Why Rabbis Need Rabbinical Conventions

I’m just back from the Central Conference of American Rabbis convention, a gathering of 600 Reform Rabbis from all over the United States, Canada, Israel, Europe, South America and elsewhere. Four fabulous days of inspiring worship, thought-provoking speakers, pastoral skill-building sessions, and insightful study of our Jewish texts.

I return home with Evernote(books) filled with ideas and insights for the many roles I live as an American Reform Jewish congregational rabbi. In fact, each day was so packed with large plenary gatherings and small group meetings that my mind was working in overdrive from 7:00 am through midnight.

One of the most poignant events occurred at a location twenty-minutes away from the Convention Hotel. That night, eleven people gathered at a local restaurant in a private room for dinner.

The dinner took place during intentionally set time for “dinner with friends and colleagues.” Along with other sessions and the plenaries, this dinner allowed us to address one of the most significant reasons we rabbis need to attend rabbinical conventions: to find solace and strength in the company of colleagues.

Over dinner, we laughed, joked, kvetched, kvelled, commiserated and counseled each other. We reflected upon the distinctive role and responsibility of being a rabbi in our contemporary Jewish community.

As we played musical chairs – switching places between courses – we shared triumphs and tribulations. This one sought advice on how to deal with a particularly thorny pastoral problem, while that one teased out new approaches for a difficult issue of organizational governance. These two compared notes on the challenges of youth engagement as those two shared strategies for keeping our own young ones from becoming too encumbered by the challenges of living in the Jewish public eye.

These four discussed new ways to think about the congregational rabbinate, while those four debated the perspective on Israel in Avi Shavit’s book, My Promised Land. From the personal to the professional, the macro to the micro, we wove memories of our past through the realities of the present and into the hopes for the future.

I left dinner sated: full of delicious food, helpful advice, meaningful insights and a clear sense that the shared challenges we face are surmountable because we have others to guide and support us.

Why do rabbis need rabbinical conventions?
While being a rabbi is an especially rewarding profession, it can be challenging, exhausting and emotionally depleting. Only in gatherings of rabbinic colleagues can we let our metaphoric hair down – of course, I have none left because I shaved my hair to raise money and awareness to fight pediatric cancer (but that’s another blogpost). In this safe space among people who know and understand can we find sessions and support to rejuvenate ourselves and lift each other up spiritually.

So four days away is both a short time and a lifetime, because in those brief moments away from the 24/7 responsibilities of leading a sacred community of our holy people we regain perspective and gain new perspectives to dive back in and lead and partner anew.

So to my dinner companions – my friends – I say thank you for rejuvenating me.

To our CCAR leadership and the Convention Program Committee, I say Todah Rabbah (thank you so much) for creating moments to find new meaning.

And to my synagogue – Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA) – I offer my profound appreciation for making it possible to leave and come back. I and we will benefit greatly from this experience.

Thanksgivukkah? ChanTHANKSukah? Tur-Lat-Key Day?

We each have moments when we step back and take stock. Opportunities afforded to us because the year has turned one full cycle and we, clay to touched by holiness, are allowed a glimpse into the essence of our lives.

A significant birthday.
An anniversary.
A Yahrzeit.

2 years of sobriety.
25 years since ordination.
3 years since you came out of the closet to your family.

Each of these moments transcend time, allowing us – like Adam haKadmon “in the beginning” – to see clearly the past and our present. They invite us to imagine the future.

Holy Days are for Accounting
Our Jewish holy days, set in the Torah or by rabbinic decree, invite a similar accounting. These holy days cycle back annually, calling us to recall who we were and who we are becoming now.

  • Rosh Hashana, as the new year begins, invites us to count our blessings.
  • Yom Kippur calls us to balance the accounting of our ma’asim (good deeds) and averot (errors/sins).
  • Pesach, a new beginning, invites us to recount the freedom which we once had, then lost, then with God’s help, reclaimed anew.

Each of these holy days turn us inward to the essence of our lives, and then subtly force our gaze and focus outward to the needs and concerns of our people.

The Unique Convergence of Chanukah and Thanksgiving

Even this “once in a lifetime” holiday – Thanksgivukkah… ChanTHANKSukah… Tur-Lat-key Day – moves us through the same eternal cycle.

