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Rabbinic Leadership – Fifty Years Ago and Today

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the historic arrest of CCAR rabbis in St. Augustine, Florida, where they traveled at the request of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. This talk, inspired by the moral leadership of this group, was originally presented as a sermon on Shabbat B’haalot’cha, June 6, 2014, to a Joint Board Meeting of the CCAR, URJ, HUC-JIR, along with the members of the Cincinnati Reform community who joined together for Shabbat.

Fifty years ago this month, Rabbi Israel Dresner was attending the CCAR Annual Convention when he received a telegram from his friend the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We need you down here with as many rabbis as you can bring with you!”

Sixteen rabbis, along with Al Vorspan, director of the Religious Action Center, then a newly formed joint enterprise of the UAHC (URJ) and the CCAR, proceeded to St. Augustine, Florida. Why did they respond to Dr. King’s call? In the words of our seventeen leaders[1]:

“We came because we … could not pass by the opportunity to achieve a moral goal by moral means…

Leadership at its core has a moral quality – as exemplified by these seventeen Reform Leaders.

How do we act as moral leaders? Rabbi Charles Mantenband, a rabbi little known to most, had served in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where my wife Vicki grew up (and in other communities). Active in the Civil Rights Movement, in 1964 he laid out a four step agenda for leadership with what he called an “innocent rhyming device”:   “aware, care, dare, share.” The Rabbi explained: Aware is to “be informed”; Care is to “indicate your concern”; “Dare is to “take risks”; and Share is to “give of yourself.”[2]

Aware is to be informed.

To be informed requires a lifetime commitment to ongoing education and an awareness of the world in which we live.

For our rabbis, anchored in Torah, it also means learning new leadership skills that involve strategic thinking, organizational management, financial sustainability, and community-building.

For our lay leaders, anchored in our contemporary society and business models, it also means learning Torah and the Jewish values that guide our work.

In addition, to be aware and informed requires self-awareness. In this regard, we model ourselves on Moses, as it says in this week’s Torah portion: Moses was a very humble leader, more so than any other human being on earth (Numbers 12:3). In today’s contemporary language, we would say that we as rabbis and as lay leaders must practice tzimtzum. The contraction of the self to make room for other people and for God in leadership.

Care is to indicate your concern for others.

Why, our commentators asked, is it so praiseworthy that the Torah portion emphasized in the opening verses that Aaron lit the lamps as God had commanded? Because Aaron in his new elevated, superior role retained his humility and still adhered to the customary practice of the people without deviating.

Midrash notes that Aaron was a man of the people. He did not separate from his community but stayed amongst them and with them: When there was a conflict between two people he “would not rest” until he returned them to friendship. When someone did not know how to pray, Aaron became that person’s teacher. If, according to Midrash, someone did not understand Torah, Aaron would explain it.[3]

Today as leaders we strive to model Aaron’s attention to the uniqueness of each individual as we build caring, welcoming, and inclusive communities.

And our concern is not limited to just our local community, but also to groups of people who have been cut off from the community, disenfranchised, or denied their rights. Throughout our history as a rabbinic leadership organization, the CCAR has championed the fundamental principle that every person has been created in God’s image, is entitled to dignity and equality and respect. For that reason, the CCAR this week joined as a plaintiff in a Federal lawsuit that challenges North Carolina’s law banning same-sex marriage. (That law violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of the right of individuals and congregations to freely practice our religion.)

To care is to act upon our concern.

safe_image.phpDare is to take risks.

Leading to a new future is not easy; it involves taking risks; it may involve failure as well as success. It does not always make one popular. And as we know, our people can complain. As it says in the Torah portion, the people took to complain bitterly about their transition. And discontent can spread quickly. Torah teaches that Moses quickly heard the people weeping, every clan, and at the entry of every tent (Numbers 11:1-10).

Today’s leaders must have the capacity to live with such complaints. In contemporary terminology, our leaders must learn to live with disruption, to hold it in our hands, to manage and lead through that disruption to new beginnings.[4]

Share is to give of yourself.

This weekend, leaders of the CCAR, HUC-JIR, and the URJ will have the opportunity to explore what calls each of you to leadership, what you are willing to share of yourself as you take responsibility.

We also acknowledge that shared leadership is a historic Jewish value. Moses himself cries out that he could not “carry all these people by myself.” God told him to create an advisory board of seventy elders (Numbers 11:16).

Shared leadership is not always easy. Certainly, as we look to the future, the qualities of leadership between rabbinic and professional leaders, on the one hand, and lay leadership, on the other, overlap. But each has unique roles in our organizations. In the Torah portion, Moses stations the 70 leaders around the tent; perhaps the first indication of strategically placed leadership. Each person with his or her own unique role, just as Moses and Aaron too had special roles.

