Presidential Inauguration Address by Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D., at Plum Street Temple, October 27, 2019 - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Presidential Inauguration Address by Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D., at Plum Street Temple, October 27, 2019

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Wednesday, October 30, 2019

President Andrew Rehfeld 

Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D., was inaugurated as the 10th President in the 144-year history of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the academic and professional leadership center of Reform Judaism, on Sunday, October 27, 2019, at Cincinnati’s landmark Isaac M. Wise / K.K. B’nai Yeshurun / Plum Street Temple. President Rehfeld delivered the address below to international leaders of the Reform Movement, dignitaries from international academic institutions and organizations, communal and civic leaders of Cincinnati, alumni, faculty, and students. 


Commemoration of Pittsburgh

This week as we read the story of Noach, with the story of the rain and the ark, the animals and dove, we are introduced to the first covenant with God.  That covenant, symbolized by the rainbow, promised that humans would never be threatened again with the kind of complete destruction visited upon them by the flood.

Destruction need not be complete to be devastating. 

Before I begin my formal address, we take a moment to commemorate the attack in Pittsburgh that occurred one year ago today.  11 people lost their lives then in the single worst assault on Jews in United States history. Like the synagogue in Halle, Germany, on Yom Kippur this year, these people and institutions were targeted simply because they were Jewish. 

The assailant made clear that he chose the specific synagogues he did because of a program they had held with HIAS, the immigrant aid society, the week before. As we commemorate the loss, let us then also remember that an assault on the immigrant, any attempt to dehumanize minorities and others simply because they are “other,” is an assault on each one of us. 

How does a community move forward after such a tragedy?  Rabbi Larry Hoffman, The Barbara and Stephen Friedman Professor Emeritus of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at Hebrew Union College, and the creative force behind today’s magnificent ceremony, observed that the very words at the start of our Torah portion this week include v’hakimoti, “And I [God] will establish,” referring to God’s covenant.” That verb “to establish” also means, “to cause to stand.” 

Today, we recognize that the Jewish community of Pittsburgh has been standing up again day by day by day for the last year, trying to move forward in the face of tragedy.

The Jewish Federations of North America has organized a “pause” at 5 PM today to help Jewish communities around the world commemorate the 11 people who lost their lives.At that time, we will stand with Pittsburgh to say kaddish for those killed, formally recognizing the yahrzeit of their deaths.  

And at this moment, we pause for a moment of silence to commemorate this massacre, removing a few drops of time from our proverbial cup of celebration to honor the memory of those who were slain.  

May the lives of those who were murdered be forever remembered as a blessing. 


Inaugural Address

In his inaugural address as HUC's 8th President, in October 2002, Rabbi David Ellenson spoke of the tension that any new president feels between two ideas drawn from our tradition: 

On the one hand: “the decline of generations,” the sense that we will never live up to our predecessors;

and on the other hand:  the teaching that "the law is always decided according to the latest authorities.” 

In other words, while each new president steps into shoes much too big to fill, we must nevertheless have the confidence to lead the College-Institute on the next step of its journey. 

As I take on this role as the 10th President of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, it is indeed easy to be overwhelmed by the size of those shoes.  The names alone are now legendary: from our founders Isaac Mayer Wise and Stephen S. Wise, to the three individuals who already in this century began their service as “President:”

  • Rabbi Norman Cohen, who in his 6 months of leadership as Acting president in 2001 and his 14 years as Provost transformed our rabbinical school curriculum for a new century of leadership;
  • Our 8th President, Chancellor Emeritus Rabbi David Ellenson who brought his prodigious wisdom and warmth to lead our institution on a “new way forward,” and brought needed stability and comfort after our devastating loss 18 months ago; and  
  • President, Rabbi Aaron Panken, of blessed memory, a gifted and beloved teacher whose commitment to Israel brought new energy to our College-Institute and vibrancy to our entire movement there; whose approaches to learning, teaching, management, and technology helped position HUC to face the significant challenges of contemporary Jewish Life around the world.  