For many, the beauty of the Chanukah-Thanksgiving pairing is that it leads us away from the prevalent (narcissistic) “gimme-gimme” culture (gimme presents, gimme food) instead turns our focus outward. We find ourselves being especially thankful for the food, the family surrounding us and the blessings that uplift our lives.

Now if only we could harness those warm fuzzy feelings and transform them into a force for tikkun (repair).

That’s why I’m particularly excited about the relatively new venture called #GivingTuesday.

You know about Black Friday and Cyber Monday – two days designated in American retail culture for conspicuous consumption and for getting deals. #GivingTuesday — the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, the Tuesday in the middle of Chanukah — is a day when we are invited to give to others to act to create a better brighter world.

We will light the lights of Chanukah. We will offer our thanks on Thanksgiving. Let’s also transform our warm feelings into real action by supporting organizations which truly transform the world.

Who I Think about for #GivingTuesday
On #GivingTuesday, I will be supporting two favorite “do good” organizations – my own Congregation Or Ami and the CCAR: Central Conference of American Rabbis. I will be donating to them to help Jews and rabbis bring light into the world.

CCAR’s #GivingTuesday and Congregation Or Ami’s #GivingTuesday brighten our world. Please be a force for good. Visit and support them.

Happy Tur-Lat-Key Day!

About Congregation Or Ami
I’m pleased that Congregation Or Ami is inviting you to share your blessings – and tzedakah – on #GivingTuesday. At Or Ami, people matter. Congregation Or Ami is home to a warm and welcoming, innovative, musical Jewish community. We deepen relationships with each other, while immersing in Torah, Israel and the Source of All Life. We travel together down Jewish paths which inspire our hearts and souls, and transform us to seek justice and nurture compassion in the world.

About the CCAR
I am pleased that the Central Conference of American Rabbis is inviting you to share your blessings – and tzedakah – on #GivingTuesday. The CCAR strengthens and enriches the entire Jewish community and plays a critical leadership role in the Reform Movement through its work by fostering excellence in Reform Rabbis, unifying the Reform Jewish community through the publication of liturgy, providing essential support to rabbis – professionally and personally, and offering important resources to congregations and community organizations. Services to the Reform Rabbinate, in-turn, enhance connectedness among Reform Jews by applying Jewish values to the world in which we live and help create a compelling and accessible Judaism for today and the future.

Why Rabbis Attend CCAR Conventions

So much work to be done, classes to prepare for, articles to write, administration to supervise, and yet I am going away for four days to the national convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Why?

Innovation Requires Retreat Time for Reflection
To serve as rabbi of an innovative, engaging 21st century religious institution like Congregation Or Ami requires I constant effort to remain ahead of the curve (or as we say now, “ahead of the shift”). Rabbis do this at national gatherings of rabbis, where – egos left at the door – we can explore best practices, engage in critical and self-critical thinking, and become current in the literature and scholarship of Judaism and contemporary religious thought.

Torah Speaks in Many Evocative Voices
We explore how Torah and Jewish texts speak to the most significant issues of our day. We reconsider how to engage marginal subgroups including people recovering from addictions and divorcing couples, from newer generations of young people to the aging Jewish population, and from other American religious groups to other denominations of Jews.

Attending a Circle of Practice for technologically proficient rabbis led me year ago to introduce into our congregation the use of Facebook, Twitter, Visual T’filah, and even High Holy Day mid-service texting. A CCAR conference workshop a few years back began the shift in my thinking that, when combined with Rabbi Julia Weisz’s ideas and the Union for Reform Judaism’s vision, led to a top-to-bottom revamping of our youth engagement program. Another convention session pushed me down the path toward complete integration and inclusivicity for people with special needs.

Becoming a Better Rabbi
I have learned how to be a better administrator, a more caring pastoral rabbi, and a better husband and parent (many discussions on balancing work and family). I rediscovered my social justice commitment at one convention and my dedication to pro-Israel organizing at another. Practical rabbinical sessions have addressed staff supervision, program financing, leadership partnerships and fundraising in a difficult economy.

