May, 7 2021
Rabbi Aaron Weininger
1. We don’t have to go searching for some magical place to feel alive and connected.
2. It’s important to play with time, when time often plays with us.
3. Shabbat comes every week.
My sabbatical was supposed to begin in Israel. My brother Dan was being ordained as a rabbi in Jerusalem, and the timing — at the end of December — was set to coincide. But Omicron hit and Israel’s travel ban was reinstated. After two failed applications and an exceptions committee review, my family was denied entry. The allowance for beauty contestants to fly from all over the world to Israel, flocking to Eilat, created a jarring picture of priorities in, well, a jarring world. Too bad I thought. I didn’t apply for the Miss Universe pageant.
Like we did for his wedding earlier in the pandemic, our family watched Dan’s ordination ceremony on Zoom. It was bittersweet. We felt his Torah beaming through the screen, felt buoyed by these new Masorti rabbis, and felt wrapped by an immense sadness. The Zoom screen flashing “unstable connection” only reinforced my own feeling: connected and not, missing this milestone and excited for am yisrael. Hey, I thought, I’m on sabbatical. I’m supposed to feel untethered, able to do anything! But there was the reminder, that to feel alive and connected meant feeling all of the above— all of life’s feels seeking attention. There was no magical place to be but in the moment.
As Covid worsened, other travel plans were upended. I didn’t make it to Israel at all and instead planted roots in new communities and cities I’d visited but never lived in. I had thought about spending part of sabbatical in Madrid, where my grandparents lived as a young couple when my grandfather was in the US foreign service, a rare assignment for Jews, right after World War II. But in Spain’s place came— for a long stretch— Seattle. There I felt the rhythms of a regular yoga practice, the thrill of skiing, the access of the Seattle Public Library, and best of all: connection. There was time with dear friends and meeting new friends who became chosen family over meals, devouring fresh pizza at the Ballard Farmers Market, holding onto scents and tastes of local bakeries, and taking walks that went nowhere and everywhere.
As I got to play with time and play with friends, I realized no one else was on sabbatical! And life didn’t stop for anyone. Life was changing for one of my dearest friends whose entire family was a huge driving force to come to Seattle. She responded selflessly to a parent’s illness, unplanned and unpredicted, that meant we had less time together. But they were exactly where they needed to be and holding onto life as it was calling them. In the last minute nature of one of my sabbatical changes, a rabbinic colleague and her husband opened their family’s home to me during their vacation. They became extended family, as I would return to hang out on Saturday afternoons with them and their kids. Another colleague had an open door policy to just hang and relax and make her backyard another home where I could lose track of time with her high school teens. A new friend — a Jesuit priest working at a local university— became a trusted confidant for wonderful, rich conversations on life across faith lines. And a friend from a Collegeville Institute writing workshop held months before the world turned upside down, helped make so much turn right side up — from touring the bustle of Pike Place Market to exploring the old Jewish neighborhoods and important social change work in the city.
My learning deepened through different pursuits online and in person. I started taking virtual guitar lessons and signed up for Zoom Mussar classes, a practice of Jewish ethical character traits, that has become embedded at Adath. I started with the Mussar Institute’s Virtual Kallah in January, that drew over 100 participants here and in Israel. For several months on Zoom, a small cohort of LGBTQ rabbis and educators learned from and offered a queer critique of a Mussar curriculum through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. And as I sat at a kitchen table, housesitting for new friends, I studied Gemara and the role of judges with Svara, a queer yeshiva, with the teacher in Jerusalem and students across the US. I found a study partner for several weeks through the Center for Contemporary Mussar, basing my learning in the same curriculum that has guided many of our Mussar classes at Adath.
And in person, I felt grateful for opportunities that I didn’t know would come to be. Text study and professional skills development filled several days in Baltimore with forty rabbis at the Rabbinic Training Institute (RTI) sponsored by JTS, and I flew to Los Angeles to celebrate with Rabbi Kravitz and Cindy as Rabbi Kravitz became the president of the international Rabbinical Assembly. The Hadar Rabbinic Intensive gave me the time to absorb three uninterrupted days of yeshiva-style learning with rabbis and cantors in New York, and I built in time with my parents and sister and grandmother in Westchester without feeling rushed to be anywhere else but with my family. The same felt true in other places, letting go of time with friends and/or their kids who are like nieces and nephews. The Institute for Jewish Spirituality alumni retreat felt spacious: prayer, the study of Jewish mysticism, and movement, mornings and afternoons spent in silence, gave permission to be with time rather than control it. Throughout it all I continued writing and my work on the editorial committee of the new weekday version of Siddur Lev Shalem, aimed to elevate daily prayer in synagogues, day schools, and summer camps. I didn’t get to all the destinations, but where I grounded myself I found beauty and frustration and newness in the ordinary. That made sabbatical time holy time.
