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CCAR Convention

The Privilege of Teaching Torah

Each year at CCAR Convention, we honor members of our organization who were ordained 50 years ago or more. In advance of CCAR Convention 2020, March 22-25 in Baltimore, Rabbi Kenneth I. Segel shares the most moving aspects of his celebrated career.

The teaching of Torah is a high privilege. I have disciplined myself to study, to learn and grow in order to feel authentic as a rabbi. The pulpit has been the “picture window” of my rabbinate. To touch the minds and hearts of people is a thrilling experience. My challenge has been “to bring the timeless to bear upon the timely.”  

The religious imperative to which I have tried to give voice is the one that says: Create, do not destroy. Respect, do not hurt. Love, do not hate. Grow, do not stagnate.  

I have seen ordinary people live extraordinary lives. They embrace and reflect hope and idealism. They have found a viable balance between the comfort of the familiar and the challenge of the untried.  hey have stretched “neighbor” to encompass all humans. I have witnessed countless examples of personal triumph over tragedy.

I have been richly blessed by the love and scrutiny of my dear wife of 50 years, Sandra. She has made me a better person, a better Jew, and a better rabbi.


Kenneth I. Segel was ordained at Hebrew Union College in 1970. He has served historic congregations in the United States and Canada and has built congregations in New Orleans; Fresno, California; and Scottsdale, Arizona. He’s taught at five universities, published three children’s books and two adult books, and has been invited to offer Opening Prayers before the House of Representatives and the United States Senate. He currently lectures on cruise ships throughout the world.

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CCAR Convention

From the South, to the Midwest, to Western Europe and Back: 50 Years of Rabbinic Moments Big and Small

Each year at CCAR Convention, we honor members of our organization who were ordained 50 years ago or more. In advance of CCAR Convention 2020, March 22-25 in Baltimore, Rabbi Irvin Ehrlich recalls his rich personal Jewish history and remarkable career that took him oversees and back.

I grew up in a small South Georgia town. “Shabbat” services were every other Sunday evening, as our congregation of eighteen or so families did not have a full-time rabbi, but would invite the rabbi in a neighboring community to visit. (One of our rabbis was Julius Kravitz, z”l, who later was on the faculty of HUC-JIR in New York, and who led our 1963 summer program in Cincy.)

We were CLASSICAL reform. Caps intentional. Never would a kippah be allowed! Once I was old enough to go to temple, I never missed a service. One of my earliest memories was sitting in the pews, and opening the Union Prayer Book, of blessed memory. I would look at the title page, and was in awe that the publisher was the Central Conference of American Rabbis. I could not imagine a more august group. Never did I think that my life would take a path that would lead me to being a member for 50 years. And never have I considered myself to be “august.”

During my early rabbinic career, I led worship from the Union Prayer Book. Later came the Gates series. And then, just a few months before my retirement in 2008, I introduced Mishkan T’Filah. I am not lamenting these changes, for I see them as clear examples that our Reform Movement is alive and changing. The English of the UPB still moves me, but the words of the scholars of our Movement today also speak my heart.

My rabbinate has always been in small communities; perhaps this is because of my childhood. That means that in the pre-Internet days, I was often quite isolated, but somehow, I was aware of the changes that were happening, and I always understood that my responsibility was to take my flock, no matter how small, and to create an environment where they would be comfortable wherever they went.

After ordination in 1970, I served in Lincoln, Nebraska and Springfield, Ohio before entering the United States Air Force as a chaplain. I was stationed at Ramstein Air Base, Germany; the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs (twice); the Military Air Lift Command headquarters at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois; Royal Air Force Mildenhall in the United Kingdom; and Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. After twenty years of active military service, I retired and became the founding rabbi of Temple Beit Torah in Colorado Springs.

