Rabbi Elka Abrahamson, President, The Wexner Foundation, presented the Ordination address at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion/New York Ordination on Sunday, May 11, 2014, at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York. The text of Rabbi Abrahamson's address is below.
The morning is filled with light, with holy light. This grand sanctuary overflows with the promise of bright futures…yours, our newest colleagues and ours – this entire kahal, this proud community of teachers, parents, grandparents, sisters and brothers, partners, spouses, children, extended family, and friends. Seated in this congregation are those who have cheered you on, sustained and pushed you. Some have tolerated your rants, theological crises, and frustrations. They have taught you, coached you, and critiqued your sermons (and I was promised personally by Rabbi Panken that no such critique would follow these remarks, right?) They have listened to recital pieces multiple times, proof read your papers, harmonized, debated and helped sharpen your ideas. Most of all - they have held your hands and your dreams. Rav todot, much gratitude for all you have done to help this robed and beaming cohort reach this day.
This is that bright morning when you shall, at long last, exit this historic synagogue down its formidable center aisle carrying for life the title of Rabbi, of rav or of Cantor, of chazzan. As enduring proof of that designation, you will be handed what might be the largest diploma conferred upon any graduate from any institution anywhere. The 18 of you, like prior generations of about-to-be ordained cantors and rabbis from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, have likely given a passing thought to where and how you will display your klaf. You have eyed the framed versions of it prominently displayed on the study walls of your mentors. You dared to imagine your own name calligraphed upon it. In a few minutes President Aaron Panken will, as Jewish tradition mandates, place his caring hands upon your shoulders and pass the mantle of Jewish leadership from one generation to the next. Then…then you will be handed the precious document. Mazel Tov. You have earned it!
It had been some time since I read my own smicha parchment. But when I received this invitation to speak, an honor bestowed upon me by the ordainees of 5774, I felt drawn to my precious document and paused for a look. I stood close to it and gazed not only with my eyes but also with that divinely created part of the soul that ‘sees’, that captures emotional memory. I felt the presence and heard the voices of my ordination class sitting right where you are today. I recalled the courses given by our wise, demanding, and loving faculty. More than a few are here today, still inspiring and teaching me, still making me shvitz/sweat even now as I speak before them…before the faculty who placed their signatures beneath the declaration:
We have decided to ordain her and to bestow
upon her the title
Rabbi and Teacher.
Is she authorized to teach? Yes! She is authorized to teach.
Is she authorized to render decisions? Yes, she is authorized to render decisions.
תדרש תורת ה' ברבים,
May she interpret God’s Torah among the people;
חפץ ה' בידה יצלח,
May God’s will find fulfillment through her hand;
ויהי ה' עמה להגדיל תורה ולהאדירה
May God be with her to extol and glorify the Torah.
I noticed that some of those signatures at the bottom were fading, a few almost gone. Was there any, oh, I don’t know, meaning to disappearing names? Was I in any way failing to live up to the expectations of those who trained me as rabbi and teacher, as judge and interpreter? Near the top however, a short phrase from the book of Isaiah encircling a small unrolled Torah scroll remains in bold print: Chatom torah b’limudai, the motto of the College, seal the Torah among my students. The full Isaiah verse exhorts: tzor t’udah, chatom torah b’limudai. Bind up the testimony, seal the Torah among my disciples.
Tzor, tie yourself to, consider yourself bound to this t’udah, this diploma. Chatom torah b’limudai, place your unique stamp on Torah as one of My disciples says the Holy One. Expressed in my own colloquial interpretation, you must, dear class of 2014, earn this t’udah, over and over again. You are tied to it, bound up with all who teach Torah / who build communities of learners / who enter into sacred relationship with those seeking lasting meaning from Jewish life. Today you are ordained as cantor or rabbi. Today you will be handed a t’udah. Everyday, with the return of the morning’s miraculous light, you will face the sacred opportunity to live out the responsibilities about to be lovingly placed upon your capable shoulders.
The Jewish People, and the ever-expanding tent of our energized Reform movement are in remarkable hands. I was privileged, and moved, to read your personal statements. You are a cadre of talented students of Torah / teachers of Torah ready to leave your mark on Jewish life. You seek to – and I quote directly your visions, using verbatim your words:
You have articulated holy ambitions that are within your reach. Those College-Institute Alumni seated in this congregation will agree when I assure you that your chosen avocation will be deeply, deeply satisfying.
This is the precious content of the leadership journey you begin today, a journey inextricably tied to purpose. The only reason to exercise leadership, with all the tsuris that it will entail, is on behalf of something about which you care mightily, b’chol lvavcha uvchol nafshecah, with all your heart and all your soul, something that stirs you and for which you will summon the grit to succeed. By reaching this day of ordination, you have signaled your purpose: to lead the Reform movement toward an era of unprecedented strength and depth; to contribute to the vitality and relevance of Judaism. That is a very good reason to get up in the morning. Well, most mornings.
