Rabbinic Reflections Statements

Remembering Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD, z”l: ‘At the Turning: Reflections on My Life’ (2014)

The Central Conference of American Rabbis mourns the death of our beloved rabbi, teacher, and friend, David Ellenson, PhD, z”l (1947–2023). The former president and chancellor emeritus of our Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi Ellenson was a mensch of the highest order who imparted wisdom and kindness in addition to sharing his voluminous knowledge and scholarship.

Rabbi Ellenson was a devoted and generous member of the CCAR and a friend to CCAR Press. His forewords or afterwords appear in three CCAR Press volumes: The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival, The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality, and From Time to Time: Journeys in the Jewish Calendar. In fall 2014, to mark the close of his first term as HUC-JIR’s president, CCAR Journal published “A Tribute to David Ellenson,” with articles by Rabbis Robert Levine and Rachel Adler. The issue also contained an autobiographical piece by Rabbi Ellenson entitled “At the Turning: Reflections on My Life.” We share excerpts of that piece in his memory.

The forces that have animated my life and work cannot be understood without recourse to my family and my past as a Jewish boy growing up in the South during the 1950s and 1960s and the multilayered world I experienced. Everything in my world talked about difference and exclusion. My grandparents had all emigrated from Eastern Europe to the United States in the early 1900s. My maternal grandparents had settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while my paternal grandparents improbably came to Newport News, Virginia. My parents, Rosalind Stern and Samuel Ellenson, met at Harvard Hillel in 1945, immediately after World War II, and they married in 1946. A year later, I was born, and six months after my birth, my father, a degree from Harvard Law School in hand, returned with my mother and me to Newport News, where he began the practice of law….

To this day, I cannot fully capture how very much I love the South and the Peninsula. The approximately 2,000 Jews located on the Peninsula lived peacefully and prosperously among more than 150,000 gentiles…. My entire extended family lived in the same pleasant neighborhood, and my childhood and adolescence were filled with family gatherings and events at which aunts, uncles, and cousins were present. …

I was and remain at some very deep level of my being a Virginian. However, I was also a Jew and that was “the rub.” I never felt I fully belonged. My being a Jew in a Christian world made me an outsider and different from the time I was a small boy, an observer even as I was an eager participant in the larger world. It left me feeling alienated even as I was overwhelmingly social and active.

In sum, the fabric of my identity was fraught with tensions. The inequities and evils I witnessed as a child and as a teenager in matters of race and gender and the sense of being an outsider as a Jew to the gentile culture in which I was raised all left a permanent mark on me….

* * *

I enrolled [eventually] in the Religious Studies Department of the University of Virginia, where I received an M.A. degree… There, for the first time, I read the works of Durkheim and Weber, where I was provided the beginnings of a vocabulary that would allow me to frame and illuminate my concerns. It was also equally clear to me that I had so much more to learn if I was to ever explore seriously the nature of what it was to be a Jew in the modern world.

This led me to move to Israel for two years. The first year I lived on Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek in the Jezreel Valley—where I worked in the fields and advanced my spoken Hebrew—while, in the second year, I enrolled in the rabbinical program at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. Although I seriously considered remaining in Israel and making aliyah at the end of that year, I decided to return to the United States, where for the next four years I would pursue rabbinical ordination at HUC-JIR in New York and doctoral studies in Religion at Columbia University….

The precise character of my [doctoral] work was shaped by two men. Towards the end of my formal graduate education in 1976 and 1977, I came under the tutelage of Fritz Bamberger of HUC-JIR and Jacob Katz of Hebrew University, who was then at Columbia as a visiting professor…. [Professor Bamberger’s teaching made] me aware that the hermeneutic of tension I have employed in all my work is embedded in a narrative that emerged from my own childhood experiences as a Jewish boy in Virginia…. Professor Katz provided me with the content and even more importantly the methodology that would guide and inform my work for decades to come. [He] pointed out that Germany was the crucible in which modern Judaism was born. It was here that the conflict between an inherited Jewish tradition and a highly acculturated Jewish community first played itself out… Indeed, it is a primary reason that I wrote my dissertation on Rabbi Hildesheimer, an Orthodox Jew completely committed to Jewish tradition, who received a doctorate from a German university and who was completely comfortable in Western culture. A study of his life would indicate precisely how Jewish religious tradition could be and was adapted to the demands of the time and place in which he lived. In so doing, I could hold up a mirror to my own being and provide a case study of how Judaism could be adapted to the modern world….

My decision to employ his model to study Rabbinic responsa and prayer book compositions in Western Europe, North America, and my beloved Israel reflect my deepest personal commitments to Judaism and the State of Israel. It also led me to believe that academic scholarship was a vital means to illuminate an understanding of life for myself, my Jewish community, and others in the larger world…

* * *

As a Jew who is commanded every day to remember my bondage and my exodus from Egypt… I cannot forget the books of my Jewish past, nor do I want to. Instead, I hope that my children and my students and their descendants, as our daily liturgy phrases it, will be “yodei sh’mecha v’lomdei toratecha” (knowers of God and students of Torah). My years as president of the College-Institute have been an extension of my entire life and all my values. I have aspired as a Jew born in America and connected deeply both to Israel and the larger world to place myself and my students in a chain of Jewish tradition that is humane and inclusive. Rabbi Leo Baeck provides me with a language for that aspiration…:

Every generation by choosing its way, its present way, at the same time chooses an essential part of the future, the way of its children…. Ways bind, wind, and wander. When a man forms his life, he begins to create community. He is not only born into community as if by fate, but he has now been called to the task of molding it.

