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Convention Rabbinic Reflections

Between Brokenness and Wholeness: Rabbi Hara Person’s CCAR Convention 2022 Address

The 133rd annual Convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis was held March 27-30, 2022 in San Diego, where 300 Reform rabbis gathered in person with several hundred online. Here, we share CCAR Chief Executive Rabbi Hara Person’s poignant address to the Reform rabbinate.


How amazing it is for us to be together once again, after three long years since we last gathered as colleagues. What an incredible milestone this is for us as a chevrah, a truly celebratory occasion. It feels unbelievably moving and replenishing to be here together.

And what a strange, hard time this has been. Two years and about two weeks ago, after a lot of struggle, we had just made the decision to go virtual for Convention. So much of that time, those early pandemic days pre-vaccine, were filled with anxiety and fear. All of us were making decisions on the fly—you in your communities, and us at the CCAR, figuring out how to quickly replan and reinvent ourselves. Priorities changed overnight. At the CCAR, we sent our staff home to set up remote office spaces. We changed our educational and support offerings to meet the needs of the moment. We organized coaching, advising, and counseling sessions for rabbis at no cost. We provided you with free or heavily discounted CCAR Press resources. We heard your stress and tried to provide you with care and support during the grimmest, grief-filled, scariest times. I remember one of you telling me that you had done eleven COVID funerals in one week. In one week! Unimaginable, the spiritual and emotional cost.

At the same time, strangely, without social gatherings and commuting, there was also time to be filled. I rolled the thousands of pennies that had migrated to my house after my father died. I seasoned my cast iron pans, and then did it again. I had time to watch the dirt in my garden slowly fill with flowers in bloom that first pandemic spring, giving me a much-needed sense of hope. That all seems so quaint now, given what was still to come.

When we last gathered in person at CCAR Convention in March 2019, no one among us could have foreseen the enormity of what we’d be facing in this intervening time, and how much we would be changed by the experience. Painfully, often in grief, sometimes at great personal cost, but also with creativity and tremendous learning, we persevered. You rethought your rabbinates, you experimented, you pushed through, and even if you sometimes fumbled—and we all did—you nonetheless inspired and led and brought comfort. When I look at and see what you’re managing, when I speak to you, when I hear what you’re doing, when I visit your synagogues, I see the miraculous. I see resilience in the face of all of this. I see innovation. I see vision. It’s truly amazing. There is so much to be proud of.

And yet, I know it’s been a very hard time, and a complicated time. I know you lost people in your own lives, and that grief continues. I know that many of you are exhausted and overworked, stressed and burnt out. I see how hard you’ve been working, and often under impossible conditions. I know you are doing more than ever, and in many cases with fewer resources, less support, and more difficulty. I know that.

At that same time, we are facing challenges in regard to our beloved Reform institutions, challenges that make us question so much. If that wasn’t enough, we are facing fears about what endangers not only our souls but also our physical selves. As many of you have said, being a rabbi shouldn’t be dangerous. And yet it sometimes is just that. With the three ethics reports that have come out from our beloved organizations, the terrible events in Colleyville, the overall rise in antisemitism, and questions about the future of our institutions, there is no doubt that this moment we’re in is a hard one.

I feel it too. There have been times when I—like so many of you—feel weighed down by such a sense of brokenness. There have been many dark moments this past year, many moments of feeling that brokenness deeply within my soul. When I took on this job of serving the Reform rabbinate, I believed I would be doing something that I could be proud of. I thought I’d be able to focus on moving the CCAR into the future.

I could not have imagined that I would be managing the painful and dispiriting work of unpacking the ethical misconduct of rabbis and our institutions. To be the face of the CCAR in this moment is, to say the least, complicated. There have been moments of pain, deep shame, and bleak and utter darkness. Yet I know that this pain pales in comparison to the pain carried by the brave individuals who’ve come forward.

I can’t help but think back to that last in-person Convention in 2019 in Cincinnati, the city in which our founder Isaac Mayer Wise’s legacy is so present. As I was preparing to speak to you all for the first time at that joyous time, before I was even in the role of Chief Executive, I thought about our founder’s legacy. Legacy looms large at the CCAR. We are, after all, one of the three legacy organizations of the Reform Movement, along with our partners the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). We have a storied history that goes back to the nineteenth century. But what does it mean to be a legacy organization? What is the legacy that we have inherited, and perhaps even more importantly, what do we want our legacy to be?

