CCAR Convention

Celebrating the Class of 1965: The Past and The Exciting Future

At the CCAR Convention 2015, we honored the class of 1965, those who have been CCAR members and served our movement for 50 years. CCAR is proud to share and celebrate the rabbinic visions and wisdom of these members of the class of 1965 and their 50 years in the rabbinate.

Those of us who have spent fifty years in the rabbinate and five preceding years at HUC-JIR, have lived through the end of the first period of Reform Judaism and have entered the second.  The first period, sometimes called Classical Reform, began in Germany, and was brought to America by, mostly, German Jews.  Its philosophical base is called German Idealism, principally the philosophies of Kant and Hegel.  This philosophy saw Judaism as a system of ideas, and Judaism  “presents the highest conception of the God-Idea” in history.  Rejecting the thoughts of Hegel, about religious history, which said that Judaism had made its contribution to the unfolding of the Spirit and it was time for it to go, Reform believed that the Jewish mission was eternal until the Messianic Age, when our purpose would be fulfilled.  Thus, Arnold Toynbee, the eminent historian, accepting Hegel’s analysis, said the Jews were a fossil.  This caused us great consternation, and we suspected anti-Semitism and not deep philosophy.  Our founders understood our role in human history as bearing the pure monotheistic God-Idea and teaching it to the world.  They knew, precisely, what was living and dead in the Jewish Tradition and saw their mandate as continuing the purity of the Jewish purpose.  All of this is enshrined in the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885.

Much, however, has changed since 1885.  Reform Judaism is no longer dominated by German Jews.  Hitler destroyed our late 19th century optimism about historical progress, and German Idealism is no longer the regnant philosophy of the thinking world.  In actuality, now, there is no regnant philosophy, but if we want to label our approach, it is, loosely, existential and we are influenced by such thinkers as Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig and Eugene Borowitz.  We are more concerned than Leo Baeck was, in his book, to find “The Essence of Judaism” than the meaning of Jewish existence and how to be a Jew.  We look for mitzvot more than ideas, and we are no longer so certain about what, in our Tradition, is anachronistic and dead.  We are more open to the Tradition and the role it plays in our lives.  I was on the committee that produced the Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, adopted at the Pittsburgh convention of the CCAR, in 1999.  It was a wonderful opportunity to witness the first attempt to articulate the new direction of Reform Judaism.  The rabbis present spanned the spectrum from left to right, but pretty much, we all agreed.  The discussions were more concerned with the style and format of the document than the direction we all felt Reform was going.  It is a document that sees Reform evolving from its early principles, without which we wouldn’t exist, to a greater openness to all of our Jewish past and humility about our ability to know the future.

I believe that Reform is still Reform and all the achievements of our forbears have been preserved because our greatest achievements in the first period are permanent: an historical and critical approach to our Tradition, egalitarianism, social concern.  I, also, believe that we are exhibiting an understanding that characterizes the entire Jewish Tradition, including Reform: the creativity, and insight that sees Judaism as dynamic.  Judaism and the Jews have survived because of this creativity and our existence as the Eternal People depends on it.


General CCAR News Rabbis

Celebrating the Class of 1965: Retirement, Change and Continuity

At the upcoming CCAR Convention, we will honor the class of 1965, 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 these members of the class of 1965 and their 50 years in the rabbinate.


A wise friend once told me, “Retirement is not necessarily everything it’s cracked up to be.”  At the time I didn’t believe him.  Already retired a number of years, on a scale of 1 to 10, I felt I had a 12.  But opportunity often strikes when you least expect it.  A small part-time congregation arose near my suburban Atlanta home.


Marilyn, my eshet chayil of fifty-four years, and I discussed what this change might mean in our lives.  We decided that reentering the congregational rabbinate would add immeasurably to our retirement. That was seven years ago.  We have not regretted it.


