I’m not sure what one calls a large gathering of rabbis. Is it a rabble of rabbis? A den of rabbis? A blessing of rabbis? Whatever the official appellation, there sure were a lot of us at the CCAR convention I just attended in Chicago. In fact there were over 500 rabbonim gathered at the Fairmont Hotel for 4 days of learning, studying, schmoozing, and connecting. As always it is a sweet reunion of old friends, pulling out our iPhones, sharing pictures of our spouses and our kids and now for some of us, our grandchildren. It has also become a chance to meet new colleagues with new ideas about so much of what we senior rabbis have been doing for decades. These encounters can be bracing: the young are so certain about so much… These encounters can also be humbling, because they produce fresh insights into long held views on any number of practices.
We invite young scholars, many of them now teaching at Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary. And they are so smart! So credentialed from fine universities: Yale, Sorbonne, Hebrew University, and so forth… We learn that there are few eternal verities in Jewish Studies.
We also invite people from the world of business and politics to share their wisdom as it relates to Jewish life and leadership. With them we learn the shifting complexities and expectations of community, whether that be a community of consumers, Congressmen and women, or congregants. It is sobering for all of us to recognize that everyone agrees with the notion that we are living during a transition; we just don’t know to what we’re transitioning. There’s the rub…
Yet with all the stress on the new and evolving, some things do not change, including the Reform movement’s commitment to social justice. This past Wednesday night Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center reminded us that for 50 years, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (“the RAC”) has been the hub of Jewish social justice and legislative activity in Washington, D.C. The RAC educates and mobilizes the Reform Jewish community on legislative and social concerns, advocating on more than 70 different issues, including economic justice, civil rights, religious liberty, Israel and more. He spoke with Jim Wallis, a Christian writer and political activist who is best known as the founder and editor of Sojourners magazine. Together they reminded the rabbis to keep our eyes on the prize.
Congregational life is changing and by definition, so too must the congregational rabbinate. We are less and less called upon to be scholars, experts in Jewish studies. More and more we are called upon to serve our temples through compassionate caring and connection. Adhering to “the way we have always done it” has slowly changed to doing “whatever is new and hip.” We are truly in new digital territory with analog maps. That consensus is shared by the vast majority of rabbis. So many Reform rabbis agreeing about anything en masse is cause to pay attention.
Rabbis are opinionated people with a deep sense of obligation to our congregations. We know that we will be called upon for unimaginably wonderful moments. We also know that we will be called upon to be present, to hold the center in the midst of devastating loss. We are not prophets yet we are often expected to fill that role – as well as the role of priest. Being at a conference of colleagues reminds us all that we are all human. We lack super powers. We are lonely sometimes. We are blessed to be present in the most sacred moments of life. Thirty years after my ordination and a day after the CCAR annual convention, I feel more blessed, luckier every day, to be a congregational rabbi.
Rabbi Keith Stern serves Temple Beth Avodah in Newton, MA.