Modeling the Behavior at CCAR Convention

One of the most important aspects of my rabbinate is continuing education.  I firmly believe that in order for me to be able to teach and serve as rabbi to my congregants, I must first model the behavior.  While I do try very hard to read and study as often as possible, I am so delighted and blessed to be able to spend these precious days together with my friends and colleagues from around the world.  I attend the CCAR Convention to learn, pray and reconnect (or in some cases connect for the first time) with friends and colleagues.

As this was the first full day of the CCAR Convention 2018, I knew it would be a very full and fulfilling day.  Shacharit services this morning were inspirational and spiritual.  Being present while we recognized and honored our 50 year colleagues was awesome.  Seeing a full bimah of colleagues attending this convention for the first time was definitely exciting.  And of course, listening to the rousing and stirring words of President Stern opened our eyes to the possibilities and wonder of the coming year.

This year, the CCAR Convention intended to focus our efforts on being engaged in our communities throughout the world in renewing our dedication to the rights of all – whether they be civil, religious, political, etc.  As such, the opening session entitled “Rabbis and Civic Engagement” was intriguing and challenging at the same time.  California Comptroller Betty T. Yee and Mayors Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles and Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento taught us about some of the challenges and successes facing California.  I believe that the challenges facing California are not a California problem.  These challenges are facing many if not all of our communities.

Civil discourse in the United States – and abroad – is vital.  We cannot turn our backs or close our eyes to the problems that so many of our congregants, friends and neighbors are facing.  As we are constantly reminded in our Liturgy, we must remember we were strangers in a strange land and God took care of us.  We have a tremendous obligation to face these problems with our neighbors head on.

I had the opportunity in the afternoon to attend two truly educational sessions.  The first session was “Freehof Institute: The Jewish-Christian Dialogue in an Age of Sharp Divisions.”  Rabbis Mark Washofsky and Denise Eger taught us of their own experiences with the Halacha regarding the Jewish-Christian Dialogue.  Rabbi Eger explained that the process of Halacha is a process of arguing and discussing legal/ethical issues for understanding and to continue the living tradition of Halacha.  Rabbi Washofsky helped us to understand the necessity of translating Halachic sources to make sense for our time, as our rabbis have been doing for centuries.

The second session was “Problematic Texts and the Religious Other in Jewish-Christian-Muslim Dialogue.”  In this session, we studied some of the texts from the Torah, the New Testament, and the Koran.  For me, the tremendous take away was that while it is absolutely possible to misinterpret or misread our sacred texts, the more challenging option (and perhaps the one that is most often not attempted) is to read, reread and then reread again our texts with the sincere attempt at understanding.  If we are unable to understand the “true meanings” of our texts, then it is incumbent for us to know that we have not tried hard enough to understand.  We should open our eyes to the “other” in attempting to understand our own sacred texts.

Dinner out with our colleagues was a great way to wrap up a very full day.  It was nice to kick back and enjoy good food and great company.  I am sure that the next days of our convention will bring many more occasions for spirituality, study and fun!

Rabbi Erin Boxt serves Temple Beth El in Knoxville, TN.  This is his 5th CCAR Convention.







Delving Into Israel at CCAR 2018 Convention

Monday at the CCAR Convention offered several opportunities to delve into our movement’s evolving relationship with the modern State of Israel. After having attended the AIPAC policy conference in Washington DC a couple weeks ago, I felt a very contrasting viewpoint among the scholars, rabbis, and thinkers here in Irvine, California. At AIPAC we focused solely on security matters, Israel’s advancements in science and technology, or Israel’s vibrant culture; but today we focused on apathy regarding Israel among Millennials, BDS on campus, and the difficulties our liberal movement faces with Israel’s right wing government.

I remarked at one of our sessions that after experiencing the euphoric atmosphere that characterized the AIPAC policy conference, the sessions today (all of which were entitled “Celebrating Israel at 70”) felt more of a bikur cholim visit then they did a birthday party. That being said, the sessions were very interesting. The presentations on BDS on campuses were enlightening and highlighted the great work that is being done by so many in the Hillel world on our college campuses. One of the more humorous moments occurred when it was pointed out by the moderator that the AIPAC representative and the J Street representative were sitting right next to each other unknowingly.