You begin your careers at a time of a simmering revolution in Jewish life, at yet another crossroads in our history. You begin your life as rabbi or cantor as we engage in our unique brand of “it’s good news/it’s bad news discourse” over the state of our community. We are simultaneously fretting - as only we can - and action planning - as only we do. You are not being sent out with a huge klaf and with a weighty charge to maintain the status quo! Adraba, on the contrary, leadership is fundamentally about change. And change is inevitably hard. There will be resistance to your visions, to your sometimes radically new and important ideas because with change comes loss, the loss of what was, or what is. But with every fiber of my being I believe this to be your generation’s singular leadership challenge; to be change leaders, change leaders who confidently, passionately and wisely lead our movement into the next decades.
What do I mean by changer leader? I mean that even as you must focus on the immediate demands of the day, it is incumbent upon you to consider innovative solutions for tomorrow. You must raise difficult questions that if left unanswered will find us unprepared, reacting rather than leading. You will have to assess the efficacy of institutional life and determine if we are keeping up with the rapid pace-of change in the world around us. Could we be more effective if we evolve into an interdependent collective of cooperating rather than competing congregations? How might you rethink affiliation toward a more expansive and accessible community? How will you foster ahavat yisrael, a love for Israel and forge stronger bonds among klal yisrael, the entire People Israel? How will you lead others to loosen their stubborn grip on tightly held assumptions about what it means to be a Reform Jew? What about Reform Jewish life is timeless - and what moribund - - no longer effective to usher in the next era of a flourishing, meaningful, and committed community? How will you, how will we, bind individuals within Reform communities to our living, breathing, Torah?
Do not be intimidated by these questions, rather emboldened by them. Be optimistic, be courageous. Transform Reform Judaism by being relentlessly curious about what is around the next corner and imaginative in preparing for it. Enjoy the creative process required of you. Change leaders, adaptive leaders focus on emotional intelligence, EQ as well as intellectual growth, IQ. So be attentive to your own spiritual nourishment and renewal. Be attentive to your loved ones, providing them with more care and focus than you give to all the others who will compete for your time. And don’t go it alone. Find a hevruta for learning…and identify that one colleague who will consistently support, question, guide, and lovingly challenge you, / who will speak truth to / and humble you.
Adaptive leaders are also agile. They are as playful as they are purposeful and they listen with the same intensity and concentration as they speak. They manage to be part of the noisy, crowded dance floor of ongoing work, and mentally climb up on the balcony of the organization, or of a meeting, or a difficult dialogue and interpret from that perch what is really happening thus moving conversations forward and not in circles.
The Talmud teaches that when Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya succeeded Rabban Gamliel as the head of the academy, he instituted some changes. He removed the shomer, the guard, from the entrance to the Beit Midrash and in doing so, the doors were thrown wide open. According to the text, people poured in - - from “scholars to weavers.” Safsalim, benches had to be quickly added, some say 400 safsalim, others say 700. Why does the number of benches matter? It is recorded in the text only to help us imagine a wildly transformed Beit Midrash, the new look institution created by Rabbi ben Azarya. The Ketav Sofer asserts that the number 700 is not at all about seating capacity but about the success of the new leader. Not about historical accuracy, but historical decision-making. The Talmud records that the outgoing leader, Rabban Gamliel, questioned his own leadership as he witnessed the revitalized academy. The day that the doors were opened wide is recalled as an unparalleled day of Torah study; no question was left unanswered, no person was left outside. The shared wisdom in the room contributed to both wider-ranging and more profound Torah conversations. [Brachot 28a]
Adaptive leaders expand the entryways. They raise those hard questions and allow others in the room to do the same, including voices of dissent, in order to facilitate real and even heated dialogue to uncover the collective wisdom in our communities. As in the Talmud, the adaptive leader might act in ways that startle, that conflict with, and even upend organizational expectations. Our text does not record the minutes of the committee meeting to discuss the removal of the shomer / or the board vote on the addition of the benches. My commentary on this tale is that the new Rav imagined the transformations from up on the balcony of his Beit Midrash.
So go! Rearrange the safsalim. Reposition the shomrim. Remove the walls if it aligns with your vision. Upgrade the quality of our Torah conversations. Be a leader who makes demands of her or his followers. Collaborate with those who are easily identified as allies and also with unlikely or resistant partners. Lovingly challenge the assumptions of those who came before you. As one of you wrote in your statement: We need fresh thinking about the roles of the rabbi or cantor and the boundaries of the synagogue. You are those fresh thinkers; you are the disciples of ben Azarya.
“In a time of drastic change,” noted philosopher Eric Hoffer, “it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.” Be learning leaders, because your education, excellent as it has been, is not, could not adequately train you to serve the communal needs of the future.
Today, a large t’udah will be placed in your shvitzing palms:
חָפֵץ ה' בּידֵיכם יצלח
May God’s will find fulfillment through those hands.
You will earn this smicha each and every day:
תדרשו תוֹרת ה' בּרבים,
May you imaginatively and carefully interpret God’s Torah among the people.
May you carry us into a future, carry us into a flourishing Jewish future that will look and feel and be different than the present because that is how we survive, how we will thrive. Our Jewish future will bear YOUR signature, clear and visible in unfading ink:
ויהי ה' עמכם להגדיל תורה וּלהאדירָה
May God be with you as you extol and glorify the Torah
…here on this boker or, on this bright morning - and forever. Keyn Y’hi ratzon, May this be God’s will.
I am grateful to Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, Rabbi Judy Shanks, Rabbi Misha Zinkow and Marty Linsky for the conversations and insights that influenced this address.