UAHC Biennial Address - Boston
Dr. David Ellenson, President
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
December 6, 2001
week ago, Rabbi Eric Yoffie and I had a telephone conversation concerning
the speeches we would be delivering at this Biennial. Little did
I realize at that moment how the events of the past week were about
to unfold so as to change the content and tenor of what I am about
to say to you tonight. However, when terrorist bombers killed twenty-five
innocent civilians in Jerusalem and Haifa, I knew that I myself
would have to fly to Jerusalem. I needed to be with our 62 Year-in-Israel
students who are so bravely affirming their solidarity with the
people of Israel by electing to study in the Jewish State as they
prepare for their careers as servants of the Jewish people. I also
knew that as a result of these events my own remarks tonight would
have to be altered.
While I have just arrived in Boston only hours ago, I hope -- despite
the weariness and dislocation I am experiencing at this moment --
that I will be sufficiently coherent to outline a vision for you.
It is a vision of the education that we, at HUC-JIR, are providing
our students as they embark upon their lives of service in an uncertain,
dangerous, yet ever-hopeful world.
At the very outset, I want to thank the UAHC for granting me the
honor of addressing you tonight. It is a privilege for me to be
here on an evening where we have already honored Ben Steinberg of
Toronto for his musical efforts that have elevated the souls of
our people for decades. It is also a special privilege to have the
opportunity to speak on a night where we will later honor the memory
of Rabbi Alexander Schindler, a great leader of our people and our
movement. Rabbi Schindler always inspired and challenged us to fulfill
the highest and most humane elements of our tradition by actualizing
them through deeds in the world. As we prepare our students for
their careers as professionals, I am proud of our students= commitment,
in the deepest recesses of their being, to the people Israel. I
only hope and pray this commitment continues throughout their careers
and that the ethos that informs the education we at the College-Institute
provide our rabbis, cantors, educators, and communal workers will
prove worthy of the example Rabbi Schindler established for us all.
It is in that spirit that I bring you greetings from our students
and youth in Israel. These students include not only our 62 students
in the Cantorial, Rabbinical, and Education programs who are studying
in their foundational year at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem. They also include
23 Israeli students who are currently enrolled in our rabbinical
program at the Jerusalem campus, as well as 20 of our North American
teen-agers who are now attending the Eisendrath International Exchange
Program this year in Israel.
During the last 36 hours, I have been with all these students,
and with the staff and teachers who are so devoted to them. Their
strength, resilience, courage, and commitment to receiving the most
meaningful Jewish education possible are qualities that inspire
me with awe. I admire their determination to apply that education
so that guidelines can be created for the future direction of Jewish
life. It is with great respect that I respond to their love for
Judaism and all the positive messages and sentiments our religion
can teach. I am confident that they will become k'lei kodesh
-- holy vessels -- who will help to guide and lead the Jewish people
as we move into a new secular century.
As I left Israel, one of our first-year rabbinical students gave
me the following poem. I would like to share parts of it with you,
as the words it contains capture the mixed feelings of despair and
confidence so many of us feel at this moment. The late Israeli poet
Yehudah Amichai authored this poem, entitled, "Adam B'chayav, A
Person In His Life." The poem reads: "A person during his lifetime
doesn't really have enough time, enough time for everything. A person
doesn't have season enough to have a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes
was wrong when Ecclesiastes asserted that there's a time and purpose
for everything under heaven."
"For a person sometimes needs to love and to hate at the same moment.
To laugh and to cry with the same eyes at the same moment. With
the same hands at times one needs to throw and cast stones. And
at the same time, perhaps, one needs to gather them. To make love
during a time of war. And war during a time of love."
This poem speaks to us precisely because its ambivalence captures
the nature and mood of the world in which we live. We live in a
moment where it is very difficult to know precisely what the nature
of our response needs to be to the reality we now confront. Since
the horrific events of September 11th that brought such hatred and
death to our American shores, and certainly for the last year and
a half in Medinat Yisrael, the challenges posed to our people
and to all humanity have been immense. Our desire to affirm unequivocally
that the world is a good and safe place has been challenged. Ours
surely is a time where life and its currents are terribly complex,
and it is not possible to provide an easy answer that would indicate
precisely how one navigates through the shoals of such a world.
And yet, when I reflect as President of HUC-JIR upon the demands
of how it is that we are required to educate the professional leadership
for the Jewish people, the message that lies at heart of our Jewish
tradition remains enduringly clear and relevant. I believe that
this vision is that of Covenant. We must continue to have this biblical
notion guide and inspire us as we strive to have the values of Jewish
tradition speak in a relevant and humane way to the challenges and
the dilemmas of our time.
Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of our movement in the United States,
championed the importance of this ideal when he asserted, almost
150 years ago, that the concept of Covenant constitutes the essential
teaching that comprises the very core of Judaism. In his 1857 prayer
book, "Minhag America -- The American Custom," Rabbi Wise
granted liturgical expression to the centrality of this ideal for
Judaism when he emended the first paragraph of the ‘Amidah,’
The Prayer par excellence in Jewish tradition, to read, "V'zocher
brit avot - O God, Who remembers the Covenant (brit)
made with our ancestors," in lieu of the more familiar, "V'zocher
hasdei avot - O God, Who remembers the loving deeds of
Of course, Rabbi Wise was not opposed to the fact that our ancestors
had performed wondrous and good deeds on many occasions. However,
he felt that it was not appropriate that we rest upon the merits
of the deeds performed by others B even our mothers and our fathers.
Rather, Rabbi Wise desired that God and the Jewish people recall
that a Covenant was established with our ancestors and that we Jews
today, no less than our ancestors in generations past, are called
to covenantal responsibility by the God of Israel -- Who asks that
we serve as partners with God in forming and establishing the world.
It is this vision of covenantal responsibility that invests fragile
and weak human beings, who are constantly prone to error, with a
divine sense of dignity. For God views us as shutafin (partners)
in the tasks required to mend the world. It is this vision of Covenant
that we in the Reform Movement assert lies at the very heart of
Jewish religious tradition. It is this notion that provides for
an ideal of freedom and responsibility that animates the educational
endeavors we undertake at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute
We at HUC-JIR teach that the ideal of Covenant of course possesses
a personal dimension. We believe that the Covenant is addressed
to each and every one of us as an individual person. Each and every
one of us is called at this moment and is assigned a task by God
to bring goodness into the world. Each of is challenged personally
to see to it that mitzvot are performed, to strive for the realization
of kindness, grace and mercy -- hein, hesed, v'rahamim -- in the
However, it is equally crucial to remember that the concept of
Covenant does not speak only in individual terms. Rather, the notion
of brit asserts itself collectively as well. We affirm a notion
of Covenant that indicates that we also stand as part of a people,
and that we stand in dialogical relationship with other members
of the household of Israel.
Hence, as we educate students at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish
Institute of Religion, we hope that they will come to internalize
the memories imposed by Jewish history, and that your future religious
leaders and teachers will affirm Jewish peoplehood and Jewish solidarity
as the core values of their vocational tasks. We hope that the knowledge
that they will acquire at HUC-JIR will transform them into people
who will be worthy of the covenantal tradition that all of us have
inherited, and that all of us ultimately are called upon to transmit.
At HUC-JIR, we attempt to teach our students that they are part
of a great narrative that has its origins in a magnificent and inspiring
past. One day long ago our people stood at Sinai, and God established
there a Covenant with the Jewish people. This Covenant unites the
generations. For we are neither the first generation of Jews, nor
will we be the last. We delude ourselves if we think that we bear
no responsibility to that chain of tradition that began at Sinai.
At the same time, we are mistaken if we believe that fidelity to
the past absolves us of responsibility in the present. The notion
of Covenant requires that we be mindful of both past and present.
It also demands that we understand that ours is a responsibility
that extends into the future as well.
Hence, we teach our students about Sinai. We teach them words of
Torah, hopefully in love, so that they can bring these words alive
and translate them into guidelines. These guidelines will cause
them to perform ma'a'sim tovim - good works that will direct and
inspire the lives of the people and the communities that they will
one day serve.
We also teach our students about the destruction of the First Temple
in the year 586 B.C.E. by the Babylonians. They learn that the Jewish
people, confronted then by unprecedented tragedy and loss, did not
surrender hope. Those Jews established institutions that allowed
them to adapt creatively to the demands imposed by a Baylonian Diaspora.
Years later, remnants of that people, under the leadership of Ezra
and Nehemiah, returned to the Land of Israel where they reestablished
a Second Temple. And from that time until our own, there have been
two centers of Jewish life -- one center located in Israel and a
second in the Diaspora. Yet, we teach our students that our people
are one, whether we are found in Eretz Yisrael or in the Diaspora.
We teach our students of how the Covenantal story of the Jewish
people was made manifest in the first century of the Common Era
through the heroism and ingenuity displayed by Rabbi Yochanan Ben
Zakai. After Horban bayit shani, after the destruction of the Second
Temple, Ben Zakai was able to say to the Romans, ATen li yavneh
v'hacha'mehah - Give me Yavneh and its sages." In so doing, he was
able to save the Jewish people, and his creativity allowed Judaism
to survive and adapt to a Diasporan existence for the next 1800
years. His model of courage needs to become theirs.
