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General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism

A New Year’s Message From CCAR Chief Executive, Hara Person: Looking Ahead Into 2020

Rabbi Hara Person, Chief Executive of the CCAR, reflects on her first six months as Chief Executive, her vision for the organization as 2020 begins, and her gratitude for the community of Reform rabbis.


Dear Rabbis,

Six months ago, I stepped in my new role as CCAR Chief Executive. It’s been quite a ride so far. I’ve had to transition from a specialist in Jewish publications, organizational strategy, and communications into a generalist in all things Reform rabbi. This has meant learning to stretch in new ways. Many of you have generously shared your wisdom and experience with me as I undertake this process of learning, and I am so grateful.

I am spending a good part of this first year in my role traveling with the intention of connecting with as many of you as possible. It is both a joy and a privilege to learn about your triumphs and your challenges, and to hear what brings you the greatest meaning in your rabbinate. I thank you for sharing yourselves with me—both the good and the sometimes painful.  I look forward to meeting and connecting with even more of you as I continue traveling.

As we step into 2020, I’m excited to see the third and last year of the Task Force on the Experience of Women in the Rabbinate reach its conclusion, and to then embed those findings, recommendations, and suggestions in the ongoing work of the CCAR in meaningful ways. We will also begin to implement the work of another important task force, that on Retirees and Successors. We have also begun a process of thinking about how the CCAR can evolve as our membership continues to diversify, with an ever greater percentage of our members serving in a wide range of roles throughout the Jewish world. And all of this is just a small part of what we’re busy with at CCAR; there are webinars and in-person meetings in development, new publications, other committees, task forces and commissions, trips being planned, and, of course, CCAR Convention 2020 in Baltimore, March 22–25.

One of the things about the CCAR that makes me so proud is the ways in which you are there for each other. For some of you, that means serving on committees or task forces or commissions that make the CCAR a stronger organization, for some that means contributing to our publications and helping us be the teachers and leaders of Reform Judaism, for some that is helping us find the resources we need to best support our mission, and for some that means being each other’s rabbis in moments of crisis. For so many of you, sadly for too many of you, this means finding meaningful ways to come together at this time of increased antisemitism. However it is that you participate in helping the CCAR achieve our highest aspirations, I am moved by your commitment, and I thank you for your gift of self.

I hope that I will see you in Baltimore as we gather to enter the next era of the CCAR. It will be a time for us to come together to learn, to study, and to teach. But even more, it will be a time for us to draw succor from being with other Reform rabbis, no matter the type of rabbinate, to celebrate together, to share together, and to gain strength from one another as we face the challenges of today.  

Sincerely,

Hara E. Person

Chief Executive, CCAR

Categories
Rabbis Torah

We Are Witnesses – Parashat Va-y’chi

The following is a d’var Torah on the Parashat Va-y’chi given by Meir Bargeron at the 74th annual convention of the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis in January 2020.


In Parashat Va-ychi, we find ourselves at the end of B’reishit, a book that covers an immense amount of literary, religious, and physical territory. From the first moments of the universe, to the court of the Egyptian pharaoh, the narrative moves from the tremendously macro-view of space, and time, and earth, to the micro-view of human relationships. And along the way, humanity and God form a relationship that eventually becomes an eternal covenant. B’reishit is vast in its scope, and its author chooses to end the story with a family drama; a drama that propels the children of Israel forward on their—and on our—trajectory to redemption and revelation. And, it is a drama that has much to say to us as rabbis about our holy work.

This moment in the life of Jacob and the lives of his sons is the culmination of decades of family dysfunction and conflict, and the Torah is its witness. This is a parashah about death and dying, about a father’s deep concern about the generations that will follow. About love that is unevenly distributed between a father and his children. About cruelty between brothers and its after-effects. Va-ychi is about truth-telling at the end of life.

Imagine for a moment being in the room with Jacob and his sons at the end of his life, knowing the stories of what all they have been through, and hearing each story from the array of perspectives. Imagine being called on to provide care and comfort to Jacob, to Joseph, and to Ruben, Simeon, and Levi. What challenging pastoral work this would be!