How can I, how could anyone, live up to such a legacy? The enormity of the task can be overwhelming.  These are large shoes to fill indeed. 

It may appear to some that my entire life journey seems to have “destined” me for this moment, committed as it has been to a life of the mind and the life of our people.  Indeed, many of you have shared that very sentiment with me. 

As a graduate student and lecturer at the University of Chicago, I came to recognize the power of ideas to shape our world, even as I was inspired by the religiously progressive, Reform Judaism at KAM-Isaiah-Israel, confronting the challenges of sustaining congregational life while serving on its board, learning from its Klei Kodesh: Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, of blessed memory, Rabbi Rachel Mikvah, and Cantor Deborah Bard.  While on the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis, I also served on the boards of our Hillel and St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council.

And then, for almost 7 years as the CEO of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, I led a team addressing the existential challenges the Jewish people is now facing.  No longer as urgent as they once were in our last devastating century, they are still every bit as existential, slowly eating away at our communities, slowly undermining Jewish Education, Jewish Engagement, and Jewish Identity.   But even then, as a Jewish professional, I continued to publish and teach courses at Wash U on Zionism and Jewish Political Thought. 

These joint commitments to Jewish Communal Service and the Academy were made possible because of the extraordinary family for whose love and support I am so dearly grateful.  My mother Beverly ensured that I had a strong Reform Jewish Education, despite raising two not always cooperative kids as a single mother with unconditional love. 

My father Rex, and stepmother Ruth, of blessed memory, encouraged me as a teenager to attend our local youth group and then the Union for Reform Judaism’s Kutz Camp, as they modeled their own impressive commitment to Reform Jewish and civic Engagement, a commitment now shared by Ellen O’Brien, who joined in sacred partnership with my father 10 years ago and whose own religious commitments have deepened and strengthened our entire family. 

And my Jewish Identity was shaped around the shabbat and holiday tables of my grandparents and immigrants themselves, Morris and Frances Slotnick, of blessed memory, and then at the home of my uncle and aunt Dr. Edward and Vicki Slotnick, whose love of ritual, music, and family grounded me and elevated my soul. 

I then did the best I could to “pay it forward” raising my own children—Emma and Hoben—with that same love of Jewish life, ideas, and family that I was given.  And if they feel that commitment to our texts, our practices, and our people, they do so only because of the unfailing friendship, partnership, and commitment of my wife, Dr. Miggie Greenberg, as we built a Jewish life together. 

To all of them I am deeply grateful.

And so, I do understand the narrative that others have described to me: the journey of my life seems inevitably to lead right to this historic moment today.    

Yet, I would reject the hubris that this moment is somehow b’shert, as if it were meant to be.  I reject it not merely because it minimizes the achievements of my predecessors.  And not merely because there are others who would have also provided exceptional, if nevertheless different kinds of leadership for HUC at this time.

I reject any idea of fate because there is no story of my journey here that does not involve the loss of Aaron Panken. 

I take on a presidency that no one wished needed to be filled, under circumstances we pray we may never face again.  Even as we celebrate this historic moment of change and I accept the authority to take our College-Institute on the next step in its journey, our joy is mixed with the very real sorrow that such a new step would be needed at all. 

In his own inaugural address in 2014, President Panken recognized the value of our work and the inherent fragility of life:  “…it is entirely worthwhile dedicating one’s life to the exquisite honor of committed Jewish leadership, for as long as God will graciously allow us to do so…”

Indeed. 

Sue Neuman Hochberg, Chair of the Board of Governors, I am humbled by the confidence that the Board of Governors has placed in me and accept the Board’s charge to become its 10th President.  But I do so fully cognizant of the unfinished presidency on which mine will be built, and that the particular shoes I step into are not merely large, they are suspended in mid-stride. 