It is certainly possible after attending the sessions today on Israel that one could walk away with a gloomy assessment of where Israel us going as it begins its eighth decade. But an interesting juxtaposition can be felt by the participants at the convention when they leave the session and walk into the lobby of the hotel. There they will find several travel company representatives who are very busy engaging Reform rabbis and talking to them about their plans to lead trips to Israel with their congregations. In fact, it is very common to go on social media (which is not an uncommon occurrence here) and see my good friend Guy Millo from ArzaWorld  posting another picture of a rabbi holding a sign that reads, “I am leading a trip to Israel.” Although we are talking seriously about the issues that Israel faces, it is clear that among the Reform rabbinate love for the modern state of Israel is strong.

Most of my colleagues have strong feelings and concerns about the current government and its policies, and they are trying to make sense of our evolving relationship with Israel. But it seems to me that their love for the State of Israel is unconditional.  Perhaps it is this love that causes us to care so deeply about Israel’s challenges and not focus solely on their triumphs.  One interesting thing that I heard today was that several students from other liberal rabbinic schools are transferring HUC-JIR because they felt that their schools were too anti-Zionist. From what they knew about HUC-JIR they knew that they would find a home where the students, faculty, staff, and alumni are willing to question Israel’s policies, but not their love for the State of Israel. This gives me a sense of reassurance that though I may have serious policy differences with my colleagues on Israel, I know that their love for our Jewish homeland is passionate and enduring.

Rabbi Jeremy Barras serves Temple Beth Am in Pinecrest, Florida. 



Get Yourself a Teacher, Find Someone to Study with, and Judge Everyone Favorably

I will always remember my very first CCAR convention.  I was a first year rabbinic student at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem, and the 1995 convention was held there.  The students were included in many of the programs and the learning and the camaraderie were very special.

I certainly cherish the memory of meeting Prime Minister Rabin and other important Israeli officials and scholars.  However, what stood out for me in that moment was the experience of having so many of my teachers and mentors in one room…and then being introduced to their teachers and mentors!

I have been blessed with wonderful role models, rabbis who nurtured me formally and informally, in congregations and in classrooms.  I remember the first rabbi I ever saw in blue jeans, the first rabbi who invited me for a meal, and the first rabbi who opened my eyes to the wonders of Mishnah.  I remember the rabbis who held my children as newborns in their Brit ceremonies  and the rabbis who held me close over these last months as I became a mourner.  I believe our Conference is stronger because we are a multi-generational web of teachers who lift one another up through all of life’s challenges and joys.

At our conventions, there are extraordinary opportunities to connect with those who are already or can become our personal rabbis.  In Orange County, we will have the chance to study with several of HUC-JIR’s finest professors.  Every time I attend convention, I always seek out these opportunities, to study text with great scholars, simply for the joy of learning.

Our conventions give us the chance to learn face to face with great teachers and side by side with old classmates and new friends.  This face to face experience is precious.  As much as we can try and stay connected over the phone and through the computer, I believe there is always something limiting about those interactions.  Come to Orange County, and sit in our very own Beit Midrash, able to learn both from the texts and the people.

As we learn in Pirke Avot 1:6, “Get yourself a teacher, find someone to study with, and judge everyone favorably.”

We are blessed to be part of a conference of colleagues, each one of us eager to study and to teach.  When we gather at convention, our experiences together will help us to see the good and the hopeful in the world all around us.  Join me in Orange County!

Rabbi Peter W. Stein serves Temple B’rith Kodesh in Rochester, NY.  He is a member of the CCAR Convention Committee and also serves as CCAR Dues Chairperson.


Convention is an Opportunity to Build Mikdashim

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃

Make me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among you.
(Exodus 25:9)

וַיִּ֥בֶן הַבַּ֖יִת לַיהוָֽה׃

…and he built a House to Adonai.
(1 Kings 6:1)

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be a part of a lunch in honor of the launch of Six Points Sci Tech West. After we introduced ourselves, Rick Jacobs gave a D’var Torah where he compared the Torah portion, T’rumah, to its Haftarah, reminding us that we don’t often speak about the haftarah. He compared the building of the mikdash from the Parashah with the building of haBait from the haftarah. While he spoke, I was thinking about the comparison from a different perspective.