We rabbis are the collectors of people’s stories, and we hold them. Just as the Torah is a witness to the lives of the matriarchs and patriarchs; as rabbis we are witnesses to the lives of the souls under our care—in beautiful and in painful moments. We provide spiritual care and comfort to people as they endure illness and approach death. We listen as they tell us their regrets and hear their Vidui as they seek God’s forgiveness. Sometimes the duty falls upon us to say this confessional prayer for them. We are witnesses to the humanity of these exquisite and excruciating moments. It is our sacred responsibility.

Caring for people through their pain and through their losses is indeed sacred work. And we offer our care at a great personal cost. We do this willingly; it is part of who we are as rabbis. We are called to serve in these sacred moments, and we are almost always the only rabbi in the room.

In these rooms of sacred care, we hold stories of great family pain, and stories of joy and stories of death and life and every mess, every trauma, in between. The relationships we observe and the stories we hear become psychically and spiritually connected to our own stories; particularly to our losses, our sadness, our fears. For a fleeting, soul-searing moment, these stories become our stories. They become etched on the parchment of our own soul’s torah, that is weathered and worn, and achingly beautiful. The torah of our souls must be tended to with loving care, or the ink will smear, the scroll may tear. We rabbis can tear, if we fail to tend to ourselves and each other.

We are indeed often the only rabbi in the room. Yet, we need help to hold these exquisite and excruciating moments of life. We need our professional networks, we need our friends who understand this awesome responsibility, we need our rabbis—we need each other.

Here is my audacious request of you, of each of us: make a call, send a text, reach out to care or to be cared for. On this Shabbat, when you say the Mi Shebeirach for healing, include in your silent prayers a prayer for sacred caregivers, for those who hold the stories of others, for each of us.


Meir Bargeron, MSW is a member of the ordination class of 2020 at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. He will enter the rabbinate following a career in clinical social work and non-profit administration. Meir is a rabbinic intern at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA. 

Categories
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.

Authenticity

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

Categories
Rabbis

Rabbis on the Frontier

How much does being Jewish mean to you? Did you ever have one of those moments when studying about the Jewish martyrs during the Crusades when you asked yourself, “Could I do that? Would I be willing to die for my faith?” At the time, my feeling was, Of course! And then I had children, and the question became much more fraught.

I now know of a community whose passion for Judaism puts me to shame: I’ve made two visits in the last 12 months to Indonesia, a close neighbor of Australia which nevertheless remains a mystery to many of us. People scattered all across the archipelago have chosen to embrace Judaism despite the considerable challenges facing them. Most of them are former Christians (yes, there are many Christians in Indonesia, along with Hindus, Buddhists and even Confucianists!)  A close reading of the Tanakh has led them to feel that Judaism is more a reflection of the monotheistic ideal than Christianity. In addition, many of them have Jewish ancestry: an estimated 80% of traders in the Dutch East Indies Company were Jewish, and many of them put down roots in Indonesia.IMG_5380

Indonesia is a not a place where it is easy to be Jewish. Judaism is not one of the faiths recognized by the government. There is deep suspicion for the state of Israel, and that is often linked to Jews as a whole. In my conversations with the people I’ve met, I’ve learned that many of them have lost friendships over their choice, and a few have chosen to quit their jobs so that they don’t have to work on Shabbat. In Jakarta, a sprawling city of 25 million people, Jews may travel as much as 2 hours one way to reach the monthly Shabbat services. The Jakarta community rents a hotel suite, and those in attendance spend the whole of Shabbat together, praying, eating, and sleeping on mats on the floor. In West Papua at the opposite end of the country, a community of about 15 families saved for two years to bring me and Rabbi David Kunin from Tokyo over from western Indonesia for a visit. The monthly wage is about $200.

I am awed by their commitment to living a Jewish life. I am humbled. I feel that I, a life-long Jew and rabbi, am not doing enough, am not living fully enough as a Jew. As Nachman of Bratslav said in his tale “The Treasure,” sometimes we need to go far away to discover the truth which is close by.

Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky serves Beit Shalom Synagogue in Hackney, Australia.

