The New York Commencement Speech - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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The New York Commencement Speech

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Tuesday, May 1, 2001

HUC-JIR New York Commencement Speech
May 17, 2001

Jerome H. Somers
Immediate Past Chairman, Board of Trustees,
Union of American Hebrew Congreagations,

and Attorney, Goodwin, Proctor and Hoar

Honored graduates, fellow honorees, Chairman Lehman, Acting President Cohen, members of the faculty and administration of this great institution, honored guests. What a privilege it is for me to address this class, to speak to you at this extraordinary event -- an important milestone for you and for all of us, and for this magnificent institution. As we mark the 125th anniversary of HUC-JIR, we are mindful of the blessings it has brought us, especially the exceptional men and women who, for a century and a quarter, have taken their places as the spiritual leaders, scholars, mentors, teachers, role models and guides of Reform Jews and Reform Judaism. We pray that the next 125 years will be as rich with promise for each generation of our people as the achievements of its exceptional past, and that we, and those who follow us, may continue to help it grow from strength to strength.

Let me begin my remarks this evening by expressing my enormous admiration and respect for every one of you who has earned a degree this evening. All of you have committed yourselves to the serious and important task of helping to enrich the future of Jewish life. I am humbled being in your midst, let alone addressing you this evening. The importance of your task should not be underestimated. In your hands we place our hopes for a vibrant, engaging and strong Jewish future. We look to you to excite and inspire us, our children and our grandchildren, to make and keep Judaism central to our daily lives.

Now, you may be asking yourself, "Is he overstating our role? Are his expectations unreasonable?" Let me be clear that I am speaking of the congregational world, of the organized Reform Movement and its institutions. As Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, I had the opportunity to travel throughout North America, from Toronto to Dallas, form Newport Beach to Portland, Maine, from Seattle to Miami, and to meet with a substantial number of our congregational rabbis, cantors and educators. Not from all 900 congregations, but from a substantial number of them. I also had the unique opportunity to engage with their lay leadership. I learned a lot in these conversations about the enormous impact you, as Jewish professionals, have on our people. We as lay people depend on you and look to you, not only for your knowledge, but also for your leadership, your passion, your modeling of the kind of life we as Jews should seek to emulate.

In this week's parashat Behar/Bechukotai, in Leviticus 26:8, there is a mathematical conundrum that is directly applicable to you: "And five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall chase ten thousand." The proportions do not seem to match. Nechama Leibowitz, of blessed memory, writes about the wisdom embedded in this logic. It is purposefully out of proportion. According to Rashi, it follows that the "few who practice the Torah are not to be compared to the many who practice the Torah." The impact of a virtuous few gains a momentum that is disproportionate to their increase in number. Therefore, each one of you who becomes a rabbi, cantor or educator adds more than another individual to the ranks of the Jewish world. You contribute disproportionately to the future of our movement and our people. We do not just count you. We count on you. The current critical need in our congregations for more Jewish professionals is witness to the importance of your role and to the imperative that we have an adequate number of properly trained Jewish professionals to serve and lead our people. Indeed we hope that you will, during your career, seek to engage and mentor and invite others to join you as colleagues, to become Jewish professionals and to serve and strengthen our people.

On a personal level, I can attest to the power and influence of such leadership, for my path has been shaped by such eminent Jewish professionals as Rabbis Gittelsohn and Schindler of blessed memory, Rabbis Yoffie and Thal, and, perhaps, more importantly for the path I chose, Rabbi Paul Menitoff, who is most responsible for introducing me to the UAHC and the riches of our Reform Movement. Likewise, I have been strengthened and very much influenced by exceptional educators such as Rabbi Jan Katzew and Sara Lee and Leslie Litman. These individuals, and so many others, have been my teachers and sparked within me a passion for Reform Judaism and its institutions. To them, I am eternally grateful.

Yes, you have chosen a path that has the potential to make the Jewish world a better place, an important, essential role. But there is another essential ingredient to your success. You must recognize that you cannot do all of this alone. You cannot be all things to every individual. I and my counterparts in every community where there are Jews are vital to your task. As profoundly as we need you, you need us -- the lay leadership. While you may inspire us with your passion, please know that you don't have to be a professional to be passionate. Your ability to help us learn and care, and to become passionate about Judaism, to become involved in study and worship and leadership, to become your partners in leading our people, be it in a congregation, or a day school, or a kallah, will have a direct relationship to your success. In every place I visited, I submit, there was an equation that became very evident: Those congregations with inspiring, inviting, engaging, inclusive and successful professional leadership had the most outstanding and committed lay leadership and the relationship of the professionals to the lay leaders was warm, respectful and full of positive energy. And the congregation reflected this relationship, which some call a partnership, but which others call a brit, a covenant between professional and volunteer Jewish leaders. Together, we are few. Some say too few to stem the tide of indifference, of vicarious Judaism, but Torah reminds us that our numbers are not measured arithmetically. An organized, committed, passionate, and knowledgeable minority can overcome a vast undifferentiated mass of naysayers and bystanders. Indeed, we can be powerful partners - volunteers and professionals intent on leading our people to greater Jewish learning, deeper Jewish meaning and better Jewish living.

