#BlogExodus 4 Nisan: The Ones Who Have Helped Me To Grow

Yesterday morning, Rabbi Aaron Panken, President of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the school at which most of us here at the CCAR Convention—indeed, the vast majority of Reform clergy—went to seminary (and at which I am also currently in Cohort 6 of the Executive Masters program to get a Master of Arts in Religious Education) addressed the Conference at our annual alumni breakfast. We had the chance to study some text, and then we got to what is, to me, the best part.

There are few things that will get hundreds of rabbis, many of whom stayed up much later than usual catching up with friends, awake and eager at 7:!5 am. This is one of them. During the breakfast, as we do every year, we engaged in Roll Call, which Rabbi Panken described this morning as, “That interesting ritual that should be fun.” The origins of this ritual are a mystery, but are steeped in tradition: each year, a representative of the Alumni Association calls out each year of classes ordained from HUC-JIR, and everyone present from that class stands. From the current students who are present to those who were ordained through the decades (at least those who got up for breakfast). Each class stands, to applause from the group as a whole—from current students all the way to someone ordained 60 years ago. Many classes show spirit by waving to each other or cheering. Some classes are gathered together at a table or two—others are spread out, and you can see that some of them have only just seen each other. It’s amazing to see the generations of rabbis, gathered together through a collective memory, while celebrating the unique relationship of each class. We honor our own experience, as well as the chain of tradition that links every person in that room.

The night before, our class had also gathered for dinner (as many classes did)—those ordained in our year, as well as those with whom we shared our year in Israel. I hadn’t seen some of these people since our Israel year, 21 years ago. Others I see regularly. But all of us being together—that’s something truly special. All of us together at breakfast, a significant way to celebrate our connection.

Each year, this breakfast is a reminder: I absolutely come to convention for the inspiration and the learning. To learn from some of the great minds of our time. To gain wisdom from incredible speakers. To delve into text study and ideas in a way that I don’t often get to. To grapple with the challenges of contemporary life. To commiserate over challenges, and argue in debates for the sake of Heaven. To pray in a truly unique and holy community. But, really, if I’m honest, more than all that, it’s about sitting side by side with my colleagues.

It’s an amazing thing, this connection, and one of the quirkier aspects of what is, in myriad ways, a quirky career. As we train for this, we spend 1 year in a foreign country, engaged in an immersive learning environment, followed by 4 years with 1/3 of those people—in a really small and really intense graduate school program. And then we all get scattered around the country (and even further). Thanks to technology, we have a sense of what is going on in each others’ lives—and maybe we see some of these people at other times during the year at other events—but this is the time when we all come together.

The chance to see these classmates, these friends, once a year is precious. Some come nearly every year—others only occasionally. In each case, the convention offers a chance to have an annual reunion of sorts. To catch up with people who have been with us from the very beginning of our careers. To see how we have each grown (and how we haven’t changed). To laugh at old memories. To cry at shared sadnesses. To offer each other a sense of camaraderie and collegiality which is often hard to find.

And, yes, to make connections with those from other generations. To meet senior colleagues whose work we have admired…to see people we went to camp with…to see the rabbis from our own formative years—when we became inspired by Judaism in a way that made us want to become rabbis…to see students who have themselves followed this path.

It’s an amazing thing this annual convention and the conference that forms it. It’s a chance for us to connect to our own experience, to reflect on where we have been and where we are and where we are going, and to remind ourselves of all the folks with whom we get to share this journey.

Rabbi Elisa Koppel serves Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington, DE. 


There’s So Much I Don’t Know about Women (Rabbis)

I get energized when I discover a key to unlocking the meaning of a significant text that previously had eluded me. Having realized how little I knew, I then cannot stop turning the text over and over in my mind to mine it for new insights. Now when the text is as central and poignant as the experience of women in the rabbinate and the key to understanding might be as simple as asking and listening, the insights are simultaneously painful and explosively poignant.

This week, four esteemed rabbinic colleague’s guided us through a program entitled Creating Cultural Change: Engaging with the Work of the Task Force on the  Experience of Women in the Rabbinate. It was the first of many opportunities to engage with this CCAR Task Force, express thoughts and concerns, and help guide the way forward. (Two webinars for non-attending rabbis to participate are scheduled in the coming months.) 

The session was eye-opening, disconcerting, and hopeful. Speaking about hopes for cultural change, one female colleague said she hoped that in five years she could serve as senior rabbi in a large congregation without having to do it like a man. I responded with my first reaction, that  I hoped that within two years I will understand all that you really mean by that statement. 

