Rabbi Julie Schwartz ’86 Presents 2017 Cincinnati Ordination Sermon

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Rabbi Julie Schwartz ’86, Certified Supervisor of Clinical Pastoral Education, Adjunct Associate Professor of Human Relations, and Director of the Stein Program at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati, presented the Ordination sermon at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati Ordination on Saturday, May 20, 2017 at Plum Street Temple. Her address is below. 

President Panken, Deans Cohen and Kanter, members of the College-Institute board of overseers and governors, Chair Andy Berger, guests joining us from the URJ, the CCAR, and the WRJ, colleagues, proud family and friends of our nearly new rabbis, and most especially, dear ordinees, I am overwhelmed and grateful for the honor to offer the sermon this morning.  Those among you who are timing me, set your watches now.

Each day, the news outlets report amazing survival stories in which small children are recovered relatively unharmed from danger or rescuers save individuals from terrifying accidents, or we hear about people who know someone that we know who come just this close to death.  If you are like me, I am surprised and sometimes overwhelmed by the ways that human beings are able to make it through these nightmare moments and live to tell their stories. 

But you, dear ordinees, you know all about amazing stories of survival – because you, yourselves are proof of the incredible resilience of the human spirit – you have spent these past 5 or 6 or even 7 years in pursuit of your dreams.  You have faced terrifying exams,  unending assignments, weekend imprisonment in tiny hamlets that are on the far side of nowhere, hundreds upon hundreds of hours of hard labor meeting the educational, ritual, pastoral, and ethical needs for every segment of the Jewish community, and the Chinese water torture equivalent of being asked, again and again, so how does that make you feel?  Yes, you, the members of the ordination class of 5777, have joined the ranks of true survivors and now we reward you by cheerfully saying, leave, go now and serve the Jewish people and the world.

The nearly miraculous ability that you have shown to get back up again after failure or loss and try once again, that ability which we term resilience has become a hot topic these days.  The University of Pennsylvania now offers a graduate degree and sponsors a major research program called the Penn Resiliency Project.  There are educational courses and strategies for schools to teach children how to live healthier lives by developing grit.  As well, I imagine that many of you have read the powerful, and best-selling book Option B by Sheryl Sandberg which describes her new understanding of resilience following the unexpected death of her husband.  Indeed that book has become the basis for the world wide establishment of Option B groups in which survivors of trauma and tragedy support one another as they heal from what they had previously imagined were un-survivable losses.  These many different resources demonstrate our shared human struggle to endure a world in which we do not have the power to prevent all accidents and diseases, nor make all the right decisions and where we cannot dodge all of the curve balls coming our way.  Our goal at such painful times is survival. Dr. Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the father of the discipline known as Positive Psychology teaches that when different human beings face the same challenges, some of us will do more than meet the goal of survival.  Some individuals will actually thrive.  Such remarkable people will come through their dark nights’ of the soul with new insight into themselves, with a sense of greater inner strength and may even derive meaning from their ordeals.   Of course, what we all want to know is the way to become members of that second group of people.  It appears that these thrivers have a more than typical resource from which to draw.  They utilize the strength of what Dr. Robert Emmons of UC Davis has termed their psychic immune system.     

But if the answer to thriving and to developing a strong psychic immune system lies in all of this new research then wouldn’t we all already have read the book and applied the research?   Indeed what I deduce from the ever-growing choices of books and studies on this topic is that there is likely no one right answer and so I cannot tell you the secret.  I am sorry, I hope that you did not expect that this was going to be that good of a sermon. What I can offer is another good enough way of approaching these challenges.  I do that which I was taught to do here at HUC and that which have tried to share with you.  We dive into our tradition and we use it to strengthen our psychic immune system.  There I have found three r’s that have given me some direction as my spiritual keys to resilience.  

The first R is for respect.  It may sound counter-productive but in order to survive and ultimately thrive after a heart breaking loss, I contend that the first step is respecting the pain, taking the pain seriously.  Although I may wish otherwise, indeed I may pray that the pain be erased,  I cannot quickly, cleanly remove the failure or forget the hurt.  I actually respect myself and my experience when I sit with the pain and when I recognize fully that I have been knocked down, even knocked out.  If I have had to endure what has seemed to be unendurable, then it cheapens, disrespects my experience should I try to deny it or even compare it to the experiences of others.  I recall a wonderful couple from a previous congregation.  The wife loved her husband dearly but found it very hard to be his partner because whenever they were facing difficult life struggles and feeling pain or anguish, he would put on a smile and say that surely, things were not that bad.  At such times, she referred to him as Sunshine and she did not mean that nickname to be a kind one.  Sometimes things are that bad.   Sometimes things are very, very bad.  And my very, very bad times are not anything like your very bad times so please don’t decide that either of us has it any better or any worse.  A Chassidic story teaches that if each of us took our sorrows and hung them up in a tree so that we could all come around it and then exchange our troubles with those that our neighbors had left there – we would find that all of us would choose once again the troubles that had faced us originally.  

The language of our tradition, Hebrew, includes the notion of weighing heavily within the meaning of the word to respect, l’chabed.  Our job is to give the proper weight to all of our experiences, even the most painful.  We do not underestimate our life challenges and we do not disrespect the process to overcome these.  When we respond to the actual weight of an experience, we may not be able to prevent it but we do gain a small measure of control over it.  The pain will not decide me but rather I will determine the weight of this pain. 