My own Jewish way has wandered. Surely, the ways of my own children and grandchildren as well as my students will wander as well. Nevertheless, I and they are also bound, and my way, just as theirs, emanates from those who lived before us. I have tried—through my researches and through my work as a teacher and as president of the College-Institute—to honor the way I have inherited even as I have struggled to mold a direction for a way that reflects who I am. I look forward with confidence to how the students and graduates of HUC-JIR… will mold their own directions for the Jewish people and humanity in the days ahead.

Read the entire piece here.

Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD, z”l (1947–2023), served as president of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion from 2001 to 2013 and again from 2018 to 2019. He was a prolific scholar of modern Jewish thought and history.

lifelong learning Rabbis

Finding Our Authenticity as Rabbis: Sermon from Ordination, Cincinnati, 2019

Rabbi Hara Person, incoming Chief Executive of CCAR, delivered this sermon during the Ordination at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati this past Shabbat. It was her great honor to have been invited by the ordinees to address them, and she is grateful to have been invited to be part of their ordination.


In the waning days of my fifth year as a rabbinic student, a rabbi posed a question to my class. He asked: How will you come to feel authentic as a rabbi?

And I remember instinctively blurting out an answer: When I grow a beard. 

In retrospect, it’s funny. But it’s also not so funny. The image I had in my head even after five years of rabbinic school was still man with a beard and a kippah. In part my comment was about gender, but it wasn’t only about that. I was gauging my sense of self by what I believed to be the view of others. I was looking at myself from the outside rather than searching within. At that moment, I couldn’t imagine who I would become as a rabbi, and what my rabbinate might look like. All I could feel was the gnawing dread of not being authentic. 

My worry about authenticity wasn’t simply that I was insecure – yes, that too. But there were bigger forces at play. At that moment I knew what I couldn’t be as a rabbi, but I couldn’t yet imagine who or what I could be. I worried that as a first- generation Reform Jew, not having attended Reform summer camp or been in NFTY, not having those childhood connections and shared vocabulary, that I would be less than fully authentic. I also worried that being a woman rabbi with two small children, and the employment choices I made as a result of my children, would make me less than a “real” rabbi.

Today’s parashah asks the questions that I struggled with as I looked toward ordination twenty-one years ago: Who do you want to be? How will you get there? What’s going to happen if…? 

Much of this parashah hangs on the word im, “if.” The first “if” follows with a cascade of goodness. IF you follow my laws and my commandments –  rain will fall on your fields and you will have everything in abundance, you will live in peace, and Adonai will be your God, present always in your midst. The blessings are all conditioned by that one initial “if.” But the flipside of the equation pounds forth with “if” after “if.” IF you do not obey me, IF you spurn my laws, IF you remain hostile – the “if”s hammer away at us, one after the other, an ongoing reminder of the potentiality that things may not work out well.

The repeated trope of “if,” harsh as it may feel in that second list, actually reminds us: the future is not based on what we’ve already done. Rather, the text insists that the future is still in formation, it is dependent on the choices we make in the present, and will continue to make, as we set the direction of our own internal compasses.

“If” is a perfect word for today, a liminal space between what is and what will be. Imagine who and what you want to be as a rabbi. Whether you are setting out to work in a congregation, chaplaincy, a school, an organization, Hillel, the military, go to medical school, or wherever your rabbinic calling may lead you, you are choosing to set out to do sacred work. Your IF, your rabbinic compass, is setting you in the direction of doing what you can to bring more goodness, more justice, and more healing into the world, to live up your highest aspirations.

This path you’re choosing requires great courage and great faith. Sometimes the way through is going to be obvious to you. You will be at a bedside or in front a classroom or on the bima, and you will suddenly realize that you are fully there, fully rabbinic and sure of yourself in that moment. But sometimes, you will feel less certain. 

The choices we face as rabbis are often not as clear as the binary choice between right and wrong, good and bad, as set out in our parashah. There will be moments when you find yourself writing at your desk or sitting with someone in pain or trying to soothe someone’s anger, or for that matter, maybe when you’re moving chairs for the tenth time in a week, and you’ll think: Why am I here? Is this who I am? Why does this matter? What am I supposed to do now? 

I remember the deep angst I had upon becoming ordained and watching my classmates take what looked like big and exciting positions – full-time congregational callings rather than the less-than part-time organizational job to which I was headed. I looked to their glorious futures, and felt that my choice, by comparison, while realistic for me, a not-totally-full-time position that would enable me to be at home in the evenings with my small children, was insignificant compared to the careers my classmates were sure to have. They were going to be real rabbis, while I was, I didn’t even know what, juggling as fast I could just to keep all the balls in the air, doing the best I could. Twenty-one years later, what I can stand here and tell you today is that no one’s journey was as expected. Not mine and not theirs. Along with many successes there were also unanticipated detours and curves in the road for everyone, many opportunities for self-reflection, much learning and growth, and sometimes redirection. The journey hasn’t always been easy, but it has always remained a sacred challenge to be our best selves, to make the best choices, and to do our best for those we serve. 

Our Jewish history is full of people called by God to embark on a sacred journey. Think of Abraham, told by God to leave his country, his homeland, and his father’s house, and to set out into the unknown. Etz Hayim teaches: God’s first words to Abram, Lech Lecha, mean, “go forth and discover your authentic self, to learn who you are meant to be.” This is to be a journey not only to fulfill God’s plan, but of self-discovery, one that allows Abraham to grow into his true self. 