I now have the luxury to sit in the pews and experience worship led by the talented and caring clergy team at Temple Beth El in Madison, Wisconsin. This has afforded me the opportunity to become more personally involved in prayer. I no longer worry about what’s on the next page. One of the most wonderful observations is the level of participation by the congregation. The Jew in the Pew is much more involved; the UPB model of “Congregation” responding to “Leader” is no more. We all chant the V’ahavtah and the prayers of the Amidah. Beth El has a Team Torah consisting of lay members who chant Torah. (I’m the only member of the group who reads Torah; I never learned to chant!)

Like life, like any rabbinical career, there have been ups and downs. I cannot do anything about the unpleasant times, but I can relive and get pleasure from the joys. Such as uniting couples in marriage and watching them grow into families. (The first couple I married in the summer of 1970 will celebrate 50 years this summer!) Vivian and I served tea to Prime Minister Begin when his plane stopped for fuel in England. I’ve led High Holy Day worship in the Rashi Synagogue in Worms, Germany. And I have participated in many little “common” moments that are a part of being a rabbi and involved in the life of congregants. I’ve spent hours in hospitals just being a presence in a time of great stress.

Upon retirement I discovered NAORRR, and found great joy in being with colleagues, some who were longtime (but not “old”) friends, and I’ve made many wonderful new ones who have had similar rabbinical journeys. When I attend the annual NAORRR Convention I always remember that I was blessed to have two study partners of blessed memory at HUC: Howard Folb, z”l, and Jonathan Plaut, z”l. Their early deaths left a void that has affected me greatly. May their memories be for a blessing.


Irvin Ehrlich was ordained at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati in 1970. He is the Founding Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beit Torah in Colorado Springs. He and his wife, Vivian Mitzman, live in Fitchburg, Wisconsin. he has three children, 11 grandchildren, and 1 grandson-in-law.

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CCAR Convention Convention

I’ve Been Blessed With Many Teachers: Reflections On 50 Years in the Rabbinate

Each year at CCAR Convention, we honor members of our organization who were ordained 50 years ago or more. In advance of CCAR Convention 2020, March 22-25 in Baltimore, Rabbi Bob Saks reflects on his many teachers and their many lessons.

With gratitude to my many teachers:

From the rabbis of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, where I celebrated my Bar Mitzvah and was confirmed, I learned that fighting for social justice is at the heart of Judaism.

From Lubavitch emissaries, I learned that Judaism is more than social justice.

From the Rabbis, I’ve learned that one should say at least one hundred blessings a day, and that we can start the moment we open our eyes in the morning.

From Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and Hasidism, I learned that singing and dancing are gates “to the place where God dwells,” and that nothing penetrates as deeply as a good story.

From Rabbi Seymour Siegel at JTS, I learned the relevance of Torah study.

From Sifrei Musar, I learned that ethics and spirituality encompass all of life.

From Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Mussar Movement (thank you, Alan Morinis), I learned that self-knowledge is the first stage to self-improvement, and that it doesn’t come easily.

From American Indian religions, I learned that we live between earth and sky, and that all living things are family.

From older African-Americans, I learned dignity.

From younger African Americans, I learned anger.

From the Book of Job and writer Annie Dillard, I learned that nature is awesome even when it is grotesque and gruesome.

From Martin Buber and Bishop Pike, I learned that too much doctrine and too many rituals lead us away from God.

From Abraham Joshua Heschel, I learned that the best of us can do it all: fight for justice, learn and teach Torah, live a full traditional life, a life with wonder, and find God in dialogue with others;

But I’m no Heschel.

From the unique spiritual culture of Japan, I’ve learned that a vase with a single flower can speak more eloquently than a whole bouquet and that making the ordinary beautiful is its own wisdom.

From the religions of Asia, I’ve learned to rein in my clattering mind so that I might live some of the time in the “here and now.”

From Danny Matt’s extraordinary translation and commentary on the Zohar, I’ve come to think of God as the energy that is the deepest essence of all things, all thoughts, all laws of nature and of the human personality, and that our role should be to channel the Divine, by channeling ourselves in the direction of justice and mercy.

