Commencement Remarks Dr. Jane G. Pisano Senior VP of External Relations University of Southern California - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Commencement Remarks Dr. Jane G. Pisano Senior VP of External Relations University of Southern California

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Monday, May 3, 1999

HUC-JIR/Los Angeles 
Monday, May 17, 1999

Rabbi Zimmerman, Dean Barth, distinguished HUC faculty, USC faculty colleagues, graduates, families and friends:

I am honored to receive a decree today and delighted to become a member of the, HUC-JIR Class of 1999. 1 am also humbled by the prospect of addressing you today since I myself can no longer remember either what was said or who said it when I received my degrees!

Like all of the graduates here, I am thrilled that my family -- my mother, my husband and children -- are present and I thank them for a lifetime of financial, moral and emotional support. I especially thank my mother, Julia Schwartz Gallagher, for my Jewish heritage which is an important part of who I am.

This is a moment for you graduates that is both the culmination of years of effort and the beginning of new professional adventures made possible by the degrees that will be awarded today. Every degree that will be conferred this afternoon recognizes and values communities -- of faith, of place, of association. I want to talk today about community because you will spend your lives building, maintaining and sustaining communities. There is no more important calling for you and for our country.

The call to community is not new in American history. When Alexis De Tocqueville visited America in 1831, he observed the constructive tension between individualism and civil associations. Lauding Americans' propensity to associate, he wrote, "In democratic countries, knowledge of how to combine is the mother of other forms of knowledge."

Communities are, of course, the bridge between our private selves and our public lives. As such, they are the building blocks of society and democracy. John Gardner calls families and communities the "ground-level generators and preservers of values and ethical systems. " These shared values, nurtured in families, synagogues, churches, and schools, are essential to society. Individuals need communities to define themselves, to belong, to exercise the freedoms and responsibilities that are the essence of civilized society. I know you know this because Jews have always been urban people, living in communities in close proximity to the kosher butcher and to each other.

As the 19th Century gave way to the 20th and the 20th Century has come to a close, the communities of memory and communities of trust that De Tocqueville observed seem to be more objects of nostalgia than our contemporary experience.

Why? Technology enables the global village on the one hand and isolation disconnected from reality on the other. Economic prosperity enables philanthropy on the one hand and a widening economic, cultural and social gap between rich and poor on the other. Diversity enables cross-cultural understanding on the one hand but too often leads to racial/cultural conflict on the other. Mobility enables individual and corporate opportunity on the one hand but tends to reduce individual and corporate participation in civic life on the other. What sociologists call "social capital" is thereby diminished, along with trust in government and in each other.

I would like to share with you what I've learned about building community right here in University Park because I believe this central city experience can be replicated anywhere. For more than five years, I have endeavored, on behalf of USC and with HUC and other partners, to make this neighborhood a better place to live and work. I'd be the first to say that this is a work in progress but real progress has been made -- with positive consequences for us all.

We have survived riots, severe economic recession, and an earthquake. We have vanquished graffiti and greatly diminished crime. Two of our neighborhood public schools have become California Distinguished Schools which means they rank in the top 10% in the State. Virtually all graduating seniors at the two small public high schools nearby go to college (many to USC). And last year one of our local principals was named California Principal of the Year. Exposition Park has been transformed, thanks to generous public and private investment. In its first year of operation, the California Science Center boasted greater attendance than the Getty Museum. New businesses have opened. Our academic institutions are thriving.

All of this has happened in Central City Los Angeles. Together, neighborhood residents, community based organizations, academic and cultural institutions are transforming this neighborhood.

Let me describe it for you briefly. First, it's dense. Within University Park's 3.4 square miles reside 20,000 families; 70,000 people. Second, it's diverse. We are 54% Latino, 29% African American; 12% white; and 5% Asian. 44 % of us speak Spanish at home; 47% speak English. Immigrants, working poor, long time home owners, students, faculty and staff co-exist here. Third, it's an educational center. 16,000 children attend K-12 schools; 27,000 students attend HUC, USC and Mt. St. Mary's. Demographics, density and the widening gap between rich and poor make this neighborhood a microcosm of Los Angeles and present daunting challenges to our community.

Indeed, the central question of our time is: how do we build community, based on shared values, and enriched by our diversity? Another way to phrase it is: how do we cope with the growing diversity and divisions within our pluralistic society? In the words of John Gardner, "fragmentation has run amok" and is threatening the basic fiber of our society. The response to this ultimate challenge is to build community. This regenerative process will enable expression of shared values which, in turn, enables common action and understanding. Failure to answer the call to community risks conflicts about race, class and culture that could destroy our City and undermine our democratic society.

In response to the "how to do it" question, I draw five lessons from my experiences in University Park.

(1) Shared goals is the starting point for creating shared values. We started with better schools and safe streets because all partners shared these goals. As we worked together to achieve these goals, it became clear that we shared certain secular values such as individual dignity, equality and justice. These values, of course, come from the world's great religions which draw from man's relation to God norms of individual behavior.

(2) In a multicultural society, tolerance is not enough. Mutual respect, based on understanding each other's cultures, enables us to celebrate diversity while creating the common good. The religious and cultural traditions that are observed in this 3.4 square miles provide an opportunity for those who seek it to participate in a Passover Seder, Holy Week and Ramadan; Cinco de Mayo, African American History Month and the Fourth of July.

(3) Focused efforts produce impact. The community partners chose schools, in part because so many community based institutions were in the education business, but more importantly because quality schools attract families who care about their children's education. We reasoned: if the schools were excellent, families would come to the neighborhood and stay, providing the stability, mutual learning and understanding so necessary for building community and so necessary for democracy to work.

(4) Partnerships are a must and they only work if all partners see a win-win outcome. Every initiative that USC has been involved in has been a true partnership, and always the result of a community-expressed need. At the same time, every one has been very much in USC's self interest. Kid Watch, a program involving 500 volunteers, responds to a need for public safety. The USC Family of Five Schools, a web of programs and projects too numerous to mention here, responds to the principals request for assistance. USC Neighborhood Outreach, a United Way type campaign for USC faculty and staff, funds university-community partnerships. Common action and successes are both the outcome and the foundation of shared goals.

(5) Small investments in human development yield large returns -- and, if effective, leverage larger funding. Human development enables the growth of civil society.

I share my lessons learned because I do believe that building community is the greatest challenge of our time -- and the most noble calling. And because, the how to do it question is not mysterious -- difficult, time consuming, requiring patience and persistence -- but not mysterious. If we can do it here, we can do it anywhere.

The call to community is deep in Jewish tradition and our biblical heritage. The promise made to Abraham was a promise repeated to Isaac, to Jacob, to Moses and to prophets through the ages. Each time, the promise reminded the Jews that their truest blessing would come as a community -- as a people. It is fitting that Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion heed that call today, building a strong Jewish community, certainly, but building so much more. HUC-JIR's presence in this neighborhood bears witness to a broader call to community, to a bridging role across cultures as we seek to develop shared values and the common good.

The Class of 1999 has learned what this institution has to teach. They go forth with our confidence and gratitude for the work they will do to replenish and revitalize the Jewish communities they will serve and the broader obligation they may assume to build communities, based on shared values, that celebrate our diversity and unite our nation.

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.