Planning for CCAR Convention 2019 in Cincinnati

Initial planning and brainstorming for a CCAR convention begins 18 months prior to a convention, when the convention committee gathers in the city where the convention is set to take place. When members of the 2019 CCAR Convention Committee gathered in the Queen City and the home of Graeter’s Ice Cream in the fall of 2017, we gathered with excitement because of the prospect of celebrating two significant milestones – Isaac Mayer Wise’s 200th birthday and the 130th anniversary of the CCAR.

A Convention site visit is filled with opportunities to meet with local colleagues and local community leaders as we work to brainstorm the high level learning experiences that we all expect from our annual rabbinic gathering. What would make 2019 in Cincinnati unique? Learning at HUC, prayer at Plum St. and a celebration of our founder, Isaac Mayer Wise, would be memorable moments, but what would the enduring impact be of our learning together? To help us frame our thinking and planning, we reached our to our colleagues, Gary Zola and Jonathan Cohen (former Dean of the HUC’s Cincinnati campus) to teach us about Isaac Mayer Wise and his legacies. Not only did we discover that few of us knew much about his life, aside from founding the major institutions of our movement and his work on Minhag America, but thanks to the wisdom of our wonderful teaches we uncovered Wise’s legacies that we would use as a starting point for our learning goals that helps guide our planning for convention.

Rabbis Zola and Cohen taught us that among Wise’s many contributions to Jewish life in America, four significant legacies include: liturgical innovation, educational expansion, equality of women, and the Americanization of Judaism.

Using these lessons as a guide we created the following five goals:

  1. Build upon the legacy of Isaac Mayer Wise: Where were we? Where are we? Where are we going?: We will explore the following aspects – integration of Judaism into America, the training and education of rabbis, modern understandings of Jewish text and literature and how they apply to contemporary issues, liturgical innovation, Jewish education of adults and children, equality of women and social justice issues.
  2. We will reflect on Mission Driven Transformation:

Isaac Mayer Wise wanted to create an American Rabbinate to lead and serve the emerging Jewish community and to teach Jews who knew how to be Jewish to also be Americans. Today we are in the midst of unique opportunities to engage with Jews who know how to be American but need rabbinic leadership to help them create and live a meaningful Jewish life.

  1. To discover how Cincinnati is a microcosm for some of the challenges we are facing in the rest of the country and its approaches to meet those challenges.
  2. To think deeply about the role Reform Judaism plays in Jewish life in North America and the world.
  3. To mark sacred transitions within the CCAR.

Using these goals as our guide, we will have opportunities to engage in meaningful conversations about innovation. We will engage in study with our esteemed HUC faculty who will respond to key questions and challenges we face in our rabbinate. We will learn to lift up our moral voice and enhance moral leadership as we frame our social justice efforts in Jewish teachings and values. Finally, we will have a special opportunity to have an update from the Task Force on the Women’s Experience in the Rabbinate.

We hope that you will plan to join with colleagues as we reconnect with friends, broaden our rabbinic skills, enhance our rabbinates and celebrate the leadership of Steve Fox and Hara Person. We look forward to seeing you in Cincinnati and enjoying a cup of Graeter’s Black Raspberry chip together. Please register for CCAR Convention at

Rabbi Rick Kellner serves Congregation Beth Tikvah in Columbus, Ohio.  He is also the Chair of the 2019 CCAR Convention Committee. 


Words into Deeds: The New CCAR Task Force on Women’s Experiences in the Rabbinate

Rabbi Sally Priesand once said that, “The Central Conference of American Rabbis has been on record since 1922 as being in favor of the ordination of women, but it took fifty years to change the attitudes of people.”[1] Reform Judaism, a denomination that now accepts female rabbis, did not always hold this perspective. Many fears surrounded the concept of female rabbis—a concept that not only challenged a patriarchal, Jewish tradition but also gender-role stereotypes. As a result of these fears, female rabbis had difficulty obtaining pulpit placements. Therefore, in 1976 the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) organized the Task Force on Women in the Rabbinate, which strived to promote the full acceptance of female rabbis.

