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CCAR 2015: The Reverend’s Call to Justice

So, when I was asked to write a blog piece for this conference, I happily accepted. There are always things to write about after a couple of days, right? What I failed to account for is how busy I would be this time. I can’t remember a conference where I had so little down time. The sessions are coming rapid fire, and there hasn’t been a moment where I haven’t wanted or needed to be somewhere. I’ve barely had time to breathe, let alone write!
So, in these few minutes in between the State of the CCAR address and dinner with friends, let me share one moment with you.
For the past two years, I’ve been involved with Rabbis Organizing Rabbis (ROR), but not as much as I should have been. The urgent has far too often gotten in the way of the important, and Justice hasn’t been at the forefront of my Rabbinate, as it should be.
But then, late in today’s (very well attended) meeting, Peter Berg got up to speak, and he referenced the amazing speech (sermon, really) we heard yesterday from Dr. Reverend William Barber. It was a firery, passionate call to justice. But, as Rabbi Berg pointed out, it didn’t really contain any new information. We all knew, more or less, about all of the issues he raised; we all know how terrible they are. What we forget is how deeply we have to care. And, as Rabbi Berg said, what we really forget is that this is why we became Rabbis in the first place. We didn’t become Rabbis to help kids with their Haftarah blessings (as important as that is), or to work with the House Committee (as important as that is). We became Rabbis to change the world. We became Rabbis to inspire people, to move people, to challenge people, and to help people. We became Rabbis to bring more justice into the world.
For me, it’s time to draw a line. It’s time to stop letting the urgent take center stage, and to start making time for what is truly important. And, for you? Will you commit to ROR, to do a little, or a lot? Will you commit in some other way to bringing more justice into the world? Will you commit, will you re-commit, to the vision and ideals which brought you here in the first place?
The good Reverend helped me to remember why I’m really here (with an assist from Rabbi Berg). Hopefully, he can inspire us all.
Rabbi Jason Rosenberg is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Am in Tampa, Florida.
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CCAR 2015: From Selma to Philadelphia

On the Sunday before the CCAR Convention, I joined an amazing gathering at Temple Mishkan Israel in Selma, Alabama. The list of incredibly impressive speakers included dignitaries associated with the Civil Rights Movement of 50 years ago and current activists and leaders. A woman who walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965 was in the congregation with us. Peter Yarrow made a surprise appearance to recount all the places in which he sang “Blowin’ in the Wind” during the 1960’s in support of Civil Rights and then led us in singing it back to him. Rev. Dr. William Barber, II, raised the roof with his fiery call to rededicate our efforts to pursue the Civil Rights we still lack.

Yesterday, the Monday program at the CCAR brought us Rev. Barber’s inspirational and insightful keynote presentation, a blessing to hear him twice in the space of nine days. I am thrilled to re-energize my commitment to using my rabbinate to help facilitate social progress, and honored that I got to reflect on the ways we use our rabbinical presences to pursue and implement tzedek. All of this on the same day as our Reform rabbinic colleagues gathered to assemble 10,000 meals to feed malnourished children – something we accomplished in our mere two hours allotted!

Selma, Philadelphia, Charlotte, where I serve Temple Beth El (there’s one in almost every town) – wherever we go we bring with us the wisdom of our ancestors which we apply to imagine, and then create, a better society for all. We mobilize each other and the people around us – congregants, staff, colleagues, interfaith partners – so that we may go forth and achieve that which Rev. Barber demanded of us: a prophetic voice and righteous action in the public square.

I continue to be heartened by our time here at the CCAR Convention. I love finding intellectual resources deepened by learning from and conversing with colleagues from multiple generations. My prayer life gets enriched by participating instead of leading, and by being led so capably and creatively.

May we all go from strength to strength in our rabbinates – I continue to by honored and filled with joy to be part of the Conference.

Rabbi Jonathan Freirich is associate rabbi of Temple Beth El in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

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CCAR 2015: Longevity Has its Place

I usually blog as “The Boxing Rabbi” so forgive me if I stretch the metaphor.  In my sport of choice, boxing, longevity is measured in very small numbers.  Most fighters have careers that last only a few years.  Some are successful for only a few months, and for virtually all except a select group, their career is completely over when they reach their mid-twenties.  In addition, if one can manage to retire in good health, with minimal effects of repeated blows, and financially secure, it is a small miracle and one that few in this difficult sport ever achieve.

While the rabbinate is hardly akin to the fast-paced and physically brutal sport of boxing, it is undeniably taxing physically, mentally and spiritually, and its effects take a toll on the rabbi (and too often the rabbi’s family).  Which is why I was so moved this past Tuesday morning when we gathered for the annual HUC-JIR breakfast at the CCAR Convention.

