Convention Israel


When my daughter was younger, she used to say she had three homes – the one we all lived in and kept our stuff, URJ Camp Eisner, and Disney World.

Wednesday morning, the CCAR – representing the Reform rabbinate – was invited to a meeting of the Knesset committee on Israel/Diaspora Relations – a historic moment. The chair of the committee, told us that this house of the Jewish people was ours as well, and welcomed us home.
Returning to Israel always feels like coming home. Part of the reason is that many of us spent our first year of rabbinic school studying at HUC’s cam2pus in Jerusalem; living in Israel. Somehow, even though the streets now head in different directions, favorite restaurants are closed, new buildings obscure old views, and you can’t even walk to the Old City the same way anymore, there is a hamische familiarity in the streets, the smells, and the sounds of the birds chirping at 5 am.

To be welcomed home in the parliament of Israel was a moving moment. The moments continued. One after another, interspersed by the leaders of the North American, Israeli, and world-wide Reform movements, 15 members of Knesset from parties across the political spectrum came to speak. They told us that for Israel to be the only democracy in the world where all Jews could not pray in the manners they wished was not right. They told us that we were partners with them in preserving world Jewry and the Jewish state. They told us that we had won an important victory in the new plan for the Kotel (the Western Wall). They told us that we were home. 1

We were warned that any Knesset member had the right to enter the meeting and speak. The day before one of the members of a religious party had said that all Reform Jews were mentally ill. We were ready to hear insults, and even threats. Instead, we were only welcomed – not as friends, but as family.

The division between those of us Jews who live in the Diaspora and those who live in Israel is more than an ocean and a continent, and less than width of a piece of matzah. Even when we speak the same language, we often mean different things. We fight like siblings. Like family, there is no one who can disappoint or irritate us more. Yet, when facing the rest of the world, we stand together. We welcome Israelis into our synagogues, our camps, and our homes, and when we land at Ben Gurian airport, we, too, are home.

Home is never an easy place to visit. There are comforts and joys, but there is also the responsibility. A guest is polite and doesn’t need to help set the table or clean up. Famiy can’t leave until the work is done.

After we heard each speech, we stood together – Israelis and Diaspora Jews – and we sung our common song – the national anthem of the state of Israel. The words of Hatikvah had special significance as we thought back over what had been said – I’hiyot am chofshi, b’artzeinu – to be a free people, free to worship and to live as Reform Jewish, in our own land, our home, eretz Yisraeil.

Joel N. Abraham serves Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains, NJ . The latest in a short line of rabbis, he has been attending CCAR conventions for most of his life. This is his third Israel convention.

Convention Israel

Hebron, a City of Conflicting Narratives and Religious Passions

The Explore Israel track option enticed me immediately: “Hebron, a City of Conflicting Narratives and Religious Passions.”  Because of the complexity of the security situation, it has been a few decades since I last visited this Biblically significant site. So I jumped at the chance to visit Ma’arat HaMachpelah (Cave of Machpelah), the traditional burial site of our biblical ancestors Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah.

Anticipation and slight anxiousness vied for ascendancy as I contemplated visiting the place where the Bible says Abraham first purchased a piece of land in Eretz Yisrael. Of course seriousness quickly set in as we passed through the Etzion Interchange, a checkpoint where moments before an attempted stabbing took place; which sadly ended with an IDF solider being mistakenly shot and killed in friendly fire.

We were forty Reform Rabbis from North America who chose to explore the complexity and nuance. As the Vice President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which hosted this gathering as part of our Israel Convention, and an oheiv Yisrael (lover of Israel, making my 14th trip to Israel), I felt particularly compelled to explore multiple perspectives and to hear – really listen to – some of the complex conflicting narratives which make up people’s connection to the city.12742359_10153307620422051_6095529456574002465_n

We met with two guides: Ishai, spokesperson for the Jewish Community of Hebron, a community which asserts its biblical right to live in this holy historical city, and Nadav, a guide from Shovrim Hashtika (Breaking the Silence), a group of veterans who are exposing the indignities of everyday life under the occupation. Mixing humor and seriousness, they wove their narrative in compelling but measured tones.

This one says Jews are only in 3% of Hebron; Palestinians control the rest. The issue is blown out of proportion.

That one says that 48% of the homes in Hebron are now empty as Palestinians could not live there or sustain life there under the security regime.

That one says the randomness of army control in Hebron over the lives of the Palestinians is untenable and we cannot fool ourselves into thinking that we are doing anything especially nice or moral.

This one says Hebron is my history and/or my religious inheritance and in either case we are causing minor dislocation on its own and especially compared to what happened to us under Jordanian control and before.

The competing indignities are vivid:

Imagine not being able to walk out your front door, or open your business in its long established location, as some Hebron Palestinians cannot.

Imagine being locked out of parts of a city that is central to your religious/historical past as Hebron Jews are.

Imagine being responsible for creating a separation between two peoples, lowering the friction, as the soldiers are, which leads you to have to “lord” over tens of thousands for the safety of a thousand. 

The bottom lines are parallel and poignant:

This one says this is my country. I love my country and we are here to stay. 

That one says this is my country. I love my country and the occupation cannot continue. 

And these don’t even include the perspectives of Palestinians who live there.

It is easy to form opinions from afar, especially when we listen only to news and perspectives that reinforce our own biases. But in a world of conflicting narratives, we strive to retrain our ears to hear multiple perspectives. Only then can we see the humanity, wrestle with the nuance, and open ourselves to possibilities and hope.

