, Jewish education of adults and children, equality of women and social justice issues.
  2. We will reflect on Mission Driven Transformation:

Isaac Mayer Wise wanted to create an American Rabbinate to lead and serve the emerging Jewish community and to teach Jews who knew how to be Jewish to also be Americans. Today we are in the midst of unique opportunities to engage with Jews who know how to be American but need rabbinic leadership to help them create and live a meaningful Jewish life.

  1. To discover how Cincinnati is a microcosm for some of the challenges we are facing in the rest of the country and its approaches to meet those challenges.
  2. To think deeply about the role Reform Judaism plays in Jewish life in North America and the world.
  3. To mark sacred transitions within the CCAR.

Using these goals as our guide, we will have opportunities to engage in meaningful conversations about innovation. We will engage in study with our esteemed HUC faculty who will respond to key questions and challenges we face in our rabbinate. We will learn to lift up our moral voice and enhance moral leadership as we frame our social justice efforts in Jewish teachings and values. Finally, we will have a special opportunity to have an update from the Task Force on the Women’s Experience in the Rabbinate.

We hope that you will plan to join with colleagues as we reconnect with friends, broaden our rabbinic skills, enhance our rabbinates and celebrate the leadership of Steve Fox and Hara Person. We look forward to seeing you in Cincinnati and enjoying a cup of Graeter’s Black Raspberry chip together. Please register for CCAR Convention at https://www.ccarnet.org/member-services/convention/

Rabbi Rick Kellner serves Congregation Beth Tikvah in Columbus, Ohio.  He is also the Chair of the 2019 CCAR Convention Committee. 

Categories
News

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 .

Categories
Convention

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.

Categories
CCAR Convention General CCAR News Reform Judaism Social Justice

Join Rabbis Organizing Rabbis at CCAR Convention

“Who knows whether you have come to your position for such a time as this?”

Last week we told the story of Mordechai calling Esther to action for her people just days before our country commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Alabama. We honored Esther and Mordechai, who risked their lives to rid their community of the injustice Haman intended to perpetrate, and then we honored Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Joshua Heschel, John Lewis and many others who risked their lives to rid our country of the injustice perpetuated by structural racial inequality.

Mordechai called Esther to approach Achashverosh. Rev. Dr. MLK Jr called clergy to join him in Selma. Today, a new, yet familiar, call is sounding. We hear it echoing in newspaper articles and protests all across our country. We hear it in the absence of indictments for police officers at whose hands black men and boys’ lives were lost. We hear it in the statistics comparing the number of black men under some form of correctional control (1.7 million) to the number of black men who were enslaved in 1850 (870,000). Those of us attending CCAR convention will hear it in the words of Rev. William Barber II, who launched the Moral Movement in his home state of North Carolina, during his keynote address. What are we called to do? In his speech in Selma this past Shabbat, President Obama said:

“If we want to honor the courage of those who marched that day, then all of us are called to possess their moral imagination. All of us will need to feel, as they did, the fierce urgency of now. All of us need to recognize, as they did, that change depends on our actions, on our attitudes, the things we teach our children. And if we make such an effort, no matter how hard it may sometimes seem, laws can be passed, and consciences can be stirred, and consensus can be built.”

I want to honor the courage of Queen Esther and those who marched in Selma 50 years ago. I want to respond to the cries of outrage about the racial and economic inequality that plagues America to this day – cries from others and from my own heart. I want to heal and transform the structural inequalities that break on race and class lines in this country. I want to join with rabbinic colleagues to exercise our moral imagination, feel the urgency of now, and take action together.

At CCAR Convention this coming week, Rabbis Organizing Rabbis will begin harnessing the power of the Reform rabbinate to deepen and develop relationships across lines of race, class and faith to dismantle racial and economic inequality. Join me at the ROR workshop on Tuesday, March 17 from 11 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. to discuss structural inequality – how we as rabbis are affected by it, how rabbis across the country are working on it in their communities, and how we might address it together. Because, perhaps, we have come to our positions for such a time as this.

This blog was originally posted on the RAC blog.