But, at the same time, the Torah’s reference to Eldad and Medad, reminds us that all people have the potential for leadership. As Moses declared: “If only all God’s people were prophets; that the Eternal put the divine spirit upon all of them” (Numbers 11:29).

As we look to the future of Jewish leadership in North America and throughout the world, we hope and we pray that God will put the divine spirit upon each and every one of you, every one of us, who will lead the Reform Movement into its new future.

Rabbi Steven A. Fox is the Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.  

[1] The seventeen include: Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, Rabbi Balfour Brickner, Rabbi Israel Dresner, Rabbi Daniel Fogel, Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein, Rabbi Joel Goor, Rabbi Joseph Herzog, Rabbi Norman Hirsh, Rabbi Leon Jick, Rabbi Richard Levy, Rabbi Eugene Lipman, Rabbi Michael Robinson, Rabbi B.T. Rubenstein, Rabbi Murray Saltzman, Rabbi Allen Secher, Rabbi Clyde T. Sills, and Mr. Albert Vorspan.

[2] The full text of Rabbi Mantenband’s presentation can be found in the CCAR Yearbook, 1964.

[3] Rashi and others have observed that Torah commends Aaron for adhering to the customary practice without deviation. There is a good explanation of this, as well as the commentary of Rabbi Meir at Premishlan, in Abraham Torsky’s Living Each Week commentary on this particular Torah portion.

[4] Also, we hear a great deal today about entrepreneurship in the Jewish community and that rabbis themselves must be entrepreneurs. In the 19th century, Richard Cantillon first defined an entrepreneur as a “bearer of risk”.

CCAR Convention News Rabbis Reform Judaism

Celebrating the Class of 1964: “Blessed in Every Way”

At the upcoming CCAR Convention, we will honor the class of 1964, those who have been CCAR members and served our movement for 50 years.  In the weeks leading up to convention, we will share and celebrate the rabbinic visions and wisdom of the members of the class of 1964.

I have spent all but four years of my fifty as a rabbi of Temple Israel in Memphis.

I met my wife, Jeanne, fifty years ago at Temple Israel. Our three sons grew up in Memphis and became b’nai mitzvah at Temple Israel. Our granddaughters became b’not mitzvah there, and a grandson is to become bar mitzvah there next Sukkot. My whole life turned on coming to Memphis in1964.

In the spring of 1959, I had finished two years of pre-rabbinic classes at HUC and the University of Cincinnati. Dr. Samuel Sandmel z”l called me in and suggested that I could start the rabbinic program the next fall a year early. As a result, in 1964, I was ordained a year ahead of schedule. Rabbi James Wax z”l and Temple Israel of Memphis needed an assistant rabbi. In that summer of racial turmoil in the South including the murder of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi, I came to the South.

Welcome to the rest of my life!!

I have been blessed beyond any dreams with my rabbinate. At Temple Israel, I had the challenge and the privilege of orchestrating our transition from a great and historic Classical Reform congregation of the old school to a proud and historic congregation in the mainstream of Reform Judaism. Because I was blessed with a receptive and trusting congregation, the stresses and conflicts that so often accompany that transition were minimal for us.

Thirty years ago, I gave a sermon calling on people to cook for, to drive for, to visit, and to care for other members in time of crisis. I called it God’s Unfinished Business, a reference to our not knowing why bad things happen, focusing instead on what is demanded of us. Hundreds of volunteers have continued that program of gemilut chasadim member to member for three decades. That is one of the proudest achievements of my rabbinate, precisely because it has become part of the lives of so many laypersons as both volunteers and beneficiaries.

My goal for a temple staff was always this: When one of us does well, everyone scheps nachas. For the most part, that has been true with the talented clergy and staff I have worked with. That neshama at Temple Israel was shared by our lay leadership: never adversaries, they have always been true and real partners and friends in the years of my rabbinate and beyond.

Most of my rabbinate was spent in a very large congregation. I am grateful that, nonetheless, I could be “someone’s rabbi.” I could not be what my father z”l was called at his funeral, “a member ex-officio of every family in the community,” but some of my greatest rabbinic moments were being included as a member of a family whether sitting with a couple discussing their coming marriage or sharing with the bereaved after they had suffered a loss.

Not only did the people of Temple Israel welcome me fifty years ago; so, too, did a whole region of Southern Jewry, because Temple Israel is a hub for many small Jewish communities in the South. A highlight of my rabbinate was serving as a long-time rabbinic advisor of SoFTY (now NFTY Southern) and being part of the very beginnings of the Henry S. Jacobs Camp where Jeanne and I still spend an occasional summer week on staff. Our grandchildren, now third generation campers, have joined the many for whom HSJ has been a second Jewish home for over forty years. Since I retired in 2000, I have had the special opportunity to serve Congregation Adath Israel in Cleveland MS monthly and for the yamim noraim. The community there, Jewish and beyond, has become part and parcel of Jeanne’s and my life.

