Categories
Convention Rabbinic Reflections

Between Brokenness and Wholeness: Rabbi Hara Person’s CCAR Convention 2022 Address

The 133rd annual Convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis was held March 27-30, 2022 in San Diego, where 300 Reform rabbis gathered in person with several hundred online. Here, we share CCAR Chief Executive Rabbi Hara Person’s poignant address to the Reform rabbinate.


How amazing it is for us to be together once again, after three long years since we last gathered as colleagues. What an incredible milestone this is for us as a chevrah, a truly celebratory occasion. It feels unbelievably moving and replenishing to be here together.

And what a strange, hard time this has been. Two years and about two weeks ago, after a lot of struggle, we had just made the decision to go virtual for Convention. So much of that time, those early pandemic days pre-vaccine, were filled with anxiety and fear. All of us were making decisions on the fly—you in your communities, and us at the CCAR, figuring out how to quickly replan and reinvent ourselves. Priorities changed overnight. At the CCAR, we sent our staff home to set up remote office spaces. We changed our educational and support offerings to meet the needs of the moment. We organized coaching, advising, and counseling sessions for rabbis at no cost. We provided you with free or heavily discounted CCAR Press resources. We heard your stress and tried to provide you with care and support during the grimmest, grief-filled, scariest times. I remember one of you telling me that you had done eleven COVID funerals in one week. In one week! Unimaginable, the spiritual and emotional cost.

At the same time, strangely, without social gatherings and commuting, there was also time to be filled. I rolled the thousands of pennies that had migrated to my house after my father died. I seasoned my cast iron pans, and then did it again. I had time to watch the dirt in my garden slowly fill with flowers in bloom that first pandemic spring, giving me a much-needed sense of hope. That all seems so quaint now, given what was still to come.

When we last gathered in person at CCAR Convention in March 2019, no one among us could have foreseen the enormity of what we’d be facing in this intervening time, and how much we would be changed by the experience. Painfully, often in grief, sometimes at great personal cost, but also with creativity and tremendous learning, we persevered. You rethought your rabbinates, you experimented, you pushed through, and even if you sometimes fumbled—and we all did—you nonetheless inspired and led and brought comfort. When I look at and see what you’re managing, when I speak to you, when I hear what you’re doing, when I visit your synagogues, I see the miraculous. I see resilience in the face of all of this. I see innovation. I see vision. It’s truly amazing. There is so much to be proud of.

And yet, I know it’s been a very hard time, and a complicated time. I know you lost people in your own lives, and that grief continues. I know that many of you are exhausted and overworked, stressed and burnt out. I see how hard you’ve been working, and often under impossible conditions. I know you are doing more than ever, and in many cases with fewer resources, less support, and more difficulty. I know that.

At that same time, we are facing challenges in regard to our beloved Reform institutions, challenges that make us question so much. If that wasn’t enough, we are facing fears about what endangers not only our souls but also our physical selves. As many of you have said, being a rabbi shouldn’t be dangerous. And yet it sometimes is just that. With the three ethics reports that have come out from our beloved organizations, the terrible events in Colleyville, the overall rise in antisemitism, and questions about the future of our institutions, there is no doubt that this moment we’re in is a hard one.

I feel it too. There have been times when I—like so many of you—feel weighed down by such a sense of brokenness. There have been many dark moments this past year, many moments of feeling that brokenness deeply within my soul. When I took on this job of serving the Reform rabbinate, I believed I would be doing something that I could be proud of. I thought I’d be able to focus on moving the CCAR into the future.

I could not have imagined that I would be managing the painful and dispiriting work of unpacking the ethical misconduct of rabbis and our institutions. To be the face of the CCAR in this moment is, to say the least, complicated. There have been moments of pain, deep shame, and bleak and utter darkness. Yet I know that this pain pales in comparison to the pain carried by the brave individuals who’ve come forward.

I can’t help but think back to that last in-person Convention in 2019 in Cincinnati, the city in which our founder Isaac Mayer Wise’s legacy is so present. As I was preparing to speak to you all for the first time at that joyous time, before I was even in the role of Chief Executive, I thought about our founder’s legacy. Legacy looms large at the CCAR. We are, after all, one of the three legacy organizations of the Reform Movement, along with our partners the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). We have a storied history that goes back to the nineteenth century. But what does it mean to be a legacy organization? What is the legacy that we have inherited, and perhaps even more importantly, what do we want our legacy to be?