Friendly baalbatim, on average our children’s ages, have made our lives easy.  Our congregants lovingly regard us as bubbie and zeyde.  This rings favorably in our ears.  As the senior members of our congregation we enjoy both teaching them and learning in return.  It is a mutual endeavor.  Together we’re searching for life’s meaning at different stages of our lives.  Judaism assists us in our quest.  Our involvement also softens some of the inevitable changes retirement brings.  Rabbinic continuity of service makes a real difference.  Now we understand better why Moses remained vital to 120.  Now when asked about retirement satisfaction I respond, “On a scale of 1 to 10, we have a 20.”


It seems unbelievable that we’ve reached the fifty year milestone since receiving s’micha.   Incredulously, we ask, “Can this be true?”  We are grateful but it is humbling.  Throughout this span Marilyn and I served congregations as a team.  In addition, Marilyn was for many years an educator, a public school and Hebrew school teacher. Commitment to a life of service came naturally to her.  It was also part of our covenant with each other, the Jewish people and G-d.

Change and Continuity:                                                                                                                          

Like you, over the decades we have fulfilled many roles.  Teachers, chaplain, college lecturer, community positons, interfaith representatives, counselors, comforters, writer and exemplars of the Jewish faith are part of the familiar mix.  Congregations, a full time nursing home position, retreats, URJ camps and conclaves, Confirmation class trips, CCAR shaliach to kibbutz Nir Eliyahu, president of the GCAR/Greater Carolina Association of Rabbis, regional and national boards, a Doctor of Ministry degree in Counseling from Boston University School of Theology, four children and seven grandchildren – make for many blessings.  Throughout fifty years the transcendent meaning of our faith, G-d, Torah and Israel, enabled us to hear the “still, small voice” motivating a life of service.                                                                                                                                                       

Retirement and Continuity:           

Recently, to our delight, our baalebatim signed us up for two more years.  We are looking forward to it.  Judaism is infectious.  We want to keep teaching it.  Nothing gives our lives more direction, usefulness and continuity.  Ihm yirtseh haShem, when these two years conclude, we’ll have reached another milestone, four score years.  Ken y’hi ratson.                                            

CCAR Convention General CCAR Israel News Rabbis

Celebrating the Class of 1965: Fifty Years and a Lot Has Happened

At the upcoming CCAR Convention, we will honor the class of 1965, 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 these members of the class of 1965 and their 50 years in the rabbinate.

Fifty Years and a lot has happened… “I am closer to death today than I was to puberty as an infant.  What a chilling thought for one with a couple of diseases knocking on the door.”

“Hamishim Shana, Uchmo shenohagim lomar:  Ken Mashehu Kara beintayim ba’olam.”  Lea Goldberg wrote lines like this about lovers re-meeting after “twenty years.”  Yes, something has happened in the meantime.

Fifty years is longer than Goldberg’s lovers’ hiatus, but I experience the same astonishment about time’s way of confounding us.  I entered College just after Brown vs. the Board of Education, which occurred shortly after Campy and Jackie Robinson were allowed to stay at the Chase Hotel in St. Louis as long as they didn’t swim in the hotel pool.  I went to a fancy college “un-prepped” (both literally and figuratively) and—since there weren’t any “preparatory” schools for seminary, I entered HUC with little thought about getting ready.  My main motive, I think, not cultural-ethnic, to be a kind of Jewish Unitarian, but I left with deep ties to Israeli life and Hebrew culture.  I began to serve my “Unitarian” self some years after ordination when a surprise illness drove me into self-care and attention to people who needed attention as they entered their own worlds of illness.  Just as apparently good things sometimes have unintended problem consequence, so may the bad things that happen yield fresh life and important achievement.