Categories
Rabbis Reform Judaism

I Didn’t Build It

Showing visitors or newcomers around the synagogue, I hear the compliment, “What a beautiful temple!” I respond: “Yes, and I can brag about it, because it was all here, just like this, when I got here a couple years ago.”

Congregation B’nai Israel was founded in 1866. I was called to Little Rock as rabbi in 2013. I am responsible for none of the congregation’s many blessings, the edifice being only one. Whether marveling at the congregation’s outstanding youth engagement, magnificent worship music, or extraordinary level of volunteer commitment, I am constantly reminded that I have very little to do with what makes this synagogue terrific. No, nobody else says, “You didn’t build it.” Those words come from a voice inside my head, in contrast to how I regarded my role at my previous congregation.

That other synagogue had been serving its community for 118 years before I came on the scene. Still, by the time I left, 21 years later, I wrongly viewed the congregation as largely my creation. I could even cite examples: By 2013, even the historic edifice had been altered substantially since 1992. I had been significantly involved in the building’s development, and certainly in dramatic changes that ranged from worship style to youth engagement.

But I didn’t build that other congregation, either. Its magnificent Sanctuary was constructed before even my parents were born. Its worship style would surely have evolved with a different rabbi in my place during those two decades.

We rabbis regularly refer to the synagogues we serve as “my congregation.” If challenged, we would defend ourselves: After all, members refer to the place as “my temple.” Why shouldn’t we? The possessive pronoun doesn’t really designate possession in this case. Or does it?

Because of what I’ve learned from my study of Mussar with Alan Morinis, I recoil from referring to Congregation B’nai Israel as “my congregation.” Yes, I feel at home here, perhaps even more than I did in my previous congregation, a development I couldn’t have imagined in 2013. I hope to be here until retirement. Still, I reflect on the daily affirmation we recite when practicing the middah (soul-trait) of anavah (humility) in programs of The Mussar Institute: “No more than my place, no less than my space.” I don’t call B’nai Israel “my congregation,” because I have come to believe that it denotes an unhealthy level of rabbinic ownership, taking up “more than my space.”

This past summer, Congregation B’nai Israel remodeled its offices. Now, one corner of the building looks different than it did when I came. I had something to do with that: The rabbi’s study wasn’t sufficiently private – not so much for me, as for those who come to meet with me. Still, I am acutely aware that two volunteers did not execute my vision, but rather turned a problem I articulated into a solution that addresses issues I hadn’t even noticed. The result is both beautiful and functional in ways I couldn’t have imagined. The same is true of positive developments that range from worship style to youth culture. (Sound familiar?)

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Categories
Healing lifelong learning Rabbis

Setting Free Sparks of Holiness

From a recent session with a colleague – shared with her permission: “I’m so busy planning and preparing to make sure they are able to do their cheshbon nefesh, I feel as though I’ll have no opportunity to do my own.” I wonder how many of us come out of the experience of the Yamim with similar feelings. As much as I was able usually to pray while leading from the pulpit, I remember only rarely feeling that I had been able to go into the deep, introspective and spiritual work for which the season calls during my pulpit years. No longer carrying that responsibility, I am able to bask in my appreciation for the work and effort put in by our colleagues facilitating the spiritual journeys of our people through these challenging days. (This year, I want to take a moment in particular to raise up the energy expended upon the unique creative opportunity offered by Mishkan Hanefesh  – I’m hearing amazing things about transformation through this machzor, but we all know it would not have been possible without tremendous engagement on the part of all of you!)

Taking all these things into account, this seems to me a most appropriate time to remind our members of the Care and Wellness for which I have been engaged by the Conference on your behalf. Having poured out so much energy in the spiritual care of our people, could there be a better time to avail yourselves of the fruits of your labors than by taking some time now for the self-care and growth support offered as a benefit of your membership?

