Rabbinic Reflections

What We Ask of Congregational Rabbis

Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar, rabbi emerita of Congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Deerfield, IL, and CCAR Press author, reflects on the unique role of the congregational rabbi.

The season begins. Many of us are stepping into new roles, new positions, are stepping away, or have been asked to step aside. Summer is the season of settling in. We dream, we move to a new town, we adjust, we try to get some sleep, we plan, we reconnect with ourselves, or at least we try. As for me, I’ve just retired. Or, as I prefer to say, I am shifting into something new.

A lot is asked of rabbis, and we serve in a variety of ways; I know I have. For those of us who serve congregations, we find ourselves deep in paradoxical expectations. Our congregants whisper to us all the time saying, “I don’t know how you do it.” And then, silently, they ask that we find the way.

They ask that we captivate the two-year-old and gain the trust of the seventeen-year-old. They want us to be a brilliant teacher to adults and a seasoned educator to children.

To sit with them in lamentation, to be deep, to be wise, and to be close. To be set apart, rise above, and yet be a friend. To be laser-focused on individual needs and to see the larger picture. To have a family life and to be always available.

To be a collaborative prayer leader and an inspiring orator. To have charisma on the bimah, but not put on a show. To tend to the broken-hearted and to mesmerize a crowd. To be passionate about social justice, but not too much.

To be spiritual and to be practical. To be visionary and detailed. To be strong, but not too strong. To be astute in temple politics, but not political. To be a skilled fundraiser, with business savvy, deeply religious, and have an easily explained theology. To command authority, but not too much. To be collaborative and decisive. To take risks and to be careful.

To stand for something grand.

They ask a lot, and I cannot say if it is too much. At times, over the years, I wanted to crumble under the weight of it all. And yet sometimes, I think that it is the gnarled and paradoxical set of expectations that make the work fascinating. We are asked to live in a world of nuance and finesse.

In truth, we are artists of the sacred, navigating the contradictions, compensating for our weaknesses, and delighting in our strengths. We forgive ourselves for not being perfect and others for not being kind. We surround ourselves with good people, caring people, smart people, wise people, and people who will compassionately tell us the truth. We build a diverse team with diverse skill sets. We surround ourselves with partners in the sacred.

The work is hard and glorious. It is a great and awesome privilege. It is confusing, exhausting, and exhilarating. Prayer helps, discernment helps, friends help, and rest helps. Now is the season for shifting, settling in. We walk in a vast field of sacred service; may our feet be steady and our hearts strong.

Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar has had a varied career. Among her positions, she has been a teacher at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, an outreach coordinator for the IMPJ, a regional director for the URJ, and most recently, the senior rabbi of Congregation BJBE in Deerfield, IL, where she is now rabbi emerita. She is a widely published author and poet. Her work includes the CCAR Press titles Amen: Seeking Presence with Prayer, Poetry, and Mindfulness Practice (2020) and Omer: A Counting (2014).

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Humanitarian Mission to Cuba

“Cuba? Why are you going to Cuba on a humanitarian mission, rabbi?” Congregants and friends asked this question numerous times after Congregation Kol Ami and Temple Beth Hillel announced the plan to visit Cuba in April 2016. The answer was simple, the Jewish community there needs us and we need to hear their stories.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger and I learned about the possibility of doing a Jewish religious mission from other rabbis who led similar trips and we knew that, as the relationship between the United States and Cuba’s relationship is entering a new era, timing was just right. Working with Pierre from World Passage Ltd., we worked out an itinerary that enabled us to meet with the Jewish communities in Havana and Cienfuegos and learn about the country and people of Cuba. Our congregants were excited about this travel opportunity and before we knew it we were on our chartered flight from Miami to Havana.

We entered Cuba poem-1carrying clothes for the tropical climate, a minimum of 10 pounds of physical donations for the four organizations we would visit, cash tzedakah, and enough cash for our trip (United States citizens cannot use credit cards or ATMs so we needed to convert our cash into CUCs). Our enthusiastic group of 22 hit the ground running and began our tour. We went right to the Sephardic Synagogue in Havana, one of three Jewish communities we would visit (we also stopped at a maternity clinic in Trinidad and brought gifts).

Jewish life in Cuba was strong prior to the 1959 revolution. There were approximately 15,000 Jews throughout the island of Ashkenazi and Sephardic descent. Havana was home to 6 or 7 day schools and a private Jewish high school. After the 1959 Revolution, private businesses were confiscated by the government, private schools were closed and if one was to participate in any religious community s/he would not be able to work within the government (this included medical professionals, teachers, etc.). For decades there were not enough Jews at any of the synagogues to make minyanim for the High Holy Days. However, after the fall of the socialist countries, the Castro regime allowed Cubans to practice religion without fear of penalty or retribution. Cuba changed from an atheist country to a secular country.