Chevruta: Other Rabbis as Sounding Boards
Then there is the chevruta (collegiality/friendship). One study places clergy as the profession with the fourth highest rate of burnout, high levels of depression and stress, and prevalent bouts with anxiety and weight issues. Being with other colleagues, people who understand the unique challenges of this calling, creates a safe, sacred space for self-reflection, in a place where mentor and veteran rabbis are easily accessible for discussion and guidance.

Stepping away from the daily processes of the synagogue for these four days is challenging, but with the help of our Cantor Doug Cotler and an Or Ami leadership committed to ensuring the clergy remains fresh and rejuvenated, I know that this time spent away will recharge my batteries and reinvigorate my rabbinic presence.

Todah Meirosh (thank you ahead of time)
So I say Thank You to Or Ami’s temple board and our staff, for allowing, even insisting, that their rabbis attend these rejuvenating conventions. Each time I have returned to the congregation with ideas to deepen and transform our community.

I wonder what I will bring back after this convention?!?

Money-Money: Can There Ever Be Enough?

Like many, I keep a stack of “must read” books, journals and articles. I finally got around to reading a special issue of the CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly, dedicated to Jewish Perspectives on Finances and the Marketplace (Spring 2010). Ably edited by Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar, senior rabbi of Congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim (Deerfield, IL), the journal issue offers a Jewish take on current topics including bankruptcy, lending, tzedakah and social policy.

In her Introduction, Rabbi Karyn Kedar writes eloquently about money, the acquisition of material wealth and when is enough enough? Her words, so beautifully written, have remained with me as I speak with people whose lives have changed drastically during this economic depression.

Rabbi Kedar challenges us:

Prosperity comes from hard work, though hard work does not guarantee prosperity. Wealth comes from a good job, though a good job does not guarantee wealth. Riches come from success, though success does not necessarily make us rich. The equation simply does not work consistently. Be smart, work hard, play the political game, be honest and loyal and savvy, and you still may lose your financial footing. We have lost our focus when we think that the endgame is acquisition of material wealth. 

Rebalancing is not just a portfolio strategy; it is also a religious concept. Rebalance. How much of our focus is on the stuff of life and how much on the substance? How much time is spent earning and acquiring and how much time is spent giving and loving? How much thinking is spent figuring out finances and how much thinking is spent figuring out relationships? How open are our wallets; how open are our hearts?

We learn from the prophet Isaiah (1:6–10):  Their land is filled with silver and gold; there is no end to their treasures. Their land is also filled with idols; they worship the work of their own hands. Enter into the rock; and hide in the dust . . . majesty is in the greatness of God. 

Enter into the rock, says the prophet. Go into the cave that hides the treasures of life, and then hide in the dust for the earth reveals its secrets. True greatness is eternal. Wealth has both tangible and intangible indicators. Love and generosity carry us through the tough times. Nobody stands at your grave and reads the details of your portfolio. Life is judged by giving, loving, faith, and the ability to rebalance when we have lost our focus. 

Our attitude about money is so rarely about money. It is more complicated than our bank statements, checkbooks, and portfolios. Money provides for us those things that sustain our living. Beyond that, money is a symbol. It can be a symbol for power, for love, for graciousness, for worthiness. When we enter the symbolic world of money we must do so with a great deal of caution and self-awareness. I believe that it all comes down to a spiritual and psychological attitude toward abundance and scarcity. Do you believe that ultimately, at the core of the universe, there is enough? Or do you believe that there will never be enough? Enough what? Enough love. This simple equation is perhaps the most complicated correlation we have. When there is enough, when we believe in the soul of our soul that we are supported, and have faith in something larger than what we can perceive, and when we can tap in to the love that abounds in the world, then we live abundantly.

And when we live abundantly, then all things fall into place, including our attitude toward money. When we are young we are led to believe that our legacy lies in our successes and our failures. And so life becomes a game, a sort of tally, of victory and failures. We keep score of triumphant moments and try to minimize, leverage, and rebrand the not-so successful moments. All the while we hope and often pray that the endgame will be to our advantage and we will be proclaimed a great success.

