Imagine having to make this decision: to fly home to hold your wife’s hand as she buries her mom on the West Coast or to remain on the East Coast to oversee the diagnosis and care of your mother who just had a major stroke. What would you do?
You should also send your rabbis, educators, cantors and youth professionals to Jewish summer camp for their benefit and for the benefit of your congregation. Why?
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.
It is easy to condemn the views of others. We Jews particularly need not be afraid or enraged when someone makes theological claims that challenge our views. Unlike extremists in other religious groups, Jews allow for every argument about and with God.
I faced just that situation when a rabbi I did not know called a recent Torah commentary I wrote a “chillul Hashem” (an action that disgraces, harms or shames God).
On March 1st, the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles printed God’s Road Rage, my Torah commentary on Ki Tisa. Arguably edgy, with a few lines that I would edit out in the future (“There God goes again, getting pissed off!”), the commentary makes a theological claim that was sure to make traditionalists uncomfortable: that God is not perfect, but learns and grows and changes.
In response, Conservative Rabbi Robert Elias (Knesset Israel of Hollywood) wrote:
Describing the Almighty as a terrible tot, throwing temper tantrums and much worse, is shocking and unworthy for the author and the publisher. If this is the God [Rabbi] Kipnes believes in, why become a rabbi? Why bother to pray? Why stand up for the Torah?
If you were in my shoes, would you dismiss the critique as theological fundamentalism? Or would you want to defend your position?
Here’s what I did:
Upon receiving the comments of Rabbis Elias, whom I did not know, I did what any thinking person should do when confronted by those who seem offended by my comments: I picked up the phone and called. Then I met for coffee with Rabbi Elias.
Rabbi Elias and I spent over an hour, talking, getting to know each other, speaking about our families, our lives and careers. We talked about the ideas, which he found so offensive – mostly the theological claim that God is not perfect – but equally the way I couched the idea within the article. We shared the fact that we both believe deeply in God, and that we love the multifaceted nature of Torah. We agreed to disagree on this God concept.
As I hoped, the conversation became a learning opportunity to bridge the theological gap, explain perspectives, and perhaps build a connection Jew to Jew, rabbi to rabbi. That’s how Jews disagree and yet remain one community.
I thanked Rabbi Elias for agreeing to meet. He said he was surprised to hear from me, and thanked me for picking up the phone to talk about his concerns.
I apologized that my words so offended him. He suggested that I include those words in my response to the Jewish Journal. And so I did.
As I concluded my response to the Jewish Journal:
We encounter [those who disagree with us] with thoughtfulness to discern where there might be truth that we overlooked. I believe in God with all my heart, soul and might. And I humbly apologize to those for whom my words offended their understanding of God.