Sitting that morning around a table, and reflecting throughout the day with colleagues of all genders, ages, and orientations, I discovered the sad but energizing truth: that for all I hold myself in high esteem for my support of female colleagues, there is just so much abouttheir experience that I just do not understand.

So I did what I usually do when I realize I don’t understand. I asked questions. I listened. I learned:

About how often women rabbis are challenged about their competence and professionalism, leaving them to ponder “what really just happened”

About how regularly women rabbis experience denigration by male rabbis (beyond the harassment and abuse).

About the lengths some women must go to receive maternity leave or pay equity (that has been a mainstay of our congregation since we hired our first woman rabbi).

About the apparent blindness of male rabbis who don’t realize that if women receive equity, then the median compensation level rises, and with it, all our compensation levels.

Most poignantly, though, I discovered that there are so many challenges for women as rabbis that I cannot even begin to comprehend. If I really want to help right these wrongs (and I do), then I am going to have to ask a whole bunch of questions and be willing to listen to the answers.

Because beyond the big name Harvey Weinsteins we encounter in our rabbinates (yes, we do have our own), there are so many subtle (and not so subtle) ways that women rabbis face discrimination, delegitimization, harassment, abuse and more. 

So I declare:

I do not understand. 

I am trying to listen and learn. 

I approach this open heartedly and open mindedly. 

I thank my colleagues who share, make me aware, open up to declare, what I wondered and fear: that even those of us who consider ourselves the “good guys” are most probably blind to realities of your lives. 

And I thank the Task Force on the Experience of Women in the Rabbinate for helping me wake up. So, like with all texts, I keep discovering out that there is so so much I do not understand.  I am energized by the prospect of asking, listening, learning and advocating.

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


Energetic Shacharit at CCAR Convention

There is something exciting and totally terrifying about leading worship at the CCAR. First, it’s a huge honor to be invited. Then there are the thoughts of, ‘who am I to lead all these rabbis in worship?!?!’ But the moment it begins, the moment we all start to sing, it all comes together and I breathe!

I was thrilled to include my Cantor and clergy partner, David Reinwald in the morning service. It was awesome for us to share what he and I create and do together on a weekly basis. We have a rhythm in how we pray together and we wanted to share that with this sacred community of rabbis.

We were surprised to see the listing of our shacharit as the Energetic Shacharit. Wow! Someone knows me! We weren’t exactly planning any kind of movement, but the group seemed open to a few laps around the hotel, burpies and sun salutations! However, without our running shoes, the energy was found within each person in the room and it filled every space inside and outside the room.

As the service progressed, voices caught their breath, warmed and elevated. There is nothing like 50 voices rising up in prayer and harmonizing with one another. Our bodies warmed and we swayed with each note and word. When do we as rabbis find the time to be in prayer without being worried if we have everyone on the right page? Shacharit this morning became a gift to ourselves as each individual claimed this prize.

Within this energy of prayer I allowed myself to be vulnerable and share in my own journey of personal growth. Each of us are a work in progress; as Dan Nichols writes, “I’m perfect the way I am and a little broken too.” I love who I am but I know that there is always work to be done. I’ve been finding the courage to acknowledge my brokenness and own the work it takes to grow. And it is in this sacred space and within this sacred community that I know I can do this because I look around and see how we are all perfect the way we are and a little broken too.

This day has been all about health; body, mind and spirit. To open this day in prayer, to raise up our voices and give thanks for the gifts we have and reach for strength to be and do better, this was shacharit at CCAR. What a gift and I thank you all for sharing it with me. I hope you found your breath, your voice, and your courage to see how you are perfect and embrace the brokenness to always be a work in progress.

Now go and breathe!

Rabbi Heidi M. Cohen serves Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana, California.


Instruments of God

This morning, I woke up at 6:00 AM and made my way to the hotel gym for a short workout. Before you congratulate me, full disclosure: I flew into Irvine two days ago from the east coast and so 6:00 AM was really the equivalent of 9:00 AM. My exercise was as much self-preservation as anything – or at least that is how I have always thought about it. When I work out, I feel healthier. When I feel healthier, I have a better outlook on the world. What’s more, I have come to observe that on those days I do not get any intentional physical exercise in, I am, shall we say, less fun to be around. And so I ran through my short circuit of weight lifting before heading back up to my hotel room to prepare for the day.