The Jewish community of Cuba today is approximately 1,500, about 1,100 Jews in Havana and 400 in small communities throughout the country. Like all of the people of Cuba the Jewish community has made life work under difficult circumstances. Our donations consisted of items that the congregations in Havana will use in their pharmacies. The congregations run the facilities and any Cuban who has a prescription can come and receive whatever it is they need, provided the pharmacy has it in stock. We also brought basic necessities like toothpaste, toothbrushes, and men’s and women’s underwear.

While there is much to be proud of within the Cuban Jewish community, they are in trouble. Most of the Jews leave Cuba whenever the opportunity presents itself (today most of the young people plan to make aliyah). 95% of Cubans are intermarried, and at the Patronato Synagogue 20% of the congregants are over 60 years old. Cuba’s Jewish community has a unique history and story of survival and there is much to learn from them.

Of course we did not only meet with the Jewish community of Cuba. We heard an overview of Cuban architecture, and sadly every day three houses collapse in Cuba because of the lack of infrastructure. We saw signs of Jewish life, Jewish stars embedded in stained glass windows, hanging from chandeliers and placed within mosaics. We visited Museo Bellas Artes and saw the immense collection of Cuban art. We heard an acapella concert by a phenomenal group in Cienfuegos and saw a demonstration of authentic Santeria dance and music. We stopped at Jardin Botanica de Cienfuegos, an amazing space filled with hundreds of species of trees. And we stopped at La Finca Vigia, Ernest Hemingway’s home, to view the property and the newly painted swimming pool (thanks to President and Mrs. Obama’s recent visit.)

Narratives in Cuba are very important. We learned the story of the October Crisis (what we in America call the Bay of Pigs) and for many in our group it was eye-opening to hear a different perspective. We also carried the narratives of the Cuban Jews living in the United States with us. One of my congregants has fond memories of her family’s home in Havana and the farm where they grew sugar cane. In 1959 she and her family fled Cuba, their home and farms were confiscated by the government and she vowed never to return. The Cuban people are eager to tell their story. If you are able to do so, I encourage you to go and listen. Listen to the music, dance to the rhythms, and take in the wonders of the vast array of visual arts.

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Rabbi Eleanor Steinman is the Director of Religious Education at Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village, CA. She blogs at

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A Conference of Colleagues, A Blessing of Rabbis

I’m not sure what one calls a large gathering of rabbis. Is it a rabble of rabbis? A den of rabbis? A blessing of rabbis? Whatever the official appellation, there sure were a lot of us at the CCAR convention I just attended in Chicago. In fact there were over 500 rabbonim gathered at the Fairmont Hotel for 4 days of learning, studying, schmoozing, and connecting. As always it is a sweet reunion of old friends, pulling out our iPhones, sharing pictures of our spouses and our kids and now for some of us, our grandchildren. It has also become a chance to meet new colleagues with new ideas about so much of what we senior rabbis have been doing for decades. These encounters can be bracing: the young are so certain about so much… These encounters can also be humbling, because they produce fresh insights into long held views on any number of practices.

We invite young scholars, many of them now teaching at Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary. And they are so smart! So credentialed from fine universities: Yale, Sorbonne, Hebrew University, and so forth… We learn that there are few eternal verities in Jewish Studies.

We also invite people from the world of business and politics to share their wisdom as it relates to Jewish life and leadership. With them we learn the shifting complexities and expectations of community, whether that be a community of consumers, Congressmen and women, or congregants. It is sobering for all of us to recognize that everyone agrees with the notion that we are living during a transition; we just don’t know to what we’re transitioning. There’s the rub…

untitled-58-2Yet with all the stress on the new and evolving, some things do not change, including the Reform movement’s commitment to social justice. This past Wednesday night Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center reminded us that for 50 years, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (“the RAC”) has been the hub of Jewish social justice and legislative activity in Washington, D.C. The RAC educates and mobilizes the Reform Jewish community on legislative and social concerns, advocating on more than 70 different issues, including economic justice, civil rights, religious liberty, Israel and more. He spoke with Jim Wallis, a Christian writer and political activist who is best known as the founder and editor of Sojourners magazine. Together they reminded the rabbis to keep our eyes on the prize.

Congregational life is changing and by definition, so too must the congregational rabbinate. We are less and less called upon to be scholars, experts in Jewish studies. More and more we are called upon to serve our temples through compassionate caring and connection. Adhering to “the way we have always done it” has slowly changed to doing “whatever is new and hip.” We are truly in new digital territory with analog maps. That consensus is shared by the vast majority of rabbis. So many Reform rabbis agreeing about anything en masse is cause to pay attention.

Rabbis are opinionated people with a deep sense of obligation to our congregations. We know that we will be called upon for unimaginably wonderful moments. We also know that we will be called upon to be present, to hold the center in the midst of devastating loss. We are not prophets yet we are often expected to fill that role – as well as the role of priest. Being at a conference of colleagues reminds us all that we are all human. We lack super powers. We are lonely sometimes. We are blessed to be present in the most sacred moments of life. Thirty years after my ordination and a day after the CCAR annual convention, I feel more blessed, luckier every day, to be a congregational rabbi.

Rabbi Keith Stern serves Temple Beth Avodah in Newton, MA.