B’reishit teaches ki afar atah v’el afar tashuv, that we come from dust and return to dust. That’s humbling, to be reminded of our nothingness, but it also prompts us to consider just the opposite—that it is what we do in between those states that matters. While we are blessed to walk this earth and be in relationship with each other, what are we doing to create a legacy of positive change, to make a difference, to help right wrongs, to give voice to the voiceless?

We have so much to feel good about, both in our history as Reform rabbis as well in the present. Our Reform predecessors helped define American Judaism. We have reformed liturgy and published generations of prayerbooks. We have marched for social justice and advocated for equity and civil rights. We were the first rabbinic organization to ordain women. Our rabbis published the first English-language modern Torah commentary that included contemporary scholarship, and our rabbis also created the first women’s Torah commentary. We have officiated at countless life-cycle events, celebrating with and comforting Jews decade after decade. We have taught and inspired and written books and sustained communities, and so much more. Part of the challenge of this moment is holding the complexity of all the good that we rabbis have done for people, the community, and the world, all the ways that we have lived out our values since our founding in 1889, together with the ways that we have fallen short.

We come from dust and we return to dust, but in between we have choices to make about the legacy we leave. I want our legacy to be an honorable one, a legacy of integrity and morality, a legacy of inclusion and respect. And I also want to say, wrongdoing on the part of some does not negate all the tremendous good done by most.

But in the midst of our proud Reform rabbinic legacy, and in the midst of all of your important and good work, there is misconduct that, rather than setting an example of menschlichkeit and being our best selves, was instead behavior that did the opposite, behavior that created a legacy of hurt and pain. There were, and continue to be, colleagues who have displayed the worst of human behavior. And other colleagues who either didn’t recognize the behavior for what it was, or didn’t do the right thing to eliminate that behavior from our community. 

Our institutional t’shuvah isn’t just necessary—it’s the right thing to do. I’m grateful to the CCAR T’shuvah Task Force for the thoughtful work they are doing to inform this process. And as we know, t’shuvah is not just a one-time formal statement, but as Maimonides taught, the changing of behaviors going forward. Words without action—and a deep-seated commitment to change—are meaningless. To that end, the CCAR is making t’shuvah a fundamental part of our organization, every day through our actions, by improving our processes, hiring an ethics staff member, supporting the ethics committee in increased training for its members, and hiring professional investigators, as well as engaging in many conversations about experiences with our system and history.

I am very grateful to the Ethics Committee for approaching their difficult work with integrity and dedication. Even before we received the Alcalaw report, their suggestions of ways to continually upgrade the process already had a significant impact. So too the Ethics Process Review Committee has made continual changes to the Ethics Code, almost every year. The attention to ongoing upgrading on the part of both committees is remarkable. Hopefully, as a community, we will vote in many of the needed changes to the current Ethics Code that the Ethics Process Review Committee is currently working on in a special session, even as the Ethics Task Force envisions what an ethics process of the future may look like.

But here, today, I want to begin to apologize out loud.

I’ve heard so many painful stories over the last year. Some happened years ago; some are more recent. Not all are about sexual misconduct. Some stories aren’t about the ethics process at all but are about the way a colleague was hurt by the CCAR. Some are stories of bias or diminishment. And let me be clear—some of the pain that has been expressed is because the ethics system actually worked as it should and held rabbis accountable, and though warranted, that can be painful. Regardless of what, when, or how, the pain is real.

When Abraham speaks to God to argue the case for sparing the people of S’dom, he begins by stating that he is but afar v’eifer, dust and ashes. Abraham invokes humility as he speaks up for the voiceless and argues for what he believes is right. Not only do we come from dust and return to dust, but our texts acknowledge that in our lifetimes we sometimes go through periods of being covered in dust and ashes. There are times in which we are brought low, bowed down in sorrow and grief, before we can rise again.

In this last year, I have often felt buried in both the dirt and the ashes of this pain. I want to say clearly: I am sorry that CCAR rabbis have caused pain. I’m sorry that the CCAR has caused pain. I’m sorry that our legacy is tarnished.

I came to the rabbinate considerably after the vatikot we’re honoring at Convention and owe so much to those first pioneer women, my older sisters who led the way. But I too have my stories, my experiences in the rabbinate and in our Reform institutions, as a mother with one and then two young children while a rabbinic student, as a career-long non-congregational rabbi, as an oddity in many ways, all of which have shaped my rabbinate—sometimes painfully and sometimes joyfully. Moreover, having been one of the early women at a formerly men’s college as an undergrad, I know very well that merely opening the door to let us in doesn’t mean equality has been achieved and bias has been overcome.