From my friend Rabbi Steven Shaw, z”l, I learned to take risks, to dare to be creative, to match seekers and teachers, and also that, for some, Jerusalem may be in the woods of Maine.

From the Jews of Israel, I’ve learned that my deepest failure is not to live there with them, as this moment in Jewish history demands.

From the daily news, I’ve learned how good and how evil humans can be.

From my congregants at Bet Mishpachah, I learned about authentic community, courage, and perseverance even in the darkest times, and about the creativity, skills, and knowledge of our lay leaders.

From my mother, I learned to be faithful and to do what one knows one must, even when the price is high.

From my sons, I’m still learning what good parenting looks like.

And from my wife of 50 years I’ve learned how sweet it is to be loved and to love another.

I’ve been blessed with many teachers.


Rabbi Bob Saks was ordained by Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1970. He is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Bet Mishpachah in Washington, DC, where he served from 1991 through 2009. He has been the recipient of many prestigious awards including the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance in 2009, Jews United for Justice – Abraham Joshua Heschel Award in 2008, and the World Congress of Gay and Lesbian Jews – Leadership Award in 2008.

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Rabbis

Anticipating Retirement

In five months I will retire from my position and close a 40-year sojourn in the vineyard of the congregational rabbinate – the last 30 years in my current congregation at Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles.

I confess, as I move through the weeks and that final day in June, 2019 comes closer, that I have mixed feelings. I anticipate missing much of what has occupied my time and energy throughout the years, the many people I love and care about, the privileged presence I’ve had in the lives of others, and the multitude of weighty ethical and moral issues that confront us rabbis so frequently. I’ll miss especially the intensity of helping people from the cradle to the grave.

I have learned much about people and myself these past 40 years. I’ve been pushed to the limits of my abilities countless times. I hope only that I have met adequately those challenges. I have learned and taught much Torah and shared as best I can my learning and wisdom with my community.

We have created much together in my congregation over the years and the community has evolved in wondrous ways. I have taken controversial positions vis a vis American and Israeli justice, and though many have disagreed with me (sometimes vehemently), I would hope that they know that my criticism comes from a place of love.

Being in Hollywood, my community is as diverse as any in the country. We include Jews from around the world, all the religious streams, Jews and their non-Jewish spouses and partners,  Jews-by-choice, LGBTQ Jews, Jews of color, people with widely varying degrees of wealth from the most fortunate to the least secure, “Hollywood” Jews who work in television, motion pictures, music, the arts, journalists, educators and professors, politicians and diplomats, physicians and health care professionals, lawyers and judges, financial experts and business people, self-employed entrepreneurs and the unemployed.

I have been fortunate to have had consistently a deeply meaningful and exciting rabbinic career. In five months I will step aside, let others carry on, and give up most of what I do as I embark on the next stage of my life.

I am ready to change my frame of my mind to whatever the future holds for me. I will assure my successor (an interim the first year and a seated rabbi the following year) that I intend to be a great emeritus – meaning, I will not be around much nor will I allow myself to be drawn into discussions with congregants and staff about new directions the new rabbi is taking that help no one – not me, not the congregant, not my successor, and not the congregation as a whole. I trust my lay leadership and my colleagues currently on staff who will remain and carry on.

As a new grandparent too, I realize how important it is for me to hold my counsel unless invited in, to avoid offering advice or being critical in any way. I have had my time. It’s now the occasion for me to move aside.

I have heard horror stories about the behavior of some emeritus/a rabbis who have a difficult time letting go. That will not be me. My hope for my successor is that he or she will be as gratified as I have been doing the sacred work I have enjoyed for so long. If I can help him or her in any way, I will happily and supportively respond – but only when asked.

There is a time and a season for everything under the heavens – so true!