This afternoon, I found myself questioning my exercise motives.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, in his talk on Jewish Values and Ethics in Contemporary Health Care, began with a reminder that because God made us (Gen. 2:4), our bodies, along with all other creation, belongs to God (Deut. 10:14). Rabbi Dorff brought a text from Mishneh Torah (Deot 3:3) which begins: “He who regulates his life in accordance with the laws of hygiene with the sole motive of maintaining a sound and vigorous physique…is not following the right course.” In short, we should not be seeking health for the sake of health – or aesthetics, or lengthened life, even. Rather, continues the text, “A man should aim to maintain physical health and vigor in order that his soul may be upright, in a condition to know God.”

When I woke up and padded down to the gym for my morning workout, God was not on my mind. Instead, I was concerned about the ways in which I would personally benefit from the exercise – better mood, improved appetite, ability to sit in a number of long learning sessions. I was tending to what Rabbi Dorff called the “pragmatic” motivations for maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

I am but one part of a larger whole, an instrument of God. And God’s instruments work better when they are in tune. Dorff argues that in Judaism, the motivation for improved wellness can be – should be – to lengthen the time we have on earth to do God’s work. So many of us exercise for the sake of being able to walk farther. Judaism suggests that we instead should exercise for the sake of being able to march – literally or metaphorically – for justice.

As a rabbi and human, as an instrument of God, I am grateful for the reminder: the work we do on our own selves and in our own congregations must be for more than our selves and for our congregants. We are each instruments of God. When we reframe our most mundane, physical health-related activities toward the larger goal of honoring God and doing God’s work, our 6:00 AM workouts can become holy and purposeful.  And in doing so, we may well better our ability to engage in the work God has required of us – to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.

Rabbi Dusty Klass serves  Temple Beth El in Charlotte NC, and is a CCAR Convention “first-timer.” She is deeply grateful to the conference for opportunities to learn and grow and re-think the ways in which she moves through the world Jewishly.


Modeling the Behavior at CCAR Convention

One of the most important aspects of my rabbinate is continuing education.  I firmly believe that in order for me to be able to teach and serve as rabbi to my congregants, I must first model the behavior.  While I do try very hard to read and study as often as possible, I am so delighted and blessed to be able to spend these precious days together with my friends and colleagues from around the world.  I attend the CCAR Convention to learn, pray and reconnect (or in some cases connect for the first time) with friends and colleagues.

As this was the first full day of the CCAR Convention 2018, I knew it would be a very full and fulfilling day.  Shacharit services this morning were inspirational and spiritual.  Being present while we recognized and honored our 50 year colleagues was awesome.  Seeing a full bimah of colleagues attending this convention for the first time was definitely exciting.  And of course, listening to the rousing and stirring words of President Stern opened our eyes to the possibilities and wonder of the coming year.

This year, the CCAR Convention intended to focus our efforts on being engaged in our communities throughout the world in renewing our dedication to the rights of all – whether they be civil, religious, political, etc.  As such, the opening session entitled “Rabbis and Civic Engagement” was intriguing and challenging at the same time.  California Comptroller Betty T. Yee and Mayors Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles and Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento taught us about some of the challenges and successes facing California.  I believe that the challenges facing California are not a California problem.  These challenges are facing many if not all of our communities.

Civil discourse in the United States – and abroad – is vital.  We cannot turn our backs or close our eyes to the problems that so many of our congregants, friends and neighbors are facing.  As we are constantly reminded in our Liturgy, we must remember we were strangers in a strange land and God took care of us.  We have a tremendous obligation to face these problems with our neighbors head on.

I had the opportunity in the afternoon to attend two truly educational sessions.  The first session was “Freehof Institute: The Jewish-Christian Dialogue in an Age of Sharp Divisions.”  Rabbis Mark Washofsky and Denise Eger taught us of their own experiences with the Halacha regarding the Jewish-Christian Dialogue.  Rabbi Eger explained that the process of Halacha is a process of arguing and discussing legal/ethical issues for understanding and to continue the living tradition of Halacha.  Rabbi Washofsky helped us to understand the necessity of translating Halachic sources to make sense for our time, as our rabbis have been doing for centuries.

The second session was “Problematic Texts and the Religious Other in Jewish-Christian-Muslim Dialogue.”  In this session, we studied some of the texts from the Torah, the New Testament, and the Koran.  For me, the tremendous take away was that while it is absolutely possible to misinterpret or misread our sacred texts, the more challenging option (and perhaps the one that is most often not attempted) is to read, reread and then reread again our texts with the sincere attempt at understanding.  If we are unable to understand the “true meanings” of our texts, then it is incumbent for us to know that we have not tried hard enough to understand.  We should open our eyes to the “other” in attempting to understand our own sacred texts.

