Rabbi Harold Loss was celebrated for marking 50 years in the rabbinate.
Rabbi Harold Loss was celebrated for marking 50 years in the rabbinate.

This year’s CCAR convention, “Strengthening, Connecting, Reimagining,” turned out to be one of the best.

Oh, how I was looking forward to breakfasting on beignets at Café du Monde in New Orleans, wandering the streets of the French Quarter and sampling sweet pralines and fiery hot sauces last month at the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ (CCAR) annual convention. Alas, it was not meant to be.

The Reform Rabbinic convention that was originally scheduled to be held there from March 14-17, like everything else these days, became a virtual one as a result of the COVID-19 virus. But despite missing out on the excitement and delicacies that NOLA has to offer, this year’s CCAR convention, “Strengthening, Connecting, Reimagining,” turned out to be one of the best.

Rabbi Marla Hornsten
Rabbi Marla Hornsten

Through the power of technology from large Zoom webinars to smaller workshops, from an app called Remo, which allowed us to feel as though we were mingling in the hotel lobby, to gathering in breakout rooms, we studied together, connected with old and new friends and revitalized ourselves — body and soul — just as we would have had we been together in person.

More than 700 Reform rabbis attended at least a piece of the program, which was a new record for our conference. Plus, we had a large Detroit contingent in attendance! To accommodate the time changes throughout the country (and the world), we started each day at 11 a.m. Eastern time and filled practically every hour with different sessions, interactive discussions, tefilah, business meetings and healing breaks. One morning, there was even a rabbinic Peloton ride and another, a JOGA session (Jewish Yoga and Kabbalah) led by our own Rabbi Paul Yedwab.

Being together with so many rabbis from the Reform movement reminded me of the importance of this kind of gathering. It helped me to recognize that we aren’t alone in dealing with the crises this last year has wrought; that we’ve all been struggling with many of the same issues, some weighty and some mundane, such as the technical difficulties we’ve all seen during this pandemic (why is it so hard to get folks to mute during Zoom services?); and how we have always supported each other, and must continue to do so, through this. That’s what the CCAR does, and it’s what we did during those four days. Though it’s hard to spend so much time on the computer, I left feeling renewed and reinvigorated.

Highlights of the Convention

Looking back over the programs, for me, one highlight was the keynote address on Sunday afternoon by Isabel Wilkerson, the author of the bestselling book Caste, and then following it up the next day with a smaller workshop called “Bringing it Home: Exploring the Caste System in Our Communities.” It was absolutely eye opening.  

We are quick to attribute caste systems to other countries, but she helped us to recognize that the same kind of system exists here in the United States. As she explained: “Caste focuses on the infrastructure of our divisions and the rankings, whereas race is the metric that’s used to determine one’s place in that.” Caste, rather than racism, is a better definition, and I was surprised to learn that the concept of race didn’t exist until 400 years ago, as an American invention.

For the rabbis in my breakout room, being able to engage in deep conversation with colleagues about caste and race was incredibly powerful, and all of us left inspired to bring the conversation home.

That same kind of inspiration pervaded the conference, though not always on such a serious level. Starting out with Havdalah on Saturday night and a totally entertaining performance by comedian Liz Glazer, the fun continued the next night as our chief executive, Rabbi Hara Person, invited us into her kitchen to demonstrate her family seder recipes.    

Class reunions are always a blast, and this year we honored our colleagues for 50 and 51 years in the rabbinate, including our beloved Rabbi Harold Loss, who is celebrating 50 years this year. And on a more somber note, we remembered those who had passed away in the two years since last we met.

Like every conference, we always say the convention is less about the place we gather or the actual program and more about the people. This year, it was all of the above. Engaging from my home and dressed in my PJ bottoms, while still learning from colleagues and connecting with old friends, certainly made this convention one to remember.

I just wish that I could have had an authentic New Orleans beignet with my coffee!  

Rabbi Marla Hornsten is a rabbi at Temple Israel. She is a member of the CCAR and served on the planning committee for the CCAR Convention.