Think of other examples of going out into uncomfortable new spaces – recall Rebekah being asked if she would leave her home to make a journey with a stranger, to go marry Jacob, also a stranger, and live amongst a tribe of strangers. Dr. Judith Baskin, in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, cites a comment from Midrash HaGadol that typically, when a woman would be promised in marriage, she was too embarrassed to give her consent or to reject.[1]But as Baskin notes, Rebekah forcefully and clearly makes known her assent. Her direct response, “I will go,” reveals a sense of mission and purpose, and an understanding that her destiny lies elsewhere.  As Dr. Yairah Amit writes, “Women’s contributions to the fulfillment of national destiny finds its expression not only in their role as child bearers but also in their ability to take bold and vital action at critical moments.”[2]

Both Abraham and Rebekah, with no idea of what lay ahead, boldly set out on epic missions, journeys that impact dramatically on the narrative of the Jewish people. They go into the uncomfortable unknown, with faith as their compass, to become who they are meant to be and to fulfill their destiny. 

As you become rabbis and set out into the unknown today, it is your emunah, your faith in God, in the future of the Jewish people, in our collective destiny, that has gotten you to this moment of being a Rav b’Yisrael, a rabbi. The people you serve, in whatever way you serve, are going to look to you to be someone in whom they can maamin – believe in, have trust in, and entrust with theiremunah – their faith. It will be up to you to provide a sense of rabbinic authenticity that comes not from knowing all the right answers, but from having the courage to ask the right questions. 

It won’t always be easy. After all, for all that faith matters, we are not B’nei Emunah, we are B’nei Yisrael (with no offense meant to any members of any Congregation B’nei Emunahs), not the Children of Faith but the Children of Israel, those who struggle with God. Faith leads us, but if struggle comes to you, welcome it, use it for self-reflection because that too is real and will allow you to keep growing. 

There may be voices that question or challenge your authenticity – but only you get to determine it and define it. How you convey your authenticity and your sense of emunah as you grow into your rabbinate will enable those you serve to feel that you are amin, reliable and trustworthy. And when you are amin, those you will serve will be able to truly say, amen; you will be a blessing to them. 

The root that amin shares with emunah goes into many other directions as well, one of which is oman, artist, and omanut, artIn becoming your authentic rabbinic self and growing into your rabbinic authority as someone who is aminand leads from a personal sense of emunah, you will also become an oman, the artist of your rabbinate, defining its contours and texture, its colors and brushstrokes.

The companion to rabbinic authenticity is rabbinic authority. Being the careful, thoughtful author of your rabbinate will nourish your rabbinic authority. A successful rabbinate depends on maintaining the right balance of authenticity, authority, and, yes, humility.  Be sure of what you stand for, nurture and question and redefine your emunah, ask the big and hard questions, and be willing always to learn, and to be wrong. If you encounter a challenge or a problem, be open to the truth of it, no matter how painful, and figure out how the situation can enable you to grow. No doubt about it, this is hard work:  being a rabbi, taking care of yourself and your family and the Jewish people, and remembering why this work matters. Have courage, be brave, and ask for help – talk to a trusted friend or a teacher or mentor. Call the CCAR. Get a coach. Take a class in an area in which you need to further develop.

You will grow as rabbis and as people, and the rabbis you become will likely look different from what you can imagine today. Not every day will feel fulfilling and meaningful. But each of you, no matter how and where you serve, no matter how winding your path will be, will grow into your own rabbinic authenticity. You will become a new model of a rabbi – each of you will broaden the definition of who and what a rabbi is, what a rabbi looks like, what a rabbi does, whatever your gender expression or sexuality or color or size or skill, with beards or without, with kippot or without, in congregations or in organizations or Hillels or hospitals or schools or in whatever rabbinic path you follow. Be open to surprising avenues that may unfurl before you. Remember that you don’t need to know everything, and remember too that you never will.

In her poem “Insufficient Knowledge[3]” the poet Bronwyn Lea writes:

You have to start with insufficient knowledge,
yes, this, and yes, praise be, then this,
you have to have that kind of courage.

A breath, a step, a word: it’s to your advantage
to begin. There isn’t time to wait for grace—
you have to start with insufficient knowledge.

Think of the first human to sail over the edge
of the world, or a base jumper departing an edifice:
you have to have that kind of courage.

Break your fists, your back, your brain, punch
yourself an opening. This is all there is:
you have to start with insufficient knowledge

of the heart, that higher organ, which
from time to time catches us by surprise
and we startle with the kind of courage

that will spend it all, not hold back, wage
everything, all, right away, every time, yes.
You have to love with insufficient knowledge,
you have to have that kind of courage.

I share this poem with you today because it speaks to my rabbinic story – the fear of not knowing and not being enough, the impulse toward courage anyway, the voracious willingness to jump all in despite the trepidation, the stretch of opening the heart and being vulnerable. “Punch yourself an opening,” the poem tells us, get yourself in there where you long to be. So much of these twenty-one years since ordination has felt like that. My early years in the rabbinate were a constant master class in assertiveness training as I learned to speak up and be heard, to be in the conversations that mattered, to claim my authenticity and authority as a rabbi, to create my rabbinic self and share it with others.