Similarly, in December of 2017, in order to respond to the challenges faced by this century’s female rabbis, the CCAR organized the Task Force on Women’s Experiences in the Rabbinate. While much progress has been made since the last task force, there are still many obstacles to overcome in order to achieve gender equality in the rabbinate. Led by Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus and Vice-Chair Rabbi Amy Schwartzman, the task force has implemented a three-year plan, with this first year dedicated towards inquiry.

On Monday, March 19th at the 2018 CCAR Convention, a special listening session was held to begin the anonymous information gathering and to learn what areas must be addressed. Through the use of virtual, rapid polling, attendees were asked to respond to questions by typing them into a survey site. The questions revolved around female rabbinic experiences with gender bias in the hiring and advancement process, sexual harassment and assault, statements on appearance made by laypeople, speech by male colleagues and gender dynamics in Jewish institutions. A main ballroom was filled by female and male colleagues of all ages for this interactive session that also allowed time for table discussions. Participants shared about their interactions and experiences, which were transcribed by table leaders. Taking part in this process was a unique opportunity and was surely history in the making!

Although I am newly ordained, I too, directly and indirectly, already know of the challenges female rabbis face. The experience of gender-based comments and undermining behavior, as well as the struggle to negotiate a respectable amount of paid maternity leave all form an insensitive reality that can and should be changed. Although this reality is shaped by a combination of a patriarchal, Jewish tradition and secular, societal trends, if anyone can be the trailblazer of institutional gender equality, it is the CCAR—it is the same organization that was the first to ordain women, and it is the same denomination that was the first to promise religious equality for women in synagogue life.

I am proud of the CCAR for starting this difficult but imperative endeavor that will challenge and be challenged by society’s gender norms. I am proud of HUC-JIR for beginning the conversation on gender inequality these past two years by leading workshops on micro-aggressions, power dynamics and sexual harassment. It is vital for students, staff and professors to be aware of these gendered experiences and to understand how they can play a role in changing the culture of our institutions. Last but not least, I am proud of our male colleagues who are not afraid to be allies and advocates in cultivating and upholding gender equality. As Rabbi Weinberg Dreyfus stated, “The outcome we seek is not just a program or a policy but cultural change within the rabbinate and the movement at large.” Through consciousness-raising, policy-making and accountability, we can achieve this cultural change.

Rabbi Sally Priesand, who was in attendance at this session and who received an applause of appreciation, once wrote that the “the best way to assure that our Movement’s recognition of women is more than symbolic is to bring women into leadership roles on the national as well as the congregational level, to turn our resolutions of the past decade into reality, to translate our words into deeds.”[2] She knew that real change did not come by just identifying concerns and setting goals but by implementing a plan and following through with it. May we once again hold our words and intentions accountable so that they are transformed into deeds.

Rabbi Allison B. Cohen serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Boca Raton, FL.



[1] Interview. Interview With First Female Rabbi. ABC News. 25 Nov. 1973. Television.

[2] Priesand, Rabbi Sally. Letter to Rabbi Alexander Schindler. 1979. Print.