Dinner out with our colleagues was a great way to wrap up a very full day.  It was nice to kick back and enjoy good food and great company.  I am sure that the next days of our convention will bring many more occasions for spirituality, study and fun!

Rabbi Erin Boxt serves Temple Beth El in Knoxville, TN.  This is his 5th CCAR Convention.







Delving Into Israel at CCAR 2018 Convention

Monday at the CCAR Convention offered several opportunities to delve into our movement’s evolving relationship with the modern State of Israel. After having attended the AIPAC policy conference in Washington DC a couple weeks ago, I felt a very contrasting viewpoint among the scholars, rabbis, and thinkers here in Irvine, California. At AIPAC we focused solely on security matters, Israel’s advancements in science and technology, or Israel’s vibrant culture; but today we focused on apathy regarding Israel among Millennials, BDS on campus, and the difficulties our liberal movement faces with Israel’s right wing government.

I remarked at one of our sessions that after experiencing the euphoric atmosphere that characterized the AIPAC policy conference, the sessions today (all of which were entitled “Celebrating Israel at 70”) felt more of a bikur cholim visit then they did a birthday party. That being said, the sessions were very interesting. The presentations on BDS on campuses were enlightening and highlighted the great work that is being done by so many in the Hillel world on our college campuses. One of the more humorous moments occurred when it was pointed out by the moderator that the AIPAC representative and the J Street representative were sitting right next to each other unknowingly.

It is certainly possible after attending the sessions today on Israel that one could walk away with a gloomy assessment of where Israel us going as it begins its eighth decade. But an interesting juxtaposition can be felt by the participants at the convention when they leave the session and walk into the lobby of the hotel. There they will find several travel company representatives who are very busy engaging Reform rabbis and talking to them about their plans to lead trips to Israel with their congregations. In fact, it is very common to go on social media (which is not an uncommon occurrence here) and see my good friend Guy Millo from ArzaWorld  posting another picture of a rabbi holding a sign that reads, “I am leading a trip to Israel.” Although we are talking seriously about the issues that Israel faces, it is clear that among the Reform rabbinate love for the modern state of Israel is strong.

Most of my colleagues have strong feelings and concerns about the current government and its policies, and they are trying to make sense of our evolving relationship with Israel. But it seems to me that their love for the State of Israel is unconditional.  Perhaps it is this love that causes us to care so deeply about Israel’s challenges and not focus solely on their triumphs.  One interesting thing that I heard today was that several students from other liberal rabbinic schools are transferring HUC-JIR because they felt that their schools were too anti-Zionist. From what they knew about HUC-JIR they knew that they would find a home where the students, faculty, staff, and alumni are willing to question Israel’s policies, but not their love for the State of Israel. This gives me a sense of reassurance that though I may have serious policy differences with my colleagues on Israel, I know that their love for our Jewish homeland is passionate and enduring.

Rabbi Jeremy Barras serves Temple Beth Am in Pinecrest, Florida. 



Get Yourself a Teacher, Find Someone to Study with, and Judge Everyone Favorably

I will always remember my very first CCAR convention.  I was a first year rabbinic student at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem, and the 1995 convention was held there.  The students were included in many of the programs and the learning and the camaraderie were very special.

I certainly cherish the memory of meeting Prime Minister Rabin and other important Israeli officials and scholars.  However, what stood out for me in that moment was the experience of having so many of my teachers and mentors in one room…and then being introduced to their teachers and mentors!

I have been blessed with wonderful role models, rabbis who nurtured me formally and informally, in congregations and in classrooms.  I remember the first rabbi I ever saw in blue jeans, the first rabbi who invited me for a meal, and the first rabbi who opened my eyes to the wonders of Mishnah.  I remember the rabbis who held my children as newborns in their Brit ceremonies  and the rabbis who held me close over these last months as I became a mourner.  I believe our Conference is stronger because we are a multi-generational web of teachers who lift one another up through all of life’s challenges and joys.

At our conventions, there are extraordinary opportunities to connect with those who are already or can become our personal rabbis.  In Orange County, we will have the chance to study with several of HUC-JIR’s finest professors.  Every time I attend convention, I always seek out these opportunities, to study text with great scholars, simply for the joy of learning.