B’reishit teaches ki afar atah v’el afar tashuv, that we come from dust and return to dust. That’s humbling, to be reminded of our nothingness, but it also prompts us to consider just the opposite—that it is what we do in between those states that matters. While we are blessed to walk this earth and be in relationship with each other, what are we doing to create a legacy of positive change, to make a difference, to help right wrongs, to give voice to the voiceless?

We have so much to feel good about, both in our history as Reform rabbis as well in the present. Our Reform predecessors helped define American Judaism. We have reformed liturgy and published generations of prayerbooks. We have marched for social justice and advocated for equity and civil rights. We were the first rabbinic organization to ordain women. Our rabbis published the first English-language modern Torah commentary that included contemporary scholarship, and our rabbis also created the first women’s Torah commentary. We have officiated at countless life-cycle events, celebrating with and comforting Jews decade after decade. We have taught and inspired and written books and sustained communities, and so much more. Part of the challenge of this moment is holding the complexity of all the good that we rabbis have done for people, the community, and the world, all the ways that we have lived out our values since our founding in 1889, together with the ways that we have fallen short.

We come from dust and we return to dust, but in between we have choices to make about the legacy we leave. I want our legacy to be an honorable one, a legacy of integrity and morality, a legacy of inclusion and respect. And I also want to say, wrongdoing on the part of some does not negate all the tremendous good done by most.

But in the midst of our proud Reform rabbinic legacy, and in the midst of all of your important and good work, there is misconduct that, rather than setting an example of menschlichkeit and being our best selves, was instead behavior that did the opposite, behavior that created a legacy of hurt and pain. There were, and continue to be, colleagues who have displayed the worst of human behavior. And other colleagues who either didn’t recognize the behavior for what it was, or didn’t do the right thing to eliminate that behavior from our community. 

Our institutional t’shuvah isn’t just necessary—it’s the right thing to do. I’m grateful to the CCAR T’shuvah Task Force for the thoughtful work they are doing to inform this process. And as we know, t’shuvah is not just a one-time formal statement, but as Maimonides taught, the changing of behaviors going forward. Words without action—and a deep-seated commitment to change—are meaningless. To that end, the CCAR is making t’shuvah a fundamental part of our organization, every day through our actions, by improving our processes, hiring an ethics staff member, supporting the ethics committee in increased training for its members, and hiring professional investigators, as well as engaging in many conversations about experiences with our system and history.

I am very grateful to the Ethics Committee for approaching their difficult work with integrity and dedication. Even before we received the Alcalaw report, their suggestions of ways to continually upgrade the process already had a significant impact. So too the Ethics Process Review Committee has made continual changes to the Ethics Code, almost every year. The attention to ongoing upgrading on the part of both committees is remarkable. Hopefully, as a community, we will vote in many of the needed changes to the current Ethics Code that the Ethics Process Review Committee is currently working on in a special session, even as the Ethics Task Force envisions what an ethics process of the future may look like.

But here, today, I want to begin to apologize out loud.

I’ve heard so many painful stories over the last year. Some happened years ago; some are more recent. Not all are about sexual misconduct. Some stories aren’t about the ethics process at all but are about the way a colleague was hurt by the CCAR. Some are stories of bias or diminishment. And let me be clear—some of the pain that has been expressed is because the ethics system actually worked as it should and held rabbis accountable, and though warranted, that can be painful. Regardless of what, when, or how, the pain is real.

When Abraham speaks to God to argue the case for sparing the people of S’dom, he begins by stating that he is but afar v’eifer, dust and ashes. Abraham invokes humility as he speaks up for the voiceless and argues for what he believes is right. Not only do we come from dust and return to dust, but our texts acknowledge that in our lifetimes we sometimes go through periods of being covered in dust and ashes. There are times in which we are brought low, bowed down in sorrow and grief, before we can rise again.

In this last year, I have often felt buried in both the dirt and the ashes of this pain. I want to say clearly: I am sorry that CCAR rabbis have caused pain. I’m sorry that the CCAR has caused pain. I’m sorry that our legacy is tarnished.