And that became the two sides of my rabbinate:  vigorous, I hope “progressive” attachments to the Jewish nation (my parents called them “pinko”) and a dedication to the problems people experience as they go through their journeys into the world of illness.  So I retired from HUC (a partial retirement, I hasten to add) as a teacher of Hebrew literature and as a trainer of hospital chaplains.  The Kalsman Institute, established by our friends the Levy – Kalsmans, urged me on in the pastoral direction, hard work, and (frankly) batting a little over my head, led me to a life of scholarship about matters Hebraic and literary. I have enjoyed my scholarship, although living in Hollywood has made me aware that more people read a stray blog in one day than have read all of my hundreds of essays over 50 years.   Along the way I helped HUC California grow with a school of education, a school of Jewish studies, and a museum education program that flourished and grew many heads.  A full rabbinical school emerged with a special spirit that maybe I have helped create.

But back to what happened in fifty and more years:  The Civil Rights Movement, our changing relationships with women, The Six Day War, new freedom to Russian Jews, the digital revolution which continues to give me the finger as I try to navigate all the gadgetry that makes life easier and busier.  As with people, progress seems paradoxical, and when I think of Israel’s management of the territory that a few wild eyed dreamers made part of Jewish history, I cry for all we should or might have done as Jews.  But Agnon won a Nobel Prize, and there has been more Jewish American creativity (much of it clumsy but all of it interesting) than I ever imagined when I thought I owned all the creativity that was available.  And the culture that comes out of Israel—good grief, it is amazing, created by geniuses, who are my friends; and scoundrels, most of whom are my opponents (I hope.)

In fact, what I have learned in fifty years is how deceptive people can be in the midst of their goodness; and how many great victories are won at a huge cost to others. Some of the good people:  My first rabbis as a rabbi, Leonard Beerman (z’l), and Sandy Ragins, my first boss (with whom I had a problematic relationship, but who was a major and gracious mentor) Alfred Gotschalk (z’l), the funky but wonderful Ezra Spicehandler, and complex Gene Mihaly (both separated out to death), and many others including my own unruly, gutsy and generous father.

A couple of years ago Hara Person asked me to reflect on my retirement for a little squib in the Newsletter.  I look back at what I wrote then and realize that I was too sanguine.  I retired voluntarily, and enjoyed some great years on account of that; but had I known how well I would manage cancer, heart disease, and a tendency to broken bones, and how I would deal with those unmentionable deep dark things of the soul, how much energy I have, and how attached I was to the institution that made my professional life possible, I would not have taken the deal.  Anyone want to hire a near 80 year old?

Is everything built out of contradictions?  I don’t know, but sometimes I think so.  I am a kosher man (a la Yehuda Amichai, another mentor); I am a kosher man whose soul is cleft and because my soul is parted I seem to be better able to stand.  Chewing the cud is like regret — that other part of Kashrut.   It’s not the best part of my game, but it works for me.

But who would dare regret American efforts at civil equality for minorities and a different consciousness about women; who can regret the multiplicity of Jewish voices that one would not even have dreamt of 50 years ago (although it too has been mixed with some issues) who can regret the privilege during those fifty years to serve people, to teach young students aspiring to be old (some day) just like us? And who would ever regret a life of friendships, a marriage that finds me looking forward to seeing my partner every morning! And who would hesitate for one moment to smile as my wonderful son and colleague daughter in law send pictures of the (belatedly wonderful) little boy who bears my father’s name.

I do “regret” (but it’s the wrong word) that my father and mother could not live to see that little boy, but—as the sunset and the sunrise never actually meet (that phrase is plagiarized) so it is God’s way that each generation has new interpreters—interpreters whom the old timers aren’t really comfortable with.  I hope little Kobi (Jacob, that is) and the Kobi cognates (my students) will interpret my life as contributing to the great citizens and Jews he and they will become.


Celebrating the Class of 1965: A Shidduch Between Science and Religion

At the upcoming CCAR Convention, we will honor the class of 1965, 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 these members of the class of 1965 and their 50 years in the rabbinate.