And yet, even with all that, it turns out that we also have what to be proud of. We knew we had to revamp our ethics system and were moving forward with this work even before new allegations came to light in this last year. And moreover, we actually have an ethics system, a system in need of further upgrades, yes, but an existing, robust system that has been updated and changed year after year by you, by your votes. The path ahead is filled with repair, rebuilding, and healing. But this too can be our legacy—the commitment to create a better, safer future, and to always improving what we do and how we do it.

I am grateful that we have both an Ethics Task Force and a T’shuvah Task Force hard at work right now, helping to create a better future for us all. I am also grateful to be able to work with my partners, Rabbi Rick Jacobs at the URJ and Dr. Andrew Rehfeld at HUC-JIR, as we begin to navigate what we can do better together, and grateful as well to Rabbi Mary Zamore at the Women’s Rabbinic Network (WRN) for her unwavering commitment to justice.  

Not easily, and not without pain or cost, but progress is happening. Rabbi Zamore and WRN leadership have suggested that we join together in a Day of Lament in the next months. I believe that this will be a meaningful and significant experience for us as a community, and I’m appreciative to be able to partner on this project. In addition, CCAR will be working with URJ and HUC-JIR to plan a Yom Iyyun around themes of repentance and other related topics for the community as a whole. Both of these plans are very preliminary right now, but I believe in the power of ritual acts, communal study, and deep, vulnerable conversation. More information about all of this will be forthcoming in the coming months.

There is so much important work ahead of us. I am energized by all the possibilities. And indeed, in this incredibly difficult time, despite all the really hard and painful work, CCAR has continued to grow and evolve in really exciting ways. As you have hopefully seen, one of the things we will be voting on tomorrow is new Vice President positions, one of which is the Vice President of Varied Rabbinates, as a response to the evolving reality of where and how our rabbis serve today and what kinds of support you need. That’s a significant step forward for us as a Conference, a new milestone.

And another very big milestone—we are taking the very first steps toward a new Reform Torah commentary, including a new translation. It’s very early in the process, but I’ll have more to share with you in the months to come.

Accelerated by the needs of the last two years, we now have a robust wellness program under Rabbi Betsy Torop, CCAR Director of Rabbinic Education and Support, in addition to the pandemic pivoting and all the other fine work she and Julie Vanek, CCAR Education Specialist, are doing in that department, including this Convention. You don’t necessarily see her work, but if it wasn’t for the thoughtful fiscal and operations stewardship of Laurie Pinho, our COO and CFO, we would not be able to function, never mind flourish, and without Laurie’s leadership we certainly would not be able to run a hybrid convention.

The department we used to call “Placement” has evolved into the fuller and more inclusive Department of Rabbinic Career Services, and I’m so grateful that our interim directors, Rabbi Deborah Hirsch and Rabbi Michael Weinberg, were willing to put their retirements on hold to come help us for the year. With their help, and with your feedback and input, we’ve re-envisioned that department and created a new structure for the future, which includes two full-time directors with separate portfolios to better meet your needs. I’m so excited that we’ll be welcoming Rabbi Leora Kaye and Rabbi Alan Berlin this summer, when they’ll take over as Director of Rabbinic Career Services and Director of Search Services respectively, and help us keep moving the department into the future. With this new structure, we will be able to better serve different kinds of rabbis at all moments of the rabbinic career lifecycle. I’m grateful too for Rabbi Dennis Ross and Rabbi David Thomas, both serving as interims in specific career-related areas this year.

CCAR Press Director Rafael Chaiken came in only months before the pandemic but despite that challenge, the Press has thrived under his leadership. Director of Strategic Communications Tamar Anitai makes us look good in social media spaces and helps us navigate the complex world of communications. Our Development Department recently welcomed Pamela Goldstein in a new position as the Director of Advancement, who together with Lisa Tobin, our Director of Development, is working hard to provide all the services and resources that you rely on and help us find ways to keep growing into the future. Our Special Advisor in Ethics, David Kasakove, came into a brand-new position at a historic moment, giving us wise and careful guidance. I am also grateful to our two emeriti, Rabbi Steve Fox and Rabbi Alan Henkin, who generously continue to provide insights and help when asked.