I came to the rabbinate considerably after the vatikot we’re honoring at Convention and owe so much to those first pioneer women, my older sisters who led the way. But I too have my stories, my experiences in the rabbinate and in our Reform institutions, as a mother with one and then two young children while a rabbinic student, as a career-long non-congregational rabbi, as an oddity in many ways, all of which have shaped my rabbinate—sometimes painfully and sometimes joyfully. Moreover, having been one of the early women at a formerly men’s college as an undergrad, I know very well that merely opening the door to let us in doesn’t mean equality has been achieved and bias has been overcome.

And yet, even with all that, it turns out that we also have what to be proud of. We knew we had to revamp our ethics system and were moving forward with this work even before new allegations came to light in this last year. And moreover, we actually have an ethics system, a system in need of further upgrades, yes, but an existing, robust system that has been updated and changed year after year by you, by your votes. The path ahead is filled with repair, rebuilding, and healing. But this too can be our legacy—the commitment to create a better, safer future, and to always improving what we do and how we do it.

I am grateful that we have both an Ethics Task Force and a T’shuvah Task Force hard at work right now, helping to create a better future for us all. I am also grateful to be able to work with my partners, Rabbi Rick Jacobs at the URJ and Dr. Andrew Rehfeld at HUC-JIR, as we begin to navigate what we can do better together, and grateful as well to Rabbi Mary Zamore at the Women’s Rabbinic Network (WRN) for her unwavering commitment to justice.  

Not easily, and not without pain or cost, but progress is happening. Rabbi Zamore and WRN leadership have suggested that we join together in a Day of Lament in the next months. I believe that this will be a meaningful and significant experience for us as a community, and I’m appreciative to be able to partner on this project. In addition, CCAR will be working with URJ and HUC-JIR to plan a Yom Iyyun around themes of repentance and other related topics for the community as a whole. Both of these plans are very preliminary right now, but I believe in the power of ritual acts, communal study, and deep, vulnerable conversation. More information about all of this will be forthcoming in the coming months.

There is so much important work ahead of us. I am energized by all the possibilities. And indeed, in this incredibly difficult time, despite all the really hard and painful work, CCAR has continued to grow and evolve in really exciting ways. As you have hopefully seen, one of the things we will be voting on tomorrow is new Vice President positions, one of which is the Vice President of Varied Rabbinates, as a response to the evolving reality of where and how our rabbis serve today and what kinds of support you need. That’s a significant step forward for us as a Conference, a new milestone.

And another very big milestone—we are taking the very first steps toward a new Reform Torah commentary, including a new translation. It’s very early in the process, but I’ll have more to share with you in the months to come.

Accelerated by the needs of the last two years, we now have a robust wellness program under Rabbi Betsy Torop, CCAR Director of Rabbinic Education and Support, in addition to the pandemic pivoting and all the other fine work she and Julie Vanek, CCAR Education Specialist, are doing in that department, including this Convention. You don’t necessarily see her work, but if it wasn’t for the thoughtful fiscal and operations stewardship of Laurie Pinho, our COO and CFO, we would not be able to function, never mind flourish, and without Laurie’s leadership we certainly would not be able to run a hybrid convention.

The department we used to call “Placement” has evolved into the fuller and more inclusive Department of Rabbinic Career Services, and I’m so grateful that our interim directors, Rabbi Deborah Hirsch and Rabbi Michael Weinberg, were willing to put their retirements on hold to come help us for the year. With their help, and with your feedback and input, we’ve re-envisioned that department and created a new structure for the future, which includes two full-time directors with separate portfolios to better meet your needs. I’m so excited that we’ll be welcoming Rabbi Leora Kaye and Rabbi Alan Berlin this summer, when they’ll take over as Director of Rabbinic Career Services and Director of Search Services respectively, and help us keep moving the department into the future. With this new structure, we will be able to better serve different kinds of rabbis at all moments of the rabbinic career lifecycle. I’m grateful too for Rabbi Dennis Ross and Rabbi David Thomas, both serving as interims in specific career-related areas this year.

CCAR Press Director Rafael Chaiken came in only months before the pandemic but despite that challenge, the Press has thrived under his leadership. Director of Strategic Communications Tamar Anitai makes us look good in social media spaces and helps us navigate the complex world of communications. Our Development Department recently welcomed Pamela Goldstein in a new position as the Director of Advancement, who together with Lisa Tobin, our Director of Development, is working hard to provide all the services and resources that you rely on and help us find ways to keep growing into the future. Our Special Advisor in Ethics, David Kasakove, came into a brand-new position at a historic moment, giving us wise and careful guidance. I am also grateful to our two emeriti, Rabbi Steve Fox and Rabbi Alan Henkin, who generously continue to provide insights and help when asked.

