CCAR Chief Executive Rabbi Hara Person: CCAR Convention 2024 Address

The first half of this week’s parashah, P’kudei, sparkles. There’s blue, purple, crimson, silver, gold, copper, lapis lazuli, linen, stones, and metals, pomegranates and bells, ephods, and breastplates, all in service of divine worship. It’s breathtaking, inspirational, a gorgeous description of the people at their best, joined in service to Adonai. Just as Adonai had commanded Moses, so the Israelites had done all the work. And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks—as Adonai had commanded, so they had done—Moses blessed them (Exodus 39:42–43). All those colors and glittering items—it’s a breathtakingly beautiful picture of community building and hope for a new future.  

P’kudei is a parashah about beauty and sparkle, but it is also about change: how to set up a new system, how to plan for the future, how to do it right and well, how to manage change from one reality to the next. Once the items are all in place, as the parashah continues, the work of managing the practices of the Priesthood begins. The Israelite people are in flux, transitioning from one kind of existence to another—there are new rules and processes to learn.  

This dual narrative of change, of great inspiration and hope paving the way for the detailed project management of the priesthood, feels familiar. We became rabbis because we were motivated to serve, because we were inspired by a rabbi who made a difference in our lives, because we want to make a difference. We had a Moses in our lives who galvanized and blessed us. Our motivations are divine; but when the real work begins, it’s often not so pretty anymore. There is great purpose, but often, also great strife. The elevated striving for holiness that once called us is intertwined with the nitty gritty of the everyday, the processes and rituals that make up the quotidian, grounded nature of our work. We sometimes struggle to remember why we do what we do.  

We are living in a time of tremendous change and upheaval, of challenge and loss, but also opportunities for growth and the creation of new models. Of course, many of your communities are healthy and highly functional; but in some places, we are seeing a misalignment of expectations and goals between rabbis and leadership. We are seeing greater conflict between rabbis, and between rabbis and lay people. We are seeing the corporatization of congregations that often creates a situation in which rabbis are treated as commodities, and sometimes even as easily disposable. The result can include burnout, resentment, a questioning of career choices. And none of this is happening in a vacuum. As our colleague Shirley Idelson recently articulated, “Most congregations, and nonprofits in general, just weren’t designed for the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity, polarization, and pressures of our world today.”  

I’m pleased to share that we are taking significant steps institutionally to address some of these challenges. I’m not going to promise that it’s all going to get miraculously better or that it will happen quickly. We know that culture change takes time. We are early in the process, so I don’t have a lot of details yet, but I am very grateful and encouraged by the willingness of my partner and friend Rick Jacobs and his team at the URJ to enter into deep, difficult conversations about what we can to do address these challenges systemically. The ACC is also part of this work—and let me take a minute to welcome our partner, Cantor Seth Warner from the ACC, who is here as our guest—thank you for joining us. These challenges affect us all, and we will be more effective working on them together.  

Another new initiative related to these challenges is a recently created working group, chaired by Ron Segal and Elyse Frishman, on retiree/successor relations and congregational transitions. The goal of this group is to help rabbis and congregations with intentional and healthy leadership transitions, so that if and when there are conflicts, they can be productively addressed. This working group is currently in a study phase and will be launching their work in the next year. You will hear more about both of these generative and hopeful initiatives as they move forward. 

I’m going to prod and push a bit today, not because we are not all doing great work already, but because there is more to do, always more to do. And with the bird’s eye view that I have of the rabbinate, I want to urge us all to be aware of our role in this tension between change and statis, so that we can keep growing and evolving. In the midst of external forces that challenge us, we still have a choice about how we respond. 

We rabbis cannot be so naive or hubristic to believe that all of this is on them—the congregations and organizations and lay people we work with or on the other rabbis we work with. I’m not defending bad behavior. The CCAR is committed to working with our Movement partners to enhance our mechanisms for dealing with these challenges. But there are situations in which we also have to take some responsibility—it’s rarely all on them.  

