UAHC Biennial Address - Boston - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
Skip to main content

UAHC Biennial Address - Boston

Main Content
Tuesday, January 1, 2002

Dr. David Ellenson, President 
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
December 6, 2001

One 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 our ancestors."

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 of Religion.

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 world.

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 heaven.

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 will meet.

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.

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.