Despite the shadows of pain and loss today, we will have the courage and fortitude to build on Aaron’s legacy and move HUC into a new and dynamic direction.  I am filled with optimism for our institution and hope for its future because the College-Institute drives ideas and builds leaders to shape communities that bring hope and healing to our fragmented world. 

To achieve this promise Hebrew Union College must take itself seriously as an academic institution.  We must invest in our learned and distinguished faculty and inspire a culture of ideas and innovation of spiritual practice as we educate a next generation of Jewish leaders to deepen Jewish Education, Jewish Engagement, and Jewish Identity that create a vibrant Jewish Public Sphere.   We will only be able to realize this vision if we recognize the slow, existential threats facing us today, and then leverage our diverse resources, as a single institution, One HUC, to execute our mission with excellence. Doing so, we will continue to serve as the intellectual center of our religiously progressive movement, based on the very ideas on which our institutions were founded: the embrace of Torah, Avodah, and Klal Yisrael—our texts, our ritual traditions, and our people—on the basis of Reason and Moral Autonomy, for the sake of pursuing a world of Goodness, Holiness, Righteousness, and Justice. 

And look and the strength of this institution represented by all of you here today: faculty and students from all four campuses and multiple programs, Board members from around the world, staff and supporters who came from near and far for this historic celebration of our institution.  Today is testament to the dedication and hard work of so many. While there are too many names to list now, I want to offer my immense gratitude to the lead architects and executors of this inaugural weekend: Liz Squadron, Joy Greenberg, Rabbi Elliott Kleinman, Kristin Young, and Rabbi Andrea Weiss, along with Rabbi Larry Hoffman, Cantor Richard Cohn, along with Merri Arian, Cantor Benji Schiller and Joyce Rosenzweig—faculty of our Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music as well as our students and participants (including my daughter!) who elevated our celebration today—to Rabbis Lewis Kamrass and Karen Thomashow, and the entire staff and board of the I M Wise Center and this magnificent Plum Street Synagogue. To our entire Cincinnati campus team, led by Rabbi Jonathan Hecht and supported by Autumn Wheeler, as well as our national office team including Lissie Diringer, Jean Bloch Rosensaft, Andrea Kann, Ally Glazer, Samantha Tananbaum, and my assistant Nicole Vandestienne, whose work behind the scenes made this weekend possible. None of which would be possible without our Boards of Governors and Overseers, led by Sue Neuman Hochberg, all of whom and many more are acknowledged in today’s program.

 

Journeys Are Not Always So Fraught

The journey of my life that brought me here included a trip to Israel I took with my daughter Emma just a few months before her Bat Mitzvah. I had been invited to Jerusalem to deliver a paper on John Locke and the Hebrew Bible. I was eager to return to a place that shaped who I was and to help Emma develop her own “strong chords of sympathy,” as Alexander Hamilton had put it in Federalist 35, with her people and our historic land, so we went together on a two-week journey... A journey to a land that I would show her… To a place she did not know. 

We had all kinds of adventures together. During my conference, an Israeli teenager showed Emma an “insider’s” view of the city. Afterwards, Emma was filled with excitement. “Dad!”, she said, “I had the best falafel you’ve ever tasted. We have to go back to the restaurant!” Okay, so it wasn’t the history or the language, the culture, or religion that was as exciting to her as it was to her old man. But it was thrilling to see her creating her own story of Israel, her own sense of identity with our people, her own connection to the land.

“Of course,” I said, “I’d love to go.” So I asked her the question, “Emma, do you know the name and address of the restaurant?” Have you ever asked a twelve-year-old a simple question that she doesn’t know the answer to, and so, responds as if you were the fool, eyes rolled back deep into her head?  I have… “Dad…of course I don’t know the name or address,” she said dismissively. “But I can describe to you exactly what it looks like!” 