For those that have not yet attended this event, the highlight of the HUC-JIR breakfast is the “roll-call” of classes, beginning with the most recently ordained.   To watch the progression of classes from those ordained in recent years, progressing back through the decades is both joyful and celebratory.  But as we approach the moment to recognize colleagues ordained for forty and fifty and even fifty plus years, joy and celebration turns to awe and admiration.

As I have made my way through the congregational rabbinate, I have learned along the way that longevity in this profession is a combination of careful planning,  deliberate self-care, wise choices, strong familial support, and yes, plain damn luck.   Rather than fearing and dreading the end of our active rabbinate and retirement, we should embrace retirement as a necessary and vital stage in a rabbinic career, as much a part of the life arc of a rabbi as ordination and pulpit or organizational  transitions.  To know colleagues who have entered retirement whole in spirit, mind, body, and economic security is to know role models worthy of emulation, admiration, and inspiration.  Sadly I have known too many colleagues who retire broken in spirit, continually bitter in mind and emotion, damaged in physical health, and even struggling financially.  My heart aches in pain at every story of such a colleague.  To bear witness this Tuesday morning to those rabbis who have achieved the end of their full time rabbinate healthy in mind, unbroken in spirit and hope, and even with myriad physical ailments greeting each new day with strength and determination  is a joy and a privilege, and a testament to the ability of each one of us, given enough wisdom, guidance, support and some plain old luck, to make it there as well.   To my older colleagues, graduates of HUC-JIR classes of decades earlier who have achieved so much and have embraced their retirement with the same skill and wisdom that they served the Jewish people, you are all “champions” in my book.

Doug Sagal is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Westfield, NJ. 

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CCAR 2015: Don’t Sit Back, Don’t Relax, Refuse to be at Ease

“Hoy hasha’ananim b’tzion, Woe to them that are at ease in Zion.” (Amos 6:1)
“Sit back, relax, and enjoy.”  I used to love those words.  The first time remember hearing them it was in this city of Philadelphia. I was about 8 years old, and I sat in the back row of the Forrest Theater, just a few blocks from where I write this entry in fact, as I saw Les Miserables.  I saw it 48 times that year, while my big brother Geoff played the role of Gavroche (Yes, I watched him fake-die on stage 48 times, and as a little brother that’s a big deal).  I also recall that year being my first serious confrontation with poverty.  I grew up comfortable in the suburbs, never once wondering where my next meal would come from, or where I could shower or sleep.  But every night that year, outside the Forrest Theater, I passed the same man, and every night he asked me for money.  I ignored him, and not because I had nothing to give him, but because that is what we were told to do.  “Sit back, relax, and enjoy.”
It’s only suitable that I’m back in the city where I first encountered- or, rather ignored- homelessness and now find profound resonance in the address that Rev. Dr. William Barber II delivered to the Central Conference of American Rabbis today.
You could call it a dose of prophetic caffeine.  He talked to us as a partner in God’s work of civic healing and a courageous champion of justice in the public square.  Rev. Barber reminded us to celebrate our tradition’s unwillingness to accept the world as it is and continually renew our obligation to wake up and pursue the world as it should be.  The words of Scripture rolled off his tongue, as he lifted up two texts from the Hebrew Prophets and one from his own tradition, from Jesus’ first sermon, in which he recognizes the Divine spirit is within him.
Rev. Barber addressed the very real and horrid living conditions of countless Americans in our communities: poor access to healthcare and education, unconscionable incarceration rates (particularly among African Americans and Latinos), hateful immigration policies, and continuous voter suppression in the South.  A quick glance at the reality of any one of these issues– or hearing just one of the millions of stories of suffering in our wealthy nation– is enough to make you instantly tearful, angry, or just plain hopelessness.
In my work at Temple Israel in Boston I spend hours each week organizing hand-in-hand with other communities around these issues.  Sharing and listening to stories is how we connect; it’s how we energize and animate our sense of responsibility for each other. As many storytellers say, “the shortest distance between two people is a story.” This winter in particular in Boston the suffering has been relentless– the perfect storm, in a sense: homelessness and food insecurity are on the rise, and we had our our worst winter weather ever.  So hearing a prophetic sermon is nothing new to my rabbinate, particularly in this season.  But listening to the words of Amos, “Woe to them that are at ease,” as I sat blocks away from the Forrest Theater where 28 years ago I myself would “sit back, relax, and enjoy,” forced me to recall that homeless stranger who sat outside in the cold.
My mind drifted back and forth between the imagery of streets of Philly in the ’80s and the resonant words of Rev. Barber until I heard him say: “prophetic hope can’t come until we touch the honest message of despair.” How do we “touch the honest message of despair”?
We American Jews are, as a group, among the most privileged in the United States.  Of course this doesn’t reflect everyone (and we always have to be careful in our assumptions), but it’s just a fact: we’ve never had it this good.  Arguably, we American Jews are as privileged, protected, and powerful as we have ever been at any moment in Jewish history.  So how do we touch the honest message of despair?
The Prophet Amos’ word for “one who is at ease”- Hasha’an– usually in the Bible connotes a perverse state of arrogance (especially throughout Isaiah).  Hasha’an is one who not only is comfortable but also apathetic to poverty, out-of-touch with the message of despair.
In the Torah the Israelites are cautioned repeatedly regarding the state of comfort.  Just a few weeks ago, on the Shabbat before Purim (the period of utmost “comfort,” in a way), we read a special passage from Deuteronomy that tells the Israelites that they must “remember what Amalek did to [them] while leaving Egypt,” attacking their stragglers, their most vulnerable….  Usually we focus on the remembrance aspect of the commandment, or the evil of the Amalekites, but perhaps we should be calling more attention to the timing of the commandment–when must the Israelites recall the period of their most extreme discomfort?  “V’haya b’haniach Adonai Elohecha mikol oyvecha misaviv, when the Eternal your God grants you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Eternal your God is giving to you.”  That is, when you’re comfortable, able to “sit back, relax, and enjoy.”
Similarly, it’s not accidental that the commandment to bless food– to cultivate an attitude of gratitude– comes directly after the commandment to fill your belly (“savata uveirachta— be sated, and then bless”).  There’s a danger in having a full stomach- one might become haughty, ungrateful, lazy.  Perhaps when we are too comfortable, we are vulnerable; vulnerable to the pernicious propensity “to sit back, relax, and enjoy” too much; vulnerable to forfeiting the inheritance of our prophetic literature; vulnerable to behaving less like our prophets and more like those whom our prophets derided.
Perhaps this is why Rev. Barber’s rhetoric was not merely rhetorical.  He actually came with more than a message– he came with an honest question to pose to the leaders of the Reform Jewish community.  He asked, “who will refuse to be at ease in Zion?”  Again and again, he asked us, “who will refuse to be at ease?”
Years after my 48 Les Miserables shows, when I was fifteen and in NFTY, I asked my then advisor Avram Mandel, “what do you do when someone asks you for money and you have nothing to give?”  I recall him replying, “I don’t know but I start by looking him in the eyes.”
If, as Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage,” then the question for us, for our communities, our congregations, our legislators, our families, our children is and will continue to be: who will refuse to be a passive audience?
Matthew Soffer is rabbi of Temple Israel of Boston, MA
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A Day For Rejoicing: Human Rights at the CCAR Convention