We spend much of our time focused on our permanent houses of worship. We think about our congregations where we spend most of our time and energy. Though we might not refer to our synagogue as a temple any more, it does serve to replace the Temple built in this week’s haftarah, in that we want our spiritual homes to be around forever, or at least for a very, very long time.

We fortunately do get the opportunity to build mikdashim from time to time, not in an attempt to replace or subvert our batim but to supplement them. Every year the CCAR Convention offers us a mishkan for a week of study, prayer, and socializing with each other that I look forward to every year. It is a place to compare notes with other colleagues going through the same triumphs and trials that we are, whether to commiserate or to learn from how they succeeded. It is a place of serious scholarship and brilliant models of best practices. It is a place where, because of our commitment to bettering ourselves and one another, God dwells. This year’s convention in Orange County, California will be a model of such a dwelling for the Divine.

Orange County is already an exemplar of community cohesion. If you need proof, look at the Real Housewives series from Bravo. Most seasons are named after a city: Real Housewives of Atlanta, …of Beverly Hills, …of Miami. But the season filmed in Coto de Caza, CA was named, “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” rather than taking its name from the city. As a county, we feel like a large, unified community more than a gathering of many independent cities.

That is exactly why this year’s convention is the perfect location to build our mikdash for the CCAR. It is an example of community and partnership that we should strive to model when we return to our permanent structures, and it is an inspiring atmosphere of fellowship. Not to mention the amazing weather!

Registration is open for CCAR 2018, and we hope that you are able to join our very own Betzalel and Oholiab (Daniel Septimus and Rick Kellner) for this fantastic opportunity.

See you in the OC!

Rabbi David Young serves Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley, CA.


CCAR Convention: A Spark for Learning

One of the aspects of CCAR Convention that I have come to love is the opportunity to engage with some of the best scholars of our movement.  A challenging aspect of my rabbinate is the fact that I go against what the sages advise us in Pirke Avot in that I do not always set time for study.  The primary concern for the sages is that if we do not make time for study, we might never have the time to do so.

For me, CCAR Convention has become time to engage in a higher level of learning, an experience that escapes me throughout much of the year, but one that I recall fondly from my days at HUC-JIR.  Convention always provides me with a diverse set of options for study from important themes of social justice, professional development or Torah Lishma.

Additionally, I often look forward to learning from former teachers at Hebrew Union College and those who teach on other campuses.  We know that HUC-JIR offers us some of the highest opportunities for learning and the faculty represents a wide range of wisdom and expertise.  With the convention returning to the West Coast in Orange County, CA we have easy access to the wonderful faculty of the Los Angeles campus.   The 2018 CCAR convention will certainly give me, along with the many others who studied in Los Angeles, a nostalgic opportunity to learn with the teachers who started us on our journey.  For those who studied in Cincinnati, New York, or Jerusalem, you will have the opportunity to experience what we experienced while the sun was shining bright outside the campus walls.

A new experience at convention this year will be a Beit Midrash on Wednesday afternoon.  There will be three sessions, each being offered twice, thus giving us the opportunity to choose two of the three sessions.  I must say I am overwhelmed by the challenge presented by these choices of learning.  The three sessions will include:

  1. Tamara Cohn-Eskenazi, Andrea Weiss, and Hara Person will teach Torah as we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the publishing of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary.  This significant publication brought to the forefront the power of women’s voices furthering our learning.  It is a resource that is studied regularly in my synagogue and one that I turn to frequently for tremendous insight and commentary.  I recall during my time at HUC-JIR in LA, I had the opportunity to take an intensive course on the book of Leviticus with Tamara Cohn-Eskenazi.  To enhance our reading, Tamara shared with us many of the essays that would appear in the forthcoming The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, which deeply enriched our learning.
  2. Dvora Weisberg, a masterful teacher of Rabbinic Literature will enlighten us with through an engaging study of Midrash focusing on the experiences of ordinary Israelites and Egyptians during the Exodus.  With her love of Rabbinic Wisdom and brilliant sense of humor and wit, I recall the many classes in which we brought Rabbinic wisdom to life and applied their sacred teachings to our experiences as rabbinic students and future rabbis.
  3. Learning with Richard Levy was always a spiritual experience as well as a pursuit of wisdom.  Richard’s unique way of reaching the soul was an instrumental part of my learning at HUC-JIR.  With the recent publication of Songs Ascending: The Book of Psalms in a New Translation with Textual and Spiritual Commentary, we have a new translation and commentary that offers spiritual insight, along with traditional analysis and poetic interpretation that will bring us all deep meaning as we engage with the Psalms.  At Convention, we will have an opportunity to study with Richard Levy, author of this wonderful text as he brings us into the spiritual world of the Psalms.

