Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
Director, Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service
I wish to acknowledge the accomplishments of our graduates, and correspondingly, to their parents and significant others, whose efforts over these past years are responsible for our presence here today.
When Alfred Gottschalk and Gerald Bubis first envisioned thirty years ago the concept of a formal training program for community professionals, no one could have imagined the impact of the Daniels School. Today, as the oldest Jewish communal service graduate program, the College-Institute can be proud of its 550 alumni who serve communities throughout the world. We regard the special relationship that has been created over these years with the graduate schools of the University of Southern California as an essential ingredient to this endeavor. This School's development has paralleled a generation of profound Jewish renewal and transformation. We take this occasion to recognize the School's contributions and accomplishments, as we prepare to embark on new enterprises.
The idea of celebration has always been central in Jewish practice. In this week's parasha Emor, we find in Leviticus the injunction: "These are the set times of the Lord, the sacred occasions, which you shall celebrate each at its appointed time." Our Torah portion speaks to the concept of "fixed times," prescribing appropriate observances.
The recognition of special moments in time also defines our tradition as a people. This year, we rejoice in the 100th Anniversary of the Zionist experiment, and the 50th year of the rebirth of our Jewish national homeland. In two years we will recognize the 125th anniversary of HUC-JIR, reminding us that this institution represents the oldest, continuous Jewish seminary in the world. Finally, in six years we shall mark the 350th anniversary of the Jewish presence on these shores.
As with so many events that we observe, we have come to anticipate at commencement exercises certain traditions including the standard graduation charge.
Let us for a moment assume that we have just heard such a graduation address. Such a presentation is likely to include these themes: point one, that graduation is not an end, but a beginning. Point two, as you begin your careers and life beyond these hallowed brick walls and from this tent, you are entering history's most critical times. And finally, as a result of the educational opportunities afforded you here, you have an obligation to impart to humanity the truths garnered from your HUC experience. Carry high the torch, and let not its flame falter.
Now, while each of these platitudes holds an element of truth, I would like to revisit each statement, examining the other side of the proposition.
Take a look at this first concept. " Graduation is a beginning." True enough, you are commencing from this place (and I would suspect for some of you galloping might be a more precise word). You have completed a course of study, and a definite chapter in your lives. Your academic record and fieldwork performance can not be changed. For some of you this must be an appalling thought.
The events of the past will not somehow unhappen. Being unprepared for Talmud class, turning in your education project late, or ignoring your supervisor's careful guidance in working with an important lay person, represent situations that have happened, and nothing you may wish to say or do, can alter this.
However, the meaning of these events can be appropriated. The past, then, need not be a noose around the neck of the future. The unfortunate incident in your Talmud course can remind you in the future when teaching or preaching how important it is that you are prepared. By producing school materials in a timely fashion, you as principal can avoid such a problem in the future. Working in difficult professional situations, you ought to draw upon the counsel of colleagues. Setting aside the triviality of these cases. There is nothing from the past that cannot be turned into creative use in the future.
Bringing together all forms of learning and knowledge should be a goal of education. The role of the College or any learning center has never been to create a finished product rather to challenge you to connect ideas and concepts. It has been our task to help you focus on how to think about a problem, employing both formal and informal tools of learning and introducing a multiple set of disciplines.
You have an opportunity here to extract what has been uniquely important to you in this graduate process. As we at the College have helped to shape your ideas and practices, so in turn your reflections on this course of study serve to inform the College-Institute's own quest to achieve academic excellence and to insure that we evolve as a religious community and professional training center. In seeking to establish a new vision, President Zimmerman commented that "we must see learning opportunities as complete, sacred and integrative experiences."
If in some measure the HUC experience has enabled you to gain new insights about yourself, develop a greater appreciation of the richness of the Jewish past, and has helped you to integrate your ideas and beliefs, then you and we at the College will have successfully seen your graduation as marking an end, a completion to this phase of your education.
Regarding the second of our three platitudes, namely, we live in an age of profound change. True enough, but some elements in this society are prepared to jettison all that is or represents the past. I do not hold to the notion that on the occasion when Adam and Eve violated God's commandment that Adam in an off-handed comment suggested to Eve "easy-come, easy go" but rather operating in the guise of a university professor, Adam gave a lecture on this occasion, which began, "My dear, we live in an age of transition." The outer trappings of the human saga may change but the ultimate nature of this story is a constant. It must be seen as the crisis of the human spirit, focused on such ideas as love, power, justice and truth in every age and for each human being. All people in history have had to grapple with evil, injustice hypocrisy and death. Our day and age has managed to magnify these problems, but only to magnify our ultimate problems.
Societies have always lived with the fear of the unknown and with the realities of change. Look at our prayer book, and what we come to recognize are the numerous references to the past, which are really longings for the future. "Chadesh yamenu Ke-kedem, renew our days as of old." We are instructed here to remember not for nostalgia's sake, but because the past is to serve as a reference for the future. Abraham Joshua Heschel reflected on this same idea of continuity and change when he wrote: "We own the past and are not afraid of what is to be." He goes on to suggest that "We are endowed with the consciousness of being involved...(for) we are God's stake in human history."
The word "religion" is derived from the Latin root, "religiare", meaning to "bind back" or to "link". Religion's relevance is uniquely tied to its community of believers, its hevra. The tension here is built around this critical balance between the application of faith with the realities of our times.
