Azkarot General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism

Azkarot: Introducing a New RavBlog Feature

Lazarus Bach, alav hashalom, was a UAHC Board member for a number of years in the 1950s and 1960s. It was in that capacity, I imagine, that he came into possession of several years’ worth of CCAR Yearbooks. I remember pulling them down from the shelf in my grandparents’ den and flipping through them on Friday nights before Temple, while Grandpa Laz watched the Mets. And so it was that, as a pretty young kid, I first became aware of the workings of our Conference. I didn’t understand much of what I was reading, but I remember feeling like my grandfather was pretty important for being connected to those books. I also remember, very clearly, a sense of wonder at the Memorial Tributes and the “List of Deceased Members.”

All things pass, including grandfathers and CCAR Yearbooks. As the Conference deploys its resources differently in the present day, we no longer receive a bound volume with the proceedings of our convention and other business of the conference. I’m not complaining. I love that we have archived streams of many conference sessions, I frequently access materials on the CCAR  website, I appreciate the way in which Ravblog has become a creative publishing space, and I enjoy the informality and immediacy of our Facebook group.

I do miss those memorial tributes, though. More to the point, I miss the idea of them, the notion that we are a Conference which doesn’t let its members fade from memory. In a conversation with Rabbi Hara Person at the CCAR Press display last week in Chicago, I mentioned that fact. In bringing it up, I momentarily forgot that, in that setting, Hara was the Rabbi and I was the congregant. Hara knows (as we all do) what to say when a congregant has an idea: “Great idea, Larry. How’d you like to take it on?” I decided to say what we all hope to hear when we kick that idea back in our eager congregant’s direction: “Sure, Hara, I’ll do it.”

And so, welcome to a new feature of RavBlog: Azkarot. With the “azkarot” tag, we intend to recreate via Ravblog part of what was lost with the transition away from a physical CCAR Yearbook: a repository of memorial tributes for our colleagues who have died. Our first post, which will go live next week, will be Rabbi Margie Meyer’s tribute to Janice Garfunkel (z”l), offered at last week’s WRN Dinner. Others will follow in due course.

Others will follow in due course, provided we have the material. And so, this is my plea: the azkarah you offered at a regional kallah, the hesped you shared at a beloved colleague’s funeral…please send them along to me. I’ll work with Hara to ready them for publication on Ravblog, and they’ll be posted as a semi-regular feature of the site. We no longer have a physical yearbook in which to publish memorial tributes, but we need not let go of the practice of remembering, as a Conference, when our members die.

Ethics News Rabbis Reform Judaism

Thank You for Sharing: Going Public With the Private

The editors at posted a question on its website a week ago Monday.  Commenting on an article the death of “Superman Sam” Sommer, they asked, “What do you think about publicly sharing a loved one’s illness and death?”

Anyone who resides under the expansive tent created by Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer, and Phyllis’ powerful and poignant blog, Superman Sam, know heart-achingly well of the struggles, early triumphs, later set-backs, and the awful, awful path along which they have had to travel.  One stage of their journey ended very early Shabbat morning, December 14 when their beloved, precious Sam took his final breath, not long after Phyllis recited the bedtime Sh’ma to him.

The reason why I, a friend and colleague, but far from their inner circle, know these details is simply because Phyllis and Michael bravely chose to share their family’s story with us, publicly.  Yes, I was moved to tears, often, because of their willingness to share intimate details of their family’s anguish.

I do feel somewhat self-conscious writing about the Sommer family in this forum.  Any rabbi following Facebook recently has read far better reflections from people much closer to them. After all, I am not a close friend, I do not live in their community, I have not yet met their children, nor did I have an opportunity to meet Sam before he died.

Yet despite my geographical distance from the Sommers, I feel very close to them.  That is the power of their story, of using a blog as catharsis, as communication, and as a way of forming a larger community that can provide essential unconditional love and support.


Jason Rosenberg, Chuck Briskin and Michael Sommer at a recent CCAR Conference

Sam’s story has touched thousands of people simply because his parents chose to share his life and his death with us.

On Shabbat at the URJ Biennial, a small handful of us who were moved by Sam’s story to join Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr’s and Rabbi Phyllis Sommer’s “36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave” campaign gathered at the CCAR Oneg Shabbat.


L-r: David Widzer, Chuck Briskin, Elizabeth Wood, Alan Cook, Paul Kipnes, David Levy at the URJ Biennial

As we enjoyed a light moment among colleagues, and friends—new and old—little did we know that 1500 miles away from us Sam had died.

When we learned of his death the next morning, we found one another.  We held one another.  We cried together.  Many words offered throughout the Biennial morning service made us think immediately of Sam.  We read a Torah portion called “and he lived” which is really about death, blessing and memory.  The Sommers’ loss was our loss too.  A vastly different loss, but a loss nonetheless.  I selfishly wanted to hug my children who were home in Los Angeles. More than anything, we wanted Phyllis and Michael to be able to hug Sam.