We look forward to seeing you in Orange County from March 18-21. Register now! I am looking forward to these and many other exciting learning opportunities. Hopefully they will launch my Torah study to becoming more of a habit.

Rabbi Rick Kellner serves Congregation Beth Tikvah in Columbus, Ohio and is the co-chair of the 2018 CCAR Convention in Orange County


Sea Level: First-timer Reflections on the CCAR Convention

I am not a big-hotel person. Wandering through long hallways, going up and down in mirrored elevators and walking on endless carpeted floors does not somehow enhance my sense of well-being or joy. When I first got to the hotel, I had to find out where the convention was actually happening and the answer was: “Take the elevator to C level.”

Now in Israeli geography, when you live not too far from the lowest spot on earth, the term “sea level” has a life of its own: driving to the Jordan Valley in Israel, whether to the Sea of Galilee in the north or the Dead Sea in the south, the signs indicating “sea level” are your reference to how high or low you are going. So I guess “sea level” made perfect sense to me. I was lucky enough that there were other people going into the elevator so I had a quick chance to realize my mistake without embarrassing myself too much, although I was already getting disoriented to the point that I wasn’t sure whether we were going up or down, the elevator sign just indicated it was EZ.

On the right level I still found myself more than once following the cool CCAR footprints on the floor to find myself in the right place at the wrong time (or vice versa) which gave me a chance to re-evaluate Heschel’s idea about sacred time versus sacred space, since in this case I needed a combination of both to make things happen. With this little sense of disorientation, I finally made it to Monday morning prayers, to enter a huge ballroom marked by its heavy chandeliers shedding somewhat dim light, carpeted floor and windowless walls, a setting I found not at all like my preferred setting for prayer. Not having windows was the hardest. I was well aware of the demand to have windows in a place of prayer, since at one point in our community in Rosh Ha’ayin, the option of praying in a miklat – a bomb shelter, came up, and I used the demand that there be windows to reject that option.

But then, as often happens, the magic just happened. I was carried by the music, the spirit, the joy of being together and the words of Torah, and it made me completely oblivious of the setting. It was symbolic for me that Rabbi David Stern, the elected CCAR president, related in his D’var Torah to the feeling of disorientation, of not knowing where the four directions or the four winds are, or being ‘wind whipped’. In that case, he said, quoting from Brachot tractate, you need to direct your heart to heaven to re-orient and re-connect yourself. This idea made me think of the small ritual of covering yourself with Talit, the prayer shawl, at the beginning of the Morning Prayer: you first wrap yourself completely, losing all sense of orientation, and then re-open the tallit regaining a new orientation, which has to do with turning your heart to heaven. I also realized that the word orientation might have originally indicated finding the orient, the Mizrach, the direction where (for those who used that term!) Eretz Yisrael and Jerusalem are.

In turbulent times, Rabbi Stern related, when we experience a sense of being ‘wind whipped’, we need to take our sages’ advice and find ways to re-orient ourselves, to create our own compass (מצפן) and our own consciousness (מצפון) so we are able to discern good from evil.

For me it meant going back to our base line or what I was referring to as sea level.

Rabbi Stern concluded by mentioning the Sulam, Jacob’s ladder. Each of us, he argued, need to place his ladder with its legs steadily standing on the ground but its head aspiring to reach the sky. It made me think of Jacob waking up the morning after the ladder dream and realizing: God dwells in this place and I didn’t know.