Upon ordination in 1965, I went to live in an ashram for two years where I studied, dreams, meditation and yoga. From there I went to Winnipeg where I became the founding rabbi of Temple Shalom. While in Winnipeg, to make ends meet, I had three jobs in addition to Temple Shalom – I taught classes at the Universities of Manitoba and North Dakota and worked as a prison chaplain for the various levels of correctional services. From Winnipeg I went to work for three years with the Government of Canada in Ottawa as a consultant in yoga, meditation and altered states of consciousness. From there I opened a practice in psychotherapy in Toronto, specializing in dreams, past-life regression and psychogenic illness. During my time in Toronto I began to write, mostly books and poetry I also took a part-time position with a small congregation, B’nai Shalom V’Tikvah where I continue to serve as their rabbi. I have recently become engaged to a beautiful woman.

In looking back over fifty years of joy and pain, I can’t help but feel like four lifetimes have been lived during these years. I have stumbled, I have grown and I like to think I have learned from my mistakes – not that this will keep me from making more, but hopefully they will be different. I still struggle, given a scientific background, to make a shidduch between science and religion in such a way that God is taken out of the abstract and made more concrete in the every day and in the every night. I like to think that Kabbalah has given me an answer by expressing God in terms of levels of consciousness and that it is my sacred task to expand my awareness into these dimensions. Upon reflection, it seems to me that I have been working on this most of my life and I see the end of my life as the beginning of a new phase.

I’m physically active, swimming, bicycling and curling (that northern sport). It’s an interfaith curling league and my rabbinical and cantorial colleagues are known as “The Frozen Chosen”.

CCAR Convention General CCAR News Rabbis Reform Judaism

Celebrating the Class of 1965: Deflations and Exaltations

At the upcoming CCAR Convention, we will honor the class of 1965, 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 these members of the class of 1965 and their 50 years in the rabbinate.

It was a steamy summer day in Cincinnati, Ohio, the end of July, 1960. Arlene and I had been married for a month. Together we navigated the Appalachians and the Ohio Valley in our un-air conditioned 1954 Ford Fairlaine. Our arrival was a great day for Cincinnati.  Everyone was happy. For on that day, the American Dental Association Council on Scientific Affairs announced that Crest toothpaste was effective in inhibiting tooth decay. P&G stock skyrocketed. And the Stiffmans had arrived. We dropped off a carload of possessions at a friend’s home, and then excitedly drove to our real destinations, University of Cincinnati for Arlene; 3101 Clifton Avenue for me. We had seen the pictures of the beautiful HUC campus in the catalog. As we drove up Clifton Avenue, we became more excited. Exaltation – visiting the mother font of Reform rabbinical training, and then we turned into the driveway.

It was a construction site. The Sisterhood dorm was being renovated, as was the classroom building. The Klau library was under construction, as was the new dorm. I parked on the dirt area in front of the classroom building, and we ventured inside. The first person we met, a junior faculty member named Norman Golb, directed us to the Provost’s office. There we met Mickey November, Dr. Sandmel’s administrative aide, who really ran the school. She showed us around, put us in touch with those we had to meet, and we were on our way back to our car. Exaltation!

We looked forward to getting to our motel next to Frisch’s Big Boy and resting. As we reached our car, we realized that our first visit to HUC-JIR had resulted in a flat tire. Deflation!

Exaltation and deflation!   Welcome to the next five years of my life. Ain’t it great to be retired! Each of us remembers those days.

Memories can be deceiving. Usually I’ll remember something and Arlene will tell me what really happened. Whenever I speak lovingly of those HUC days, she reminds me how our study group used to get together to study, but spent half of the time complaining. “Rivkin and Reines spend too much time on their personal theories and not enough time on their subjects. Language lab was a downer after we learned, ‘Sim na yadecha tachat yerachee.’ Too many papers! Too little time to study!” There were so many complaints.

But the major one was, “They’re not preparing us for congregational life. They are educating us with texts, history, philosophy, human relations, a little theology, a dash of music…but not practical rabbinics.” By and large, this was true. Yet, buried in all of that other important stuff, we sometimes got a glimpse of the future. In Mihaly-McCoy tradition, let me cite three instances.