It seemed strangely fitting then, if Sam’s was to die, that he would die on Shabbat, at the same time as the URJ biennial, where so many people touched by his story were gathered.  It was a gift he gave us.  Those of from different circles of relationship with the Sommers could find each other, and draw strength from one another.  We are friends, colleagues, acquaintances; some were classmates with Phyllis and Michael, others knew them from conventions, several from the world of social media.  Many have never met Phyllis or Michael but feel a close connection nevertheless.

Those of us gathered at that oneg Shabbat, and dozens more are doing something small and relatively inconsequential.  Hair grows back.  It is our small way to restore some power and control since we’ve felt so powerless. We can’t return Sam to his parents’ loving embrace, but we can raise funds to try to make sure that there are fewer families who will have to travel along the same path as the Sommers.

Briskin3Rebecca and Phyllis hoped that 36 rabbis would raise $180,000. More than 60 have signed up, and the initial $180,000 has been met. God willing we will double, even triple our goal.  It’s the least we can do, to honor Sam’s valiant fight, and to help others fighting today.

To answer MyJewishLearning’s question; the answer is an unequivocal yes.  Share, draw strength, use social media to bring people into this tent.  Because of Phyllis and Michael’s sharing, so many know of Superman Sam.  And as long as we keep talking about Sam, and sharing his story with others, his memory will endure.

Rabbi Charles K. Briskin serves Temple Beth El in San Pedro, CA.

General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism

Rabbi-Hacking II: Hacking Your Memory

Have you ever thought of the perfect quote or illustration for a sermon or article, and then searched for hours to find it, only to come up empty and frustrated? I think we all have. Teaching and preaching on a weekly basis requires lots of time and resources, and we could all use ways of saving both. One piece of software has helped me save enormous amounts of time by giving me a way to save and quickly access quotes, illustrations, favorite articles, commentaries and texts and much more. It is called Evernote, and it is FREE. What follows is a short overview of what Evernote does, and a quick overview of the way I use it in my rabbinate. Much much more could be said, and once again I invite you to contact me for further insights or ideas.

How To Use Evernote

Evernote is note-taking and storage application. You can use it from an iPhone, droid, mac, PC, Blackberry or iPad. You can save any type of file—sound, pdf, video, Word document or webpage. Everything you save is also searchable. So if you remember reading an article by Larry Kushner about synagogues and tent pegs, but you weren’t quite sure what the title was or where it might be on your computer, you could get on Evernote, type in “kushner tentpegs” and the complete article would pop up.

You can also scan documents directly into Evernote, creating a searchable digital PDF accessible from any device. You can even take a picture of a note or page of an article, save it to Evernote, and then have it searchable and accessible immediately from anywhere.

Among the most useful of evernotes’s feature is the ability to seamlessly clip articles from a website. Let’s say you read a particularly inspiring or insightful URJ Torah commentary. All you have to do is click a button “save to Evernote,” and a full text of the article is saved in a predesignated Evernote notebook. You could then “tag” the note with the name of the Torah portion, and over time develop several notes with the same tag that you could use for a sermon or class on that parasha. I’ve got tags for teach of the parashiyot, and that has made preparing for Torah study and sermons much more efficient.

imagesGet It Out of Your Head

Evernote really comes in handy in that it allows us to get ideas out of your head and into a system. This year right after the High Holy Days I start a new tag called “HHD 5775.” On the first note tagged with it, I wrote out my impressions and potential changes for next year’s services. Whenever I see a potential iyyun tefillah or sermon idea or illustration, I save it in evernote and tag with “HHD 5775.” Half of what I create never gets used, but when I sit down to write, I have a treasure trove of ideas and illustrations waiting for me.

I also use Evernote for storing notes for life cycle events. Every couple gets a note, and I can pull it up at each meeting. Then right before the ceremony I review the note and can speak more freely and extemporaneously with them because I just familiarized myself with the gist of our conversations. After each funeral intake meeting, I create a note and scan in my handwritten notes from the meeting. (Like many colleagues, I feel awkward using a computer or other digital device during a funeral intake meeting.) Those notes not only help with the eulogy, but they are easily accessible if a family asks for a stone dedication.

Evernote has already made a tremendous impact in the educational world, with innovative schools using evernote to story class notes accessible to students and teachers. I haven’t used it in that way for teaching, but I have used it as a repository for texts, articles, and other papers usually kept in a physical file folder or in my memory. Evernote has the capability to effectively replace a physical filing system, making our documents more accessible and safe. We can even encrypt a note if it contains sensitive information. For any rabbi that has ever dreamed of “going paperless,” Evernote is a dream come true.

Rabbi Evan Moffic is the rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, IL.