I found the joy of davening with different Jewish communities— sometimes being asked to lead davening but also confronting my own complex relationship with prayer, quietly, in pews much like where each of you is sitting today. I was able to get outdoors in nature, so much the source of my spirituality, alone and with others. Many locals questioned my winter choice of the Pacific Northwest, but I loved noticing the different climate. I traded snow for rain and our two winter options— cold and colder— for temperate and overcast. To make me feel at home, Seattle hit record lows my first few days in December and a few inches of snow paralyzed the city for a full week. Frustratingly I couldn’t move very far. But that meant I couldn’t move very far from the stunning beauty of Queen Anne’s cobblestone streets turned into a winter wonderland. Still I got to hike and lose track of time amidst lush green trees that clipped gray sky, and drive hours for a simple overnight by the undisturbed Washington Coast. My feet planted in the sand and shifted to the will of the Pacific tide.
Returning home to Minneapolis in April, I was saved the last blast of a long winter. I returned to a landscape that looked eerily the same as it did when I left in December. Despite that, it is really good to be back. I couldn’t have taken sabbatical without the support of Rabbi Kravitz and Hazzan Dulkin, our remarkable staff, and our lay leaders who recognize the importance of the clergy taking a step back for renewal and learning — and for the system to adapt and grow in healthy ways as a result.
Last Monday I returned to a rhythm I love. I was leading Havdalah for our preschool kids in the Gan. We were talking about the sadness of saying goodbye to Shabbat and doing so with fire and grape juice and spices. I asked the kids if they thought we’d ever get to have Shabbat again. One of the kids, true to form, shouted “No!” But an older kid quickly jumped in, like a bat kol, a heavenly voice. “Rabbi, Shabbat comes every week. Don’t worry.”
They’re both right. No two Shabbatot will ever be the same, but Shabbat does come back again and again. Shabbat is in some ways a mini sabbatical for all of us, a chance to feel the holiness, the difference, of not being beholden to the same patterns. That we can play with time when time often plays with us. That in stepping back we don’t become untethered. The responsibilities of life are always present. But we can better appreciate our ordinary routine when we lose track of time a bit, when we get to play with it differently. We eat differently. We dress differently. We talk differently. We live in community differently.
Sabbatical is not always the trip to Madrid or Israel we imagined. Sadly sabbatical was not the high point of a brother’s ordination I’d been looking forward to for years or an Omicron-free existence. Because life is often not the — fill in the blank — that we thought it would be. As soon as we start writing life’s script, the editing begins.
We’re reminded as much in Parshat Kedoshim, when Leviticus 19 opens to tell us “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy…” only to be followed in the next verse …Keep my sabbaths, I the Lord am your God.”
The pursuit of holiness, framed as “you shall” captures the imperfection of life’s pursuits. Of never fully “achieving" whatever the “it” is — holiness, serenity, untethered reality. The commentary in Etz Hayim says, “To be holy is to be different, to be set apart from the ordinary.”
The great Italian commentator Sforno teaches hundreds of years ago that the plural use of the word Shabbtotai/sabbaths means that it’s not just the Shabbat of creation as we know it each week. But we’re meant to keep many different ways of rest: the rest of the land, shmittah, and the release of money owed, and of course what we’re doing in this sanctuary today. He reflects,
ואת שבתותי תשמורו שלא על שבת בראשית בלבד הזהיר אבל על כל מיני השבת שהם שבת בראשית ושבת הארץ ושמיטת כספים המעידים על חדוש העולם.
Perhaps we add sabbatical to that list. Sabbatical was set apart from the ordinary to appreciate the ordinary. I got to feel alive and connected and play with time differently, wherever I was. And return here, and return to Shabbat.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches in his famous work, The Sabbath:
“The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.”
As I leave the world of sabbatical, I will try to be more attuned to the holiness in time that it gave me. And I hope for each of us:
We don’t have to go searching for some magical place to feel alive and connected.
It’s important to play with time, when time often plays with us.
And that Shabbat comes every week. Shabbat Shalom.
How a Dermatologist Views Tzara'at and What Parshat Metzora Teachers Us About How We React To Those With Skin Disease
Dr. Mitch Bender
A word from Rabbi Kravitz regarding his recent installation as President of the Rabbinical Assembly:
Dear Adath Jeshurun Congregation:
Thank you for all of the kind notes and acknowledgements I have received from so many members of our community. Sorry that the livestream from the LA synagogue was problematic, making it very challenging to those who tuned in.