God definitely dwelled in that place and I didn’t know.

Rabbi Ayala Miron serves Bavat Ayin Congregation in Rosh HaAyin, Israel and teaches at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem. 


Stayed On Freedom

“I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.”

This week, as part of the CCAR rabbinical convention in Atlanta, I had the opportunity to explore the Civil Rights movement, through a tour of the Center for Civil and Human Rights, lectures from leaders of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the NAACP, and a visit to The Temple, Atlanta’s historic Reform synagogue, which was bombed by White Supremacists in 1958.

Among other exhibits, the Civil Rights Center has a wonderful movie about the Freedom Riders, those black and white young people who spent the summer of 1961 riding integrated buses across the South, challenging segregation laws. Who endured beatings and arrests to make their point about the injustice of segregation. The film ended with a song from the Civil Rights movement: “I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.”

I know that song. I know every word of it! I sang it as a kid at Henry S. Jacobs Camp, the Reform Jewish camp in Utica, Mississippi, along with folk songs and Hebrew songs that expressed our Jewish values. In fact, it probably wasn’t until adulthood that I realized “Woke Up This Morning” wasn’t actually a Jewish song. I suspect that this Civil Rights songs had become one of “our” songs because the earliest counselors and campers of that Deep South camp, which was founded in the early 70s, had been immersed in the struggle for Civil Rights during the previous decade.

I grew up in the South, but since today I live far away in Canada, it’s easy to forget how real the Civil Rights Movement is – how recent, and how nearby. I was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 16 years after Governor George Wallace stood on the auditorium steps in that city to block the integration of the university. The events described in the Civil Rights exhibit take place largely in the states where I was born and where I grew up, and largely within my parents’ lifetime. In fact, this past Tuesday as I heard Joseph Levin, Jr, tell – in his strong Alabama drawl – the story of how he came to co-found the Southern Poverty Law Center, I felt strangely at home. I grew up surrounded by those accents and those ways of thinking – by men and women who attended those universities and were members of those fraternities, who dress conservative but think liberal, who talk in old-fashioned Southern accents but act in courageous new ways in the fight for social justice. That is, in many ways, the Southern Jewish experience. It is something to be proud of.

Yes, I know the Civil Rights Movement isn’t about me, and it isn’t even about the Jews. It’s about the brave African Americans who stood up and demanded rights and equality. But it’s also about the white, black, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim allies who stood with them in the demand for a more just society. And it is about those of every place and time who know that our world is not yet as it should be.

I rarely encountered overt racism or anti-Semitism growing up in the South in the 80s and 90s. My Temple was not bombed. My schools were at least nominally integrated. My Jewish youth group and camp experiences were positive, happy, and healthy. And yet the old issues were not far beneath the surface. There were the occasional worrisome comments. The racial integration of our schools existed only on the surface – I remember distinctly that in one of the high schools I attended in Baton Rouge, the white and black kids essentially kept to themselves. When former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke ran for governor of Louisiana, I was floored by how many of my 7th grade classmates in New Orleans supported him. It is clear to me in hindsight that these were indications that the South is still struggling with issues of Civil Rights and racial equality. There is still work to be done.

Today I live far from the South. In fact, as a resident of Toronto, I live in a city that prides itself on being diverse, progressive, and welcoming. There is a level of diversity and coexistence evident on the streets, on the subways, and in my kids’ schools that still astounds me every day. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t hate. We have had our JCC bomb threats, our racially motivated killings, and our mosque attacks as well. We may not be Alabama in the 1960s, but neither can we fool ourselves that we are we living in a society free of bigotry. That is why we must continue to build relationships, why we must create bridges of understanding, knowledge, and acceptance between different faith and ethnic communities. And it is why we must speak out loudly – no matter who we are or where we live – against hate and injustice in all its forms.

Last month, when 6 worshipers tragically lost their lives in a hate-motivated attack on a mosque in Quebec City, synagogues throughout Toronto organized “Circles of Peace” around the local mosques, singing and praying in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters. The members of my congregation wanted instead to attend Friday prayers at a local mosque with whom we have a relationship. And when we did, and when we were warmly welcomed by our friends at the mosque, we discovered that 2 churches were also in attendance. On that Friday, Muslims, Christians, and Jews sat together, raising their voices in prayer that someday our world will be a place of tolerance and freedom for people of all races, religions, and backgrounds.