So now here we all are together. You’re about to start your rabbinic voyage, taking on new responsibilities and challenges. And I’m about to start my new rabbinic adventure as well. None of us know what awaits us. But I do know this. These experiences ahead of us will change us. And from these changes will arise new hopes and new possibilities, new understandings of self, new skills and outlooks, new callouses and muscles. Like it has for me, your path will most likely contain unexpected plot twists. Those children I mentioned, who so shaped my choices upon ordination, are now adults out in the world. As they grew, I grew, as a mother and as a rabbi. The road before me that I once thought was clear, albeit limited, branched out into surprising new directions that I could not have imagined at ordination, standing as I did in the present of that moment. 

So as you step out in the unknown, have courage. And also unapologetic tenacity. And chutzpah. Don’t prevaricate. Practice humility, yes, but not having all the answers doesn’t mean apologizing for who or what you are, or aren’t. Don’t wait for someone else to tell you that you’re ready. 

Go out there into the unknown. Write your rabbinic story. We can’t wait to see it unfold.

Rabbi Hara Person is the Chief Strategy Officer of Central Conference of American Rabbis and Publisher of CCAR Press. Rabbi Person was recently named the incoming Chief Executive of the CCAR and will assume that position on July 1, 2019.

[1]TWC p. 128
[2]TWC p. 122
[3]Lea, Bronwyn, The Other Way Out, Artarmon, New South Wales : Giramondo Publishing, 2008. p.69


Neither Babylon nor Jerusalem: Jewish Argentina

America and Israel loom large in the contemporary Jewish world. Conversations about global Judaism tend to focus on one or the other, or the connection between the two, but rarely touch on the other thriving, vibrant Jewish communities around the globe. If the Northeast Corridor is modern day Babylon, and Jerusalem is, well, modern day Jerusalem, what of the rest of the Jewish world? What of the Jews of my hometown Tacoma, WA, or the Jews of Wellington, New Zealand? Thanks to a generous program put together by the Joint Distribution Committee, this past week I was gifted the experience, along with nineteen other HUC-JIR students, to get an inside look at one of these far flung but vibrant Jewish communities, that of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The past half-century has been a difficult one for Argentina in general, and the Jewish community in particular. After a military dictatorship, devastating terrorist attacks on two Jewish landmarks, and a financial collapse, the community has risen from the ashes of their past to collectively build a bright future. After having run this gauntlet of historic horrors, they have emerged as energetic, optimistic, and most of all unified.

The week was spent touring many important landmarks and organizations that undergird and house the Jewish community both spiritually and pragmatically. We were greeted by organizations that provided social services for the most needy of the community, from childhood to eldercare, and honored all aspects of Jewish Argentina’s spiritual world, from maintaining now-defunct community buildings in rural areas to supporting new ventures, like their soon-to-open Reform seminary. Throughout our trip we witnessed the ideal of kol Yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh embodied in a Jewish community which celebrates pluralism and finds ways to build together across economic and philosophical divides.

I returned home with new Torah from the wonderful community I was exposed to in Buenos Aires. This Torah was the necessity of collective local narrative. Argentinian Jews regularly make use of their history as a touch point for identity across all divides. The descendants of the Jewish Gauchos who raised cattle outside of the urban world as a way to escape a tumultuous czarist Russia and Eastern Europe, and of those who fled the horrors of World War Two, all viewed themselves as a single people. Through the horrors of the 20th and 21st century, the community was bonded together by trauma and internal support in reaction to the trauma. Their Judaism was not one of division by lineage, but one of connection through shared experience.

In a country as big and diverse as the United States, it is impossible to speak of a truly shared American identity. Each region, each city, each town, has its own story. These individual stories, which fuel the identities of Jewish Americans, must be lifted up and shared; must be used to create local and Jewish pride within each community. Like the Jews of Argentina, we must connect through our own shared histories, so that when we disagree, we can do so safely in the knowledge that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. This local Jewish identity can then be used not only to strengthen local communities, but also as a way to connect to our more distant neighbors, by comparing and contrasting our stories and selves, delighting in the points of similarity while discussing and learning from the points of difference.

This incredible trip opened up a world to me that may be closer in kind to that of many American Jews than Israel. The small but mighty Jewish population of Buenos Aires has a great deal to teach those Jews living neither in Babylon nor Jerusalem. As we step deeper into the uncertainties of the twenty-first century, these smaller communities throughout the world will have a great deal to teach us about their already-developed local Jewish identity. We need only be willing to learn.

Andy Kahn is entering his fifth year as a rabbinic student at HUC-JIR. He also served the CCAR as an intern during the last three academic years.



American Values Religious Voices

On Thursday, November 10, 2016, I walked into class at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York disoriented and in despair. Just two days before, I had arrived at school wearing an old pantsuit with an “I voted!” sticker on my lapel, full of excitement.

That afternoon, I was scheduled to teach the biblical concept of “an eye for an eye,” part of a two-part lesson in Teaching Bible to Adults that compares how ancient interpreters and modern biblical scholars treat a challenging biblical concept. My co-teacher, Lisa Grant, and I quickly agreed to scrap the lesson plan and instead share with our students the biblical texts we were thinking about on that day.

I first said to my students: “We study Torah so that we can turn to our sacred text at times like this, when we and those we serve most need guidance, comfort, and support.” I then recounted a story told in Exodus 15:22-25: Immediately after crossing the sea and celebrating with gratitude and wonder, the Israelites hit the road, only to find themselves without water for three days. When they finally encounter a source of water at a place aptly named Marah, they cannot drink the water, because it is bitter. After the people complain to Moses, he cries out to God for help. God shows him a piece of wood, which Moses then throws into the water, and the bitter water becomes sweet.

“American Values Religious Voices” is my stick.