So, just to remind our members, I am serving the CCAR at the behest of staff and board leadership, as part of my internship requirements in pursuit of a Masters in Social Work. I am also a trained Spiritual Director and Jewish Mindfulness teacher. From among these disciplines, through me the CCAR is offering you a variety of opportunities. Our next online Jewish Mindfulness class begins October 20; we will soon be inviting one of our communities of practice to consider joining a pilot program in Peer Supervision. We also look forward to offering an introduction to Spiritual Direction later this year, followed by a short-term pilot group opportunity in that practice.

I invite you, in the spirit of this season, to ask of yourself, “What am I doing or should I be doing to set my own spiritual and psychological house in order and to make sure that it is a Sukkot shalom?” Not only do we deserve to ask ourselves this question for our own sake – ultimately, we owe it as well to those we serve, in whatever capacity.  To that end, I remind you of my enthusiastic availability to offer short term (approximately 8 sessions) therapeutic or spiritual direction work to any member of the CCAR in good standing. For all you’ve done, do and will do to serve the Source of our Being and our people, I open the doors of my heart to invite you to avail yourself of this gift. Hoping to hear this year from many of you, I wish all of you a joyous, healthy and fulfilling 5776 in which you are able to set free sparks of holiness and healing for all and an early Mo’adim l’simchah.  

Rabbi Rex Perlmeter is currently pursuing a MSW at Columbia University and will be doing a year-long internship with the CCAR, providing short-term counseling to rabbis in need. In addition to his MSW work, Rex brings extensive experience working with rabbis through his years at the URJ and is a trained spiritual director. Learn more.

Categories
High Holy Days Rabbis

Inspired by Hannah: A Conversation for the New Year

I was ordained eight years ago in a beautiful and sacred ceremony.  Standing on the bimah before our beloved Rosh Yeshivah, bordered on the transcendental.  When he blessed me, I cried.  It was a moment I will carry with me always.

But my ordination marked more than the beginning of my rabbinate.  It also marked the beginning of my motherhood too.  Just three weeks prior to ordination, I had my first child, a baby boy.  My first taste of motherhood was unlike anything I could ever have predicted or imagined. My emotions were fierce and turbulent, and my attachment immediate and unwavering.

My ordination was the first time I had ever left my son, and I was a wreck.  Those early post-postpartum days wreak havoc on the mind and body, and I was feeling the strain of excess hormones, total exhaustion, and round-the-clock milk production.

I remember bringing my hand pump with me to ordination, in fact. I stashed it beneath my seat, and dashed to the bathroom when I couldn’t stand the pressure a single second more. I remember standing in the bathroom, robe open, shirt unceremoniously un-tucked and unbuttoned, trying desperately to collect as much milk as I could with this irritatingly inefficient apparatus.

I was sweating, worried on one hand that I was missing my ordination, but on the other that I was neither collecting enough milk nor relieving the pressure that was building steadily in my chest.  I hated the fact that my ordination ceremony was happening while I was stuck in the bathroom, but I hated even more that I had left my three week old at home. I was overwhelmed by this emotional face-off, and unnerved by my inability to mitigate this internal strife.

I was a new mother and a new rabbi at the very same time.  Two paths, some would say divergent, others, perhaps not, and two very separate worlds of responsibility and meaning.  These two worlds appeared simultaneously, with little signage and no GPS in sight.  How would my rabbinate pave the way for motherhood?  Or rather, how would motherhood pave the way for my rabbinate?  I set out in search of balance, a way to honor these two parts of my life.

Eight years and three more children later, I am still searching.  I have worked part-time and part-part time.  I have prioritized here and prioritized there, working nights so I could have days, and days so I could have nights.  I have wiggled and jiggled and maneuvered in more ways than I can count.  And while every way had its merit, no way was perfect.  I wonder if I stumbled upon the best way to achieve said balance or if some path has eluded me as of yet.  It remains to be seen.

These days, I am home, with no work to put a claim on my time besides the work I create for myself.  And yet, the personal versus professional dichotomy still remains. In between the diaper duty and the laundry and the dishes, I spend a lot of time thinking about the rabbinate, and how it fits in to the crumby corners of domestic life, and how it spills over from the lofty, dignified walls of the synagogue into the messy, sticky, soggy world of a family. What does it mean to be a rabbi when you are stuck cleaning a toilet?  Or changing a diaper?  What does it mean to be a rabbi when you’re carrying a baby, along with two backpacks and a lunch bag to boot?  What does it mean to be a rabbi when all signifiers of esteem and import and formality have been stripped away?  What does it mean to be a rabbi when the title you use most is “mommy”?  Where does “rabbi” fit in to this picture?