I also want to thank and acknowledge my amazing assistant, Rosemarie Cisluycis, and the rest of our team: Debbie Smilow, Raquel Fairweather, Jaqui D’ellaria, Michael Santiago, Ariel Dorvil, Chiara Ricisak, Rabbi Jan Katz, Dale Panoff, Nathan Burgess, Rodney Dailey, Rabbi Rex Perlmeter, and Rabbi Don Rossoff, as well as our HUC-JIR interns Madeline Cooper and Ariel Tovlev. And we are soon to be joined not only by Leora and Alan, but also by our colleague Rabbi Annie Belford-Villarreal, who will become the new editor at CCAR Press this summer. Most of these amazing staff members are either here this week in person or back home helping to run the online version of Convention, and I urge you to introduce yourself and say hello when you cross paths.  

I want to say a special thank you to CCAR President and my partner and friend, Rabbi Lewis Kamrass, for his wisdom, calm counsel, and caring heart. I also must thank the whole CCAR board, who provide incredible support and thoughtfulness, and all of you who volunteer with the CCAR in such a huge variety of invaluable ways. I am so very grateful to the many, many CCAR members who work so hard on behalf of our Conference.

I said earlier that I feel weighed down by brokenness. But one thing I am learning in the midst of this incredibly difficult time is to not walk away from brokenness. Brokenness calls, and I am trying to embrace it, to face it, to learn from it, and to walk through it.

At the heart of our Jewish tradition is the idea that brokenness is part of life rather than an aberration. The challenge of holding within us that tension between brokenness and wholeness is a deep part of our collective story. In just a few weeks, as we celebrate our freedom at the seder, we will break the middle matzah. Doing so reminds us that we live in a broken world, that we ourselves contain brokenness. 

Back home, spring flowers are bursting through the desolate winter dirt of my Brooklyn garden. What looks bleak in one season can become celebratory in the next. This I know: out of dust and ashes, beauty arises. In the coming weeks, we will taste the bitterness of oppression as we joyfully celebrate liberation. Brokenness may bring us low, but it is only a chapter, not the whole story. Our narrative continues. As we move from dust to dust, we continue to write our story, and in so doing, continue to create our ongoing and ever-evolving legacy. We have so much to be excited about. I look forward to growing and building the CCAR with you in the months and years to come.

Categories
CCAR Convention Rabbinic Reflections

Healing, Restoring, and Renewing: Rabbi Lewis Kamrass’ CCAR Convention 2022 Sermon

The 133rd annual Convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis was held March 27-30, 2022 in San Diego, where 300 Reform rabbis gathered in person with several hundred online. Here, we share CCAR President Rabbi Lewis Kamrass’ powerful, moving sermon addressing the Reform rabbinate.


In Masechet B’rachot, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught: One who sees his friend after thirty or more days have passed recites “Blessed is the Eternal One who has kept us alive, sustained us and brought us to this time” (B’rachot 58b). Commentators have debated whether it should be recited if some correspondence or conversation took place in the interim. But as I look at each of you gathered here, 350 rabbis, joined together for the first time in three years, and those of you joining us virtually, with the most genuine sentiment I say,

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ, מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה  

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, shehecheyanu v’kyimanu v’higianu lazman hazeh! It is so renewing for us to be together again: studying, praying, laughing, learning, debating, and probing questions of meaning. Perhaps now more than ever, we understand the wonder and the joy of being together as colleagues. 

After two years of isolation, of weddings and b’nai mitzvah without guests, of Zoom holidays and classes, of services led with only a camera or a screen before us, and of funerals with no one present to comfort the mourner, I would suggest that on the heels of a pandemic, we feel depleted, not simply because of endless redesigning of our work, but also because we were deprived of the renewing spirit of community found in serving others in person. Now, at this gathering, our thoughtful study or the simple conversations in the hallway or over a meal will have even greater resonance for us, as we seek to replenish and be restored. 

To be restored—that is very much what Torah speaks to this week, in Parashat Tazria. While some would say it is that portion that only a dermatologist can love, perhaps these instructions of priestly leadership may also bring heightened meaning to us at this time. For we have known the residual effects of isolation from a plague, of being separated from community. And we rabbis now sense what the ancient priests must have felt: the exhausting responsibility of keeping those isolated in contact, reassured that they would be reconnected to community, that the צרעת tzara’at would pass, that all might be restored.  