The role of the rabbi is changing, and we need to change with it. In a time of great flux and change, each of us must ask ourselves: “What am I doing to create an adaptive rabbinate? Am I learning to deepen my self-reflection skills? Have I taken a class in management, in supervision?  Am I being savvy, strategic? What tools do I need in order to be so? We each possesses our own individual rabbinic mishkan. It is up to each of us to bring to that personal mishkan the gifts and offerings that help with ongoing building. The CCAR offers classes and trainings to help move us out of statis into growth, and there are other places to turn to as well, such as HUC-JIR’s Z-school. Some of us can learn in person at a local university, while others will find an online course. Maybe a coach is the way to go. Whatever the path, it is incumbent on each of us to keep learning and growing and expanding our rabbinic toolkit.  

Change is needed in other areas of our rabbinic lives. How we speak to each other as colleagues matters. For God’s sake, and I literally mean for God’s sake when I say that here to you, can we not do better with each other? Please do better. Please. We need to model menschlichkeit. We need to show the best of what a rabbi can be. Yes, we are sometimes caught in the crosshairs of projection and transference from those we serve. But that is not a license to model similar bad behavior in our interactions with one another. Think about new rabbis just starting out and what kind of picture they’re getting of rabbinic interaction on our Facebook page. Frankly, the amount of time that Erica spends, that I spend, that our moderators spend, managing bad behavior on Facebook is ridiculous, and when we spend time managing Facebook behavior, it means we’re not spending our time serving and strengthening CCAR rabbis.  

There are other ways we need to keep changing as well. CCAR may have been in the forefront of culture change by passing a resolution in 1990 from the Ad Hoc Committee on Homosexuality and the Rabbinate stating, “The committee urges that all rabbis, regardless of sexual orientation, be accorded the opportunity to fulfill the sacred vocation that they have chosen.” But just because openly gay and lesbian rabbis were allowed to join the CCAR and go through Placement didn’t mean the door was held open with welcome and warmth. A door can be unlocked and still be slammed in someone’s face. We know how difficult it was for gay and lesbian rabbis to find positions, especially in the early years, and to be treated and mentored appropriately, to be trained for success. In 2024, gay and lesbian rabbis are among senior rabbis of major congregations throughout North America, as well as solo pulpits and in every other swath of the rabbinate. But we can’t pat ourselves on the backs for that. Today, we face additional changes in our rabbinic landscape, with the ordination of trans, nonbinary, and gender-fluid rabbis, as well as rabbis who are Jews of Color. And though some are finding positions, some of these new (and not so new) rabbis are not getting hired. It is our job—your job—yes, those of us here, to change the narrative. It is upon us to hire, to mentor, and to supervise with respect and equity. It’s not their problem, it’s our problem. We cannot abandon these rabbis and the Torah they bring to our community.  

While I’m on the subject of ordination, I want to acknowledge the work that HUC-JIR has been doing in creating new ordination certificates and ritual around that. Though I believe that we earn our s’michah every day in the field, regardless of who signed it and regardless of the language used within it, we are also people who appreciate the power of language, symbolism, and ritual. Receiving new ordination and/or a new certificate is profoundly moving to many. I want to thank and credit our colleague, Mary Zamore, who was the first to point out the gender disparity in our certificates, and to insist that something be done about that. Thank you, Mary, and thank you, HUC-JIR, for being responsive.  

The ongoing work of revising our ethics system continues every day. With the conclusion of the work of the Ethics Task Force, led by Nicki Greninger and Amy Schwartzman, we are currently working on a two-year implementation timeline that includes voting later this spring on new changes to the Code, with additional changes to be presented next year. Tom Alpert, as chair of the EPRC, is doing tremendous work on these Code changes along with committee members. Some process changes that did not require a vote are already in place. Having just spent a few days in a retreat with the Ethics Committee, I am so impressed with the seriousness and thoughtfulness that imbues the work of the committee, with huge gratitude to outgoing chair Ana Bonnheim and incoming chair Loren Filson Lapidus. You should also know that, every year, an ever greater percentage of our budget goes into managing an always evolving ethics system, something we should be proud of, even as it presents a serious financial challenge.  