The truth is, I don’t know.  These days, I am not sure where “mommy” begins and “rabbi” ends.  I’m not certain I’ll ever know.  The view from where I stand is foggy at best.

I know I am not the first or the last to ask these kinds of questions. And I know my struggle to define my identity is not unique to me, or to mothers in the rabbinate, or even to mothers in general. But each of us speaks from a place that is unique, and each of us adds our own voice to the conversation.  In the New Year, I want to add to this conversation.  I want to be a part of this conversation.  I want to start a conversation.

Rabbi Sara Sapadin resides in New York City.  She most recently served Temple Israel of the City of New York.

Categories
Rabbis

Transition: Two Years, Two Sides

I write on July 1, 2015, mindful that many colleagues begin new positions today, two years to the day after I commenced my tenure at Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.

When I arrived, I found a transition-weary congregation, after eight months without a resident rabbi followed by a year with an outstanding interim rabbi. Staff and congregants had circled July 1, 2013, as the red-letter day when the “permanent” rabbi would arrive and transition would end.

I, though, was fresh from CCAR’s outstanding “First 100 Days” seminar for rabbis in transition. Steve Fox had told us that transition would continue at least for our first 18 months in our new positions, perhaps until our second contracts were signed. I emphasized to a receptive lay leadership that a new phase of transition was only beginning. I reminded everyone that even Rabbi Ira Sanders, z”l — whose tenure, including his emeritus service, had spanned six decades — wasn’t “permanent.” However, a key staff member had endured enough transition, giving notice only three weeks after I arrived. Another left after the fall holidays. At URJ’s terrific Shallat Seminar for rabbis and congregational presidents in transition, key lay leaders and I learned that our level of staff turnover or more was common and to be expected. Still, the loss of institutional memory in our office was often debilitating.

Our Transition Committee Chairs understood and would have been up to the challenge, but their committee had been constituted to fill in the gaps when the congregation didn’t have a resident rabbi. They were prepared to throw a party — several parties, actually, which were very helpful — once the new rabbi arrived. Then, though, the Transition Committee was determined to disband.

Much was awkward during the first year. In my twenty-third year as a congregational rabbi, I frequently felt like a novice. Lay partners and I often tripped over each other, with their deference to my rabbinic leadership often running counter to my eagerness to be true to the congregation’s traditions. I was new to certain roles that had been filled by others in a larger synagogue, and needed to develop new competencies. Often, services and programs felt like an uneasy mixture of my style and the congregation’s, not yet seamlessly meshed.

Complicating matters, the congregation wasn’t the only party going through a challenging transition. The loss of my previous position had been traumatic. Even though I had a year’s sabbatical before entering the new congregation, I was still reeling from losing my home of 21 years, where I expected to stay to the end of my career and beyond.

My own trauma was matched by my family’s dislocation. My wife and younger son adapted quickly and happily to Little Rock, but were giving up a great deal in the process. Our older son took longer, and that first year was rough. Meanwhile, my dad was nursing his dying wife in their home around the corner from where we had lived in our previous community. I was busy in Little Rock, but my mind was often directed to my father’s home and to grieving the loss of my step-mother of 29 years.

Personal adjustments were tough. Professional adaptation is more at the heart of this essay’s subject. During the first year, what may be called “post-traumatic stress” amplified my reaction to even the smallest and most limited criticism. Moreover, having done outstanding due diligence in the search process, my new lay leaders were well aware of my foibles and were understandably concerned when even faint hints of those issues arose.

What a difference the second year made!

In the second year, the less-new rabbi is no longer leading the congregation through any annual event for the first time. The congregation’s receptivity to what I had to offer was more easily combined with what I had learned about the congregation’s long-established patterns. Our staffing had stabilized, with a talented Administrator joining our team at the end of my first year.