The Psalmist wrote, “this is the day the Eternal has made, let us rejoice in it” (Ps. 118:24).

Last Monday at the CCAR convention was dedicated to human rights. As part of raising awareness, there was a panel to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the CCAR’s move to accept gay and lesbian rabbis. 25 years is both a long and short time. Rabbi Yoel Kahn opened a program called, “Celebrating change on the 25th anniversary of CCAR’s resolution on homosexuality and the rabbinate” with a history and a sharing of some of his own story while teaching Torah, his Torah. I hope that Rabbi Kahn’s words were completely inspiring, informative, and emotional to everyone gathered there.

Later in the afternoon, Rev. Dr. William Barber II addressed the conference about a myriad of issues, voting rights, health care, mass incarceration, poverty, and the erosion of equal protection under the law. If you do not yet know about the Moral Monday Movement in North Carolina, time to do some research.

The day also included a transition in leadership of the conference. The new board was installed and Rabbi Denise L. Eger took on the mantle of the presidency of the conference. Rabbi Eger is a talented rabbi, a passionate preacher, and works tirelessly for human rights for all. To say that I am proud is an understatement. המבין יבין – those who know, know.

This was a day of much rejoicing. I can’t wait for tomorrow.

Rabbi Eleanor Steinman

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CCAR Helped Maya Rigler Reach Goal of $100,000 for Alex’s Lemonade Stand

The Central Conference of American Rabbis is proud to announce that a cancer fundraising effort by 10-year-old Maya Rigler on behalf of Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation broke the $100,000 mark yesterday at our convention.

Maya, the daughter of CCAR members Rabbi Stacy Eskovitz Rigler and Rabbi Peter C. Rigler, found out that she had a malignant tumor at the beginning of 2015 – her second battle with cancer. When community members started to reach out to her to offer support, she decided to pass along that generosity to others.

Maya started a virtual lemonade stand, which took physical form as a booth at the CCAR convention in Philadelphia, to raise money for the Foundation. Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation is a childhood cancer charity that has raised millions of dollars. Maya’s original goal was to raise $10,000 – before long that goal was raised to $50,000.

It’s an honor to have Maya break the $100,000 mark with us this week, and it serves as a fitting reminder of the commitment we make within the Reform community to philanthropy, charity and a responsibility for those less fortunate and in need. To contribute to Maya’s goals, please click here.

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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.