Her eyes (once again turned forward) sparkled.  The words then came fast: “It is a small store, with only three tables.  There’s a man behind the counter with black hair and an unshaven face—but not a beard.  He makes the sandwich by throwing a falafel ball high in the air and catching it in an open pita which he then fills with colorful salads.  I’d know it anywhere:  there was a big spit of shawarma roasting off to the side and the storefront was made from tan-brown stone!” 

Oh—that Falafel store! Emma could see in my face what so many of you know—she had just described every falafel store in Israel! “Well,” she said, “don’t worry, there was this blue tarp over the store next to it, and I spoke to the cook, so I’ll know it when we get there!” 

Yeah, but how would we get there? And so, I followed behind as my daughter took me on a journey through the streets of the Jerusalem, to a place that I did not know. Searching and searching. And searching. 

 

A Journey in the Public Sphere

The Jewish people know about journeys and searching, with many voices leading the way.

The Reform Movement has been on its own journey since Isaac Mayer Wise founded its three bedrock institutions here in Cincinnati:  the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1873; Hebrew Union College in 1875; and the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1889.  Three separate institutions, three voices with different purposes, yet working together to advance religiously progressive, Reform Judaism in North America and around the world.  Since that time our movement and its institutions have changed to meet the needs of a changing world, just as the Jewish People and our tradition have for thousands of years.  And we are so blessed that Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Hara Person, Executive Director of the CCAR are participating with us in the ceremony today, along with their board chairs Daryl Messinger and Rabbi Ron Segal, continuing the work of these essential institutions.

HUC-JIR has now expanded from a seminary that prepares Rabbis to become the largest graduate and professional school for Jewish professional leadership in the world, operating campuses in Los Angeles, New York, Jerusalem, and of course Cincinnati where it all began.  

HUC drives the development of ideas and leadership that strengthen the Jewish Public Sphere: the institutions that form the canvas of communal life upon which we as a people realize our collective values to serve the highest Good and the Holy, and lead our world to Justice.

The idea of a Public Sphere is not particular to Jewish life.  It may be more familiar to us in America through the idealized images seared into our collective unconscious upon which the Public Sphere was realized–

Norman Rockwell's scenes of New England towns, Mark Twain's depictions of life along the Mississippi river. Images of new immigrants arriving in America to seek religious freedom and fortune. 

Those idealized images illustrated how a network of institutions can bind us together, helping us draw unity from discord to realize our aspirations and meet our collective obligations to one another: hospitals and social service organizations, schools, museums, and community centers; parks, libraries, and cemeteries; and community newspapers whose shared stories inspired “strong chords of sympathy” between all of its readers.

At the center of these mythic American images always stood the local church, a recognition that religious commitments and communities bind us together, anchoring individuals and families on a shared basis of equality before God and justice for all. 

Today, we know that these depictions were overly romanticized to the point of moral injury by their exclusion of women, Native Americans, and other minorities, and were built upon the evil of African slavery. Today, thanks to inclusion of previously excluded voices, a reimagined ideal of the American Public Sphere is emerging that makes room for the dispossessed, reinforcing our commitments to the American values of equality, freedom, and individualism, even if and yes, especially when these ideals are not achieved.

The Jewish Public Sphere emerges from a similar set of Jewish institutions that our graduates create, sustain, and strengthen:  synagogues and congregations, community schools, Jewish Federations, Hillels, Jewish Community Centers, secular non-profits, colleges, and social service agencies. They are serving in the military and hospitals as chaplains.  Through their writing, podcasts, and videos they are now inspiring “strong chords of sympathy” with those whose stories are told whom we might never otherwise learn about.

The Jewish Public Sphere maintains the very canvas upon which our lives are lived, our values are articulated, and our future in no small part depends.  Through it our alumni are deepening Jewish Education, inspiring Jewish Engagement, and strengthening Jewish Identity, building communities with innovative ritual and mobilizing for justice to respond to the challenges of our times.  In collaboration with our faith partners, broader community and government, the Jewish Public Sphere helps us to identify and solve collective problems and address our own communal needs, including our welfare and security in these times in which we once again are targeted and attacked simply for being Jews.