At a personal level, I had begun — imperceptibly, at first — to let go of the traumas of the past. My family was now at home in Little Rock, including my father, in his own home on our very street.

Today, my wife and I are returning to Little Rock from a brief “kids at camp” getaway. By coincidence, we went to the same vacation spot three years ago at this season, shortly after I had resigned my previous pulpit. Perhaps “déjà vu” would be a better word than “coincidence:” During both of these trips, to a place we haven’t been any other time, others were moving me out of my office. The two moves couldn’t be more different. Three years ago, I was being moved out of an office I adored, where I had only three months earlier had every reason to believe I would spend the rest of my career. This summer, at my no-longer-new congregation, our offices are being remodeled for many reasons, not the least of them being to create a quieter and more private space for congregants to meet with me. Three years ago, at a retreat that was supposed to be relaxing, I was constantly on the phone, confronting compounding trauma. This week, even with a big move happening in the office, I didn’t make more than a handful of phone calls in four days, and none of them was frantic.

Ten days ago, at our congregation’s Annual Meeting, I was pleased to announce that I was ready to declare our mutual rabbinical transition complete. Yes, I was talking about a transition that many had imagined finished two years earlier. The truth is, though, that Steve Fox had been correct. Two years would be required for congregation and rabbi to feel fully at home with one another.

At that same meeting, the congregation approved the extension of my rabbinic term, for five years beyond the first three, in effect ratifying a contract already approved by the Board to take effect beginning next summer. Yes, after two years, transition is complete, for both rabbi and congregation.

___

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Categories
General CCAR Healing Rabbis

Rabbinic Soul Maintenance

I recently met with a colleague who informed me that she really doesn’t like to ask God for help, especially during Tishrei, because there’s already so much on God’s plate. It reminded me just a little bit of the old story with the punchline, “look who thinks she’s nothing?” I am reminded as well of a poignant piece by Jacob Staub on the difficulty of asking for help, available at http://firstdaypress.org/asking-for-help/: “And it is, for many of us, so difficult to ask for help. We may feel things slipping away from us, or the color bleeding from life. But all too often we wait until everything has already hit the fan to pick up the phone and say, ‘I need you.’”

Seth Bernstein posted a beautiful contemplation regarding the gift that Ruth Alpers and he offer our members as the Hotline rabbis of our CCAR Rapid Response team. I am honored this year to be able to join them as CCAR Intern for Member Care and Wellness, as part of my training at the NYU School of Social Work, where I am pursuing an MSW. Seth offered up a list of the kinds of issues which might prompt you to pick up the phone and call one of the three of us. Additionally, I invite you to attend to the basic question of soul maintenance – how are you holding up on a day-to-day basis in the face of all you shoulder personally and professionally? We would never hesitate to encourage a congregant who tells us she is feeling listless or he is feeling joyless to consider speaking to a therapist? But how many of us wait until something has gone dreadfully wrong. Are we sufficiently attuned to the weight of compassion, fatigue and, even, vicarious trauma on our psyches?

Dear colleagues, you offer yourselves up so generously to help others bear the burdens of their lives. The CCAR offers you the same. Ruth and Seth are available for moments of crisis. And for those who would like a few sessions of listening, sharing and examining where you are right now in your life and in the center of your being, I am here for you as well. I am also available for a small number of sessions of spiritual direction and will be facilitating some group work over the course of the year as well.

For more information, go to:  http://ccarnet.org/rabbis-communities/personal-resources-chevruta/rapid-response/

Rabbi Rex D Perlmeter is the CCAR NYU Social Work Intern for Member Care and Wellness.

Categories
High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

A New Year, A New Experience: Leading my First High Holy Days with Mishkan HaNefesh

In an interview for Sh’ma Journal in 2012, Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi stated that he saw the Hasidic idea of “Rebbe,” as opposed to the ordained leadership role of a rabbi, as a fluid one. Rabbi Schachter Shalomi remarked, “I believe that in our day, living as we do in a democratic context, we need different people — men and women — in a community to function as rebbes at different times, helping people grow in their relationships with God… Mostly, I try to listen to what people say, how they say it, and when they say it, and then I ask what lies behind these presentations. What does this person’s neshamah (soul) need in order to live more harmoniously with God and creation?”