But of course, even in being restored, nothing can be exactly as it once was. Because we are not the same as we once were. And neither is our world. Since we were last together, we have experienced massive disruption in our work, in our families, and in the larger world. We have known tzara’at of the fabric of society. Consider for a moment a quick review of the last two years: the first pandemic of our lives, widespread illness and death, a threat to democracy, racial tension, rejection of past injustice, the rise of nationalism and antisemitism, terror aimed at synagogues and even our brave colleagues, a war that threatens Europe and brings with it an unparalleled refugee crisis, and so much more. Chaos is the backdrop that drapes our daily lives. Our tzara’at is disruption that afflicts the order in which we once labored.  

These headlines of our day deeply impact our lives. Our tradition teaches that a tzara’at is not only to the affected patch of skin, but extends to the thoughts and the emotions, the fears and the hopes of everyone it touches. Our congregations, schools, Hillels, chaplaincies, and communities are not immune from this. As rabbis, we keenly feel the cultural pressure of skepticism of authority, polarization and the diminished value of giving others the benefit of the doubt. Further, the contemporary plague of disruption has touched every individual. There is widespread vulnerability and fragility. Frustration or anger bubbles up too easily. Relationships are frayed.  And for so many, mental health concerns proliferate. 

Our Torah enumerates the job description of the priest to examine and decree the tzara’at, the affliction. The procedures are detailed with the uncomplicated clarity of an instruction book. Yet, if we place ourselves in the shoes of the priests, we can imagine what might have been in their hearts as they carried out their tasks. More than making a simple pronouncement of tzara’at, that priest stood face to face with the afflicted, looking into their eyes. That priest saw the anxiety and fear of the afflicted person, the disruption to their lives and to their family that isolation brought, the pleading uncertainty written upon their faces. And what they saw there had to unsettle the priests, who, after all, accompanied the afflicted both to isolation and subsequently to their return to the community.  

We rabbis stand in the shoes of the ancient priests in our contemporary cultural affliction, the tzara’at of disruption. With tender care and sometimes with heavy hearts, each day we have the privilege to look into the eyes of our people.  And we stare in the mirror, seeing reflected in our own eyes our moments of deep and revealing thoughts. Colleagues, we are all מצורע m’tzora—afflicted with the plague and its ensuing dislocation. So many of us have struggled through the added demands and the lengthened hours, and received the frustrations of those we serve, even as we experience our own. The lesion of disruption has shaken us with our own vulnerability. We are burdened with self-doubt, overwhelmed by the demands, and seeking to balance so much in our lives when even the ground beneath us feels unsure. With our high expectations of self, we wonder if we are up to the enormity and complexity of the task.   

Now colleagues, as I look into your eyes, this I know: like the ancient rabbis before us and the priests before them, we are up to the task. We are the ones to rise to the moment, because this is the moment to which we have been called. But neither you nor I can do this alone. How much we need to turn to our colleagues with the vulnerable and searching questions of the heart, to help us clarify the direction we seek. We need to discover our strength not in appearing to stand tall through the storm, but in offering a generous hand to lift one another up to this moment. Even rabbis need a rabbi. So let us look to one another to comfort, challenge, teach, and guide us. And we need our Conference as well, not only for resources or knowledge, but for wisdom, strength, support, and care. Along with our volunteer leadership, our extraordinary and compassionate professionals—led by our rabbi, Hara Person—are endeavoring to shape a CCAR that is ever more responsive to those urgent needs of the rabbinic soul. And we look to you to help us do so. We all need to be kinder to one another, to give the benefit of the doubt, and to shape a nourishing environment of understanding and care. That is what a rabbinic chevra is at its essence. So, in these days together here and in the year that unfolds, let us be deeply honest and boldly vulnerable with one another, and let us respond with an equal generous measure of kindness and caring. In an age where k’vod harav כבוד הרב is devalued, we must elevate that fundamental principle within our own discourse. 