My opportunities to serve our Conference, our movement and my colleagues have been many and wonderfully gratifying. Even in the work of our Ethics Committee or the Commission on Rabbinic-Congregational Relations where we encounter some of the difficult times for rabbis, I found satisfaction in the lay persons who support and work with us, as well as the great mass of colleagues who are overwhelmingly dedicated to our mission. Of course, the honor of being president of the CCAR is a highlight of my rabbinic years, and I prize that honor even as it carried burdens and responsibilities I did not always anticipate.

In my community, I have had the opportunity to teach Judaism for twenty-five years at Rhodes College, to chair the local NCCJ, and to chair the board of Family Service as well as that of the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association, the largest single social service agency in West Tennessee. I have had the chance to share with able and dedicated clergy from all faiths, going back even to the Sanitation Strike of 1968 which led to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. To be a rabbi in Memphis in that April and since carries its own sadness but its own mandate and mission.

Finally, the best thing that happened to me in my rabbinate was showing up for work one day in the summer of 1964, hearing a typewriter hesitatingly clicking in an office that should have been empty, and finding a lifelong love in Jeanne. In these fifty years, we have been joined by three sons, Jeffrey, David and Michael; their three wives, Rona, Shara and, most recently, Lindsey; and three grandchildren, Caroline, Madeline and Nathaniel.

I can only wish for our children and grandchildren and for all my colleagues what I feel at this anniversary. As is said of Abraham, I can say, “Va’Adonai beirach et-Tzvi bakol – Adonai has blessed me in every way.”

CCAR on the Road Ethics Rabbis Reform Judaism

Recalling MLK Jr and Maurice Eisendrath

An e-mail arrived from the indefatigable Art Waskow reminding us that April 4th is the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr..  The reminder included a photo from a demonstration at the Arlington National Cemetery along with valuable excerpts from King’s prophetic remarks about Vietnam delivered at Riverside Church.

From L to R: Rabbi AJ Heschel, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, Rabbi Everett Gendler
From L to R: Rabbi AJ Heschel, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, Rabbi Everett Gendler

The photo showed Rabbi Heschel to one side of King, and this prompted me to look at another photo of that demonstration.  In this fuller one, King is flanked on the other side by Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath carrying a Torah, and beside them a youngish flag-carrying rabbi from Princeton, NJ (the latter, I).

I feel moved to share this with you on what will be the 45th anniversary of King’s tragic removal from our midst because we often forget to mention Maurice in the reminiscences about King.  The Arlington National Cemetery ceremony was important, moving, and not heavily attended by public figures.  Notably absent were any representatives of the Urban League or the NAACP.  They disapproved of King’s challenging publicly the morality of our policy on Vietnam since LBJ, supporter of civil rights, was also the primary advocate of that very policy.  But at this particular event there was Heschel’s blessed supportive presence, and there also was Maurice Eisendrath carrying a Torah in further support.  Those of us who knew and cherished Maurice are fewer with the passing of the years, so this seems an appropriate time to mention him with the respect and affection that so many of us felt for him.

That Maurice came with a Torah to this particular act of moral witnessing captures perfectly some of his most admired qualities.  This march, held on the sacred ground of our national cemetery, was solemn, not high spirited.  It absorbed the painful testimony of surroundings that expressed human dedication, courage, suffering and sacrifice..The stated proposition of the march, that our engagement as a nation in Vietnam betrayed the basic American values for which these deceased had offered their lives, was not at that time a crowd pleaser.  Pragmatic institutional calculations probably said, not great for UAHC fund raising, especially among big givers, and Maurice dearly loved and devoted his life to that institution. But justice is justice, the truth must be proclaimed, and so Maurice proclaimed it in his characteristically vigorous, energetic way.  The real bottom line for UAHC (now URJ), after all, was prophetic Judaism, and Maurice was accountant par excellence in those calculations.

At this especially difficult period in King’s life, severely criticized by the leaders of the major civil rights organizations, suffering daily threats to his own life and to his beloved family, can we imagine what the presence of Rabbi Heschel, Rabbi Eisendrath, and the sefer Torah must have contributed to King’s morale and sense of Divine support?  The attached photo may convey some of the mood.

As in life all of us were and are able to offer support to the righteous among us, so do the memories of those righteous ones, of King, of Heschel, and of Eisendrath, bless and sustain us.

Rabbi Everett Gendler is retired and lives in Great Barrington, MA.