This High Holy Days, I was stepping into this position for the first time. This was only temporary, as Rabbi Schachter Shalomi would have it, but with definite purpose. As I approached Erev Rosh HaShanah, I was terrified. Had I picked the right prayers? Would my voice cause people to rush out of the room covering their ears? Would I come off as pompous, self-righteous, distant? Would I alienate this room full of college students at a Hillel just now finding its footing? This tornado of anxiety whirled around in my head, leaving me physically quaking as I began the service. Although I looked out at a sea of unfamiliar faces sitting with solemn expressions, unsure if they were solemn because of my terrible leading of prayer, or because of Rosh HaShanah, I tried to focus on my role: delivering the meaning of the holiday in translatable terms.

Sooner than I thought, the service closed without a hitch. My wife beamed with pride. Many strangers approached me thanking me and telling me I did a great job. Of course, this was expected – I couldn’t imagine these individuals saying anything disparaging no matter how much I had butchered their expectations. Then a woman, a stranger herself to the community just passing through on a road trip, came up to me and said, “You didn’t even look nervous at all! I would have been a mess up there.”

Now, that comment I hadn’t expected. Then I thought back and remembered Rabbi Schachter Shalomi’s idea of inhabiting the space of the Rebbe. Somewhere at the start of the Amida, I had entered a state of flow. The role of Rebbe had been placed on me by the many eyes switching their gaze from the machzor, to me, and back to the machzor, and I had stepped up to the challenge, similarly gazing down to the machzor, then back to the congregation, then back down to the machzor. In this exchange we entered into a moment of relation via the words of Mishkan HaNefesh.

The new machzor was my bridge into gaining a level of security in this new, alien situation. Had I been reading from Gates of Repentance, I almost certainly would have had greater difficulty finding my way into the role. The baggage that I carry connected to Gates of Repentance would have weighed me down significantly. Instead, I had been given the gift of ownership. Mishkan HaNefesh contains a great deal of alternative readings, from essays to poetry, written by people of all stripes. My services contained readings from individuals as disparate as Samson Rafael Hirsch and Richard Feynman. As the shaliach tzibbur, the prayer leader, I was given the opportunity to pick from the many different elements of the machzor to attend to what I thought the community’s neshama would need. Not only this, but I was also able to use the digital files of the machzor to help myself.  By importing them to my iPad, I was able to alter the machzor itself to fit my needs. Instead of having a binder full of papers, I was able to smoothly transition from page to page, removing pages I was not going to use, highlighting readings I intended on doing or had handed out to participants to do, and typing in iyyunim and congregational directions so that I could read them clearly.

Combining the multivocality of the machzor with the technology of my iPad, I was able to design a service that would speak to the congregation, as well as guide me through the motions of leading without my having to remove myself from the moment. I simply needed to continue scrolling through the digital files, knowing that I had prepared them with great thought beforehand.

In this way, Mishkan HaNefesh gave me the tools to successfully occupy the role of Rebbe for this community’s High Holy Days. I was able to take the time well before the services to reflect on what a congregation such as Gettysburg Hillel would need, choose from the machzor the pieces that fit best, and then allow myself to inhabit this new role with the machzor as my guide and bridge to the community. Not only did I come away from this year’s High Holy Days having accomplished a new feat on my way to becoming a rabbi, I was also able to be a part of some of the most meaningful services I had attended in my life. The community at Gettysburg Hillel had a great willingness to participate, welcomed those from outside of the college, and gave me the gift of accomplishment by entrusting me with their High Holy Day services. The warm community of Gettysburg and the utility of Mishkan HaNefesh ushered me into 5775 with a feeling of gratitude and accomplishment by providing the environment for my first step into the role of the Rebbe. May this year be one of great experience and accomplishment for all!

Andy Kahn is a second year rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. He is currently the intern at the CCAR. 

For more information on Mishkan HaNefesh, click here or write to machzor@ccarnet.org.