Just as the American Public Sphere has evolved over time, our 21st-century Jewish Public Sphere is changing.  HUC must drive the ideas and inspire a new generation of leadership to meet this changing environment. 

We are seeing greater innovation in how communities are gathering and forming.  Old models of membership and affiliation are declining, and new institutions and practices are taking their place.  The synagogue is itself changing, and with these changes HUC must prepare our students to build, maintain, and sustain both existing and new forms of communal life and religious expression. 

Our Jewish communities are also becoming far more diverse than in the past. We are multi-racial; inter-faith; inter-denominational; non-denominational; inter-gendered; inter-oriented; multi-ideological.   We must prepare our students to lead communities who are themselves not always ready to embrace this change.  This diversity starts with what we read yesterday in Genesis:

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ

That we were created in God’s image and likeness. All of us. Not just some of us. 

President Panken celebrated our movement’s commitment to inclusion in his own inaugural address: our Judaism, he wrote, is “egalitarian, inclusive of patrilineal Jews and intermarried families, welcoming to the LBGT[Q] community, politically active, and comfortably in dialogue with other faiths and ideologies.”  He noted with justified pride that we led the way, as other streams of Judaism adopted these innovations, as “the direct result of our movement’s past actions.”

Indeed we should pause to recognize two of these achievements right now, that represent our commitment to such inclusion:  the presence with us today of Rabbi Sally Priesand, who 47 years ago on this very spot became the first female rabbi in North America and second, the pathbreaking role of our Provost, Rabbi Andrea Weiss, who this past spring became the first woman in our movement’s history to ordain our rabbis and cantors. These milestones illustrate HUC’s and our movement’s deep commitment to a moral and inclusive Judaism. 

 

What’s the “Why” of Religiously Progressive, Reform Judaism?

Even in this time of great change, religious institutions remain central to the public sphere. Serving as the College-Institute’s first non-rabbinical president puts me in a distinct position to recognize what most Rabbis or Cantors cannot, as adults, fully understand: the continued power, influence, and importance of Klei Kodesh to those of us who have not taken on your sacred calling.  I speak here with great humility before you, but also with great confidence about what I am saying: because I indeed am a direct product of your work. 

I am worried though that the ideological foundations of the Reform Jewish public sphere that are embraced by our congregational and movement leadership are not felt strongly enough in the pews to sustain us into the 21st century.  

Certainly, many Reform Jews define themselves proudly by what our movement does: we make informed choices about what religious traditions to observe, pursue social justice, create welcoming and inclusive communities. More concerning is that many Reform Jews define themselves by what they do not do: they are Reform Jews because do not keep kosher, do not observe Shabbat, do not pray three times a day. 

My concern is that defining one’s identity by our movement’s noble and righteous practices of inclusion and social justice that we just celebrated will still not be enough to sustain vibrant Jewish communities without some greater understanding of the ideological foundations upon which those practices are based.  If we ask ourselves, “Why are we Reform Jews” “Why are we committed to inclusion and tikkun olam,” or more simply, “Why be Jewish at all?” do we have the answers that will motivate people to lead engaged Jewish lives when they might so easily opt out?

Of course, we have the books.  Our movement has issued platforms.  We even teach classes about it at HUC.   But we are struggling to translate these ideas to inspire more people to live committed, engaged lives as religiously, progressive Jews.  Without an answer to those questions in the pews, as it were, we now face a crisis of identity and authenticity. 

In my view, religiously progressive, Reform Judaism is committed to the primacy of reason; the moral autonomy of the individual; and particularistic-universalism that drives our engagement with Torah, Avodah, and Yisrael—our texts, our ritual, and our People; in order to secure the Good, the Holy, the Right, and the Just. 

Our commitment to Reason means that we mediate our understanding of the world, including religious life, through reason, evidence and science.  We thus recognize that our texts and tradition are the result of human reflection with questions of meaning and purpose, a function of historical and physical processes, even as we are open to seeing the Divine in these processes.