“I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.”

There are moments in history that call for clarity of purpose. May we look to the examples of the past, to the brave men and women who have fought for justice and equality, and may we be inspired to stand together with those who are different from us, and to stand up for what is right.

Rabbi Micah Streiffer serves Temple Kol Ami in Thornhill, Ontario, Canada.


I Want us to Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable

“I want us to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

April Baskin’s hope for our movement (expressed near the end of Wednesday’s breakout workshop on Racial Justice) is a personal goal as well, and this year’s convention has afforded me ample opportunity to have my comfort challenged in all the right ways. In the short span of a few hours on the conference’s final day, I was pushed with respect to Israel/Palestine, Race, and Gender and Sexuality, and I am grateful for each uncomfortable moment.

The first push came during our Israel-focused morning. Hanan Schlesinger and Ali Abu Awad shared their truths with us, letting their stories and their friendship testify to the power of growth that comes from discomfort. In their words, and in the program that followed, I more clearly saw my own truths for what they are: partial, the “amot shevurot” of which David Stern spoke on Monday. I found myself wondering whether his important reminder that “a uni-vocal Zionism is a failed Zionism” might be extended even further. How am I, a Progressive Zionist, called to be in relationship not only with fellow Zionists of all stripes, but also with those people (of all faiths) who do not embrace Zionism for any of a number of reasons?

My afternoon was spent thinking about Racial Justice with April Baskin and Rachel Laser, and about LGBT Justice with Rebecca Stapel-Wax of SOJOURN. In each session, practical advice was joined with exercises that forced me to confront my own biases and privilege. What do I like about being white? What are my earliest memories about the notion of “gay?” What feelings do I associate with my first remembered experience of encountering a transgender person? These aren’t easy questions to ponder, and they are even harder to reflect upon aloud. Kudos to April, Rachel, and Rebecca for creating the spaces in which this important work could happen. Their work will help us to become more sensitive, inclusive, and just rabbis.

From my seat by the gate as I wait to fly home on Thursday (a different, and most unwelcome, sort of discomfort!), I feel tremendous gratitude to everyone whose hard work and dedication made #ccar17 so rewarding…and so uncomfortable, in all the right ways.

Rabbi Larry Bach serves Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, North Carolina.


What Happens When We Listen?

Our world has become filled with talking.  We have to push our thoughts and opinions out into the world in an effort to convince others that we are right.  However, when we are talking we are not really listening.  When we are talking, we are often arguing over the heads of others and responding without even thinking about what the other is saying, we just want to be right and be sure the other is wrong.  It is as if we are holding up an identity card that immediately shows others what we believe and what our thoughts on a certain subject might be.  Others hold up these same identity cards, we walk away and relationships break down.

When we listen, we build relationships and human connection. On Wednesday at Convention, we witnessed that and we lived that.  Listening to the incredibly deep changes that Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Ali Abu Awwad have gone through in their lives is remarkable.  If they can change so can we.  For an Israeli settler Orthodox rabbi to go from never seeing a Palestinian to breaking bread with Palestinians and creating grassroots change is almost unheard of.  For a Palestinian to go from a agitator and someone who was shot by an Israeli soldier to say, “I want to defend Judaism and the right Jews have to their land, at the same time I want to defend my own state,” is a profound acknowledgement and acceptance of the other’s narrative and existence.

Hanan and Ali’s words are a reminder that two opposites can come together and make peace.  The American Jewish Community has witnessed disconnect and a breakdown when it comes to Israel.  If Hanan and Ali, two seemingly bitter enemies, can see the other, why can’t we? We need to create a culture of civil discourse not disagreement.  We were inspired to learn today that Civil Discourse is rooted in listening emphatically and actively.  When we hear the stories of another and ask people to clarify where they are coming from, we create human relationships.  When we listen in order to understand and not respond, we create human relationships.