That class got me thinking about the potential role that Bible scholars might be able to play at this moment in our nation’s history, particularly given the number of elected officials, like soon-to-be Vice President Mike Pence, who purport to bring a strong religious sensibility to their work. So the idea developed of gathering the collective wisdom of teachers of religious scripture to articulate to our political leaders what we believe are core American values rooted and reflected in our various faith traditions. What if we could send a one-page letter to the new President, Vice President, Cabinet Secretaries, and Members of the House and Senate for each of the first 100 days of the new term? What if we could put 100 pictures of that diverse group of scholars all on one page, to show what America really looks like and what really makes America great?

It just so happened that HUC-JIR’s Symposium One took place the weekend after the election. Not only was its topic relevant, particularly with the first day’s focus on “The Role of Progressive Religion in an Increasingly Fundamentalist World,” but it just felt good to be with colleagues and students. The gathering gave me a chance to pitch my idea to President Aaron Panken, who immediately offered to fund the project.

At the Society of Biblical Literature-American Academy of Religion annual meeting a few days later, I shopped the idea around to as many scholars as possible. Throughout the conference, I started collecting what would eventually become a chart with names of 255 potential contributors. At the same time, I sent an email to my friend Lisa Weinberger, Creative Director and Founder of Masters Group Design in Philadelphia. Not quite realizing the scope of my request, I asked: “Would you be willing to lend your design expertise to help create a website and develop the other graphic elements the project might entail?” Lisa responded “Yes!” right away, and since then has spent the past two months working tirelessly with me to turn an ambitious idea into a concrete reality.

You can see the results of our efforts and learn more about the campaign at  I invite you to subscribe to the letters, provide a link to the campaign on your synagogue or organization communications, and preach, teach, or write about the campaign and the content of the letters. Follow us and like us on social media, and encourage your followers to do the same, using the hashtag #valuesandvoices:

In Exodus, when our ancestors wandering in the wilderness face a dire situation, God does not simply fix the problem. God shows Moses a stick. Moses is the one who picks it up and throws it in the water. What is your stick?

Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss serves as Associate Professor of Bible at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.   She also served as Associate Editor of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, now available from CCAR Press.


More than a “Didn’t Deviate” Degree

On May 4, I was honored to celebrate with my classmates, as we received our honorary Doctorate of Divinity degrees from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, recognizing the 25th anniversary of our ordination there.

We rabbis joke that the “D.D.” degree stands more for “didn’t die” or “didn’t deviate,” than “Doctor of Divinity.” That cynicism may reveal some discomfort at receiving a doctorate we didn’t earn through academic work. However, it masks a couple of important realities.

First, the day was impactful in personal ways that were hard to expect and more difficult to describe. I was touched to mark the milestone with classmates who shared a significant piece of my rabbinic journey, including the Rosh Yeshivah and Dean who bestowed the doctorates upon us.

Second, and more importantly, the occasion is an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of these twenty-five years, how much has changed and how much remains the same.

I became a rabbi because I craved the opportunity to inspire sacred living in covenant with the God of Israel through the performance of mitzvot. Though the ways in which I pursue that mission have changed with the years, my passion for it has never waned.

So, what has changed?

I pursue my mission ambitiously. I expect excellence of myself and of the congregation I serve. I am grateful for staff and volunteer colleagues at Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock. They share a vision that we can unite a congregation and serve a community meaningfully, with God’s partnership. Still, my definition of “ambition” has changed with time. Once, like most men in the rabbinate before me, but fewer women, and not unlike other professionals; I saw “success” as quantifiable, at least to some degree. A “successful” rabbi was one who served a large congregation, headed a comprehensive staff, and had tremendous resources at his (or her) disposal. Now, I am grateful to explore how much can be done with less – maximizing resources, while recognizing their limit at the same time – and celebrating each person who is enriched by this covenant rather than in the “body count.”

More broadly, Jewish professionals of my generation have experienced a tremendous shift, from an emphasis on standards to placing a priority on engagement. For example, as recently as three years ago, I believed strongly that every child in the Religious School must be unambiguously Jewish. While I still affirm, of course, that a person cannot be both Christian and Jewish at the same time, the flexibility I inherited at Congregation B’nai Israel has taught me that we can serve God and our community best by opening the door at the front end. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, talks about “engagement before dues,” meaning that we must welcome folks to synagogue involvement before we talk to them about formal, paying membership. Translating that principle more broadly, we are here to engage people in Jewish life, and we mustn’t be deterred because they haven’t (yet) reached *our* desired destination for *their* Jewish journeys. On Shavuot Eve this year, five young people will confirm their faith at Congregation B’nai Israel. A sixth, who has attended Religious School at our congregation and at a Methodist Church in alternating years, has engaged fully and faithfully with our Confirmation program. He is slated to participate almost-fully in that Shavuot Eve Confirmation service with his class, even though he’s not (yet) ready for Confirmation.

These last five years have been the most profound period of my growth as a rabbi over a quarter century, despite or even because of their having included a traumatic professional upheaval. Having met Mussar, first through a former congregant who introduced me to Alan Morinis, I have come to appreciate that even the most negative experience can lead to a soul’s growth. I pray that I may continue to grow and learn throughout the years ahead.

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Rabbi Block chairs the CCAR Resolutions Committee.

Convention Israel

Past, Present, and Future: My Day at HUC-JIR

It has been 12 years since I was a first-year student on the HUC-JIR campus in Jerusalem, but the moment I walked up the steps to 13 King David Street this morning, it felt like I had never left.   There were familiar faces, and new faces, but the stones felt the same underneath my feet, a walk through the library brought many memories to mind, and the music of tefillah stirred my soul.