Now it is time for the second R.  After we have given our pain its proper due it is time to Re-think.   Think again, reflect, reconsider, review where we are and what it is all about.  We re-think not because we had thought incorrectly before.  But now that I face this new challenge, I will need new ideas, approaches, and choices.  Sometimes our most cherished ideas and ideals will need to be changed, perhaps for just a moment or perhaps forever.  The ways that we have been and the things that we have understood about life may need a complete overhaul once we find ourselves in a dark valley.  Now I do not suggest that we immediately should drop all of our plans and truths just when things get tough.  However when we face the hardest moments, it may mean that we have to find a new way to believe or understand.  Re-thinking may, in fact, lead us back to a truth or idea that we had jettisoned like ballast years ago.  We may realize that we were once a lot smarter or that we could be a lot smarter now. But it all rests on our willingness to put down our current right answer and see that there are many other right answers just waiting to be examined.  That stiff neck that we get when we rigidly see the world from only one angle, that may be the symptom that reminds us that we were created with eyes that can blink and refocus.  We can then see the wonderful gray areas that exist between black and white.    In our times of deepest pain, it seems patently unfair that we should be asked to learn something new.  While tears are still damp on our cheek, how can the world expect us to take a breath and attempt to think clearly.  But unfair or not, I have learned that the only way through a tragedy is by doing such very hard, unfair things.  The rabbinic dictim about learning from Torah tells us:, hafoch bah v’hafoch bah, turn it and turn it because everything is in it.  When we are in the times of greatest difficulty, we may think that there is no other way.  But if we are flexible enough to look one more time into Torah, into our sources of wisdom, another answer may emerge.

First, respect, then re-think, and finally remember.  That is the third step, remember.  My next comments are directly specifically at you, ordinees, and I am asking you to remember things that led you here, to this accomplishment and to this future.  Remember who you are, remember your Jewish identity, your Jewish heritage.  By this I do not mean to suggest that other religious identities are less valuable or meaningful.   But for the process of remembering, our Jewish collective experience blesses us with unique gifts.  Remember that as Jews, we are part of an inheritance which is only with us now because of our people’s individual and communal resilience.   If we uncovered the first broken set of the Ten Commandments and we pieced them back together, the miracle might well be that this holy list of directions for life would include the words, Thou shalt survive and then thrive.   The stories that we hold dear, that we re-tell even when we doubt their authenticity, these hold deep power for us.  Remember the story, of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who in 68 CE anticipates the ultimate destruction of the Second Temple that would certainly lead to the end of Judaism as most understood it.  He has himself smuggled out of the city in a coffin and ultimately secures Roman permission to establish a rabbinical assembly in the town of Yavneh.  Using a coffin, an obvious symbol of death, the story urges us to see that we are not deterred by the potential death of a city, of a culture, of a dream.  We ourselves will find a way to remember, to choose life; we will survive, we will thrive.

Remember the life of Maimonides, the great sage of our people.  Maimonides who wrote his first philosophical treatise by age 14  who fled with his family from his home in Spain and eventually found a place for resettlement in Egypt.   There he continues on as a scholar but when he is at the height of his rabbinic abilities, he is struck the most devastating of blows: his beloved brother dies at sea during a storm.  As you know this is the brother who worked in business to provide the support so that Maimonides could continue his Jewish study and teaching.  This traumatic loss plunges Maimonides into a dark depression which lasted more than a year.  And yet after that long period of respecting his pain, he was able to re-think his approach to life and undertook the study of medicine so that he could support himself as a physician and still continue on as a most revered scholar of Judaism for all generations.   Perhaps these examples feel too distant or imposing.  There are those among our people in every generation who walk ahead of us and light the way.  I will share one of my favorite people to remember at my times of ultimate challenge when my spirit has nearly met match.   Her name was Florence and in fact, Florence was a member of Wise Temple, years ago and she was once its religious school’s longest serving teacher.  She loved Bible, she loved to teach Bible to children and more than that, she found life in its words.  I met her when she was in her nineties, living at the old Glen Manor nursing home.  She and her sister had grown old together and neither had had children of their own.  A year earlier, Florence’s sister had died and Florence herself had suffered a stroke which left her unable to walk.  Unable to leave her bed unassisted, each day, Florence would cajole an aide to come into her room, help stand and attempt to regain her mobility.  No-one expected her to walk again but still she tried to do so each day.   I asked her once for the source of her resilience – although I didn’t actually use that term.  She told me that every time that she prepared herself mentally for the effort, she remembered some of her favorite verses from Bible.  She remembered the words from the book of Joshua, chapter 1, verses 9 and forward – and I mean that she actually remembered the book, chapter, verses and words that Joshua received from God, “chazak v’ematz, be strong and be of good courage, be not frightened nor be dismayed for Adonai your God is with you, wherever you go. “  I do not have the same relationship with Bible as did Florence but I can remember her voice becoming stronger as she recited those words and she remembered her spiritual inheritance.   When I draw upon my memory of Florence, I draw from her spirit despite the differences between our theologies.  Florence and I share the same anthem HaTikvah despite the fact that there are always so many reasons that we might be less than hopeful.  Hope is our theology. 

So, once again, my dear friends, I am giving you my answers not the answers.  Soon you will receive ordination and be called by the R’word that you have worked so very hard to place in front of your names.  I know that as the rabbis that you have already become, when you will meet others in times of pain that you will work from your own answers and even a few that we may have taught.  As you engage in this sacred task, may you feel the love and support of all of us gathered here and all of those whom you carry in your hearts.  May you begin this journey with a strong and healthy psychic immune system and when you too are hurting remember on whose shoulders you stand in order to stand stronger.  May we together share the sacred power of hope.

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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. www.huc.edu