Most everyone agree that the occupation needs to end. Yet how to get from here to there, and where “there” is, is complex. There are no limit to the creative solutions being floated – some enticing, some offensive. Is there a will? The complexity of this situation defies easily identifying the way.

To paraphrase the Talmudic passage, eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim Chayim – these and these are the (narratives of people who aspire to understand the will) of the living God. But who knows what God really wants from us?! Clearly though, we leaders necessarily must listen the stories from everyone.

So the day ended. The complexity persists. Our heads are spinning. The status quo remains untenable. And we return home with much to process.

Paul Kipnes serves Congregation Or Ami of Calabasas, California.  Paul also serves on the CCAR Board of Trustees.

Note from Paul: Thanks to Rabbi Daniel Gropper of Rye, New York for his insights and collaboration on this post.


Transition: Two Years, Two Sides

I write on July 1, 2015, mindful that many colleagues begin new positions today, two years to the day after I commenced my tenure at Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.

When I arrived, I found a transition-weary congregation, after eight months without a resident rabbi followed by a year with an outstanding interim rabbi. Staff and congregants had circled July 1, 2013, as the red-letter day when the “permanent” rabbi would arrive and transition would end.

I, though, was fresh from CCAR’s outstanding “First 100 Days” seminar for rabbis in transition. Steve Fox had told us that transition would continue at least for our first 18 months in our new positions, perhaps until our second contracts were signed. I emphasized to a receptive lay leadership that a new phase of transition was only beginning. I reminded everyone that even Rabbi Ira Sanders, z”l — whose tenure, including his emeritus service, had spanned six decades — wasn’t “permanent.” However, a key staff member had endured enough transition, giving notice only three weeks after I arrived. Another left after the fall holidays. At URJ’s terrific Shallat Seminar for rabbis and congregational presidents in transition, key lay leaders and I learned that our level of staff turnover or more was common and to be expected. Still, the loss of institutional memory in our office was often debilitating.

Our Transition Committee Chairs understood and would have been up to the challenge, but their committee had been constituted to fill in the gaps when the congregation didn’t have a resident rabbi. They were prepared to throw a party — several parties, actually, which were very helpful — once the new rabbi arrived. Then, though, the Transition Committee was determined to disband.

Much was awkward during the first year. In my twenty-third year as a congregational rabbi, I frequently felt like a novice. Lay partners and I often tripped over each other, with their deference to my rabbinic leadership often running counter to my eagerness to be true to the congregation’s traditions. I was new to certain roles that had been filled by others in a larger synagogue, and needed to develop new competencies. Often, services and programs felt like an uneasy mixture of my style and the congregation’s, not yet seamlessly meshed.

Complicating matters, the congregation wasn’t the only party going through a challenging transition. The loss of my previous position had been traumatic. Even though I had a year’s sabbatical before entering the new congregation, I was still reeling from losing my home of 21 years, where I expected to stay to the end of my career and beyond.

My own trauma was matched by my family’s dislocation. My wife and younger son adapted quickly and happily to Little Rock, but were giving up a great deal in the process. Our older son took longer, and that first year was rough. Meanwhile, my dad was nursing his dying wife in their home around the corner from where we had lived in our previous community. I was busy in Little Rock, but my mind was often directed to my father’s home and to grieving the loss of my step-mother of 29 years.

Personal adjustments were tough. Professional adaptation is more at the heart of this essay’s subject. During the first year, what may be called “post-traumatic stress” amplified my reaction to even the smallest and most limited criticism. Moreover, having done outstanding due diligence in the search process, my new lay leaders were well aware of my foibles and were understandably concerned when even faint hints of those issues arose.

What a difference the second year made!

In the second year, the less-new rabbi is no longer leading the congregation through any annual event for the first time. The congregation’s receptivity to what I had to offer was more easily combined with what I had learned about the congregation’s long-established patterns. Our staffing had stabilized, with a talented Administrator joining our team at the end of my first year.

At a personal level, I had begun — imperceptibly, at first — to let go of the traumas of the past. My family was now at home in Little Rock, including my father, in his own home on our very street.

Today, my wife and I are returning to Little Rock from a brief “kids at camp” getaway. By coincidence, we went to the same vacation spot three years ago at this season, shortly after I had resigned my previous pulpit. Perhaps “déjà vu” would be a better word than “coincidence:” During both of these trips, to a place we haven’t been any other time, others were moving me out of my office. The two moves couldn’t be more different. Three years ago, I was being moved out of an office I adored, where I had only three months earlier had every reason to believe I would spend the rest of my career. This summer, at my no-longer-new congregation, our offices are being remodeled for many reasons, not the least of them being to create a quieter and more private space for congregants to meet with me. Three years ago, at a retreat that was supposed to be relaxing, I was constantly on the phone, confronting compounding trauma. This week, even with a big move happening in the office, I didn’t make more than a handful of phone calls in four days, and none of them was frantic.

Ten days ago, at our congregation’s Annual Meeting, I was pleased to announce that I was ready to declare our mutual rabbinical transition complete. Yes, I was talking about a transition that many had imagined finished two years earlier. The truth is, though, that Steve Fox had been correct. Two years would be required for congregation and rabbi to feel fully at home with one another.

At that same meeting, the congregation approved the extension of my rabbinic term, for five years beyond the first three, in effect ratifying a contract already approved by the Board to take effect beginning next summer. Yes, after two years, transition is complete, for both rabbi and congregation.


Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.