I can’t mention every committee or task force chair, and every committee or task force member, every contributor to a book or solicitor for the annual campaign, everyone who has served on an IGT or TRaC team, for a wonderful reason, which is that roughly 600 members volunteer for the CCAR, in one way or another, each year. Please hear my gratitude and appreciation; each and every one of you makes a difference.  

I must say a word about CCAR President Erica Asch, who is not only an amazingly thoughtful board president, but who has also become a friend and trusted advisor. While we were together in Israel in November, someone called us Harica, and we’re both now very proud to go by that name. I am also indebted to the rest of the board, whose commitment to the well-being of the CCAR and our members, is really incredible. Thank you, thank you.  

We also have an amazing and committed staff at the CCAR, and none of what we do would be possible without them. I am grateful to our Rabbinic Ethics department, David Kasakove and Cara Raich, for their commitment to our mission of continual improvement, compassion for all, and greater efficiency. Thank you to the CCAR Press, which continues to bring us important resources and meaningful content, led by Rafael Chaiken, with Annie Villareal-Belford, Debbie Smilow, Chiara Ricisak, and Raquel Gallie-Fairweather. Thanks to Tamar Anitai, our Director of Strategic Communications, who juggles so many platforms and projects in order to enable us to communicate with you and hear from you. We have a fantastic team in Rabbinic Career Services, with thanks to Leora Kaye and Alan Berlin, assisted by Rodney Dailey, who have transformed our service both to CCAR rabbis and to employers. Thanks to our Development team, led by Rachel Perten, who just joined us in January, and is assisted by Samantha Rutter and Sarah Stern, their hard work helps us offer so much to you. Laurie Pinho, our COO and CFO, is the CCAR magician who holds us all together and somehow makes it all work, and for that I am extremely grateful, with thanks also to Jaqui Dellaria, who assists Laurie. I would not be able to function without Rosemarie Cisluycis who not only is a fantastic assistant, but also makes me laugh when I really need it. And of course, tremendous thanks for Betsy Torop and Julie Vanek for the incredible work they do creating programming all year round and for working with an incredible convention committee to put on this tremendous production for us all. This year, Betsy and Julie turned on a dime and put in untold additional hours, creating programming to respond to October 7 and its wide-ranging impact on each and every CCAR rabbi, while simultaneously still running the existing programming they already had planned. That was and remains truly remarkable. Thanks too to Ariel Dorvil, who works with Betsy and Julie all year long, and is here to assist Laurie behind the scenes this week. I am grateful to my mentor and friend Steve Fox, who is always there when I need him, and not there when I don’t; what more can you want from an emeritus. Everything we do at the CCAR is truly a team effort, and I am very grateful for the privilege of working with this amazing team. When you see any of the CCAR staff over the next days, please thank them. And if you haven’t met a staff member before, please introduce yourself. 

There’s a lot about the work we rabbis do that doesn’t sparkle. Hope can be elusive, and so much of our work is downright hard and even painful. And it has gotten so much harder since October 7. The joy we anticipated in celebrating Simchat Torah, the post-chagim relief and break that we badly needed ripped away. The pain of waking up on October 7 and knowing that nothing would ever be the same, not for our Israeli family, friends, and colleagues, and not for any of us.  

As soon as I could, on October 7, and then into the weeks that followed, including during the November and January trips we took to Israel, I would speak to our Israeli colleagues, trying to provide solace and support. And so many of them asked me, how are you doing? How are our American colleagues managing? At first, I was surprised, because of course we weren’t the ones who had been attacked on October 7. We weren’t the ones sending off our beloveds into harm’s way. We weren’t the ones doing, as one Israeli colleague told, more funerals than she’d ever done in her whole career. But it was a compassionate question that spoke to how we were all in this together, albeit in different ways. And it’s true—those of us serving outside of Israel have been in the trenches dealing with unprecedented levels of antisemitism and hate in the last months. In stark contrast to the beauty of P’kudei, you’ve been dealing with the ugliness of antisemitic graffiti, bomb threats, death threats, the fear of physical violence, protests, hate-filled messaging. Security has been ramped up at your synagogues, on your campuses, at your institutions, and in some cases, at your private homes. We have all lived with the threat of violence in a new way since October 7. The feelings of isolation and abandonment by our former allies has been especially painful. And so many of you, despite all of that, have risen to the challenge of this moment not by responding to hate with more hate, or violence by more violence, but by trying to be your best thoughtful, compassionate, strategic selves, being there for those who need your reassurance, building bridges where possible, and trying to walk a very fine line between your love and concern for Israel and the imperative to continue engaging with diverse local communities. I have great admiration for the ways in which you are navigating this time, and know how hard it is.  