I started the day by joining in prayer with Israeli rabbinical students for Shacharit.  I did not attend very many services with Israeli rabbinic students during my Year in Israel, so I was grateful to have the opportunity to do so today.  After tefillah ended, we were treated to talks by two up-and-coming scholars from the Jerusalem campus.  Dr. Yifat Teharani taught us about biblical archaeology, focusing on the surprisingly multicultural nature of the desert society during the First Temple period (i.e. between the 6th and 8th centuries BCE).  Dr Dalia Marx taught us about the Cairo Geniza, and the ways in which some of the Geniza’s liturgical texts have begun making their way into contemporary uses.   Although the talks were different in tone and field of study, the themes were similar – reflecting on what we know of the past and how a deeper understanding of it can enrich the present and future of the Jewish state and the Jewish people.

FullSizeRender (1)We ate lunch with the Israeli rabbinical students, and I had the pleasure of connecting with several different students.  It turns out that one of them – Noa – is planning to do her final project at HUC on the intersection of dance and Judaism, and that is a topic that I’m particularly passionate about, too.  In fact, part of what brought me to Israel for this trip is a project I’m doing as part of the Covenant Foundation’s Pomegranate Prize.  I am spending a few additional days in Israel exploring the role of dance in modern Israeli society, including taking a Gaga class – not the children’s game we call “gaga,” but a unique dance form that was developed in israel and is now taught around the world.  I also spent a day at the International Dance Village, which is home to about 80 dancers from Israel and around the world who have come there to live and to dance.  It was exciting to meet Noa at HUC and discover that we share an interest in the integration of dance into Jewish life!IMG_9494

After lunch we were treated to more inspiring speakers and teachers, as we learned about the work of Dr. Ruhama Weiss and the pastoral care program on the Jerusalem campus, along with Dorit and Vivian of the amazing inter-religious “Healing Hatred” program that is sponsored by HUC. Dorit is a (Jewish) Israeli woman and Vivian is a Palestinian woman, and they help to lead an innovative year-long pastoral training program that brings together Israelis and Palestinians to address conflict-related trauma with the tools of spiritual care.

When I felt like there couldn’t possibly be anything more inspiring than the work of Healing Hatred, we were introduced to two students who are almost finished with their studies in the Israeli rabbinic program.  Tamir Nir grew up in a Sefardic masorti (traditional) family in Jerusalem and then moved with his parents to Gush Etziyon (i.e. a Jewish settlement in the West Bank) when he was 10 years old.  He is now not only a soon-to-be Reform Rabbi – which is remarkable enough given his background – but he is also the current Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem.  He spoke beautifully about the challenges faced by Jerusalem’s city council, including the challenges inherent in trying to provide provide better municipal services to residents of East Jerusalem, and the connections he sees between his role as a liberal / Reform rabbi and his day-to-day work as the Deputy Mayor.  We also met Yael Karrie, who works with Jewish and Arab communities in the Negev, along the border with Gaza.  She has created a number of programs to build bridges between people, including InLight, in which congregations throughout Israel joined hands with their Arab and Bedouin neighbors last December to “bring in the light” through a variety of programs meant to promote a shared society.IMG_8180

Overall I feel like this blog has been one big info-mercial for various people and organizations, but the truth is that today felt like a giant dose of IMG_8186 (1)inspiration as a result of what is happening at HUC in Jerusalem and by HUC’s faculty and students.  The first two professors who gave talks about their academic specialties also spoke about how their work is linked to outside projects that are aimed at bettering Israeli society (Dr. Teharani founded a Scouts program in South Tel Aviv for children of immigrant, refugee, and migrant-worker families; Dr. Marx is working on the creation of a new liberal siddur for Israelis).  We closed the day with a mincha service led by the first-year cantorial students, and a rousing, uplifting rendition of Oseh Shalom captured my feelings perfectly – that although I came to Israel feeling great despair over the state of affairs in this country, today’s experiences at HUC gave me a renewed glimmer of hope and optimism about the possibilities for the future.

Rabbi Nicki Greninger is the Director of Education at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA.  This is Rabbi Greninger’s first CCAR Convention.


News Reform Judaism

Seker: A New Take on Progressive Jewish Outreach

At its outset, the Reform movement placed great emphasis on aesthetic and decorum. Fitting in, becoming a seamless part of the fabric of the larger society, was of the highest importance. Almost 200 years have passed, during which these goals have been met, most of all in the United States. Some worry that we’ve done too good of a job of fitting in, and are losing ourselves amongst the nations, much like the disappearance of techelet from our tzitzit. Seker, my project for Progressive Jewish outreach in the public spaces of New York City, is directly in response to both the early Reformers and the contemporary Jewish leadership fearing the continued loss of Jewish identity amongst the younger generations of the American Jewish population.

Seker began as a series of conversations between myself and my classmates during our first year of rabbinical school in Israel. These conversations circulated around a fairly simple question: If Chabad is so successful with its public Jewish outreach, why are we not doing it too? A new program at HUC-JIR in New York, the Be Wise fellowship, offers students the opportunity, and funding, to try to answer questions such as this. I applied for one of these grants to fund my project, which mainly consisted of a website, a portable table, a copy of Mishkan T’filah, a couple of sets of t’fillin, a banner and some business cards. Once this seemingly endless winter finally broke, some of my classmates and I hit Washington Square Park, Union Square Park and Prospect Park to speak with anyone interested in learning about t’fillin or Judaism in general.