I also want to thank and acknowledge my amazing assistant, Rosemarie Cisluycis, and the rest of our team: Debbie Smilow, Raquel Fairweather, Jaqui D’ellaria, Michael Santiago, Ariel Dorvil, Chiara Ricisak, Rabbi Jan Katz, Dale Panoff, Nathan Burgess, Rodney Dailey, Rabbi Rex Perlmeter, and Rabbi Don Rossoff, as well as our HUC-JIR interns Madeline Cooper and Ariel Tovlev. And we are soon to be joined not only by Leora and Alan, but also by our colleague Rabbi Annie Belford-Villarreal, who will become the new editor at CCAR Press this summer. Most of these amazing staff members are either here this week in person or back home helping to run the online version of Convention, and I urge you to introduce yourself and say hello when you cross paths.  

I want to say a special thank you to CCAR President and my partner and friend, Rabbi Lewis Kamrass, for his wisdom, calm counsel, and caring heart. I also must thank the whole CCAR board, who provide incredible support and thoughtfulness, and all of you who volunteer with the CCAR in such a huge variety of invaluable ways. I am so very grateful to the many, many CCAR members who work so hard on behalf of our Conference.

I said earlier that I feel weighed down by brokenness. But one thing I am learning in the midst of this incredibly difficult time is to not walk away from brokenness. Brokenness calls, and I am trying to embrace it, to face it, to learn from it, and to walk through it.

At the heart of our Jewish tradition is the idea that brokenness is part of life rather than an aberration. The challenge of holding within us that tension between brokenness and wholeness is a deep part of our collective story. In just a few weeks, as we celebrate our freedom at the seder, we will break the middle matzah. Doing so reminds us that we live in a broken world, that we ourselves contain brokenness. 

Back home, spring flowers are bursting through the desolate winter dirt of my Brooklyn garden. What looks bleak in one season can become celebratory in the next. This I know: out of dust and ashes, beauty arises. In the coming weeks, we will taste the bitterness of oppression as we joyfully celebrate liberation. Brokenness may bring us low, but it is only a chapter, not the whole story. Our narrative continues. As we move from dust to dust, we continue to write our story, and in so doing, continue to create our ongoing and ever-evolving legacy. We have so much to be excited about. I look forward to growing and building the CCAR with you in the months and years to come.

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CCAR Convention Convention

Celebrating Joys, Sorrows & Deepening My Faith: Rabbi Paul (Shaul) Feinberg on 50 Years in the Rabbinate

My rabbinate in North America and Israel has given me opportunities to share in the joys and the sorrows of others. Moreover it has enabled me to learn and teach our religious heritage. My rabbinate has helped me to deepen my faith in God; my family, my teachers, and colleagues have guided me in this path.

In 1981, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion invited me to join the faculty of the Jerusalem School and thus enabled us to make aliyah. I became an integral part of the developing narrative of our people, while strengthening the Reform Movement in Israel.

For three decades, I engaged with students in their quest to develop religious leadership wherever they were to serve. During these years, my rabbinate facilitated my travels throughout the world to teach Judaism, Israel, and education. All along I was deepening my own religious faith, refining the understanding of Judaism as an ever changing way of life. My rabbinate continues to connect me with former students, now colleagues and leaders, in their own communities.

In all facets of my rabbinate, education has been a key empowering factor of living the values of tikkun olam b’malchut Shaddai. As Tania always says, the Jewish community begins at home; in this spirit we are grateful to see our children teaching their children values they hold dear as each one of them continues on her or his own path.

My credo is shlichut—being on a mission which as a parent and as a rabbi continues to unfold to this day.

Today, fifty years from our Ordination is a milestone, even as we remember dearest friends and classmates who have gone to their Eternal Rest.

“This is the day the Eternal has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu v’higianu laz’maan hazeh.


Rabbi Paul (Shaul) Feinberg 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.

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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.

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CCAR Convention Convention

A Scholarly Rabbinic Career: Rabbi Roy Furman on His 50 Years in the Rabbinate

During my years at HUC-JIR, my expectations of a future rabbinate were vague, at best. What 50 years after ordination actually held were beyond what I could then have imagined. It would certainly prove to be a multifaceted rabbinate, one which extended the boundaries of how I would be a rabbi and what sort of congregation I would serve. It has been an interesting journey to say the least. 

That journey first took me to Los Angeles where I served as Hillel director on the campus of the University of Southern California. There I immersed myself in the creative challenges and rewards of working with students developing a vibrant campus Jewish community. Four years later, I decided to enhance my counseling skills by studying for and obtaining an MSW, followed by another four years practicing clinical social work at Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. 

By the ten-year mark after HUC-JIR, I sought congregational work for the first time, moving with my wife to Portland, Oregon to work with a small, participatory, egalitarian, and very spiritual chavurah. The five years with that community were my idea of rabbinic heaven. I would still be there, I imagine, if my wife did not need to relocate to pursue her academic aspirations.