And colleagues, as our people in the wilderness relied upon the priests, our people today need us more than ever. I can assure you: that need will only grow. If we are to restore our people to faith in the bedrock strength of our tradition and in the comforting care of community, we will need more rabbis in every venue of rabbinic leadership. So, as I did last year, now even more urgently do I sound the warning that we are not raising up enough disciples. It has always been the rabbi who has identified and inspired Jews to become rabbis and to assure our future. We dare not wait for a young person to come to us to ask about the rabbinate, or we will leave Jewish life starved for leadership and strength. The crisis is upon us now, not for the next generation, but now and for the next years before us. We must look past the urgency of today’s many problems that confront us, to the longer horizon in which we lead and serve, for you and I are the solution to this looming crisis. We should engage in rabbinic קירוב keiruv (outreach), with our personal invitation to those we find promising. In this moment, reflect and consider those people to whom you could turn: promising teens, college students, young adults, and those in engaged in Jewish life in our communities. Initiate conversations. Invite them to enter a life of unparalleled meaning. We secure the future of Jewish life not only by our teaching and our deeds, but in the disciples that we inspire and invite to join us. Our history, our community, and our faith hold us accountable to that. 

In the rabbinic midrash of Sifra, (Parashat Nega’im 4:4) the text interprets the words לכל מראה עיני הכהן l’chol mareih einei hacohen (Leviticus 13:12) to mean that the priests could only carry out the sacred task if their vision was undiminished and their sight was undimmed. While the midrash meant blindness or visual impairment, I would suggest a different interpretation, that the priest could not serve the proper leadership role with a diminished sense of purpose.  And neither can we. 

So let us renew that in ourselves. Yes, our world is not the same as when we last gathered, nor are our daily tasks. But our role remains steadfast and clear. This beacon of light and faith still shines undimmed as our steadfast vision: I believe that the destiny of Jewish life is in our hands as rabbis. I believe that as rabbis we must restore ourselves, so that we might restore hope, clarity, vision, and resolve to every corner of our work and to every set of eyes into which we peer. I believe in the undiminished promise and meaning of what we rabbis do. I believe in our impact: in the teaching that can inspire, the word fitly spoken with a person we counsel or comfort at a bedside, or in what someone remembers years later of that moment in which we guided them. From all that I see, more than ever, I believe in what rabbis do, who we are, and to what we aspire. And I believe in us. For we are meaning makers. Our words, our wisdom, and our work can be enduring. And we would do well to remember that, all of us, especially at this moment in time. 

To the disruptive tzara’at of our day, may we bring healing. Let us begin with restoring ourselves, turning to one another, reconnecting to a chevra that inspires us with energy, learning, and support. Let us reconnect our people to that reservoir of meaning so desperately needed in their lives. Let us move beyond the exhaustion of the day to embrace the invigorating responsibility of shaping tomorrow. It is that courageous leadership that rabbis have always been called to do, especially in uncertain times.  

For colleagues, we are not simply employees with job descriptions in organizations or congregations. As rabbis, we are “builders of our people,” “restorers of the breach,” and the priests who look into the faces of others and who see reflected in their eyes the divine image.  We are the guardians of Jewish life and guardians of its light. So together, let us walk with confidence and courage toward that light to restore what we were ordained to do. Amen. 


Rabbi Lewis Kamrass is President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and Senior Rabbi of Isaac M. Wise Temple of Cincinnati, Ohio, where he has spent his entire rabbinate.

Categories
Books High Holy Days Holiday

High Holy Day Family Sermon Starters

Oh my goodness, are you so tired? I am so tired. Like, my leg bones ache, so tired. And oh good heavens, there is only a month left until the High Holidays begin. Between the start of the school year and the political situation and just getting to the grocery store so we can have something that vaguely resembles food in the house, I bet you might feel the same.

So let’s just get straight to it. Here are some sermon starters for family service sermons, using non-traditional picture books as the jumping off point. Hopefully, one of these will resonate with you (and make things just a bit easier)

 

Oh No, George!: Maimonides’ Laws of Repentance

Central sermon question: What do we do when we make mistakes? What constitutes true repentance?

Jewish texts you could use:

  • “Who is truly repentant? The one who, when the temptation to sin is repeated, refrains from sinning.” – Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 86b

Modern References:

 

Emma’s Poem: Privilege and Tikkun Olam

Central sermon question: How do we use the blessings we have to help repair the world?

Jewish texts you could use:

  • “Hillel said: Do not separate yourself from the community” – Pirke Avot 2:5
  • “[Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it.” – Pirke Avot 2:21
  • 16 Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. – Deuteronomy 10:16-19

Modern References:

Having a hard time talking about privilege? Here is one interesting, accessible resource.