Honestly, and if I may get a bit personal, it’s been an excruciating time for me as well. What I needed to do on October 7 was very clear—to reach out to Efrat Rotem and Ayala Samuels from MARAM, as well as our other Israeli colleagues, and offer support, to provide you with resources, put out a statement in support for Israel and the hostages, arrange opportunities to process, and coordinate with our Reform partners here and in Israel. But every morning since October 8, I’ve woken up thinking: who am I going to disappoint today? We’ve signed on to too many statements, and not enough. We’ve said the wrong thing, or not said enough. We’ve done too much, and too little. We’ve been too far left, and too far right. It’s exhausting.  

We, the Jewish community and even more explicitly, the rabbinic community, are allowing ourselves to be pulled apart by a false binary in which words are stripped of nuanced meaning and have become empty slogans. Even our collectively diverse and cherished identities vis-à-vis Israel have been turned into cudgels on the one hand and epithets on the other. There are so many ways to be Zionist, pro-Israel, and pro-peace, none of which ought to be mutually exclusive. We must not give in to the impulse to behave as if a person whose Zionism does not look like mine, whose support for Israel doesn’t look like mine, whose criticism of Israel doesn’t look like mine, or whose peace advocacy doesn’t look like mine is my adversary. Chevrei, we must not turn each other into enemies when we have a real enemy out there; we must not react to our children as if they are our enemies, when our real enemies are outside knocking at the door. The moment we are living in is not a binary reality. We can and indeed we must disagree. It’s important to listen and learn from each other, even when, or perhaps, especially when, there is so much at stake. Who among us possesses absolute truth? In this time of complexity, we have to develop a tolerance for not having all the answers. We have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable with ideas and perspectives that challenge us. We are stronger when we can listen with open hearts to ideas that may feel wrong and even dangerous—either we will learn something important, or we won’t; but either way, we remain in conversation.   

We are a rabbinic organization, and that has been our focus point these past five months. Since October 7, our job has been to support our rabbis in Israel and the Israeli Reform Movement. It is perhaps a narrow lane, but it is our lane. And we have been busy in that lane, sometimes visibly, and sometimes quietly behind the scenes. We have provided financial and emotional support for our Israeli colleagues, including making available the services of our on-staff counselors, Don Rossoff, Dayle Friedman, and until he retired, Rex Perlmeter. The CCAR has been to Israel twice since October 7, spending time with our Israeli colleagues, with leaders of the Reform Movement, and with both North American and Israeli HUC-JIR students, showing our love and support for them, and seeing Israel at this moment through their eyes. It has been powerful, meaningful, and heartbreaking. We have studied together, we have prayed together, we have cried together, and yes, sometimes even laughed together. And that has been the point—to be together, to find the points of connection even where we may disagree. In this moment, what ties us together matters more than what separates us. (And by the way, we are already planning our next trip with our travel partner J2 for next January. Save the date.)  

Last February in Tel Aviv, I stood in front of you and spoke about the complex texture of my lifelong relationship with Israel. I’m not going to rehash what I’ve already said except to say again that Israel is in my bones, it’s in my heart, it’s a deep part of what makes me who I am. Last year, I said that Israel is a place that will break your heart, and today I will say that again, and add also that today my heart breaks for Israel.  