If Chicago did not readily yield to my rabbinic needs and aspirations, it did provide me with the opportunity to work with a gay and lesbian community, with a suburban congregation in an assistant rabbinical position, and another two years as interim rabbi for a large Reconstructionist shul.

Through the years, I took great pleasure in doing scholarly work, including PhD studies in ancient Judaism and early Christianity. Having served as a rabbi on a college campus, at Jewish family service, with a chavurah, and with three Chicago-based Jewish communities, I now entered the academic part of my rabbinic journey. Some twenty-three years after ordination, I began teaching comparative religions and Jewish studies at DePaul University, an adjunct position I held for twenty years, along with part-time work as campus rabbi. 

At the forty-sixth year post ordination mark, I entered a year-long training program in clinical pastoral education and continued working as a chaplain in an acute hospital setting until the Spring of 2020 and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And through all of these years, my rabbinate has been expanded and enriched through interactions with Jews in congregations, both old and newly emerging, in Russia, Germany, Poland, Spain, France, Chile, and Morocco.

From the time I left HUC-JIR until the present, I have been active as a leader, facilitator, and member of chavurot and minyanim. That aspect of my journey reflects much of what has come to be important and meaningful for me as a rabbi and as a Jew, as I have met, taught, counseled, comforted, andlearned from many, many wonderful people along the way. I continue to write divrei Torah for my minyan, study Hasidic and Mussar literature with Rabbi Richard Hirsh, my long-time chevruta and dear brother-in-law, and to be challenged by the likes of Maimonides, Heschel, Buber,  Hartman, and the Baal Shem Tov.


Rabbi Roy Furman 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.

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Convention

Building Congregations and Communities: Rabbi Stephen Einstein’s 50-Year Career

At HUC-JIR, we thought that the road to a successful rabbinate began with an assistantship. During the placement period before ordination, I interviewed for several assistantships, but in each case was a runner-up. So, my first position was as the solo rabbi in a New Jersey “A” congregation. I didn’t have an experienced rabbi from whom to learn, nor a Temple administrator to guide me in dealing with a staff.  In fact, I had no staff or even an office. For a while, my study was half of the dining room of our small rented apartment until the congregation completed construction on its building. 

I recently received an email from one of my confirmands in that congregation with whom there had been no contact in the intervening years. Now a 60-something leader of the shul, she expressed what an impact I had had upon her as a fifteen-year-old girl. This is probably the greatest joy every rabbi has—the knowledge that rabbis touch people deeply, often without even being aware of the extent of our influence.

We might well have remained in that congregation had we not faced housing difficulties. We lived in three places in three years and were facing a fourth move when we learned of an opening in California. Robin—who has been my mainstay throughout—and I both grew up in Southern California and wanted to be near our family. So, we returned.

I learned a valuable lesson: geography is not a very good reason for a rabbi to choose a congregation. This was a troubled group. I was there to celebrate the temple’s bar mitzvah year—and I was rabbi number seven! They had already spun off two other congregations before I arrived! At the conclusion of my two-year contract, I suffered what too many of our colleagues have experienced—a professional dislocation.

At that point, we rented out our house, moved in with my in-laws together with our three children (number four came along later), Robin got a job, and I enrolled in law school. However, a lovely group of people decided to form a new congregation and asked me to serve as their rabbi. From September 1 to Simchat Torah, the membership grew from 31 to 99 households. I realized I could have a decisive role in giving shape and substance to this synagogue. So, I left law school and devoted myself to Congregation B’nai Tzedek for the next thirty-six years.

While I was synagogue-based, my involvements extended far beyond the walls of our shul. The first that I would mention is Interfaith Activities. I was a founder and past president of the Greater Huntington Beach Interfaith Council. I was an elected member of the Fountain Valley School Board, and following that served on the School District’s Personnel Commission for twenty-seven years. I was on our local hospital board, which I also chaired. I served on committees of the American Cancer Society, Alzheimer’s Association, and PBS.

In the Jewish community, I was a founder and past-president of the Bureau of Jewish Education and board member of Jewish Federation, Jewish Family Service, American Jewish Committee, and ADL.

A focus of my rabbinate has been outreach. I taught our community-wide Introduction to Judaism class for forty-one years and co-edited the curriculum that was used throughout North America. For over two decades, I was the rabbinic cochair of the Commission on Outreach, Membership, and Sacred Community. I am currently cochair of the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California.