Second, we embrace individual morally autonomy, affirming that each of us has the responsibility for our actions, and thus must acquire knowledge to make good choices.  We thus reject a hierarchical structure in which Rabbis serve as the interpreters of God’s will, expressed in the form of issuing binding religious law.  Our clergy instead derive their authority and deserve a specific form of respect, kevod ha-rav, from their ability to share our tradition to lead, guide, teach and inspire us to make our own individual moral and religious decisions.

And we are committed to particularistic-universalism, the particular attachment to our own texts, ritual practices and people, valuing not only the specific richness of our tradition, but doing so because we understand that grounding in a specific moral community and set of practices is the most effective way to achieve our universal ideals. 

Although there is much more that needs to be said about these three ideals of reason, moral autonomy, and a commitment to a particular kind of universalism, I note they are broadly characteristic of most liberal religious movements.  What defines us as Jews is our attachment to our own particular practices and community in order to secure those universal values of the Good, Holy, Right, and Just. 

The most pressing challenge I believe we are facing today arises from this particular question: If we are committed to universalism, why should we be Jewish at all?

Let us just pause to appreciate the potency of this question at this moment in history.  We are witnessing today the return of a vicious kind of particularism, a particularism that knows no common good and advances injustice and evil throughout the world.   A particularism that leads a white supremacist to kill “Jews simply because they are Jews.” 

And yet, we must recognize that the value of particularism – of embracing and caring for our own – is a critically important means to achieving the universal values to which we aspire. For universalism unmediated by any attachment to the particular fails to appreciate the limits of human nature.

Let me give you an imperfect analogy.

Even though we believe that all children are of equal moral value, and deserve to be loved and cared for equally, we recognize that taking on particular obligations to our own children is the most effective way to achieve our universal commitment, and build healthy adults and families that ground and sustain a just society. 

In a similar way does a commitment to a specific tradition and community advance universal values more broadly.

Universalism that emerges from particularism is founded in the very wisdom of our own tradition.  The familiar command from Leviticus 19 to “love your neighbor as yourself” is read by many as a call to love all people equally.  Yet it is founded on the singular categorical “neighbor” as if to recognize that the love of all must start with the love of the individual or a specific community in which we are grounded.  Our tradition recognizes the limits of human nature: that only God could have the capacity to truly love the entirety of the world all at once. 

And so, we choose to commit ourselves to being religiously progressive Reform Jews not simply because of the value and richness of our particular tradition.  We commit to being religiously progressive Reform Jews because we understand that making a commitment to the specific community and set of practices that resonates with us is the most effective way to achieve the very universal ideals to which we aspire.  And it is because Reform Judaism rejects noxious particularism, particularism that exists for its own sake, that we recognize the equal value of other faith traditions and so warmly welcome them without prejudice, as coequal partners in the betterment of our world.

We thus commit ourselves to our sacred inheritance as ours, because it resonates and grounds us with us, whether because we were born into it, raised up by it, feel called by God to follow it, or simply choose to be part of it. That inheritance is defined by Torah, Avodah, and Yisrael: 

Torah: we study our texts as a means to understand the Good, the Holy, the Right, and the Just. 

Avodah: we engage in ritual spiritual practices to express our awe and wonder, hopes and fears, joy and dread in our encounter with the ineffable, the beautiful, the unknowable, and the Divine; and  

Yisrael, we embrace our collective obligations to our own community and the Jewish People, “Israel” in its broadest sense, for whom “Israel the place” is a formative and continued part of our identity, as a means to model for others and expand our love of all.

Torah, Avodah, and Yisrael:  the very particularism that our students are inspired to ground their own Jewish lives and careers at HUC, to build communities of value, meaning and purpose, Goodness, Holiness, Righteousness, and Justice.  