Convention Israel

Listen to This: Israel is Still A Fragile Dialogue

My wife, Sarah, grew up going to Jewish day school. When I talk about the work I do, she has a very familiar reference point. She has lived it, more or less. I don’t have to explain Jewish ritual to her; more often, she causes me to question and dive deeper into the work that I do. It is a rare opportunity, though, when I get to bring her work into what I do.
A few years ago, she and her colleagues at the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, published a paper about what happens in the brain when people with strongly held political believes are presented with challenges to those believes. The paper was eventually turned into an episode of the web comic, “The Oatmeal,” titled, “You’re Not Going To Believe What I’m About To Tell You.” The basic premise, as it relates to this topic, is that when people are presented with a challenge to a belief that is connected to one’s core identity, people tend to dismiss this alternative perspective and dig their heels in deeper to their previously strongly held belief.
One of the reasons why CCAR Press’ recent publication, The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism is so poignant is because the Zionist stakes are high. The new voices of liberal Zionism are teaching us that digging into previously held beliefs and narratives sets up a recipe for disaster, or more realistically, disengagement with Israel. At the workshop featuring chapter authors from The Fragile Dialogue, Michael Marmur, Liya Rechtman, and Eric Rosenstein presented diverging narratives of even what it means to be a liberal Zionist today.
Marmur opened with an implicit nod to how we deal with differing narratives, noting, “We create our own myths, which become our facts.” He continued his observation that we try to squeeze each other’s facts into our myths. “Most of us spend a lot of time doing myth preserving, making sure that our myths are neither strengthened nor weakened. This quells creativity around our myths.” This caused me to wonder: the rabbis who created Midrash had no problem getting creative around our foundational myths (Marmur even noted that our tradition has established for us a foundation where “we’re meant to be creatively uncomfortable”) – specifically when it comes to Zionism, why have we shifted so drastically against creativity?
Because it’s a fragile dialogue.
Liya Rechtman presented a narrative which was important for this room to hear, specifically because it was so challenging. “When you have red lines of who you will hear from, you inherently cut people out of the conversation,” she offered. And she’s right. How many times have we not invited — or worse, disinvited — speakers purely because their views crossed a red line for someone in our community? One of my rabbinic mentors has noted, “We spent 2000 years dreaming of having a Jewish parliament, and one of the members of that Jewish parliament wants to speak to us, and we’re saying ‘no’?”
Because it’s a fragile dialogue.
I feared going into this session that if we were to hear, as we did from Liya and Eric, that 21st century Israel narratives are based on the accepting the diversity in our narratives and finding places of mutuality and common ground, whereas 20th century Israel narratives were about the preservation of Jewish life, participants would backfire — digging their heels in, not believing what they were hearing. What gave me hope is that the opposite happened. Yes, assumptions were challenged. Yes, there were disagreements in perspectives. And yes, looking into a mirror of the generational divide on even what it means to be a liberal Zionist was difficult. But we heard each other.
Because we all know it’s a fragile dialogue.
If learning happens through failure, growing at a moment when a premise is challenged, this workshop showed that the future of our leadership and our approach to liberal Zionism is no exception.
Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisrael – How wonderful are your sessions O Jacob, your dwellings of fragile dialogue, O Israel!
Rabbi Jeremy Gimbel serves Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego, CA.


What does a rabbi look like? Do you envision the rabbi of your childhood when you picture a rabbi? Is it an iteration of Tevye, the lead character from Fiddler on the Roof? At the annual convention for the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) this question was posed in a myriad of ways, especially as the work of the Task Force on Women in the Rabbinate led a program on creating cultural change. 45 years after the ordination of the first female rabbi in North America, too many people struggle to break that old image. One way Reform Rabbis and the CCAR are changing the narrative is the hashtag and amazing photos, #ThisIsWhatARabbiLooksLike (I encourage you to search for this hashtag on your favorite social media platform).

By elevating the voice of the Reform rabbinate in the press, on social media, in the coffee shop, in the classroom, in the hospital room, and in the communal organization, Reform Rabbis are changing the perception of what a rabbi looks like.

A rabbi is tall. A rabbi is short. A rabbi is strong. A rabbi is differently able. A rabbi is a woman. A rabbi is a man. A rabbi is trans. This is what a rabbi looks like. Rabbis reflect the beautiful tapestry of humanity.

As I’ve been thinking and reflecting at the annual convention about these issues my amazing colleague at Temple Beth Hillel sent me the following photo and text.

“Ariela says, ‘this is Rabbi Ellie in the front.’”

As part of young Ariela’s imaginary play, one of her rabbis participates! This too is what a rabbi looks like.

And the next day this arrived:

“Today you are the top doll. She also said you like zebras.”

Thank God, children with the their profound imagination really understand what rabbis look like. May we continue to learn from them.

Rabbi Eleanor Steinman is the Director of Religious Education at Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village, CA. This blog was originally posted  at


Reflecting at CCAR Convention

Dear colleagues,

Having spent the weekend with our 10th graders at the L’taken Social Justice Seminar in Washington, I was overcome with emotion joining the Reform Rabbinate.  As we are “Confronting the Future,” our children – our greatest treasures, are reshaping it.  While we have a sacred duty to guide them, we also need to remember that we can learn from them.

I took lots of photos today, and I put them together to try to capture just a little of the breadth of our experience.  (One photo is of our kids in DC – got to get the dramatic juxtaposition in there!)

I also have quite a few selfies.  But the purpose is not self-serving.  I think it’s important that we all take stock of  just how many people have made a difference in our lives.

We have made each other better rabbis.  We have made each other better people.  We have all helped to create souls.