For twelve years, I served on the CCAR Ethics Committee—six of those years as chair. I’ve been on the CCAR Board for two terms, including one as VP of Member Services. I am currently on the Ethics Process Review Committee.

In retirement, I remain active. I continue to mentor rabbinical students. I am doing a lot of Social Justice work, primarily through CLUE (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice).

Through all this, the person-to-person connections remain most meaningful.


Rabbi Stephen Einstein is Founding Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley, California. 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.

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CCAR Convention Convention

Great Privilege and Joy: Rabbi Steven Chester on 50 Years in the Rabbinate

My desire to become a rabbi after graduating from UCLA led me to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, Israel, and Cincinnati, and reached fruition when I was ordained in 1971. My love for Judaism in all its many aspects made me realize that the only way I could live and teach the values of our tradition, as well as become fully immersed in Jewish life, was by becoming a rabbi.

Where has it led?

I had the privilege of serving four congregations in my career: Temple Beth Israel in Jackson, Michigan; chaplain for the Jewish inmates of the state prison system of Michigan; Temple Israel in Stockton, California; and Temple Sinai in Oakland, California. In addition, after retirement in 2011, I became interim rabbi in three other congregations: Temple Beth Ora in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada; Temple Israel in Alameda California; and Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, California. All the congregations I served gave me a positive rabbinic experience, and I feel so fortunate to have served each of them. Each, in its own way, has helped form the rabbi I am today.

Some thoughts after fifty years in the rabbinate: to be a rabbi has been my privilege and joy. I feel privileged that I have become an intimate part of so many lives. I have become part of my congregants’ lives through joyous occasions: a B’rit Milah, a naming, a bar/bat mitzvah, or a wedding. I have become part of their lives at sad times: a serious illness or the death of a loved one. To be with my congregants at these times—to rejoice when they rejoiced, to offer comfort when they suffered—has been an awesome responsibility, an awesome privilege and a blessing for me. It was especially meaningful for me to train and officiate at b’nei mitzvah for those who had either severe physical or learning challenges.

I have had the privilege to have wonderful colleagues. The rabbis and cantors with whom I served in my forty years of congregational life made my rabbinate rich and fulfilling. Sharing with them, learning from them, studying with them, and sharing the bimah with them enhanced my life.

My fifty years has been full of many diverse experiences. I have served on various boards of both Jewish and non-Jewish organizations. I helped found an in-home hospice in Stockton, served on the board for a number of years, and became the grief and mourning counselor for the hospice. I taught Bible at Spring Arbor College near Jackson. I was privileged to be appointed an adjunct professor of Jewish Studies at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, teaching two classes there. 

Leading congregational tours was an important part of my rabbinate. I led eight trips to Israel; two to Cuba; one each to Spain, Morocco, and Central Europe. In Oakland, I led a trip to the Gold Country of California where we visited cemeteries and other Jewish sites that were active during the Gold Rush.

The most important thing I learned in my fifty years of the rabbinate is that the great majority of people are basically good. They care about others, want to live a good life, and wish for a world of peace and justice. I also learned that the board of directors of a congregation are partners with me and not adversaries. We are both working for the same thing: to make a vibrant and vital congregation.

As I think about the future, I look forward to the time when we again can meet in person. I am now living in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic where all of our synagogue activities are virtual. I long for physical contact, for being together at Temple as a live community. I will continue to do life cycle events. Also, I plan to study, teach and travel.

I hope to live long enough to see our ten-year-old granddaughter become a bat mitzvah. I hope to see our country become united instead of divided.

I end with the following: My life has been blessed because I am a Jew, because I am a Reform Jew, and because I am a Reform rabbi. If I had to do all over again, I would do it in the exactly the same way.  I feel so much gratitude for the fifty years I have served as a congregational rabbi.


Rabbi Steven Chester serves as Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Sinai in Oakland, California. 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.

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CCAR Convention Torah

A Career Dedicated to Teaching and Learning Torah: Rabbi Norman J. Cohen on 50 Years in the Rabbinate

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 Norman J. Cohen.

Though it has been fifty-three years since we were ordained by Dr. Alfred Gottschalk, z”l, at Central Synagogue, it seems like yesterday. But as I look back and remember the emotions of that day, which were heightened for me by my mother’s death only months before, little did I know that fifteen years later, Dr. Gottschalk would ask me to join the Administration of the College-Institute. And, as I stood on the bimah of Central Synagogue with Dr. Gottschalk, seated on the bimah was his ultimate successor, Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, then a rabbi at Central. What an amazing snapshot! Three presidents of HUC-JIR on the bimah at one time. Who would have thought that I would also have the honor of serving for a brief time as Interim President of the College-Institute.