But that is only partially true. Our most abiding legacy lies within the strength of our character. And it may just be an ironic twist of fate that character is best built and measured when we experience failure. Not that success is without its test of courage and integrity. But when we fail—and we all do—we experience a profound moment of loss that is layered and nuanced. In failure we may lose the game we are playing, our work, our livelihood, a relationship, a power struggle. And even more crippling, we may lose confidence, a positive self-image, optimism, stability, or good cheer, which knocks us off balance, off our mark. 

Herein lies the test of character: in the effort to regain composure, balance, direction, our footing. How we react, respond, and rebound is a measure of our inner strength, our character, our fortitude, our inner vision of what is possible despite the outer collapse of what was. It is in the motion of regaining balance that the strength of our character is formed and forged and molded. This current financial crisis, for many, has been the ultimate test of character. And this crisis, financial and otherwise, can also be a great teacher.

Pirkei Avot teaches: V’eizeh hu asher? HaSamei-ach b’Chelko.  Who is rich? The one who is satisfied with his/her portion.   As we struggle to climb out of the economic pit, may we remember that there is never “enough”, that the Jones’ always will have more, but that love and character and integrity will last a lifetime.

Top 9 New Orleans CCAR Convention Experiences

Not in order of importance… (cross posted on CCAR Convention Blog)

1. Six separate planned experiences of meeting with and conversing 1-to-1 (or in small groups) over important topics: visioning for the reform movement, creating new path for youth engagement, rabbis as techies, interfaith study of difficult texts with non-Jewish clergy, exploring real community and sharing what we would change about our URJ/CCAR/HUC.

2. I met, spoke with and learned from more colleagues than at any previous convention: younger colleagues (esp about deepening tech in the congregation), veteran colleagues (esp about how to keep it fresh as I begin my second 18 years), Twitter buddies (with whom I have tweeted for a year but never met), others (best practices and reaching out to interfaith couples and families).

3. Jazz. So many varieties, so many settings. I found myself, a serious person often, just sitting and smiling. National Parks Service has an amazing New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park with excellent ranger led/sung presentations about development of jazz. Snug Harbor offered intimate wonderful show, as did Preservation Hall. Maison Bourbon and others kept me toe tapping, late nite staying out, and amazed at rich jazz traditions.

4. Time with my wife to learn together, talk, walk, worship hand in hand, revel in friendships and our friendship.

5. The level of tech in the convention was impressive. Light years over last year. Bravo to CCAR technology production manager Dan Medwin and the whole CCAR staff for this leap. Showed some best practices in praxis. Plus the tweeting (#CCAR11) of the sessions allowed me to virtually attend those I could not physically get to. And catch the coolness (an usefulness) of the CCAR NOLA app!

6.  Rabbis Michael White, Laura Novak Winer, Eric Yoffie and NFTY advisor Kiki Kamenetz inspired me – really moved me – to rethink youth engagement holistically. Can’t wait to talk to youth advisor, rabbinic intern/educator an lay leaders about the inspiration.

7. I felt reached out to, heard, befriended. Of course, being older and more secure may have spurred me to be more open.

8. Continued to revel, by comparison, about my Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA), a healthy, musical, non-dysfunctional, forward thinking, tech-enlightened, partner-filled community, led by talented, non-egocentric leaders. I am so blessed to be part of them.

9. Great music at convention: Jewish Panorama Jazz Band, Shades (New Orleans Interracial Gospel Choir), others. Showed how the arts can bring Jewish experience to new heights.

10. Worship that inspired me, allowing me moments of transcendence and immanence, to converse with the Source of All.

11. A program committee which wove Torah learning, community engagement, and practical rabbinics with small group interactions, fabulous speakers (Peter Beinart and Ammi Hirsch, Peter Block), music and few talking heads. I tip my kippah to you.

Bravo also to the whole CCAR national staff for listening, supporting, and challenging us all.

More to write and process and think about and meditate upon and ask more about… But that’s for later.

New Orleans: 10 Things I’m Looking Forward to Doing

The rabbis of our Reform Movement gather in New Orleans for an annual convention to study, to reflect, and to explore the intersection between Jewish tradition and our daily lives. Being in New Orleans, home to the most devastating hurricane in recent American history, presents an added challenge: how does Jewish tradition respond to the continued dislocation and poverty of many thousands of New Orleans residents?  What responsibility do we have for the care and rejuvenation of this city and it’s population?  I look forward to grappling with these, and many other, significant issues.