Kahn SekerDuring five afternoons of tabling, an incredible diversity of people came up to us to ask questions about Judaism, to ask what the t’fillin were, to even try them out. We had individuals ranging from a male Orthodox Jew who just hadn’t wrapped yet that day, to a woman who grew up Chabad who had never been allowed to wrap, to a non-Jewish man who was intrigued by the practice. The goal of this project was not to sell people on t’fillin, or anything for that matter, but rather to raise public awareness of Reform Judaism. The t’fillin were merely the lure to catch the eye of the curious, much like the Seker/Seeker play on words.

One of the greatest lessons I have learned in this project so far is the deep grasp the work of the early Reformers still has on the psyche of the movement. Many people I spoke with, and continue to speak with, about this project are flabbergasted by the use of t’fillin. “But why t’fillin?” is a common refrain. It is as if I am proposing to schect animals in public – people seem simultaneously offended and confused.

T’fillin, although not a part of most Reform Jews’ upbringing, are a distinct, eye catching, and unique Jewish ritual object. Unlike the hannukiah or shofar, they are used on a daily basis. Unlike mezuzot, they involve mindful action and physicality. They are the ultimate immediate and impactful experience. Their interesting construction, with the many tiny scrolls of Torah passages hidden inside, are a mystery and invoke curiosity in even the most cynical investigator. All of these qualities make them an ideal outreach tool.

Unconventional and countercultural as this project may be within the Reform movement, it sparked the interest of the public immediately. If the goal is to raise awareness and start conversations, Seker has been a total success. As leaders within the movement continue to brainstorm new and innovative ways to reach out to their communities, this model can serve as an example of an engaging and different mode of expanding the reach and visibility of Reform communities throughout the country.

Andy Kahn is a rising third year rabbinic student at HUC-JIR. He was with the CCAR as an intern during the last academic year and will be back again as a rabbinic intern during the coming academic year.  

CCAR Convention

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

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

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

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

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


CCAR Convention

CCAR 2015: Longevity Has its Place

I usually blog as “The Boxing Rabbi” so forgive me if I stretch the metaphor.  In my sport of choice, boxing, longevity is measured in very small numbers.  Most fighters have careers that last only a few years.  Some are successful for only a few months, and for virtually all except a select group, their career is completely over when they reach their mid-twenties.  In addition, if one can manage to retire in good health, with minimal effects of repeated blows, and financially secure, it is a small miracle and one that few in this difficult sport ever achieve.

While the rabbinate is hardly akin to the fast-paced and physically brutal sport of boxing, it is undeniably taxing physically, mentally and spiritually, and its effects take a toll on the rabbi (and too often the rabbi’s family).  Which is why I was so moved this past Tuesday morning when we gathered for the annual HUC-JIR breakfast at the CCAR Convention.

For those that have not yet attended this event, the highlight of the HUC-JIR breakfast is the “roll-call” of classes, beginning with the most recently ordained.   To watch the progression of classes from those ordained in recent years, progressing back through the decades is both joyful and celebratory.  But as we approach the moment to recognize colleagues ordained for forty and fifty and even fifty plus years, joy and celebration turns to awe and admiration.

As I have made my way through the congregational rabbinate, I have learned along the way that longevity in this profession is a combination of careful planning,  deliberate self-care, wise choices, strong familial support, and yes, plain damn luck.   Rather than fearing and dreading the end of our active rabbinate and retirement, we should embrace retirement as a necessary and vital stage in a rabbinic career, as much a part of the life arc of a rabbi as ordination and pulpit or organizational  transitions.  To know colleagues who have entered retirement whole in spirit, mind, body, and economic security is to know role models worthy of emulation, admiration, and inspiration.  Sadly I have known too many colleagues who retire broken in spirit, continually bitter in mind and emotion, damaged in physical health, and even struggling financially.  My heart aches in pain at every story of such a colleague.  To bear witness this Tuesday morning to those rabbis who have achieved the end of their full time rabbinate healthy in mind, unbroken in spirit and hope, and even with myriad physical ailments greeting each new day with strength and determination  is a joy and a privilege, and a testament to the ability of each one of us, given enough wisdom, guidance, support and some plain old luck, to make it there as well.   To my older colleagues, graduates of HUC-JIR classes of decades earlier who have achieved so much and have embraced their retirement with the same skill and wisdom that they served the Jewish people, you are all “champions” in my book.

Doug Sagal is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Westfield, NJ. 

CCAR Convention Rabbis

Celebrating the Class of 1964: “I am a Veteran”

At the upcoming CCAR Convention, we will honor the class of 1964, those who have been CCAR members and served our movement for 50 years.  In the weeks leading up to convention, we will share and celebrate the rabbinic visions and wisdom of the members of the class of 1964.

When you come to a fork in the road, take it. Fifty years ago, I followed the advice of Yogi Berra. I chose to begin my career as an army Chaplain. Having done basic training in the summer before my senior year at HUC-JIR, I went directly to my duty station, Vicenza, Italy. As the first Jewish Chaplain to serve there since World War II, I not only served our three army posts but made monthly trips to an air force base in Aviano. I also made two trips to our naval base in Naples. My three years produced so many wonderful memories. I had the opportunity to represent the Jewish people at the dedication of a bell, melted down from cannons from World War I. I helped to raise funds to rebuild the synagogue in Florence when it was devastated by a flood. I was successful in bringing bagels into the commissaries.