Our conventions give us the chance to learn face to face with great teachers and side by side with old classmates and new friends.  This face to face experience is precious.  As much as we can try and stay connected over the phone and through the computer, I believe there is always something limiting about those interactions.  Come to Orange County, and sit in our very own Beit Midrash, able to learn both from the texts and the people.

As we learn in Pirke Avot 1:6, “Get yourself a teacher, find someone to study with, and judge everyone favorably.”

We are blessed to be part of a conference of colleagues, each one of us eager to study and to teach.  When we gather at convention, our experiences together will help us to see the good and the hopeful in the world all around us.  Join me in Orange County!

Rabbi Peter W. Stein serves Temple B’rith Kodesh in Rochester, NY.  He is a member of the CCAR Convention Committee and also serves as CCAR Dues Chairperson.


50 Blessed Years in the Rabbinate

“Love is Blue” was playing on the radio as I drove home from HUC on Clifton Avenue after the lottery was over and my number guaranteed that I would “volunteer” for the U.S. Army. Chaplaincy school was now on the horizon, and Fort Belvoir, Arlington National Cemetery, and Vietnam were in my future. Of course I didn’t know all that as I opened the door of our apartment in Clifton Village, I just felt sorry and angry for Eileen, our newborn son and me – a lamb on its way to slaughter.

But life has a way of imparting its own truths and healing is a presence too often recognized retrospectively. If I lived in a different time or were a different person then, I would be talking about God here. Maybe I still am. Because a Lieutenant from Mississippi, a Private from Brooklyn, a Captain from Minnesota and countless others taught me what it can mean to be called “Rabbi”, present in the jungles of their confusion and fear, connecting us all to each other, to whatever the word God or Jewish meant to us in that seductively lush and dangerous setting.

The Placement Commission of the CCAR gave me a bonus when I came home from Vietnam. I was eligible to apply for a “B” congregation even though I was only two years out. Eileen gave me even a better one when our two-year-old looked up from his crib that first morning and said: “That’s my Daddy”. I guess even in an age of reel-to-reel tapes sent back and forth from Nha Trang to New Jersey we found our way to each other.

My first pulpit was in Springfield, New Jersey. Temple Sha’arey Shalom was looking for someone to follow a powerful, socially active, controversial and adored Rabbi. Do we ever know what we are walking into? They taught me to love and listen. There was no “incoming” to dodge but plenty of battles to navigate as divergent visions of what the past meant for their future collided. The Army served me well. “KISSKeep It Simple Stupid. Be there as consistently as you can; stand tall and true to yourself and your understanding of the Jewish continuum. But don’t be afraid to cry together, laugh together and dream even as you “never let them see you sweat.” We lived there almost twelve years; our family and our congregation growing and maturing, nurturing each other in times of strength and weakness.

I was in the middle of working towards an MSW in Pastoral Counseling from Wurzweiler School of Social Work when Temple Israel of West Palm Beach called to ask if I would consider interviewing for their congregation. Sometimes things are just meant to be and since I was conducting a wedding in Del Ray Beach two weeks later, I said – yes – if you can make it happen within that time frame. The interview took place in the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach over breakfast with 30 people. Talk about first impressions! A 28-year-bumpy, frustrating, exhilarating, challenging journey began that day. It was filled with new opportunities for growth some of my choosing some chosen for me. The position propelled me into community activism both in our Jewish Federation and the Interfaith Arena. In the meanwhile I was invited to serve on the Reform Pension Board where I am now Vice-Chair. An unexpected blessing, my years on the RPB have linked me with lay and professional people who care deeply and religiously for the professionals and congregations of our Reform movement. It taught me how the sacred flows into the secular; how a shared vision and commitment can become God’s work.

I retired in 2008 to a new chapter. I spent two years learning to become a Jewish Spiritual Director. The Hasidic and Mussar masters informed my heart as my Judaism evolved finding a new home in my soul. With a friend and colleague from the Episcopal tradition we became lecturers at Florida Atlantic University’s Life Long Learning Centers as well as the Palm Beach Fellowship of Christians and Jews. In my Jewish communal life, I serve as a consultant to the Synagogue Institute of the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County, working in synagogue transformation and leadership initiatives.

I have been very lucky. My Episcopal friend corrects me when I use the word “lucky”: “Blessed, Howard – blessed.” My life is full; my cup overflows.

Rabbi Howard Shapiro is celebrating 50 years in the Reform Rabbinate at the upcoming 2018 CCAR Convention in Orange County, CA.