In addition, I would list these as my top ten things I am looking forward to doing in New Orleans:

  1. Reconnecting with Colleagues and making new friends
  2. Listening to great jazz, blues and gospel music
  3. Further exploring Jewish involvement in community organizing
  4. Discovering what has been done to rebuild New Orleans and grapple with our American responsibility for it
  5. Reviewing how our community responds to interfaith families and couples
  6. Learning some thought-provoking Torah
  7. Walking the alleys and byways of New Orleans
  8. Raising some much needed new funds for the CCAR
  9. Deepening some of my rabbinic skills
  10. Contemplating the Holy One
  11. Learning about the growth of progressive Judaism in Israel

Or 11 top things…

I’m excited to be there.

Rabbis Gather, This Rabbi Kvells

I’m up in San Francisco for the Central Conference of American Rabbi’s convention. 460 Rabbis plus spouses/partners are together in the famed Fairmont Hotel for study, chevruta (friendship), social justice and prophetic pronouncements.

Many are sharing the struggles of their communities as they make their way through the deep recession. Many talk about the infighting that has marked the challenges.

I just listen, and kvell.

Kvelling about a 13th year Bar Mitzvah celebration we just concluded, filled with an inspirational Friday night Bar Mitzvah service, a fun-filled Bar Mitzvah adult Gala party (few talking heads), and a Sunday morning kids party. I’m kvelling about the montage of 13 years of Or Ami. I’m kvelling about the great article in the Acorn about our sacred work.

We all have struggles. I’m proud to be part of a community that scheps nachas along the way.

Jerusalem Post on the CCAR Convention

The Jerusalem Post carried an article on the upcoming CCAR convention. It read:

More than 300 Reform rabbis from North America will convene in Jerusalem this week for their annual rabbinical conference, seeking to bolster the tiny Reform Judaism movement in Israel. The six-day event, which opens Tuesday, aims to strengthen the liberal movement’s ties with Israel and build bridges to its religious and secular communities.

Although Reform represents the largest denomination of American Jews, the Orthodox establishment has a virtual monopoly on religious life in Israel, where both the Reform and Conservative movements are largely marginal.

The Reform movement in Israel operates 24 congregations, which, like the Conservative movement’s synagogues, are not recognized by the state, and do not receive state funding.

“The fact that the largest Jewish community in the world still has not recognized Reform rabbis and Reform Judaism’s institution of learning is something that must be fixed,” said Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and political arm of Reform Jewry in Israel. “I want to see liberal Jews around the world break their silence and make their voice heard,” she said, adding that “there was not much room for hope” within Israel on the issue.

The gathering of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which will also focus on Arab-Jewish relations, will include a intra-religious study session with members of all streams of Judaism, and an east Jerusalem tour with “Rabbis for Human Rights,” a fringe group which is most widely known for their vocal opposition to the demolition of illegally built homes in east Jerusalem.

The conference will include addresses by both Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, as well as Labor MK Ophir Paz-Pines.

Religious Jerusalem city councilmen from both Shas and United Torah Judaism, which are part of Barkat’s wall-to-wall city coalition and view Reform Jewry as anathema, declined to comment Sunday on Barkat’s scheduled address at the conference.

The event will also include the inauguration of the group’s president-elect, Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus, who leads a small congregation in Homewood, Illinois. Dreyfus, 57, will become the second woman to head Reform’s rabbinical assembly.

The annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which is the representative organization of nearly 2,000 Reform rabbis, takes place in different cities around the world, with Jerusalem serving as host city once every seven years.

The last time the conference was held in Jerusalem was in March 2002, when more than 200 Reform rabbis came to Israel at a time of rampant Palestinian suicide bombings.

“To return to Jerusalem and Israel for our conference every seven years is an important symbolic statement for our movement in terms of our connection to the State of Israel,” said Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback of Los Altos, California, a participant in the conference who is relocating to Israel this year to head the Hebrew Union College’s year in Israel program.

“If Reform and Conservative Judaism want to stay alive in the world, they must take root in Israel,” Hoffman concluded.