The first was in a class that was not a class. The school did not offer a class in practical rabbinic. A group of us went to Dr. Glueck to ask for such a class and we’re told, “You’ll learn all of that afterwards!” Out of the goodness of his heart, Sylvan Schwartzman offered a unit on the practical rabbinate in his home. It was the first time I stood in front of a couple with a Rabbi’s Manual in my hand and struggled through leading a wedding service.

He was the only faculty member who had served a congregation. Among the many things he taught us, one stood out. He said to us, “Remember, you’re not one of them!” He related his experiences in Nashville, where many of his congregants spent every Saturday night at the Country Club, often drinking quite heavily. He was given a Country Club membership, but this was not his style. So he stopped going regularly. One of his lay leaders told him that he was missed at the Club. “After all,” the man said, “We like to have “The Rabbi” there!” He wasn’t Sylvan Schwartzman; he was “The Rabbi.”

That story stuck with me. I’ve served the same congregation for forty-eight of my fifty years as a Rabbi. We had made some good friends. But…. We used to go to a wedding and see tables of our friends and contemporaries sitting there having a good time. However we viewed them from the end of the head table, sitting next to the grandma who couldn’t hear. Once we were lucky enough to be seated with friends at a reception. One of our longtime friends remarked, “We must be considered very important because we’re seated with ‘The Rabbi.’ Remember… “You’re not one of them”.  Ain’t it great to be retired and to remember?

The second teaching moment took place in the classroom of that fearsome scholar, Dr. Jakob J. Petuchowski, of blessed memory. It was our first class following the High Holy Days. In walks this distinguished theologian in fancy cowboy boots with a ten-gallon hat covering his thick shock of dark black hair. He had spent another Yamim Noraim at his ten-day-a-year congregation in Texas. His people presented him with the hat and boots. He looked up at us, and in his Germanic-British accented English said, “Remember this gentlemen, there is nothing like the Jewish layman.” We were taken aback. This guy who made us strain our necks trying to avoid his gaze so he wouldn’t call on us to answer a question, was praising these unlearned Texans with whom he shared ten days a year?

He went on, “At HUC we tell you all of the time how important the rabbi is, that you are the repository of wisdom and ethical tradition. You are the one who must lead”. He went on, “Gentlemen, the lay people live in the real world. They can help us keep our heads on straight. They don’t have to support a synagogue or form a Federation or educate themselves and their children. They live in a small town and don’t have to pay to bring a rabbi in every year for the holidays. But they do it. There’s nothing like the Jewish layman.”

What a lesson! How many of us locked horns with lay leaders, ordinary people in our congregations? When we wanted to win the argument, we were tempted to tell them, “I’m right because Judaism says you should do it this way.” At times like that, when I felt strongly about an issue and wanted to pull my rank, I would think back to “Petuchowski in boots,” to stabilize my thoughts and tamp down my ego.

Most of us, retired old souls, can now look back upon our years of active duty. Most of us agree that there is nothing like the Jewish layman or laywoman. They volunteer their time. They give of their means. Some annoyed us to distraction and some inspired us to perfection. In light of the Pew report and demographic surveys, we should especially cherish our partners. As we remember the many leaders with whom we shared, we think, “Ain’t it great to be retired!”

Number three. To prove my innate sense of non-discrimination, I refer to a faculty member of our New York campus, to our revered late President and to our beloved Jacob Rader Marcus. Each reminded us that we can overcome our failures.

Twice I heard Borowitz talk about tough times in his life. He had been fired as a teacher at Rockdale Temple when he was a student – then came back to speak there as Director of the Joint Commission on Jewish Education. A decade later he spoke at my congregation, where as a young Assistant he had been pushed out by the Senior Rabbi Julius Gordon. He said to my flock, “And now I’m teaching those who will be your rabbis!”  What a brilliant career he still is experiencing.

Marcus wrote “The Rise and the Destiny of the German Jew,” in the early 1930s predicting the fall of Hitler and a great future for German Jewry. Facts proved otherwise. He then decided to concentrate on the past and founded the academic discipline of American Jewish History, a major scholarly discipline today. Neither Borowitz nor Marcus gave up because of a failure. They used them as stepping stones to a better future.