It is here, at the College-Institute, where you have had the opportunity to confront as well as to engage our tradition. It is here as well that you have been introduced to the principles and tools of leadership. As communal leaders, educators, and rabbis you will be confronted with the task of putting forth the content of Judaism to our constituencies as well as transforming the context of Jewish lives. You will be asked to help individuals confront the meaning of their lives in a world which has marginalized the traditional and the sacred.
Therefore, you will need to model a leadership of social consciousness and involve your congregations and communities in those covenental moments where Torah and Tzedek are inextricably bound. It is here where you must bring alive our prophetic tradition and transform the silence of the good people. You will be called upon in this context to pursue the social justice agenda by sustaining the concerns for human rights, insuring that women, including those within your own ranks achieve equity and recognition, and promoting the welfare of children and our elderly. Once again our tradition instructs us: "Blessed are you, O Lord, Ruler of all time and space, who put holiness into us through your mitzvot, and commanded us to involve ourselves in the words of the Torah."
You will be asked in your careers to deal with institutions bereft of vision and leadership and with synagogues unable to marshal their physical or human resources. Peter Drucker, reminds us that the core characteristics of leaders remain much the same as they have always been. Drucker lists a number of essential qualities; these include strong values, personal energy, infectious curiosity, a sense of history and past practice, and the ability to make one's followers feel good about themselves and the enterprise with which they are engaged.
You have the advantage of an additional benefit in being able to develop models of collaboration and sharing with colleagues and fellow graduates from different programs who will bring into your communities, synagogues, and agencies not only complementary skills but shared visions. As leaders, you will need to build professional and communal partnerships where the focus on team building replaces institutional competition and the cult of personality.
In reading your admissions' essays, I was struck by the similar and compelling themes evident in your own words regarding your personal goals and your individualized search for spiritual and communal wholeness. In a world bereft of Klai Kadosh, vessels of holiness, you represent the sacred.
The writer Rebecca Goldstein, in some measure reflecting on individuals such as yourselves, facing a variety of leadership responsibilities, suggests we adopt our own "mattering maps". She asks: "What do we regard as the basis of our sense of meaning, purpose and commitment?" In our terms this implies the framing of our own personal Jewish roadmaps of belief, practice and action.
At a point in time when so many are bereft of this sense of personal completion and communal connection and where change itself becomes the measure of people's lives, you must function as the keepers of the sacred, the creators of communities of meaning, as well as leaders of social conscience and institutional transformation.
Our third graduation platitude reminds us that because of the education you have received here, you have a specific obligation. Certainly I believe this. But education alone is not enough to save the world. As we well know, there is no correlation between education and virtue, or education and compassion. Attacking the problem at a different point. One does not come close to truth through study alone but rather through encounter. Truth is not so much something that is, as something one does. In Eastern philosophy it is defined in these terms: "It is the human being that makes truth great." In Jewish tradition it can be understood when Ezra the priest was called by the people to read Torah for them. But the text adds that the Levites were called upon to explain these words. Our rabbis ask why was this necessary. Was Ezra unable to sufficiently interpret the text? We learn from this that more is required than reading, that dialogue and discussion were integral to this process.
Joseph Ibn Kaspi, writing to his son in the 14th century, observes:"By gradual steps shalt thou rise to truth". This is not to suggest that there are no eternal truths. But concepts or ideas are almost irrelevant until we experience them.
For rabbis this may come in the form of providing counseling to a family whose infant child faces a life threatening illness, and the ethical choices are put before these parents, requiring you to provide insights on Jewish legal principles. Similarly, the graduates of our Rhea Hirsch School may be introduced to this idea when confronted with the abuse and safety of children or in the case of communal students when as future professionals you will be called upon to challenge lay leaders or your colleagues over social policies that could have profound impact on the welfare of the community.
"We are what we repeatedly do," cites Aristotle. He adds: "Excellence is not an act, but a habit."Herzl framed this best when he said: "A man's every act begins with a dream and ends with one." It is at these moments in our lives when the ultimate meaning and value of these historic and intellectual notions comes alive within us, as a part of our sense of self. Your professors have tried to share with you the framework in which these concepts can be examined, but the challenge remains with you to experience and to incorporate these ideas.
Each of these graduation platitudes, on their own, must be seen as valid propositions. Hopefully, however, you have begun to take a second look and can appreciate the fact that graduation is a beginning, but it is also an end, from which we can appropriate new insights and meaning. We do live in an age of profound change, but that it is a variant of the age-old process of change. And you as Jewish leaders will need to creatively join the insights of our tradition within the framework of transforming individuals, institutions, and communities and by creating sacred space. Further, while here at the College you have been introduced to the principles reflected in Jewish thought and communal practice, it is also the case that it is only through your professional and personal encounter with these ideas that they will hold profound significance and special meaning to you.
As with each magical and special moment in life, may this day and its meaning be forever with you. At this season of the year, we are reminded of each day and its significance by the counting of the Omer, those days that separate, yet join, Passover to Shavuot. In our tradition, we acknowledge, these occasions through ceremony and blessing.
It is also around these moments where our private and our collective thoughts come together. Rav Kook taught us that "each individual must first find himself within himself; then he must also find himself in the world about himself."
Copyright © 1998 Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
Most recent update 16 Nov 1998