Let's talk about this covenantal relationship, this brit and what it means. Again, I speak from my observations and personal experience as well as from stories told me by our volunteer and professional leaders. I shall use the terms "we," "us," and "our," for it is my fervent conviction that only the "we," "us," and "our" together can help to bring our Jewish dreams to reality. After all, Martin Buber reminds us that it is only in relationship that we find God.

It is important that we have a special relationship based on trust and respect. We need excellent listening skills, openness and ongoing communication. We need to be candid with each other, to hear and understand each other, and to give appropriate consideration to what is said to us, for all of that is basic to establishing that essential trusting and respectful relationship. We need to work together without being concerned about subversive agendas or personality conflicts or, what may be even worse, surprises.

To be sure, we need to understand with no ambiguity what we can expect of each other. We need to discuss and agree upon our respective roles, so that we have a clear mutual understanding of what you can expect of me and what I can expect of you. We need to constantly examine and re-examine our mutual expectations, communicate often, exchange concerns, relate successes, learn from failures, demonstrate appreciation. Without question, we must understand that our expectations of one another reflect a mutual love and concern for the community we serve.

Having established this special relationship and identified our respective expectations, together we need to establish a shared vision, based on knowledge of our constituency, its culture and history, its current state, its strengths and weaknesses, its tapped and untapped resources, and its potential. We need to set our direction.

You may ask why have a vision? Burt Nanus, a leading educator and author on strategic planning in the non-profit world from the University of Southern California states, "There is no more powerful engine driving an organization toward excellence and long-range success than an attractive, worthwhile and achievable vision of the future widely shared."

Perhaps the most important question to ask is "What do we want to create?" Indeed, shared visions come from open, honest, shared discussions that clarify what we deeply care about.

Our vision should be a loud pronouncement of what is important to us. It is important that we have a clear sense of our core values and find a way to align them with the values of others in our constituency. As rabbis, cantors, educators, your contribution to the vision-setting agenda is paramount, for you bring to the table knowledge and understanding of what we, as Jews, living Jewish lives, need to be Jewishly fulfilled. You provide us with the tools and knowledge and ability to make informed choices. A strong vision will bridge the past, the present and the future and transcend the status quo. It provides the link between what is occurring now and what we aspire to build for future generations, for a Jewish life that will be even better for us and for tomorrow's members of our community.

Working together, we want to create a vision that is compelling enough to cause many more people to want to become engaged in the journey. As visionary leaders, it will be our joint task to set a direction for creating a healthy and growing community, to personally commit to it, to empower people to act, to listen, and to watch for feedback, and to focus our attention on helping others to achieve their greatest potential.

In establishing our vision, we need to be sure that we are realistic in setting our goals, that they are attainable or achievable and that they are, of course, inspiring.

In doing so, however, we must not be afraid of taking risks. We cannot be so risk averse that we seek only those goals that are easily attainable. John Capozzi, in his book 100 Secrets of Success in Business, provides valuable insight and advice regarding these concerns: Capozzi asks what kind of a leader do you want to be? (a) one who makes things happen; or (b) one who watches things happen; or (c) one who wonders what happened. And as for risk, he tells us that our chances of being run over are doubled if we stay in the middle of the road. The greatest mistake a leader can make is to be afraid of making a mistake, or as entrepreneur John T. Ragland, Jr. said, "if you have tried to do something but couldn't, you are far better off than if you tried to do nothing and succeeded." He suggests we must be determined in our efforts for if we think we can, we can. If we think we can't, we're right.

Think, for a moment, of our own movement and of the kind of leadership that has transforming effects. Think of Rabbi Alexander Schindler, whose outreach initiative, controversial though it was when he introduced it, was at once visionary and realistic, speaking as it did to the contemporary American Jewish condition. It has positively and powerfully changed our synagogues and our community, and its effects and the inherent good sense in it has now been felt far beyond the Reform movement. And what of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, with his bold challenge to transform worship in our synagogues? He stated that which others only whispered. Our services were underattended because they were uninspiring. Worship was a passive, unemotional experience. Where was the spirituality, the warmth, the participation, the joy, the music of prayer? Both of these great leaders articulated their vision with clarity, committed themselves to it, empowered people, provided materials, encouraged creativity and listened and watched for feedback. And while the worship initiative especially is still a work in progress, both of these powerful and visionary ideas are nothing less than transformative.