Our tradition is rooted in understanding.  We learn in Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:3 that the Sanhedrin was physically set up in a semi-circle so that every member of the Sanhedrin could see the face or the profile of the other.  Such a set up ensures the interpersonal relationships would not be interrupted during debate.  Today, seeing the face of the other is felt in hearing one’s story and connecting personally.  Seeing the face of the other is listening without trying to respond and listening for understanding and emotion.

What happens when we listen?  We engage in civil discourse, we hear and see the other, and we build a relationship with a fellow human being.

Rabbi Rick Kellner serves Congregation Beth Tikvah in Columbus, Ohio.  

Books Convention

Collecting Rabbis

I collect rabbis.

As a young boy, it seemed to me, being a rabbi was a profound and precious use of a Jewish soul. To inspire Torah into hearts and into the world, oh my! So, at the age of 18, when I asked my own rabbi about going into the rabbinate, I was crushed.

My rabbi told me that I was already behind in Torah studies. That it would take me twice as long as the other students to catch up. Even then, my Hebrew was so bad that I wouldn’t begin seminary with my peers. If I made it – if I made it, he said – I’d always be a rabbi, that the entire Jewish world would constantly judge my actions, that the entire Jewish world would be represented me always. He asked if I had the strength to do that.

What I heard, as an insecure and uncertain teen, was this: “We don’t want you. There’s no place for you in Rabbi-World.”

He was a brilliant Torah teacher. I still reread his books. I remember sermons he gave decades ago. I remember the joy of our Friday morning Talmud class. He gave me my first glimpse of the depth and beauty of diving into Torah. Since then, I’ve considered the rabbinate several times. Even at 60, there’s still a wound in my heart with the words: “Not a rabbi.”

So, I collect rabbis. What does that mean? That I still allow my heart to be open and vulnerable to rabbis. That if you touch my heart, you’ll always be my rabbi. The balm on the wound is to collect the vibrant golden hearts of Torah teachers, tikun olam leaders, healers, blessings in the flesh. The balm is to add a bit of your heart to mine.

You were at my wife’s deathbed and comforted my children at her shiva. You taught me Torah. We stood together at the Kotel defending women’s prayer rights. You taught me how to say the Shema with my entire being. You’ve encouraged my writing, challenged it to get better. You’ve brought me to your synagogues to teach. We made music together. You call yourselves Rabbi, Rav, Rabba, chaplain, educator, pastoral care counselor, editor, coach, friend.

Here I am, early on Monday morning at the Central Conference of American Rabbis convention. Some of my rabbis are here, some didn’t make it. Most are Reform. Some Conservative, Orthodox, Renewal, Reconstructionist, Havurah, Haredi, defiant of labels. Some are AIPAC and some are JStreet. Some are men, women, trans, gay, lesbian. Writers. Teachers. Scholars. Activists.

Last night here at CCAR17, I was blessed to hear many kind things about my writing and my new book, ‘This Grateful Heart.’ I confess: part of me – the ‘not a rabbi’ part – doesn’t know what to do with these words, so I put them into the box of inspirational fuel for my work as a liturgist.

I’m still collecting rabbis, so this is the place for me to be.

It appears that some rabbis are also collecting liturgists. This Grateful (sentimental) Heart is touched.

Alden Solovy is a liturgist, author, journalist, and teacher. He has written more than 600 pieces of new liturgy, offering a fresh new Jewish voice, challenging the boundaries between poetry, meditation, personal growth, and prayer. His writing was transformed by multiple tragedies, marked in 2009 by the sudden death of his wife from catastrophic brain injury. Solovy’s teaching spans from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem to Limmud, UK, and synagogues throughout the U.S. The Jerusalem Post called his writing “soulful, meticulously crafted.” Huffington Post Religion said “…the prayers reflect age-old yearnings in modern-day situations.” Solovy is a three-time winner of the Peter Lisagor Award for Exemplary Journalism. He made aliyah to Israel in 2012, where he hikes, writes, teaches, and learns. His work has appeared in Mishkan R’Fuah: Where Healing Resides (CCAR Press, 2012), L’chol Z’man v’Eit: For Sacred Moments (CCAR Press, 2015), Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe (CCAR Press, 2015), and Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition (CCAR Press, 2016). He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, from CCAR Press.