Following my active duty, I returned to the United States and accepted a position with a congregation in Broomall, Pennsylvania. One day, I was invited for dinner with one of my congregants. During dinner, my host mentioned that he was a member of a general hospital reserve unit and that there was another general hospital looking for a Jewish Chaplain. So once again I put on my uniform and joined the 361st General Hospital. I would spend the next seventeen years as its Chaplain; beginning as a Captain and rising to the rank of Colonel. During my time with them, the unit became an evacuation hospital, very similar to MASH. Like MASH, we became very close; so close that one of our nurses, a Catholic, invited me to officiate at her wedding to a Quaker. During the wedding I mentioned that I was asked to do the wedding because we were friends; not realizing the double meaning to the Quakers.

I finally left my friends at the 361st Evacuation Hospital to join a civil affairs unit. The commander was concerned about having a Jewish Chaplain because in the event of war, our assignment would be Saudi Arabia. I assured him that it did not matter whether we wore the tablets or the cross, we would all be lumped together. Unlike any other unit in the military, a Chaplain is more than a Chaplain; I was the religious cultural officer to advise the commander about indigenous religions on the battlefield. It required me to acquire knowledge of the religions and mores of the people in our area of responsibility in the event of war.

It was this knowledge that led to my next assignment as an Individual Mobilization Augmentee (IMA) at the Army Chaplain School. An IMA is a reservist who trains with an active duty unit. My first assignment was to review the curriculum on world religions. As I was about to make a couple of recommendations, I was asked to do it as a staff study. My staff study was adopted by the Chaplain Corps. As a result, our Chaplains were better prepared to meet the challenges of our military engagements in the Middle East. My role changed when I became the first drilling IMA in the Chaplain Corps, which meant that in addition to my two weeks, I reported to the school once a month. In that capacity, I changed the way the IMAs were used. Instead of the school having to decide what to do with them when they arrived, we looked at the courses being offered throughout the coming year and determined the number of IMAs needed for each course. We then informed each one of when he would be coming and what he would be teaching.

Finally, I retired from the army but still longed to work with veterans and so I became a Chaplain at the Northport VA Medical Center and rose to the position of lead Chaplain. My proudest accomplishment at the medical center came about when a Vietnam Veteran approached me about planting a tree for a deceased Vietnam Veteran. I said “why just a tree? Why not a garden to honor all of our Vietnam Veterans? Little did I know what I had begun. There emerged a beautiful garden with a brick walkway, flags, an eternal light and a huge rock with a poem written by a Monsignor who had served as a sergeant in Vietnam. There is a bench dedicated to each of the military services. Our director was so impressed with the garden that he invited Dignity Memorial to bring the Vietnam Wall to our campus. Naturally we needed to build a stage and a patio for the programs around the wall’s visit to our campus. We now hold outdoor concerts there throughout the summer for our Veteran patients and for the local community. The Vietnam Veterans of America, who spearheaded this project, were not done. A Wall of Wars, with monuments to each of the twelve wars in which our Veterans served, will be completed this spring.

I also have taken an active role in both the community and on a national level for Chaplaincy. Among my achievements are the introduction of the recognition of specialization for Chaplains, editing a Book of Rituals, introducing spiritual grand rounds and helping to launch Spirit of Chaplaincy, a semi-annual newsletter to serve as the voice of Chaplaincy. I currently am the chair of the continuing education committee of the Chaplain Field Leadership Council and chair of the editorial board of Spirit of Chaplaincy. I have been honored by receiving the Department of Veteran Affairs Secretary’s Award for excellence in Chaplaincy. I also was nominated by the National Chaplain Center and received the Distinguished Service Award from the Military Chaplain Association (MCA). After receiving the award, I was invited to be a member of the MCA board of trustees. Upon the completion of my initial term on the board, I was elected to serve as its secretary. National Association of VA Chaplains has designated me to head all of the panels to consider those seeking certification in hospice and palliative care.

I am proud to be a Veteran and work with Veterans. As a tribute to them, I wrote a poem, “I Am A Veteran,” which hangs in our medical center and has been put in the Congressional Record.


I am a Veteran

I shivered that cold winter in Valley Forge
And rejoiced at the glorious surrender at Yorktown.
I wept as the flames engulfed Washington
And said “Never again.”
I wore blue and I bled red.
I wore gray and I bled red.
The blood I spilled was to reunite a nation
Of the people, by the people and for the people.
I am a veteran.

I was at Little Big Horn and I prayed;
I was at Wounded Knee and I prayed.
I prayed that one-day the old Americans
And the new Americans would be one people.
I was there to charge up the hill at San Juan;
Knowing that my country was emerging beyond its borders.
I was prepared to make the world safe for democracy.
Young and idealistic, I came to France
To turn back the hordes in this war to end all wars.
I am a veteran.

It was with disbelief that I became
A part of the day that will live in infamy.
Once more I said goodbye to those I loved to protect my country.
Across the vast desert I met the enemy.
I met him on island after island.
I kept my promise to return.
I met him on the beaches of Normandy.
I repelled him from the gates of Bastogne.
I freed thousands from the shadow of death.
I am a veteran.

A small nation cried out for help
And I came because others had been there for me.
A nation was saved.
Ask not what your country can do for you.
Ask what you can do for your country.
Inspired by these words, I responded with courage and bravery
In a war that was hot and a war that was cold.
I am a veteran.

From Ground Zero to the Pentagon to the fields of Pennsylvania,
I saw the carnage and heard the cries. At that moment,
I pledged my life, my property and my sacred honor
Until there will be peace and freedom on earth
For everyone, everywhere.
I am a veteran.