Each of us has experienced times of failure, seasons of disappointment in our rabbinate. How many times did I fail to reach out to a member, screw up a Torah reading, skip a name on a Kaddish list, or miss seeing someone in the hospital? How many times did I fail a colleague or myself?  We each have memories of failures – but they do not define us. Like our teachers Borowitz and Marcus, we move on from dwelling on our failures to remembering our successes.  Now we are free to look back upon our careers, to remember all, the deflations but mostly the exaltations. Ain’t it great to be retired?

“You are not one of them.” “There is nothing like the Jewish layman.” “I overcame failure.”  I guess I learned more about being a rabbi than I realized.

The flat tire was repaired and we moved on to the motel next to Frisch’s Big Boy and to our life ahead. I celebrate my memories.

We celebrate our memories. We give thanks for the support of our families who still uphold us. We cherish the memories of the friends and the study partners, the colleagues and teachers who taught and teach us at the College-Institute and beyond.

We of the class of 1965 hope that it might be said of us, “Vayecchi,” that we lived and made a difference in the world, cherishing our sacred calling while partnering with amcha, learning from our deflations and basking in our exaltations.

CCAR Convention Rabbis Reform Judaism

Celebrating the Class of 1965, 50 Years in the Rabbinate: First and Foremost a Rabbi

My relatives and my childhood friends in my native Israel keep wondering to this day how in the world I ever became a Reform Rabbi. Back in Haifa in the 50th we never heard of Reform Rabbis. We heard of Nelson Glueck, whom we knew as an archeologist. We also heard of Abba Hillel Silver, whom we knew as a Zionist leader. We heard of Judah Magnes, whom we knew as co-founder of the Hebrew University. But we did not know that all three were American Reform Rabbis. In my late teens I was living in Uruguay, and one day I met a Reform Rabbi named Isaac Neuman who told me about the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. I told him I was accepted at Brooklyn College and was getting ready to go there for my undergraduate studies. He convinced me that HUC was a better choice for me, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The last fifty years since I was ordained at the New York school have been a wonderful journey. My first pulpit was in Guatemala, where I had to create my own Spanish-Hebrew Reform prayer book. The second was associate rabbi to the late Arthur Lelyveld at Fairmount Temple in Cleveland, Ohio. In Cleveland I founded the Agnon School against great odds, which has since become one of the finest communal Jewish day schools in the country. From there I was “called” to Commack, Long Island, where I spent seven years as the rabbi of Temple Beth David, which grew from 300 families when I arrived to 700 when I left. I recall doing over 1000 b’nai mitzvot ceremonies during that time, probably some kind of a record. After Commack my focus changed from the pulpit to other venues, but over the years I helped small congregations grow and performed other rabbinical duties.

Since then I have had several careers besides the rabbinate, including national director of education for BBYO, the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization; founder  and president of two companies, Schreiber Publishing, which publishes Jewish books and books for translators, and Schreiber Translations, which has become one of the main providers of foreign language technical  translations for the U.S. Government. Currently, I am serving on cruise ships as Rabbi and discussion facilitator, and I love the life aquatic. Through it all, I never stopped writing, and over the years I have had over 50 books published. My latest book is called Explaining the Holocaust: How and Why It Happened, due soon from Cascade Books, and I am working on a new book titled Why People Pray, which gives me immense satisfaction and which makes me realize how important prayer is.

Through it all, I am first and foremost a Rabbi. The essence of my life is to impart the Jewish heritage and lore to my fellow Jews and to the world. I am very fearful of the decline of Jewish life and knowledge in our goldeneh medineh. But my greatest satisfaction is that all my three children have a strong Jewish identity, and my three grandchildren show every sign of carrying on our glorious chain of tradition. I am sure my wife Hanita and I have something to do with it.

I would like to thank ribono shel olam for having kept me alive and sustained me and allowed me to reach this great milestone of 50 years in the rabbinate.