 

Challenges

For 144 years, students have entered HUC to prepare themselves as leaders of our communities. We have multiple programs and multiple campuses; but the College-Institute is a single institution, One HUC, that is well positioned to confront the challenges that we face.

After spending nearly a month in residence on all four campuses, I have been impressed and inspired by the commitment to service and practice by our students, faculty, and staff. The joy, hope, excitement and energy of Jewish life is palpable on each campus!  Given the issues I have just discussed, I have, however, observed one challenge we are facing is taking ideas more seriously.  This has an effect on minimizing the impact that ideas have to transform our Jewish Public Sphere. 

As President Panken put it this way 5 years ago:  “Reform Jewish learning must move from pleasant and at times superficial, to real awareness of the extraordinary gifts that lie at the heart of our tradition.” And when people no longer engage deeply in ideas face to face, in communities, when they are encountered in isolation, we too easily live in “echo chambers” that reinforce our own preconceptions and fail to encounter others who think differently than we do.  By not taking on the most important discussions in our public spaces, we are unlearning compassion and creating the very culture that makes ideas hard to confront in person.  

As an academic institution, Hebrew Union College stands poised to help address these challenges by rededicating ourselves to be, as President Panken put it, “…the intellectual center of our Movement.” 

HUC can only drive ideas and translate them into the Public Sphere if we place academic excellence as our highest institutional priority. 

Academic excellence begins by recognizing that our most important asset is our faculty and that means finding them the time they need to write more, and engage broadly with the academic communities and communities of practice outside of our own institutions.  It also means growing the resources that we have to support them. 

These are magnificent academic resources central to our academic standing, including the largest single collection of Jewish Printed Material outside of Israel here in the Klau Library.  Or HUC’s Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, the world’s largest free-standing research center dedicated solely to the study of the American Jewish experience, and directed by the remarkable Dr. Gary Zola on the historic Cincinnati Campus.  It includes our collections in our the Skirball Museum here in Cincinnati, directed by Abby Schwartz, and our Dr. Bernard Heller Museum in New York, curated by Laura Kruger and directed by Jeanie Rosensaft.  It also includes our HUC Press, co-directed by professors David Aaron and Jason Kalman.   And the work of our professors, like HUC Professor Wendy Zierler, who co-edits the Journal Prooftext, a journal of Jewish Literary History.   

How do we transfer the academic excellence of our outstanding faculty into excitement about ideas and in-depth learning in the Jewish Public Sphere? 

Many universities today facing similar challenges have created offices of technology transfer that translate their own faculty’s research in engineering, medicine, and science for the marketplace.   Well, the Jewish people have had their own technology transfer offices for over 2000 years: at HUC today we call them “our classrooms.” Giving our faculty more support to promote intellectual creativity and experimentation in practice will create a new kind of intellectual excitement on our campuses that will inspire our students to take ideas more seriously and to bring them to their communities, grounding their work as Jewish leaders and educators. Ultimately, this will help transform more of our communities into communities of serious Jewish learning, innovative practice, and engagement. 

But we can only do this if we are willing to think differently and leverage our extensive resources collectively as a single institution, one-HUC, to serve our multiple programs and campuses. 

The good news is that ideas continue to drive and interest us.  HUC’s College Commons podcasts pioneered by Dean Josh Holo of our LA campus started in response to a thirst for substantive Jewish learning. Across the country, and around the world, where institutions are offering dynamic programs that bring people together around ideas, the response has also been overwhelmingly positive.  These example prove the very real thirst to engage in ideas.

These other institutions, like HUC, promote ideas directly into communities.  HUC’s unique value proposition is to use ideas to educate the future leaders of our public sphere.  To be successful at Jewish Idea Transfer we thus must also prioritize our students’ needs, unburdening them from the demands of excessive employment while at HUC, so they can prioritize all aspects of an integrated curriculum in which they have time to study and reflect in supervised fieldwork, and through a range of other experiences. Deans David Adelson and Jonathan Hecht model this type of integrated learning, bringing a combination of academic engagement and congregational experience to their leadership of our New York and Cincinnati campuses.