The in- person event was lovely. Attached are my remarks, which include my sincere appreciation for the support of our congregation. I look forward to being able to share with you the experiences I will have in my new volunteer role in the coming two years. Thank you for your support and engagement that gives our congregation a well deserved positive reputation in our global Movement.
Rabbi Harold J. Kravitz
Max Newman Family Chair in Rabbinics
Installation RA President Rabbi Harold J. Kravitz
Los Angeles, CA
March 29, 2022
Thank you Jacob. I am grateful to be installed together with Jay, Gesa, Aaron, and Annie and an outstanding group of volunteer leaders who will serve as our RA Executive Council. How special it is to be honoring Stewart Vogel and Debra Newman Kamin as we conclude our Annual Campaign and appreciate Phil Scheim who chaired it so ably. We wish Phil and Stewart refuah shelamah. It is especially moving for me to be installed in Los Angeles, where I began my rabbinic education at what was then the University of Judaism. Rabbi Dorff, words do not capture what it means to Stewart and to me that you could be here this evening. You, and the faculty you assembled at the UJ, set us on this path. You must be wondering, what has the world come to that Harold Kravitz and Stewart Vogel are serving as Presidents of the Rabbinical Assembly. I think the same thing.
Phil, Stewart, Debra- there is so much we have had the privilege of doing together to get us to this point. Thank you to Bill Gershon and Phil who supported Debra and me as we co-chaired strategic planning. Deep thanks to Sheryl Katzman who became our partner in 2017 in co-chairing its implementation. We are now blessed to have Sheryl serving so effectively with Jacob Blumenthal and Ashira Konigsberg, along with our entire superb staff team, as we move into our future as an organization. I invite the staff to stand up if you are in the room, or online. Thank you Ilana Garber who started as a member of the planning implementation team and now serves on the staff.
Before I say more about that, I want to take this opportunity to thank my shul, the Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnesota, where I have served as a rabbi for 35 years, the only place I have worked since my ordination by JTS. The support of our staff team, soon to be led by my rabbinic colleague Aaron Weininger, has made it possible for me to dedicate time and attention to the RA as well as Hazzan Joanna Dulkin to serve as Executive Vice-President of the Cantors Assembly. We are fortunate to serve an outstanding synagogue whose volunteer leaders are generous in recognizing that we have responsibilities beyond our institution and appreciate how our staff thereby grow as leaders to bless our congregation.
Of course, the most important person in this room supporting my professional and volunteer work is my cherished life partner, Cindy Reich. Cindy, your wisdom has long benefited the Jewish educators with whom you have worked nationally, but our Adath Jeshurun, MAZON, and the RA have also been enormous beneficiaries of your wise guidance to me at every turn. Thank you, Cindy, for your love and support that makes this possible and for always encouraging me to be my best self. Shout outs: To my sister Cynthia, also a Rabbi Kravitz, who I can call at any time to talk about nothing. To our kids, Elana, Talia, Gabe and Yael, who like every child of clergy have put up with having to share their parents with the community, and yet have always displayed grace and a sense of humor about it.
Sorry if this is starting to feel like the Academy Awards, but after all we are in LA the week of the Oscars. Before the music starts playing and I get escorted off, there are some observations I want to make about the work that lies ahead for our Rabbinical Assembly and for our Conservative/Masorti Movement.
In December, Jacob, Ashira and Sheryl invited me to New York to speak in person about my agenda as President for the next two years. I welcomed that opportunity, but responded that the priorities we needed to talk about were ours and not just mine. Our goals and priorities for the coming years are built on the hard work we have done with the wise counsel of Liz Solms and Marie McCormick and the staff of Insyte partners, as they guided us in listening and learning as widely as possible, for which we are profoundly grateful. It has been extraordinary to see the way our staff, our volunteers and so many of our members have come to embrace those strategic goals.
When we started working on that plan in 2015, we knew that there was much troubling our Conservative/Masorti Movement. But we also recognized that if we were ever to be able to take on those greater challenges, we first had to work on ourselves as an organization. Though that work is not done, and tomorrow we will launch the next iteration of strategic planning chaired by Aaron Brusso and Lori Koffman, I believe the RA has reached a point where we are poised to address the broader challenges of our Conservative/ Masorti Movement and I am optimistic about what we can achieve together.
