Emma Jaszczak, MAJE '19, shares a call to action for her generation of Jewish leadership at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's Los Angeles Graduation on Monday, May 13, 2019 at Stephen Wise Temple:
Transitional moments like these are a lot like driving a car… changing lanes… on the 405… at 6pm, with cars speeding by with only a slight idea of what the future of this moment holds, and as anyone who has tried to change lanes on the 405 at 6pm will surely attest to, that is not the most comfortable place to be. And while it isn’t totally untrue that we’re all a little bit there right now, as graduates of this particular institution, we come to this moment not only with that inevitable uncertainty, but with the experience of professionals who have had the blessing of true mentorship that shapes idea, vision, and sight.
"A wise person is a student who makes [their] teacher wiser," as we read in Chaggigah 14a. Don’t worry, this isn’t a d’var Torah, not even one that strictly adheres to the very clear guidelines emailed out at the beginning of every year (look at Rabbi Dr. Dvora Weisberg). Not a single line of our religious text speaks truer to the institutional values of our college than this. Throughout our time at HUC-JIR, we have been deeply encouraged to form our own opinions based on readings, translations, and discussions, and to hold confidently to our abilities to establish said opinions… while also being open to the wisdom and understanding that comes with learning from such esteemed teachers and educators as our faculty. However, what is truly unique about the college, is that this isn’t a checkmark on the list of what a future “insert Jewish professional role here” must be able to do; it’s framed as a critical skill that we must practice in order to further the values that we hold dear in our work toward creating a better future for our people. Our friends, our families, our congregants, our participants, our learners, and our teachers. In so many ways that we are incapable of foreseeing in this moment, we are responsible.
As many of you are familiar, the culminating project of the current education school program is creating a curriculum guide, from start to finish, for any age group on a topic of one’s choosing. Anything from middot, halachah, inclusion, or the megillot, to conflict, intimacy, and civic engagement. The latter of which being the topic that I have spent the last year of my life focusing on. As I searched “Jewish civic engagement” on Google over and over… and over again over the period of several months, hoping to gain new insight into what that phrase would mean for me as an aspiring Jewish professional, it finally became clear to me that the answer was so much deeper than what just that narrow phrase was going to tell me.
In 1989, exactly 30 years ago, a woman of color, legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, asserted in an essay that antidiscrimination law, feminist theory, and antiracist politics all failed to address the experiences of black women because of their focuses on only a single factor. They either only focused on these individuals’ experiences of being black orof their being women. They all failed to account for the fact that the experience of being a black woman was different from both being a white woman and being a black man; that it was something unique in itself. In this essay, she coined the term “intersectionality,” a term that has only become more mainstream in the last few years, and that my version of word still underlined red when I wrote this speech. Her idea of intersectional identity claims that our sense of self can only be fully understood when we look at all of the pieces that make us up, each as important pieces of our experience and our story.
For example, my curriculum guide up is broken up into several units focusing on high school students’ experiences as Jews and members of other communities to which they feel connected, communities like the land in which they live, and Diaspora Judaism. As I worked, it became important for me as an educator to not only acknowledge that learners today are more interconnected than ever before, but to emphasize that Jewish learning embraces that, and doesn’t need to be insular or separated from their identities outside of Jewish spaces.
As emerging Jewish professionals, we are tasked with a daunting responsibility: seek out our own authentic cultural and religious experience as “Jews-and,” and be responsible for creating those experiences for others, whose “and’s” look like a million different variations of our own, and role model what these authentic “Jewish-and” lives can look like. The idea of what a Jewish identity, or a Jewish life looks like is quickly changing on a very public scale. Blogs like Jewsh& are gaining connection and publicity, the Pew study is finding that at least 50% of married Reform Jews are in interfaith relationships, and Los Angeles is the most diverse Jewish community in the Diaspora. As professionals, but more importantly as Jewish leaders, we have to keep up both with the enduring elements of our practice and tradition, AND the emerging landscape and needs of our evolving society.
Civic engagement is defined as “the process of addressing an injustice, with the goal of improving our collective future,”in the words of Rabbi Judith Schindler and layleader Judy Seldin-Cohen in their recent book Recharging Judaism. I can’t think of a single Jewish profession in which “improving our collective future” shouldn’t be an overpowering goal. We are not only textual scholars, grant writers, and lesson plan makers, we are religious guides and role models. Our future constituents will look to us in making decisions both communal and personal, and that is a heavy load to bear. In the words of first Isaiah, we have to be prepared to “aid the wronged, uphold the rights of the orphan, defend the cause of the widow.” We must blend this canonic prophetic voice of justice with modern equivalents like that of Kimberlé Crenshaw, pursuing our obligation to honor their intersectionality; embracing the multiplicitous, diverse selves that shape our communities. In short, we must make choices as leadership that are founded on integrity and the pursuit of the greater good, and especially as the “greater” develops and shifts.
I quoted earlier in this speech that "a wise person is a student who makes [their] teacher wiser." A professor here once told me that the interesting thing about HUC-JIR, is that immediately after we graduate, we become professional colleagues with our professors. That while there is obviously still a degree of difference in experience, that the hierarchical difference ceases to exist. Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, the rabbi at Chabad of Poway in San Diego, said in message after the recent shooting that “One thing we do know, is that we are not alone.” We are not alone in our communities, we are not alone in our Jewish experiences, we are not alone in our work, we are not alone in our “and’s,” and as we can see here today, we are certainly not alone in our pursuit of improving our collective future. And as we leave here today, we are agreeing to take on this responsibility, not only as students of our teachers, but as students of every student and teachers of every teacher, to perpetually work toward creating that improved future for each person, in whatever place they are at, in all of the work that we do. I give all of you, my colleagues and my peers, my sincerest gratitude for all of your past, and future, growth with me throughout this journey. To all of us graduating today, mazel tov, and to all of you here, thank you.