Another essential that they illustrate is the need for us to be able to recognize opportunities. Too often, leaders of our congregations focus on what we cannot do, on what is not right with our congregations, on the disappointing numbers of people at meetings or services, or study sessions. This way of passing judgment, if you will, is not uncommon to our people. Is the cup half full or half empty? Too often it is seen as half empty. This reminds me of the shoe manufacturer looking for new markets who sent two representatives to the Aborigine country in Australia. One week later he received two messages back, one from each of the representatives. The first said, "No opportunities here. Aborigines don't wear shoes." The other said, "Awesome possibilities here. The Aborigines don't wear shoes." Or, as the Bible tells us, when Moses sent twelve spies to scout the land of Israel, only two returned with positive reports. All twelve saw the same land, but two of the twelve saw a different interior landscape.

The message, of course, is that we, as leaders, as Jewish leaders, must recognize the opportunities and the possibilities, and cannot be discouraged by what others may discern as apathy or a lack of interest. We know that what Judaism has to offer can well capture the interest and imagination and passion of our constituents. However, we have seen communities transformed, we have seen communities become enthusiastic, we have seen communities grow and participate and enjoy an experience that we know to be so personally enriching, so meaningful and so applicable to our everyday living.

And as we proceed along this way, it is important that together we think about developing our future leaders, about identifying and fostering future leadership by inviting their participation, empowering them, recognizing and being attentive to their interests and their needs, cultivating their friendship and helping them to become passionate about Jewish life. It is, after all, they who will help realize our vision, help enrich and sustain the Jewish community by creating new visions of their own.

In all of this, it is essential to learn the fine art of graciousness, an ever-more elusive characteristic that helps us to gather about us people who want to work with us, who respect and even like us. When people feel part of a team, they want to succeed as much for one another as for the institution they serve. They experience a shared sense of pride and satisfaction, and they will want to continue to make a difference, to make a contribution when they learn that by working together, almost anything becomes possible.

Finally, we need to commit ourselves to several vital ingredients for success: to quality and excellence, to doing our very best in every aspect of our service - in substance, purpose and deed. To communicating a relevant Judaism - a Judaism that adapts to the needs of the day - and to change that is thoughtful and clearly rooted in the history and traditions of our people. To recognizing the sacredness of every individual - to inclusiveness - to gathering people in rather than keeping them out or driving them away. To promoting social justice in our everyday life and actions. To living a life of moral virtue, of exemplary conduct.

I have spoken of the essential role you play in our Jewish future, of the awesome task you assume, of the importance of a covenantal relationship between volunteer and professional leadership and providing whatever is necessary to a Jewish future full of vibrancy, meaning and fulfillment.

What I have not spoken of is what you, as the newest professional leaders of our organized Reform community, as rabbis, cantors or educators, have a right to expect from us, the lay people, not only professionally, but personally. And we know sometimes these lines are blurred.

Those of us who are today's volunteer leaders are well aware that too often, you, as our professionals, are considered employees, on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and expected to perform superbly in every aspect of your work. Your personal and family life may be disregarded, your expectations may go unrecognized, your financial needs considered inadequately.

We, the members of your congregation, or the participants in your classroom, cannot be indifferent to your needs and expect you to excel without understanding that the relationship we share with you must reflect essential Jewish values. And so, on behalf of my volunteer colleagues, we must make certain that we pledge:

  1. to be sensitive to you and your loved ones and provide you with the necessary personal space;
  2. to provide you with appropriate financial resources, recognizing your many years of study as well as your personal needs;
  3. to welcome you not only into our religious community, but also into our social community;
  4. to study with you and to pray with you.

We must pledge to keep the wonderful enthusiasm that you exude this evening fueled by showing our responsiveness and appreciation for your efforts.

We, as lay leaders, have an obligation to you to impress upon our members that these pledges, these commitments, are essential to our ability to realize our Jewish dreams and that the covenantal relationship between volunteer and professional is one to be emulated by our members.

We have come to the end of the book of Leviticus, Vayikra, and it is customary to recite three words - hazak, hazak, v'nitchazek - be strong. Be strong, and we will strengthen one another. These are not just ceremonial ornaments, they are essential reminders to us about what makes a life sacred, about what transforms a human being into a humane being, and what makes us little lower than the angels. Volunteer leaders and professional leaders need each other, and we have the power to draw strength from one another. We are powerful partners - volunteers and professionals intent on leading our people to greater Jewish learning, deeper Jewish meaning and better Jewish living. Each one of you, each one of us, can add immeasurably to the strength of our people.

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha-olam asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu la-asok betsorchei tzibur.

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, who has commanded us to engage, to occupy ourselves with the needs of the community.

Ken y'ehi Ritzon.

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.