imagine that not many people can say their first
act as a rabbi was to become a father. But I can.
In his Ordination Address, Rabbi Ellenson spoke
about ordination as a personally and spiritually trans-
formational experience. Having worked and studied for
the last five years (or seven counting the Jewish Non-
profit Management program and eleven counting my
time taking classes at HUC-JIR as an undergraduate at
USC), I had long imagined the awesome power of this
day and spent a great deal of time considering what it
would mean on a personal and spiritual level to take
on the mantle of rabbi. What I didn’t know as I sat lis-
tening to Rabbi Ellenson’s words that morning, was
that my wife, then nine months pregnant, was sitting
twenty rows behind me quietly entering the beginning
stages of labor.
Our beautiful son, Ilan Theodor, was born at 11:19
PM. In keeping with the Jewish theme of the day, he
measured 6 lbs. 13 oz. and 18 inches tall. Everyone was
healthy, happy, and incredibly tired after spending an
entire day in what can only be described as an extended
state of great joy. To think that my time at HUC-JIR –
where I met and fell in love with my wife, during our
studies in the School of Jewish Nonprofit Manage-
ment, engaged in soul-stirring learning, and grew as a
leader of my community – would end with the birth of
my first child, on the day of my rabbinical ordination,
seems as if it was somehow pre-determined.
On the morning of the day Ilan was born, I stood
with Rabbi Ellenson, wrapped in a
I had bought in
Jerusalem during my first year of rabbinical school, as
I was welcomed as a rabbi among the Jewish people.
On his eighth day, Ilan was wrapped in that same
as he entered the holy, age-old Covenant between God
and the Jewish people.
A Rabbi’s First Act
Rabbi Heath Watenmaker, SJNM ’06, L ‘11;
Reform Outreach Rabbi, Hillel at Rutgers University
ames are believed to hold great power;
changing a name can mean a change of fate.
Indeed, the following two names have, in a
way, altered the course of my own path.
At our arrival to Ker Daouda Cisse, we were welcomed
with song and dance by the whole village. To officially
bring us into their community, individual villagers
came up to each one of us and gave us the gift of their
African name. Mbai, a village leader, found me, and for
two weeks I became a part of his family. Mbai is kind,
hardworking, and full of laughter. Relative to his fellow
villagers, Mbai is wealthy. This means a large family
compound, which consists of a courtyard with a floor
of sand, surrounded by bedrooms, each made of con-
crete bricks and with corrugated tin roofs. Some had
windows, and some had solid doors (instead of ragged
curtains), but none had screens or malaria nets. Mbai
and the other villagers live a rich, communally ori-
ented, and cultured life. And yet, Mbai and his
community live in a constant struggle for survival
against poverty and the elements.
One day, an adorable little six-year-old boy seemed to
adopt me as a surrogate parent. In a year, Solulo will
begin learning at the elementary school, where close to
children may be packed into one of the village’s
three classrooms. Senegal’s education system is de-
grading, with a shortage of paper and pencils, and
well-trained teachers a scarce commodity. When asked
why they wanted electricity, the villagers responded that
they wanted lights in their homes so the children could
study at night. What the adults of Ker Daouda Cisse
want is a better life for their children.
Many of us on the trip came to Senegal looking to
learn about impoverished Sub-Saharan communities,
where people live on less than one dollar a day, and
the NGOs that seek to ameliorate and empower them.
We hoped to learn more about ourselves through texts
Tostan, the grass-roots NGO that hosted us, is
but one of the more than 350 grassroots organizations
in the developing world that is funded by AJWS. It has
helped this community and many others by running an
education program that effectively teaches human
rights, literacy, and professional skills. Through com-
munity-led development in the local language, they
have also helped implement sustainable follow-up pro-
grams, and have been quite successful in ending
female genital cutting. Additionally, Tostan is responsi-
ble for significant improvements in child and maternal
In addition to helping build a classroom, our group
studied texts from across the tradition. As we explored
questions addressing our circles of responsibility, we
determined that we have an obligation to those who
live beyond our community borders. We studied texts
that command us not only to give, but also to loan and
better enable those in need of aid.
Ultimately, we learned that the best way to help
them – the Mbais and the Solulos – is to empower them
to make a better life for themselves.
A Name and a Journey
David Vaisberg, NYSOE ‘10, N ‘12,
David Vaisberg recently returned from a trip to Thies, Senegal, with American Jewish World Service (AJWS), where he was one of twenty
rabbinical students volunteering in the village of Ker Daouda Cisse and studying Jewish and academic texts relating to poverty and giving.
David Vaisberg with the children of Ker
Daouda Cisse during his American Jewish
World Service rabbinical student mission
Rabbi Heath Watenmaker; Amy Watenmaker,
SJNM/MSW ’06, DeLet ’09, and their son Ilan.