At that moment of Ordination, it surely would have been impossible to imagine how my life as a rabbi would play out. My goal then was simply to enter our graduate school in Cincinnati and immerse myself in rabbinic text study, hoping to gain a deeper understanding of its various genres. The years studying Midrash and Rabbinic Literature were such a blessing, and in great measure, it was due to the knowledge I gained and the passion I imbibed from wonderful mentors, chief among them, Drs. Eugene Mihaly, z”l, Ben Zion Wacholder, z”l, and Ellis Rivkin, z”l.

Little did I know then that my entire rabbinic career would be bound up with the College-Institute, as a faculty member who also spent twenty-three years working in the administration. And it began with my return to the New York School in 1975, due in large measure to the faith that Dr. Gottschalk had in me, as well as the efforts of Dr. Paul Steinberg, z”l, and Dr. Eugene B. Borowitz, z”l. For thirteen years I served as a full-time member of the Faculty, teaching and advising rabbinic and cantorial students; trying to impart to them not only the knowledge that I gained, but a sense of what it means to be a rabbi, a cantor, really a Teacher of Torah.

Serving as the Director of the Rabbinical School and then Dean of the New York School, and finally as Provost of our College-Institute was indeed a wonderful way for me to channel my rabbinic aspirations. Helping to shape the training and growth of future rabbis, cantors and educators provided me a tremendous opportunity to ensure that future Reform Jewish leaders would become the newest chuliot, links in the Shalshelet HaKabbalah, the chain of tradition and help ensure Jewish continuity. And in the process, I gained so much from so many of the students with whom I was truly privileged to study.

During the years I spent working in the administration, it meant a great deal to work with clergy, education and administrative staff, and faculty who embodied supreme dedication to shaping a seminary which could be a bastion of creativity and commitment to Jewish life. They, in turn, would train leaders who would make a significant difference in the lives of all those whom they were blessed to serve.

Yet, as I reflect upon almost five decades of work at our alma mater, it has been clear to me that the greatest joy and personal fulfillment I experience comes in the myriad of moments in which I share my love and passion for words of Torah. Studying with students and laypeople alike—opening ourselves to every element in the text, biblical and rabbinic, and having it teach us who we are and who we aspire to be as Jews and as human beings—has given me indescribable pleasure. Through my teaching at the College-Institute and in congregations, and the six books I have written, I’ve tried to demonstrate the power of words suffused with k’dushah, the holiness latent in every textual element, which have been transformational for me in my life. The most important insight I have ever gained about the importance of the teaching of Torah came from a comment by Franz Rosenzweig, who noted, “Teaching begins when the subject matter ceases to be subject matter and changes into inner power. We truly teach when we ourselves are drastically changed in the process. We truly learn when our autonomous self is pierced and we move beyond ourselves to the Other.”

And so we praise the power in the universe, in us, which is the source of mayim chayim, life-giving water, Torah:

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu laasok b’divrei Torah.


Rabbi Norman J. Cohen is celebrating 50 years in the Rabbinate. Rabbi Cohen serves as Professor Emeritus of Midrash at HUC-JIR New York.

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.

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CCAR Convention Convention

Convention 2021: Enter with Intention

During a recent CCAR Board meeting, our colleague and board member Rabbi Mona Alfi selected a pasuk from Parashat T’rumah on which to d’rash: “ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם, Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). Included in her chosen source texts was a passage by Mordecai Kaplan, a segment of which follows:

“The presence of the multitude in public worship creates an atmosphere that profoundly influences the individual participant. It stirs up emotions of gratitude and confidence that one could not experience in isolation” (A Year with Mordecai Kaplan, p. 73).

The ensuing discussion invited an evaluation of Kaplan’s (and other commentators’) assertion amidst this continuing stretch of isolation when the concept of “presence” has taken on entirely new meaning. Can a “multitude” comprised of silent individuals, visible in small boxes filling our computer screens, still engender an atmosphere rich with emotion, gratitude, and confidence?  For many, the answer was a definitive “yes.” Even in their silent Zoom sanctuaries and classrooms, colleagues noted that the mere presence of engaged and participatory congregants and students effects greater spiritual meaning and enhances the level of joy for all involved…with one caveat. The present multitude to which Kaplan is alluding is achieved when, virtual or not, individuals actively engage and participate in the worship (or learning, or community-building, or meeting, or…), and not simply log in to check a box or listen passively while trying to work simultaneously on other tasks.