We further teach our students about the emancipation, which came
in the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe and the United States.
They learn how the leaders of those days responded to their own
sense of Covenantal imperatives by creating the great movements
of modern Jewish life B Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist
varieties of Judaism as well as Zionism.
As our students acquire this knowledge and internalize the texts
and history of what it is to be a Jew, of what it has meant to stand
in Covenental responsibility before God, they also acquire other
memories. They learn that there were and are moments of unspeakable
distress and horror that our people have had to confront. We therefore
teach them about the Shoah, perhaps the saddest moment in the entire
history of our people.
And yet, at the same time, we do not forget 1948, the year that
the State of Israel was established. Another great teacher in our
movement, Rabbi Chaim Stern, who passed away recently, has perhaps
best captured the meaning of that moment for our people. Rabbi Stern
was a liturgist of great note and we owe much in our "Gates of Prayer"
to him. In the GOP service for Israeli Independence Day, Rabbi Stern,
like Rabbi Wise before him, altered a benediction in the ‘Amidah.’
In the second blessing, Gevurot, of that prayer, we in the Reform
Movement generally say, "Praise to you, O God, Who sustains all
life B m=ha=yei ha-kol.@ Rabbi Stern substituted the traditional
wording for this prayer, and concluded it by stating, APraise to
you, O God, Who resurrects the dead B m'ha'yei ha-meitim." In so
doing, Rabbi Stern gave voice to the religious significance the
Jewish people assign the reborn Jewish state.
For 1800 years our people lacked sovereignty. Our glories were
many throughout our years of dispersion B but our sadness was pronounced
as well. We Jews who live at this time and place are mindful that
we have been privileged and blessed beyond all measure because we
have borne witness to a miracle, the rebirth of our people in our
ancient homeland. We thank God for the activities of those people
who saw to it that Jewish sovereignty was restored and a Jewish
state reestablished in our lifetime.
As we at HUC-JIR educate our students -- your future religious
and communal leaders and teachers -- I want them to know all of
these people, and I want them to know all of these events. However,
I do not want them to know these things as a set of academic subjects.
Rather, I hope that they internalize these events and this knowledge
into their very being, as elements in the history and memory of
their people. At the same time, this knowledge should inspire them
to feel a responsibility to the past as well as give them the courage
to respond creatively in their own voices to the demands of the
present. Only in this way can the life-affirming values and enduring
beauty inherent in our tradition assure a proper Jewish future.
They should understand all this especially at a moment like this
-- a time where it is virtually impossible, as Amichai phrased it,
to think that there is a time and season for every purpose under
As I return from Israel on this day, I recognize that our students
possess and display a wide range of mixed emotions. However, the
overwhelming sentiment they express is one of confidence in the
Jewish future and the role that they will play in it. I say to you
with no hesitation that we are training a generation of Rabbis,
Cantors, Educators, and Jewish Communal professionals who, steeled
by adversity, will surely be among the greatest and strongest Jewish
leaders our people has ever produced. They display a love for the
Jewish people that is absolute and uncompromising. They are learning
what it means to be worthy of their chosen vocation as future leaders
of a Covenantal people.
In concluding, I would read to you the words written over half
a century ago by Rabbi Leo Baeck in his inspirational work, "This
People Israel." There Rabbi Baeck writes the following:
"Every people is chosen for a history, for a share in the history
of humanity. Each people constitutes a question which God has asked.
And each people in its deeds and in its actions must answer."
"But more history has been assigned to this people Israel than
to any other people. God's question speaks stronger here. The word
of the one God has penetrated this people from its beginning. For
when the commandment of God awakes in human beings freedom also
opens its eyes and where freedom commences history begins. A difficult
task has been assigned this people in history."
Yet it is a task that we at Hebrew Union College and in the Reform
Movement embrace -- and it is a challenge that I am confident we
According to the classical Jewish liturgy, when the priests, the
kohanim, bless the people with the traditional Aaronide blessing,
they recite the following blessing: "Praised are you Adonai our
God ruler of the universe, Who has made us holy with the holiness
of Aaron, And Who commands us to bless this people Israel in love."
So once again I would say that our covenantal tradition reminds
us that human beings who are weak, frail, and subject to error of
all types are nevertheless endowed and blessed by God with a sense
of dignity that allows us to be partners with God in the very work
of creation. My hope, my prayer, my confidence is that the Hebrew
Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion will perform its role
in the ongoing history of our movement.