Engaging Jacob as our Chief Executive was an important step in advancing our vision. Jacob builds on the outstanding efforts of distinguished RA professional leaders who came before him including Wolfe Kelman z’l, Joel Meyers and Julie Schoenfeld, may they be well, all of whom were important teachers to me along the way. It was quite unexpected, after we completed that very successful hire that USCJ President Ned Gladstein, whose presence we welcome here this evening, would propose the idea of sharing Jacob as CEO of our two organizations. I confess that my gut reaction was to think – “I don’ wanna share him!” Ok, I got over it and we saw both boards display true courage in taking that bold step. Thankfully that occurred before the pandemic and it surely contributed to our responding so effectively to this plague whose impact we will long be facing.
That step of aligning, not merging, but aligning our two organizations has had other benefits I could not have imagined. Leaders of our RA and of our USCJ now meet monthly in a Joint Steering Committee with a growing respect, appreciation and trust for each other that at one time would have been unimaginable between our organizations. As Stewart said, the purpose of those monthly meetings is always focused on an essential question, “What can we achieve together, for the benefit of our Movement and the Jewish people, that we could not achieve on our own?”
I am convinced that very good things will continue to come from this alignment of our organizations. I now look forward to seeing what could be accomplished if the 23 independent organizations of our Movement would work in greater alignment to advance our distinct approach to Judaism. This can only happen when our primary focus is not on how we each protect our positions, or our particular institutional interests, and focus instead on how we can advance our fundamental missions and our unique Torah.
Even within the RA we experience these challenges of diverse interests and views of what is undoubtedly the broadest tent of any rabbinic organization, both religiously and politically. At our best we, as an RA, can model what it means to be in caring relationships with each other, even when we fundamentally disagree. I see that as our sweet spot and the world is in desperate need of those who embrace that central space and serve as models of its enduring value.
While in rabbinical school, I had the privilege of taking a class with the RA’s long-time professional leader Rabbi Wolfe Kelman z’l, as he was nearing the end of his career. I recall him telling us that with every controversial issue our Movement ever faced, people predicted that this or that would destroy the Movement! He clearly took pride in the fact that we were still at it. I believe that we can honestly face our most challenging issues. If handled thoughtfully and with care this will invigorate us, not destroy us.
As I have been preparing for my new role, I have been reaching out to as many people as possible to listen to them and will do my best to continue that practice. Permit me to share one such conversation I had with Stephen Arnoff of the Fuchsberg Center in Jerusalem. I raised with him examples of challenging issues I believe we need to be able to talk about as an RA and as a global Movement, such as our approach to intermarriage, and perhaps even more challenging, how we relate to Israel and to Zionism. I described them as our third rail issues, sources of significant conflict. Stephen responded to me wisely saying, “But Harold, the third rail is where the energy comes from. A third rail can electrocute, or it can electrify. It is in tapping into the third rail that we can find the energy to move forward.” I so appreciated his observation and I am committed to having us discuss what we perceive as our third rail issues in ways that are respectful of each other, with the hope we will do so from a place of curiosity, humility and kindness.
Our parasha this week is Tazria, a rabbi’s nightmare to speak about, as it recalls matters of purity and impurity and the diagnoses of the skin disease tza’ra’at. This group knows well that our sages turn this challenging section into a powerful discourse on the corrosive effects of La’shon Hara, the misuse of words. As we learn from our teacher Avtalion in Pirkei Avot 1:11-
“Sages be careful with your words חֲכָמִים הִזָּהֲרוּ בְדִבְרֵיכֶם”
We, who are so adept at the use of words, are well served by being always mindful of the power of words to harm and the power of words to heal. It seems to me that there are times we are our own worst enemy, when we employ too harsh judgment and nasty critique of each other. Our rabbis understood the power of our words to create realities and so they cautioned us, “be careful with your words הִזָּהֲרוּ בְדִבְרֵיכֶם.” While being honest about our need for hard conversations, I ask that we use our talent with words for hakarat hatov to recognize the good of each other and of our Movement in Judaism, to champion our strengths and not disparage each other. Let us start with curiosity, empathy and humility, discerning our way forward with kindness.
The strength of Conservative/Masorti Judaism has always been our emphasis on the importance of community and the centrality of Jewish peoplehood. That means making a commitment to each other that our relationships, and the many values we share in common, are more important to us than our differences. I look forward to the conversations that lie ahead, whether it is about how we structure ourselves for the future, about the differences that exist between us, or about our views of essential issues that may vary based on how, where and when we have experienced the world. I look forward to these important discussions and hope that they can be conducted with humility and with kindness and with a commitment to our shared values as a Conservative/Masorti community.
I deeply believe that we are well poised as a Rabbinical Assembly to go forward in serving our members, our global Movement, our Jewish people and our world. Thank you for the trust you place in our volunteer and professional leaders to be good partners in that work. Let us truly be strong and find strength from each other. Hazak, Hazak v'Nitchazek. Amen.
Adath clergy, staff and congregants share