Rabbi John L. Rosove serves Temple Israel of Hollywood of Los Angeles, CA.  

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Rabbis

[RABBINIC] RETIREMENT; WHY? WHEN?

At the end of the last Olympics in Rio de Janeiro (2016), Michael Phelps, 30, a highly decorated US competitive swimmer with 28 gold medals to his name, announced that this would be his last international competition. Mind you, this is the second retirement for Michael. The first one was after the 2012 London Games.

Some, like Michael, retire multiple times. Others retire but do not know what to do with themselves. And there are those like me, who call it quits without hesitation, after a satisfying career, but this one takes time and advanced planning.

Why and when people retire depend on various circumstances: e.g., health issues, moving to other communities, or sadly because they are terminated by their bosses. Others, however, choose to retire and often plan for it. I am among the fortunate ones who thought about ending my full-time career as a congregational Rabbi when I turned 65, about 13 years ago.

Throughout my life, I have always been associated with synagogue life. In my youth, even during Law School in Turkey, I acted as hazzan kavua (a permanent prayer-leader) in my Orthodox congregation in Istanbul. During my rabbinic studies at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, I held student pulpits in McGehee, Ark.; Jonesboro, Ark.; and Kokomo, Ind. After ordination I served in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Philadelphia, Pa.; Chicago, IL and, finally at Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, MA. But when I was about to turn 65, I decided it is time to stop.

The inspiration for retirement came from a rabbinic teaching. According to an ancient source, when Rabbis sat in the Sanhedrin (rabbinic court), they took their seats in a semi-circle fashion, with three rows of scholars facing the Chief Judge. When an opening occurred, they would move a judge from one row to a closer one from the front (Sanh. 4: 4). Later on, Rabbis, commenting on the significance of this move, stated, “It is better for people to say to you ‘go up,’ than for them to tell you to ‘go down’” (Midrash Rabba, Vayikra 1:5). What a wonderful insight, I said to myself. Having accomplished most of what I had intended to do in my professional life, I would retire at will, at the top of my career, instead of waiting for someone telling me, “Rabbi, you are getting older; it is time to take it easy!”

When Ines and I decided to take the plunge, we first went to a retirement seminar sponsored by the Pension Board of our rabbinic association (CCAR) to learn how to say good-bye. Then I approached my lay leadership and informed them of my plan. My president and board accepted our decision with regret, and offered us a wonderful retirement package, including health benefits, convention allowance and, most importantly, a “reserved” spot in the parking lot of our synagogue. This whole process took about a year.

After announcing my retirement to the congregation, we had a special celebration in May of 2003, which we enjoyed very much. On June 30, 2003, I turned in the keys to the office manager and walked away. Ines and I also decided to leave town and move to another suburb in the greater Boston area in order to allow my successor, Rabbi Jay Perlman, a total immersion in the life of the synagogue.

What to do after retirement? I now had more free time to spend with family. I taught, part-time, at Boston College, and now I am on the faculty of Framingham State University, much closer to my home in Ashland. MA, teaching Ethics to two different classes. Ines and I travel more, visit our children and grandchildren in California, and spend more time with our daughter and grand kids in our area. I help out Bet Shalom of Barcelona, an emerging liberal congregation in Spain. I also blog and lecture on a variety of topics. Recently, I learned how to play bocce!!!

I still keep an association with my former Temple. I am the “Rabbi Emeritus.” I give the sermon on the second day of Rosh HaShanah, a talk on Yom Kippur in the afternoon, and lead a discussion during an old-day Kallah (study session) for temple members. We, obviously, continue to see many of our friends in the Boston area, and our Rabbinic Study group of more than 30 years meets every Monday morning at our Temple building in Needham. But otherwise, I am not involved in any details of our congregational life. This is ably handled by other rabbinic colleagues.

This pattern has worked well for us. But it took thinking, planning, understanding and good will on both sides, mine and the temple leadership’s.