So take some to time reflect.  Who are the people in your rabbinate who have made that difference?  And how did you make that difference for others?

With love and shalom,


Rabbi Zach Shapiro serves Temple Akiba in Culver City, CA.



#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. 


46 Years of Women Rabbis: A Messy Miracle

The father in the delivery room has a complicated perspective. I know. I have been there twice.

Most of us know little about how our own bodies work – less still, about the physiology of the opposite sex. At childbirth classes, fathers are prepared to help with breathing; and we know that pain is involved. Most men, though, are entirely unprepared to witness all that blood and, for lack of a better term, the messiness of the whole process.

And then, we don’t talk about it, at least not if we’re wise.

Instead, we focus on the miracle. Yes, childbirth is a miracle – not supernatural, but natural; God-given all the same. Two moments in my life have no compare: Seeing each of my sons for the very first time as he emerged from his mother’s body and into the world.

We celebrate the miracle of childbirth but sublimate the messiness. And well we should – at least if we’re talking about childbirth from the father’s viewpoint.

But what if we’re talking about male rabbis’ perspective on the experience of women in the rabbinate? Strikingly similar, at least until recently.

Oh yes, we witnessed the miracles – in some ways, we caused, aided, and enabled it.

Yes, we knew that placement opportunities were not equal, at least in the first several decades.

Yes, we knew about pay disparities, or we should have known.

Many of us, though, did not see the othering, the sexual harassment and even assault. We did not see, perhaps not wanting to see, like the “Pharaoh who knew not Joseph.”[i]

But we did brag about the miracle. Like so many 1950s dads, handing out cigars in hospital waiting rooms. We celebrated that “we” were first.

We rose for standing ovations. For Sally, who was first. For Janet, who was first. For Denise, who was first. And for so many others of “our” firsts.

But we did not speak of the messiness. Upon reflection, we rose to applause – not so much for Sally, for Janet, or for Denise – but for ourselves. After all, “we” were the first to welcome women into “our” rabbinic ranks.

Parashat Tzav is full of messy details about our ancestors’ sacrifices. “The blood, the fat, and the protuberance of the liver” are hard to escape.

Among those sacrifices, introduced last week in Vayikra but given purpose only in Tzav is the shlamim, or “wholeness offering.” Unlike most korbanot (sacrifices), the shlamim is unconnected to sin. Still, it’s messy.

Tamara Cohn Eskenazi teaches in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary that the shlamim was brought on festivals and to express gratitude. Its bounty is shared.[ii] Even with this celebratory korban, though, Torah is frank about “the blood, the fat, and the protuberance of the liver.” We only read about the communal celebration after slogging through the description of gory ritual.

Our teacher Naamah Kelman reminds us of Vayikra Rabah’s suggestion that the shlamim is the only sacrifice that will be offered in messianic days.[iii] Sin will end. Cause for celebration will not.

We do not live in messianic days. Sin endures. And sometimes, b’ratzon u’vishgagah, willingly or unwittingly, we are its perpetrators.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis gathers this week with many goals, not least of which is to examine the entrails to view blood and the dung that have accompanied the miracle we have seen emerge over forty-six years of women in the rabbinate.

When asked about where men’s voices belong in the “#metoo” moment, our teacher Elana Stein Hain has affirmed that every voice should be heard, while suggesting that maybe we need to “take turns.” Now is women’s turn, at least to go first.[iv]

For starters, without ignoring the important role men in Reform leadership played, we must acknowledge that women are the ones who experience the labor pains. Women have given birth to the miracle that is forty-six years of women rabbis in our Conference.

This week, let us speak frankly of the blood, the fat, and the protuberance of the liver; and let us listen attentively.

Then, may this week’s frank acknowledgements inch us closer to that day when the only korban required of us will be the shlamim, to express our boundless, and finally unfettered, gratitude.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.


[i] Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 11a.
[ii] Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea Weiss, editors, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008, p. 609. Cited by Naamah Kelman, “An Offering of Thanksgiving,”
[iii] Naamah Kelman, “An Offering of Thanksgiving,”
[iv] “Judaism, #metoo, and Ethical Leadership, Perspectives from the Created Equal Project,” webinar, Shalom Hartman Institute, January 24, 2018.


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.