 

Pout Pout Fish: Yom Kippur as the Silver Fish

Central sermon question: Can we choose happiness?

Jewish texts you could use:

  • Selection of references asking the Divine countenance to shine upon us: Numbers 6:22-25, Psalm 31:16, Psalm 67:1, Psalm 80:3, Psalm 119:135, Daniel 9:17. “We pray for God to change Her/His face; are we capable of doing the same? Can we find a way to see the positive in a situation we originally considered negative?
  • Shammai says:… meet every person with a pleasant countenance – Pirke Avot 1:15
  • “Just as the hand, held before the eye, can hide the tallest mountain, so the routine of everyday life can keep us from seeing the vast radiance and the secret wonders that fill the world” – Chasidic, 18th Century (p. 3, Gates of Repentance)

Modern References:

Gretchen Rubin’s podcast “Happier”

 

Knuffle Bunny Too:  Second Chances

Central sermon question: Can forgiveness and empathy help form new, meaningful friendships?

Jewish texts you could use:

  • “Who is honorable? One who honors his fellows” (Ben Zoma) – Pirke Avot 4:1 – Learning how to do this healthily can be hard!
  • Yehoshua ben Perachia says, “Make for yourself a mentor, acquire for yourself a friend and judge every person as meritorious.” – Pirke Avot 1:13

Modern References:

  • TED Talk about the Grant Study at Harvard (Crunched for time? Skip to about 6 minutes in)

 

The Thank You Book: Blessings

Central sermon question: What are blessings?

  • Blessings are an expression of gratitude; an opportunity to remind ourselves of what is truly important in our lives – the food we eat, the people we love, the existence of rainbows and wonders (maybe not in that particular order). What are you grateful for? Who are you forgetting? Is it someone or something that you take for granted so much that you need to break the fourth wall in order to thank?

Do you have any other favorite non-traditional children’s books that you love to use as sermon-starters? Join the conversation in the comments below!

Rabbi Lauren Ben-Shoshan, M.A.R.E., resides in Palo Alto, California with her lovely husband and their four energetic and very small children.

Categories
General CCAR Rabbis

Not Alone with Sweaty Palms: Even the Rabbi Gets Nervous

It was good to learn I am not alone!

About two weeks ago, I presented the following issue to my colleagues on Facebook:

Am I the only one who gets REALLY nervous every time I speak? I don’t really get it. I can’t count how many times I have spoken in public since I entered HUC in 1968 and even lots before that. And yet, whether it is Kol Nidre before a big crowd or 20 kids in a classroom, I get really nervous. I hope (and have been told often) that it doesn’t show—Baruch Ha-Shem—but I don’t fully understand why that happens. Any thoughts?

It felt strange.  Yes, even though I served forty years in the pulpit and spoke in 65 communities on five continents as President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, I get very nervous each and every time I speak.

It might have begun with my Bar Mitzvah. I thought I would die (literally) before I could get up and read from the Torah. “You mean the scroll has NO vowels, and they expect ME to read it,” I remember exclaiming incredulously to my parents!

But then I did my first ever exercise in deductive reasoning. I thought:
• Kids in my class who are older then I have had their Bar Mitzvahs (It was much later that I learned that the proper term is ‘B’nai Mitzvah’),
• Some of them are dumber than I am.
• All of them are still alive.

Vital Lesson Learned. 

Therefore, I reasoned, if I really practice and study hard, maybe I can make it. And I did. The lesson has served me well, I always try to be well prepared, but that has never prevented me from getting very nervous. And so half-afraid that my colleagues would laugh at me, I posted my question.

To my surprise thirteen different colleagues affirmed, “You are not alone,” and six others clicked “Like” in recognition of my issue. Their affirmations confirmed what I believed (at least what I hoped) all along:  Although different people feel it to different degrees, the nervousness is a function of really caring about what I say and wanting it to have as much meaning as possible to those who listen.

A Small Price to Pay.

Knowing that “it is not just me” who gets nervous was very reassuring. Thanks to my colleagues I can go forward feeling that that the nervousness I must overcome each time I speak is a small price to pay for the sacred privilege of sharing the fruit of my study and my experience with others.

———

Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs is the author of What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. He is the former President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Bet Israel, West Hartford, CT.