Supporting our students means providing them with greater financial support and enhanced student services. Financial support is more critical today to continue to attract and retain the highest caliber students possible, a priority that President Panken also emphasized.  To do this we need a significant mindset shift in three ways. 

First, we must recognize that the future leaders of the Jewish People, the very best and the brightest of our next generation, are not only considering professions in service to the Jewish People.  Driven to helping others, they are also considering often more lucrative professional careers as doctors, lawyers, social workers, musicians, artists, academics, and many other options.  They emerge from college often saddled with debt.  If we are serious about continuing to attract the very best and brightest to lead our communities, we have to be ambitious and change the economic calculus they are facing.   

Second, we must find ways to make it easier for second career students to find a pathway into every single program our school offers.  We must address this urgent challenge and look to the more flexible residency models we have currently built through our Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management and School of Education.

And finally, with significant faculty and campuses in four cities and two continents, we have built ourselves a magnificent institutional infrastructure; but our current program offerings do not take full advantage of this infrastructure.  We must explore opportunities to expand our academic impact by developing new programs to meet our capacity.  And we can change our mindsets about by recognizing that our infrastructure is not a “burden to be managed” but an “opportunity to be leveraged.”

This work will mean more actively partnering with the communities in which we operate.  Doing so, we continue President Panken’s commitment to “…root ourselves more firmly into the communities in these cities and around the globe…,” using our four campuses to be vital collaborative partners with the local communities in which they operate.

Our work in Israel provides a tremendous and growing example of this approach.  Thanks to the Taube Family Philanthropies that invested in our Taube Family Campus in Jerusalem, President Panken’s vision is now being realized through the efforts of Dean, Rabbi Naamah Kelman and her team there.  The 108 Israeli rabbis ordained at our Jerusalem Campus are now leading dozens of congregations around the country.  And I am pleased to announce that in June of 2020, we will start a celebration of the 50th anniversary of our Year in Israel Program that brings our first year Rabbinical, Cantorial, and Education students to Israel.  This celebration will allow HUC to express our sustained commitment to promoting religiously progressive Judaism in Israel and strengthening the relationship between Israel and North America.   I am grateful to Rabbi Elliott Kleinman for spearheading this initiative. 

 

Conclusion

How exactly can we accomplish all these things?  It will take hard work.  It will take significant resources.  And it will take time. 

As the rabbis teach us, we are not obligated to complete the work—and certainly not on our own—but neither can we desist from it (Pirke Avot 2:21).

And indeed, returning to Jerusalem on my journey with Emma, she certainly did not give up.  She might not have remembered the most direct route, but she kept at it and eventually we found our way.

We turned one corner, then the next.  We rounded a bend and she asked this person a question, then that one.  She even turned to me as she searched for more information. 

Eventually, we found ourselves in front of a falafel store. 

A store with an unshaven man throwing falafel into the air.  

As we approached, the man looked up and, using Emma’s Hebrew name said, “Ma nishma Miriaym, ha-kol b’seder?!.” 

Journeys certainly can be circuitous and take unexpected turns.  Emma succeeded because, despite being in the shadow of her father, she led with her own authority, confident in her leadership.  She took herself and her ideas seriously.  She was determined to reach the destination, taking the many voices that told her “go this way, go that” to create one voice that got us to where we needed to be. 

So as we embark together on this unanticipated journey, let us be inspired to complete the unfinished work of President Panken, moving forward with our own authority into new dynamic directions ahead.  Let us find our own voice, take ourselves seriously, going forth with optimism and confidence, inspiring our communities with ideas, leading with integrity, and strengthening our own Jewish Public Sphere.

For thatis the work of Hebrew Union College,

This is the work of our Reform Movement and our People.

And together we will build a foundation of Goodness, Holiness, Righteousness, and Justice for all who inhabit the Earth.


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 leaders to serve 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, museums, 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