Admittedly, the learning focused my attention as much on events to come as it did on experiences during the past year, in particular, our approaching CCAR Convention. Contemplating the potential and hoped-for impact of our Convention, even as we gather from our respective homes and individual spaces, the aspirational qualities that Kaplan describes aptly named are a now-familiar longing for countless among us—an atmosphere that profoundly influences the individual participant, one that stirs up emotions of gratitude and confidence not experienced in isolation. That we happen to be gathering by virtual means is, in truth, an inconsequential variable. With the stellar leadership of our colleagues Rabbi Amanda Greene (Convention Chair) and Rabbi Peter Stein (Vice-Chair), this year’s Convention possesses the undeniable potential to make a genuinely needed, positive and enduring impact in each of our rabbinates. However, the remaining variable in the realization of a spiritually renewing, heartening, confidence-boosting, enriching, educational, and joyful gathering rests not in the hands of the Convention planning leadership, but in each of ours. It is our collective determination to be present that will enable the restorative atmosphere we seek.

This past Rosh HaShanah, our congregation’s first pre-recorded service began with an invitation to members to “enter with intention.” Appreciating that it would have been easy enough for people simply to watch passively, as if with popcorn in hand, we encouraged congregants not to allow the fact that the service was pre-recorded to dissuade them from engaging and participating fully and sincerely, as if they were sitting in the sanctuary.

Looking ahead to this year’s Convention, the sages remind us that our mutual commitment to presence, our decision to engage fully and participate actively—to enter the days with intention—will foster an atmosphere in which renewed gratitude, confidence, and joy can well up and flourish. So, if not done already, clear your calendars for the days of this year’s Convention. Treat the few days we have together as if we were sitting together in the grand ballroom of a Convention hotel. The commitment we make to be present—for ourselves and for one another—will ensure this year’s Convention with all of its virtual creativity, realizes its full potential as one of the best Conventions yet.


Rabbi Ron Segal is President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and senior rabbi at Temple Sinai in Sandy Springs, Georgia.

CCAR Convention 2021 will take place online 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.

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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.

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CCAR Convention

Growing A Congregation and Watching It Bloom: Rabbi Mayer Perelmuter on 50 Years in the Rabbinate

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 Mayer Perelmuter.

Upon reflection, I am so grateful to have been in one congregation over the majority of these years. It enabled me to grow and develop a congregation and to see Temple Isaiah through some difficult financial crises, until it blossomed into the largest and most active Reform congregation in Queens, New York: The Reform Temple of Forest Hills.

Here are some of the accomplishments of which I am most proud:

  • I hired and trained numerous rabbinic interns who are currently religious leaders throughout the country.
  • I instituted a temple covenant with our board of directors and committee leaders, developing a humane, sensitive, way to agree and disagree as we worked together. 
  • I expanded the temple covenant with our lay and professional educational leadership, to be part of the religious school classrooms; this covenant continues to be the opening lesson in our religious school to this day. 
  • Our Mitzvah Day committee started out as a “senior group,” but with my advocacy and encouragement, it became an intergenerational event that included and partnered with the Religious School Parents’ Association. To this day, Mitzvah Day is our most celebrated intergenerational event in the congregation and is known throughout Queens.
  • Prior to the High Holy Days in 1994, Temple Isaiah’s roof was leaking, and the sanctuary was unusable. In partnership with our board, we made the decision to build an ark and move the services to a local college. The lesson that the congregation learned continues to this day: “We celebrate together as a congregational family, not as a building.” This was the rationale that enabled me, in partnership with our board leadership, to convince Temple Isaiah congregants to merge with three other struggling Queens congregations to become the Reform Temple of Forest Hills in 1995.
  • I loved establishing a men’s study group to complement the active women’s groups in our congregation. This weekly men’s study group, which drew diverse ages and very curious intelligent men, was provocative, challenging and exciting for me, and continues to exist today.  
  • I learned so much from my congregational leaders, from my rabbinic interns, cantors, and most important, from my congregants. My involvement, pastorally with them was among the most meaningful aspects of my rabbinate. I treasure the relationships that developed through the numerous life cycle events, sometimes over three generations; the joys and sorrows that I was privileged to share with these people have influenced my life and have enabled me to cope with my own challenges in life as I grow older.  

Rabbi Mayer Perelmuter is celebrating 50 years in the Reform Rabbinate. He is Rabbi Emeritus of The Reform Temple of Forest Hills in New York.

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.