This war needs to end. And the hostages must come home. It certainly seems like we need a strategic solution, not a military one. I’m not a military expert, nor a statesperson, but I am a Jew, a rabbi, and an ohevet Yisrael. Because I love Israel, I worry about the long-term costs of this war that seems increasingly unwinnable—the cost to Israel and its people, to the Jewish people worldwide, and to the Palestinian people. Because I love Israel, I worry that we are getting further and further away from a viable future that makes any sense, further and further from a future that is in any way aligned with the values we espouse when it comes to all other things we care about.   

Let us ask ourselves: How can we support Israelis, our friends, our family, our colleagues, while not supporting the most right-wing government in the history of Israel? How do we walk that tightrope? Our colleagues and our Movement in Israel are fighting against this government every day; we must not abandon them. Opposing this government is a battle for Israel, for our MARAM colleagues and the communities they serve, for the Israeli Reform Movement, and for our cherished values. Please understand that this is not about simplistic morality, it’s about love for Israel.  

Next month we will read in the Haggadah:  

At the very hour that the Egyptians were drowning, 
the angels wanted to sing before the Holy Blessed One. 
God said to them: 
“My children are drowning in the sea — 
yet you would sing in My presence! 

The angels watch as the Egyptian soldiers plunge into the sea behind the Israelites. Their hearts full of thanksgiving, they yearn to sing of triumph, a release from pain and oppression.  

But God interrupts, reminding them that the Egyptians too are God’s children. Asking the angels to feel empathy for their enemies goes against their every impulse. If the angels had difficulty not taking pleasure in the suffering of their enemy, how much harder this is for us humans. To complicate matters, Rabbi Elazar posits that while God does not rejoice in the deaths of the wicked, God does cause us to rejoice. God recognizes that we are not divine. As humans, when we are hurt, there is a natural impulse to desire retribution. And yet, God’s example to take no pleasure in the suffering of others presents us with a challenge: to hold ourselves to a higher standard.  

To be human, created in God’s image, is to struggle, against all evidence to the contrary, to recognize the humanity of all God’s creatures. If God can see the humanity in all people, how can we not also aspire to do so? If God is pained at the deaths of all God’s children, we too must push ourselves to feel the pain of others, some of whom are our enemies, some of whom have caused unspeakable horror, but some of whom are innocents: children, women, the elderly.  
At our seder tables next month, we will rejoice as a people in our ongoing survival, generation after generation, despite those who would seek to destroy us. We will celebrate our communal freedom, and we will pray for the freedom of our people still held in captivity. We will focus on the “us-ness” of our story, that which makes us unique as the Jewish people. At the same time, we are invited to be God’s partners in responding to the pain of people who are not us, but are still God’s children. This is a difficult task, but if this is God’s struggle, shouldn’t it also be ours?  

These are not easy days—not locally, not nationally, not in Israel, not around the world—and hope is hard to find. As a rabbinic body, no matter where or how your serve, we have no lack of rethinking to do. The givens we used to be able to rely on about our work, about our communities and our institutions, about Israel, about Jewish identity, are no longer relevant. With so much change and transition around us, we need to create new pathways and new models that will inspire and bring blessing upon us and those we serve. And indeed, we can find inspiration and right here in our midst. What incredible hope I see in the many CCAR rabbis who have traveled to Israel—whether with the CCAR, with our Movement partners, with your federations, on other rabbinic missions, and leading your own—to be present, bear witness, to volunteer, to stand in solidarity with Israelis. I see hope in the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who overnight turned their activism against a corrupt and ineffective government into creative and meaningful ways to serve their fellow citizens in a times of crisis—in agriculture, in hastily put together volunteer organizations, in situation rooms, in their kitchens, with their washing machines. Above all, as CCAR members, we can find hope in our MARAM colleagues and IMPJ leaders who have joined us here in Philadelphia and who will soon return to the communities they lead and serve. Exhausted though they must be, they continue to work tirelessly, to serve their own communities and to help colleagues whose communities are displaced. Even as they have comforted the dead, consoled the bereaved, and prayed with the injured, they have led their communities in prayer and in protest. Let us draw inspiration and hope from one another, this gathered group of colleagues from around the world, as we go forth from these days together, ready to build a compelling Jewish future—in Israel, in North America, and throughout the world.