I highly recommend it to others who wish to follow a similar path.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D. is celebrating 50 years as a CCAR Rabbi. 

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General CCAR High Holy Days Rabbis

The Files of Our Lives: An Rabbinic Ephiphany in Retirement

Since my retirement three months ago, I’ve spent a large chunk of time in an industrial-strength cleaning frenzy, culling files (paper and digital), writings, books, newspaper clippings, pictures. What began as a slightly (?) obsessive attempt to cope with clutter and to relegate boxes to the attic (and at least some, but never enough, unnecessary items to the trash) has transformed itself into an unintentional journey into a personal and professional past, simultaneously and paradoxically well-remembered and half-forgotten.

Instead of writing sermons for the High Holidays, I have been experiencing a perpetual Elul, acknowledging past accomplishments, mistakes, choices, regrets, joys, sorrows over a period of years, beginning with childhood letters from camp (yes, my mother never discarded enough memorabilia, either!) extending through college and rabbinical school, trips to Israel, marriage and children, various stages of my professional life. I have saved too much, and yet it is hard to regret coming across a letter from an old friend now-deceased or a child’s scorecard from a baseball game or a particularly gracious thank-you note. The task is bittersweet; were I to analyze and sort every item, there would be no time to live my current life; were I to re-read every note and letter, I could not continue to create in the present; were I to save every document, I would in effect be unable to savor what is truly special and unique and—dare I hope?—eternal (or at least of some value to the next generation).

booksAnd because my personal and professional life overlaps with the acceptance of the first class to include women at Yale (class of 1973) and the first classes of women in the rabbinate (I was ordained in 1980), I discover items of more general historic value (thank you, American Jewish Archives, for your collection of women rabbis’ memorabilia, to which I will happily contribute). These provide a matrix in which to place my individual life, a unique context to which I can feel and see that I made a contribution. Being an ima (mother) and writing the book IMA ON THE BIMA intersect in these dusty files to form a pattern of which I am both grateful and proud.

The sifting and sorting go slowly. I will not be done by Yom Kippur, nor even by Shemini Azeret, the date to which the rabbis extended the possibility of repentance. I am more selective these days about what I save, and of course, as everyone constantly reminds me, one can retrieve everything now on one’s computer (Bahya ibn Pakuda must have contemplated this moment back in the 11th century, when he wrote, “days are scrolls; write on them only what you want remembered”).

Who really needs two huge file folders on “God” or one on “Elian Gonzalez” or another on Mel Gibson’s ‘Passion of the Christ’?  But I am of an age when a loved one’s handwriting on stationery evokes presence in ways that e-mail can never match.  When the rustle of real and yellowing newsprint (now augmented by my hearing aids) jog my memory about events long past but forever documented.

Today, thinking about Syria (particularly in light of my son having just returned to his home in Tel Aviv), I found my file on “Syrian Jews”, with articles and information from the 1970’s to 1990’s. What I found teaches me much about what I cared about, and what our community cared about. Just recently, I re-discovered files about the 20th anniversary gathering (1983) of the “March on Washington”,  at which my husband and I were carrying our then-three-month-old daughter under a “New Jewish Agenda” banner, and stories about the controversy over whether and which Jewish groups would participate (I had not remembered all the fuss). This week, that daughter, now 30, began working at the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department.

And so it goes. Our lives do indeed weave a pattern, and our tradition values memory. We can’t remain forever locked in Elul, as tempting as that may be. We must discard, repent, forgive, and even sometimes forget in order to move forward.

We are indeed flowers that fade, but it is lovely in the twilight of summer to review the seeds of a future yet to be experienced. What began as a housekeeping task became an Elul epiphany and the promise of new content for still-empty files for a New Year.

Rabbi Mindy Avra Portnoy is the Rabbi Emerita of Temple Sinai, in Washington, DC, and is the author of the groundbreaking children’s book, Ima on the Bima.