Joan Pines, Chair, Central Region Board of Overseers; Member, Board of Governors, presented the Graduation Address at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's Cincinnati Graduation on Sunday, May 31.
Her address is below.
"Be Strong and Of Good Courage"
Good afternoon and welcome to Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion on this significant and exciting day. I am honored to be here with you. Special greetings to President Aaron Panken, Dean Nili Fox, Dean Jonathan Cohen, Dean Ken Kanter, to our distinguished faculty, and all of our graduates and special guests.
Today is certainly not about me, it is about you, the graduates, but I would like to share briefly, some of my strong sentiments about HUC Cincinnati, about your journey here and mine, which have coincided to some degree in time and space. My time here has opened my eyes to ideas and relationships which have greatly enriched my life, and changed many ideas I have held about education and Jewish life. I have had the good fortune to be closely involved with outstanding administrators, devoted and magnificent faculty, and inspiring students and volunteers. All of these mentioned, are willing to give of themselves, lead by example, and exhibit a great depth of knowledge, academic, practical, and life transforming.
In addition to our work promoting the College Institute, we Overseers are privileged to study at every meeting, as you have done, with our outstanding faculty. We have the opportunity to delve deeper into our tradition and texts, instructed by professors who have spent years researching, thinking, and turning our tradition round and round to bring us new and fresh insights and mental challenges to what we have learned up until now in other places. Many of the ideas are unique, unsettling, and provocative, but I can no longer say that I learned everything I needed to know in Sunday School. Every time I leave the campus to return home, I appreciate how fortunate I am to have exposure to this wonderful institution and its outstanding resources. What an atmosphere for continued growth of the mind and spirit, and the creation of special new friendships. I am sure your experience here as students, has mirrored mine.
When I first became a member of the Central Region Board of Overseers in 2001, I had a basic understanding that HUC-JIR trained rabbis, cantors, educators, and other Jewish professionals. Over time, I came to discover and appreciate an exciting program of the College Institute that was not as well known to me, and perhaps to others – the School of Graduate Studies. Through conversations with our deans, Dr. Greengus, and Dr. Fox, I was able to gain valuable insight into the uniqueness and importance, not only of our Rabbinical School, but of the School of Graduate Studies – importance not only to the College Institute, but to the larger world of religious graduate studies. The SGS allows HUC-JIR to be an accredited graduate level school. Not an insignificant entitlement!
We are, of course, a Jewish seminary by definition and mission, but the majority of our Ph.D. candidates are not Jewish, mainly Christian, but not only Christian. They come to study with our outstanding faculty, and learn about the Jewish roots of Christianity, the influence Judaism has had on other religions, and to deepen their own religious commitments and knowledge. These young men and women, upon receiving their doctorates, teach at secular universities, colleges and religious seminaries. Some may become clergy, and we encourage and value this endeavor among our non-Jewish students, as upon graduation one of our hopes for them, and for us, is that they become advocates for HUC-JIR in the non-Jewish world. While reading the short bios each of the Ph.D. candidates prepared, I was deeply impressed with the important work in which they have already engaged, and their dreams for the future. For three years our Ph.D. candidates study with rabbinical students, some of whom are receiving their Master’s degree today, and hopefully, each group comes to understand the other in profound ways. I believe deeply that this kind of exposure to Jewish students and faculty, by mainly non-Jewish students, and vice versa, in an inter-faith program, produces people who can ultimately make a difference in the world, by mutual action. We know that education is not only a means of escaping dire social conditions, but enriches the life of the spirit and opens our eyes to all the possibilities of life. It also offers us opportunities to join others in healing our world, so that all humankind may receive the benefits of what life has to offer. Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) – one of all of our obligations – takes on major significance when people of good will, of all persuasions, come together and take action. We are witnesses to this at HUC-JIR. I pledge that as long as I continue to be part of the College Institute, I will work to strengthen the bonds between our Board of Overseers, the SGS, and the Rabbinical School, so that all Overseers come to appreciate the significance and importance of our institution, of supporting our students and the contributions they make to our world, on so many levels.
Most of us arrived at HUC at a time when the world around us was changing rapidly. The world in 2015 is not the same world we encountered back in the early 2000’s, for better or for worse. There was no Facebook, no drones, no 24-hour news dealing incessantly with little of value. I am not on Facebook. Why anyone would be interested in what I ate for lunch is beyond me. Some say it promotes closeness. Albert Einstein said many years ago, and I paraphrase, that technology which is being developed, with its many benefits, runs the risk of destroying personal relationships. How correct he was! I understand that texting gives some the opportunity to contact people in a quick manner, when we are so busy that we don’t have time to speak with them. I would much prefer a short conversation with my children, grandchildren, and friends on the phone – or better yet in person – so that I might see them and hear their voices. I already understand that they know how to type! How many times have you been in a restaurant or a meeting, where families or friends are gazing intensely at their smart phones, not paying attention to those right in front of them. How sad! This is perhaps one of the minor annoyances we face in our changing world, but certainly not the most challenging.
In the past several years, we have all faced a world of increased strife, horrific wars, natural disasters, etc. Of course, all these things also occurred in previous times. I have lived through WWII, assassinations, 911, hurricanes, and race riots in Detroit where I grew up. Perhaps it is my age, but it seems to me that all these things, occur more often now, and the conflicts and disasters of the previous few years are different and more pervasive than in the past. This may be due to the ever present media, where horrific events are pushed before our eyes and become more and more personal. Of particular significance for us here today, are the results of the Pew Study of 2014, which tells us of a weakening of religion and religious affiliation in our country. The Pew study of 2014 is a follow up to a similar study done in 2007. In the intervening seven years, the share of Americans who identify as Christian has declined by nearly 8%, while the share who claim no religious identity, the unaffiliated or “nones” as they are designated, increased by nearly 6%, amounting to 22.8% of America’s population. This is mirrored to some degree the Jewish community. Is this a blip on the landscape or a trend? In light of this new reality, what should be our task in what I see to be a more difficult and challenging world for you young people?
Charlie Munger, a name you may not know, is the right-hand man to Warren Buffet, a name you do know. He said this at a recent graduation ceremony at USC, in response to the unique difficulties facing our present-day world, and offers one possible panacea: “Wisdom acquisition is a moral duty. It is not something you do just to advance in life. As a corollary to that proposition, which is very important, it means that you are hooked for lifetime learning. And without lifetime learning people are not going to do very well. You are not going to get very far in life based on what you already know. You will advance in life, and contribute, by what you learn after you leave here.” In no way does this negate the value of what you have learned here, but at all ages, there is so much to learn and the need is ongoing. What you have learned here at HUC has helped to prepare you to face this new and challenging world.
The education you have received during your life, and especially here at HUC-JIR prepares you to give expression to certain enduring values and timeless truths, that the world needs to hear and see in action, also on an ongoing basis – with all the challenges and change this entails. Do not allow cynicism to overtake you. Your charge is to advance that which is timeless and enduring, and through learning, teaching, and example, spread this valuable wisdom that we embrace for the good of humankind. This is not an easy task, but is a sacred obligation for all of us, as it is one of the pillars of all religion. I know you are up to this charge.
I congratulate all of you on your outstanding accomplishments, and wish you worthy and blessed lives, and success in your sacred task. I leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Joshua 1:9, words of inspiration, enduring value, and of course timelessness. “Be strong, and of good courage, be not afraid nor be dismayed; for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go”
Ken Yehi Ratzon – may this be God’s will.
For further information about the 2015 Graduation and Ordination Ceremonies, click here >