Jonathan D. Sarna, Ph.D., Presents 2015 HUC-JIR/New York Graduation Address

Monday, May 4, 2015

Jonathan D. Sarna, Ph.D., Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor and Director, Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program, Brandeis University, presented the Graduation Address at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's New York Graduation on Thursday, April 30 at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York. Dr. Sarna was also awarded the Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.

His address is below.


President Panken, Chancellor Emeritus Ellenson, Honored Graduates, Distinguished Faculty and Rabbis, Hard-working members of the Boards of Governors and Overseers, Ladies & Gentlemen:

One-hundred and fifty years ago today, our nation lay prostrate in deep mourning.  President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated on what, for Jews, was the intermediate Shabbat of Passover. Now his body was slowly and circuitously making its way by train from Washington DC to Springfield, Illinois.  On April 24th & 25th, some half a million New Yorkers came to view Lincoln’s remains.  More than twenty different synagogues and Jewish organizations joined a solemn funeral procession through the streets of the city, and many congregations, including this one, conducted special memorial services.

Rev. Samuel M. Isaacs, editor of the Jewish Messenger, stood among the Christian clergy delivering public prayers here in New York – a sign that the Jewish community’s goal – “to join our fellow citizens in paying a national tribute to [the] nation’s lost chief” – was amply fulfilled.  Rev. Isaacs praised Lincoln for serving “the people of his afflicted land faithfully, zealously, honestly, and … in accordance with Thy supreme will,” and he prayed for the restoration of the Union “to its former tranquility.” 

Subsequently, the Lincoln funeral train wound its way through eleven major cities, including Buffalo and Cleveland and Columbus.  On April 30, exactly a century and half ago, the train pulled into Indianapolis.  From there it traveled on to Chicago and then, finally, Springfield, where the Jewish clothier Julius Hammerslough, who had known Lincoln as a young man, stood among those who met the body; he accompanied the slain president to his final resting place.

Hammerslough, and American Jews generally, had special reason to mourn Abraham Lincoln.  They knew him as a friend.   No President prior to Lincoln had anywhere near as many Jewish connections as he did, and none did more to promote the inclusion of Jews into the fabric of American life.

 Today’s graduates of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion still benefit from Abraham Lincoln’s actions.  Some, for example, may elect to serve as Jewish chaplains in the United States military, as numerous previous graduates have done.  Abraham Lincoln made that possible.  When the Civil War began, the military chaplaincy was restricted to [quote] “regularly ordained ministers of some Christian denomination.” For that reason, when Rev. Arnold Fischel of Congregation Shearith Israel (the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue not far from here) was elected to serve as chaplain of a Jewish-led regiment, Secretary of War Simon Cameron had no choice but to turn him down.  “You are respectfully informed…that the Chaplain…must be a regular ordained minister of some Christian denomination,” he informed Fischel. “Had it not been for this legal impediment, he assured him, “the Department would have taken your application into its favorable consideration.”

Fischel – like you graduates, I hope -- resolved to speak truth to power; he set out to fight for Jewish equality.  At the behest of the Jewish community, he took his case directly to Abraham Lincoln at the White House. According to his first-hand report, which survives, the president “fully admitted the justice of my remarks” and “agreed that something ought to be done.” Working behind the scenes, Lincoln then helped craft an amendment to change the discriminatory law. He also employed his consummate political skills to ensure that the amendment passed. Days later, he personally appointed the first Jewish chaplain in American history – a man named Jacob Frankel.  More than we realize, America at that moment was transformed:   non-Christians of all sorts could henceforward serve in the military chaplaincy as they still do to this day.

Later, in December of 1862, Lincoln once again acted to benefit Jews.  Refusing to heed antisemites who blamed Jews for wartime smuggling, he unhesitatingly overturned General Ulysses S. Grant’s order expelling “Jews as a class” from his warzone.  “To condemn a class,” the president explained, employing language that retains its relevance to this day, “is to say the least to wrong the good with the bad.  I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.” 

Lincoln even shifted his official rhetoric to make America more inclusive of Jews.  Sensitive to the fact that Jews had fallen side by side with Christians in the Battle of Gettysburg, he spoke there of “this nation under God,” a new phrase that embraced Jews as insiders.  In his remarkable Second Inaugural, which in many ways was a magnificent sermon, Lincoln, again, never mentioned any particular religion.  He addressed people of all faiths, Jews among them. Ours is a more inclusive country today thanks in part to Lincoln’s words and actions. 

Still, you may wonder why I think that today’s 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s final journey carries an important message for you, the class of 2015.  The answer is that the life and career of Abraham Lincoln serve as a timely reminder that human beings have vast potential to bring about change.  The reason that so many books have been written about Abraham Lincoln is that Abraham Lincoln did more, arguably, than any other American to make this country a better place: for African Americans, for Jews, for everyone.  Leaders can make a difference.  You can make a difference. Even if you are not a Lincoln, each of you has an unlimited capacity to make our world a better place.

And while you are emulating Abraham Lincoln, I hope you will remember that the story of Abraham Lincoln is, in part, a Jewish story. I do not mean that in a filiopietistic or apologetic way.  No!  Instead, as your own Dr. Gary Zola, my good friend and former student, has shown, and as I myself have tried to show, Jews played a distinctive and important role both in the life of Abraham Lincoln and in the subsequent preservation of his memory. Perhaps only a few people in this audience had ancestors living in the United States (or the Confederate States) 150 years ago, at the time of the Civil War, but it is critically important to remember that those Jews who were here participated actively in the history of their time. As leaders, you graduates cannot emphasize often enough that  American history is not just somebody else’s history;  contemporary Jews need to own that history as well

Finally, the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s last journey recalls for us the powerful significance of memory.  The Hebrew root zachor –remember -- appears in the Bible no fewer than 169 times. We are enjoined to “remember the days of old” – zechor yemot olam – a good thing, that is what keeps historians like me in business! And, of course, we have special prayers, known as the Yizkor or memorial services (from the same Hebrew root), which many congregations, back in 1865, actually recited for Abraham Lincoln. 

Yizkor, Rabbi Jonathan Saks reminds us, is not just about memory. It actually transforms memory “into a religious act of thanksgiving for a life that was,” a life that “still sends its echoes and reverberations into the life that is.”  When we Jews remember, -- whether we remember our own relatives or whether we remember Abraham Lincoln – we “do so for the future,” Rabbi Sachs understands, for that is “the place where, if we are faithful to it, the past never dies.” 

Graduates of the class of 2015! Be faithful to the past, and draw inspiration from the life of America’s greatest president, whose final journey to his resting place in Springfield coincides with your journey out from under the protective wings of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and into the community beyond. Zachor! Remember the life and achievements of Abraham Lincoln.  And may you too succeed in changing our world for the better. 

Best of luck and may God bless you all!

Thank you very much.


For further information about 2015 Graduation and Ordination Ceremonies, click here >

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 men and women for service to 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, 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.