In ‘turbulent times,’ 500 rabbis look for ways to resist and cope

A Torah scroll is read during the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in Atlanta on March 20, 2017. Photo courtesy of CCAR

(RNS) The rabbi feels she is running on a hamster wheel, a wheel built by President Trump.

In the weeks since his inauguration, Trump has given progressive-minded rabbis much to resist and counter, and it’s exhausting, said Andrea London, who with more than 500 other rabbis is attending the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in Atlanta, which ends Wednesday (March 22).

Rabbi Andrea London of Temple Beth Emet near Chicago. Photo courtesy of Temple Beth Emet

“We focus on anti-Semitism. We focus on Islamophobia. We focus on the travel ban. And what about health care? It’s the feeling that  Trump is throwing so much stuff at us,” said London, who leads Beth Emet The Free Synagogue — a congregation near Chicago.

“He’s got us all on our hamster wheels. It doesn’t always feel like we’re being terribly productive even though we’re incredibly busy.”

CCAR, the rabbinic group of the largest stream of Judaism in North America — designed a conference to help London and other rabbis in the progressive-minded Reform movement better manage their growing workload.

Among the issues that confront them:

Anti-Semitic incidents have been rising in the U.S. in the past few years, and many Jews and others fault the Trump administration for only belatedly calling out anti-Semitism, and for failing to explicitly denounce those who have heralded his election as a victory for white people.

And Jewish and Muslim groups have banded together in unprecedented ways in recent months as mosques and Jewish institutions have been targeted.

Such interfaith solidarity and social action is a particular focus of CCAR this year.

“An Ethics of Social Justice and Repair: Values and Strategies” is one session on the four-day schedule where rabbis will be taught the activist skills many of them seek to hone. The rabbis can also attend “Prayer and Spiritual Resistance,” and “Living Out a Racial Justice Campaign in Your Community.”

Rabbi Mona Alfi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento, Calif. Photo courtesy of Melanie Mages-Canale

Rabbi Mona Alfi said she is looking forward to co-facilitating a Wednesday session on how a congregation can establish itself as a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants, something her own synagogue, B’nai Israel in Sacramento, Calif., has done.

For Alfi, the rise in crimes against Jews and Muslims is one both groups better  confront together.

“What my community is concerned with is not just the uptick in anti-Semitism but the uptick in xenophobia and the ostracizing of particular groups,” she said. “Now is the time to strengthen the bonds between different faith groups and different ethnic groups. That is the strength of our country.”

The conference this year is especially heavy with nationally known speakers who can offer perspective on the current events preoccupying the rabbis and their congregants, said Rabbi Steven Fox, CCAR’s chief executive.

Dana Bash, CNN’s chief political correspondent, opened the conference Sunday and NAACP President Cornell William Brooks will also address the group, along with Southern Poverty Law Center President Richard Cohen.

But Fox also knows that the increased demands on rabbis in the current political climate also necessitates more time for them to take a break to think, pray, and talk at the conference — in both formal sessions and informal gatherings.

Rabbi Steven Fox is the chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which is holding its annual conference in Atlanta from March 19-22, 2017. Photo courtesy of CCAR

And that is why Monday’s program included a session called “The Inner Experience of Being A Rabbi in Turbulent Times,” which was led by CCAR’s special adviser on wellness.

“We want to provide spiritual sustenance to our rabbis so that they in turn can provide spiritual leadership and sustenance to their communities,” said Fox.

And then they will delve back into difficult topics, such as Israel and its relationship to the Palestinians, which also gets significant billing on CCAR’s four-day agenda, including a session called: “Creating a Culture of Dialogue on Israel.”

The politics of the Jewish state and the U.S.-Israeli relations divides some Jewish communities, with many in the Reform movement taking a critical view of what they consider Netanyahu’s wavering commitment to a future state for Palestinians.

Rabbis want to learn more, Fox said, about leading civil and productive conversations on Israel in their congregations.

Not all Reform rabbis at CCAR are satisfied with the tenor of the conversation at CCAR.

One, a pulpit rabbi from a Southern state who finds great fault with Trump, said it still isn’t wise for CCAR to appear — however unofficially — as an anti-Trump association, even if the great majority of its rabbis feel the administration is doing great harm.

Though a quarter of Jews (24 percent) voted for  Trump — a lower percentage than any other religious group — that still leaves a considerable minority of Jews who did. Most Jewish Trump voters tend to affiliate with Orthodox and other more traditional streams of Judaism, but some belong to Reform congregations.

There are people in our pews who are Trump supporters, and we need to remember that, said the rabbi, who asked not to be named to avoid straining relationships with colleagues.

It’s problematic because it follows the perception that Reform Judaism is the Democratic Party with holidays,” the rabbi said.  

About the author

Lauren Markoe

Lauren Markoe has been a national reporter for RNS since 2011. Previously she covered government and politics as a daily reporter at the Charlotte Observer and The State (Columbia, S.C.)


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  • Hmm. An interesting conference and an interesting story. But you have to wonder about this situation in which a Reform rabbi clearly has good advice for the entire conference, but is scared stiff of attaching his real name to that advice, “to avoid straining relationships with colleagues.”

    Maybe there are some real problems within Reform Judaism, that were there long before Trump arrived on the scene.

  • absolutely….like a female rabbi. I can think of no scripture on it, but I don’t believe it is appropriate.

  • It is good advice, something the Southern Baptist Convention has learned the hard way actually. There’s certainly polarization here but it’s not limited to Reform Judaism, or American Judaism for that matter. I’ve seen some recent inter-rabbinic email and Facebook threads on politics recently and they can get heated. I suspect other religious groups are experiencing the same thing, even when the majority view is switched. Just look at how Russell Moore and David Gushee are getting treated.
    The ironic thing is that Reform Judaism in the US began as a way of assimilating into the white Protestant culture that surrounded them. Many of its early practices, like clerical robes, pew seating, congregation-facing clergy, organ music, choirs, service almost entirely in English, were efforts at this. General cultural trends after World War II made Reform Judaism more liberal. However, at the same time, they re-embraced many of the rituals and customs they had previously discarded. You’ll notice many of the rabbis in the photo are wearing kippot (yarmulkes or skullcaps) and tallitot/tallises, the prayer shawls we were talking about a few months ago. Not even 40 years ago there were Reform synagogues that would kick you out if you showed up wearing that.

  • You can’t think of any scripture on it because there is none, something even the most ultra-Orthodox would be forced to admit. The permissibility of women rabbis is all about the force and authority of tradition, how tradition can become law, how tradition can be changed, when and why. Reform started ordaining women as rabbis in the US in the 1970s, Conservative followed a decade later. There are Orthodox groups today ordaining women as rabbis (but of course there are those who would say “No true Orthodox would have a female rabbi!”

  • Well said, Arbustin. And thanks for your helpful comment regarding the CCAR Convention…I am a 40+ year member of that organization and I miss being at the convention for many reasons.

  • I would be alarmed if any faith group were to function and administrate with utterly no contention, doubt, or internal difficulty. That would be truly alarming and a cause for concern.