Rabbi Karen L Fox, LMFT, Instructor of Practical Rabbinics at HUC-JIR's Skirball Campus in Los Angeles, and Rabbi Emerita at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, addressed the ordinands at the Skirball Campus' virtual consecration ceremony:
Thank you for that kind introduction, Dr. Rehfeld.
Beloved students who are now my colleagues, I begin my sacred responsibility today by acknowledging the context in which we meet. We have lived through strange coronavirus times, in these last 10 weeks. I share a few reflections from friends who are now your colleagues: They noted: “There appears to be no way to secure boundaries between home and work in this climate”; “How do I handle my anxiety with a new boss; if I was the last in—will I be the first out?”; Parents asked: “Who do I respond to first, my children or my community members?” I also heard: “My wife died in hospice care and this pandemic robbed us of one last touch. Now, No one can sit with me, in this shiva loneliness”.
We acknowledge that the world has changed, that we have changed and that the ordination you might have imagined has changed. We acknowledge that change is for some a loss, for others an opportunity.
Regardless of synagogue or computer screen, we gather today as a virtual community to celebrate each of you and your achievement, the HUC LA Rabbinic class of 2020. We give thanks to your parents, spouses, partners, children, family and friends. We honor you-- We honor you: Leora Esther Alban, Meir Christopher Bargeron, Noah A. L. Diamondstein, Calvin Sabastian Dox-DaCosta, Nora Elizabeth E. Feinstein, Daniel Moss Freedman, Sarah Elizabeth Rosenbaum.
We also thank…..HUC President Dr. Andrew Rehfeld, Provost Rabbi Dr Andrea Weiss, Dean Dr. Josh Holo and Dr. Dvora Weisberg, Director of the School of Rabbinic Studies;
We also are grateful for the HUC Board of Governors Chair Sue Hochberg and members of our Board of Governors and Board of Overseers, Faculty and Alumni for standing strong with the Hebrew Union College.
I am deeply touched that you asked me to share this moment with you. We have learned from each other for four years or even more; one of you I’ve known since you were an undergraduate, teaching Israeli dance at Camp Hess Kramer. We’ve shared classes, Sukkot celebrations, Shabbat dinners and general schmoozing over your years at the College-Institute.
What we have taught you here at HUC is Torah of the ages: from traditional texts to contemporary philosophy, from literature to prayer. In my role with you, we have translated this into rabbinic leadership including development of your pastoral skills. And through it all you have become more and more anchored in eternal Jewish values. We are confident, I am confident, that you will learn even more on your own two feet and develop practical skills and spiritual wisdom in response to an unforeseen future. We gather today to demonstrate our trust in you; you are ready.
But with this honor comes a responsibility to convey a truth to you; to tell you that you are fully ready and that you are never fully ready. But I know you will be courageous and confident enough to acknowledge that we don’t have the answers but we can partner to find approaches and solutions.
I, like many here today, have lived through traumas and celebrations—many of which could never have been anticipated here in America, in Israel or the world at large. Because of these experiences, I offer words, words to encourage, inspire and hope in light of the realities that have already marked your young lives—Charlottesville, Pittsburgh and now this global pandemic transforming our world as we gather.
In 1978, as I stood with my ordination class at Temple Emanuel in New York City, my European refugee-survivor parents were kvelling and a little stunned that their daughter and two years later their son, Steven, would become rabbis, publicly serving the American Jewish community. It was a new world for them just as it was for us.
I gratefully think of my teachers, especially Rabbi Richard Levy, z’l and of course, Rabbi “Bill” Cutter who is with us today. These were and are challenging and supportive mentors, those who loved and love the rabbinate and rabbis. The Faculty were all men, men who expanded their vision and generously opened pathways into this sacred career. There were no women in leadership in the College-Institute in 1978.
So I lovingly turned to my Great Aunt, Tante Lotte, also known as Dr. Charlotte Schwarzenberger, z’l a survivor, psychologist and professor at Washington University, in St Louis. Lotte wrote these words of encouragement, “Of course you can do it. I went to the Sorbonne in the 1920s! Of course, you can be a professional and a mother, women have always done it! And if it doesn’t work out, you can always begin again, and again, and again, like we all did, like Jews always do.” [i] Her words are blessing in my life and now, may they be in yours as well.
When I became a rabbi, I was so sure of my purpose. My purpose was to recreate and renew the Jewish people, traditions and culture. Despite my certainty, I quickly learned that the meanings and purposes of the rabbinate are much more complex. What rabbis do from day to day, from week to week has expanded and changed due to new social realities and technological advancement. You are on the cusp of even more change.
And yet, even in the midst of change, you are, we are, first and foremost anchored in and teachers of Torah, Torah in the broadest sense of Judaism’s evolving wisdom. With the trauma of the coronavirus so present in our minds, it is still the Torah that guides and holds us, that empowers us to raise our voices for justice and wisdom and extend our hands with care and love.
In this week’s Parasha, Bamidbar, Moses takes a census by tribe of all the men, 20 years and older. The text states: S’u Et Rosh— count them to ensure enough food, shelter, medicine and defense.
Here the Torah cries out: Darshay-ni- Darshayni—Intrepret me Broadly! We move beyond the p’shat – beyond the simple meaning.
It’s not that each person is a number as commentators have noted[ii] but how you measure up as a human being, as a Jew and now as a rabbi that counts.
How? We turn to four interpretations of Se’u Et Rosh, the counting of each person.
First, Seu Et Rosh-- Stand up and be counted --in your own way.
Medieval commentator Rashi explains that we count in the way that each “person gives to the mishkan”; an individual’s contribution matters”. In our last face to face Senior Seminar at HUC on Thursday morning March 12 you each scribed the ways you want to contribute to this Mishkan, the evolving Jewish community. One shared: “I want to touch people’s lives through the parts of Judaism that have impacted me so profoundly”. Another emphasized “I want to equip people to be their own translation of the traditions and welcome them into the holy Jewish community”. And a summary “I want to move gracefully into the unknown together”.
Yes, your individual contribution counts.
We interpret “Se’u et rosh” a second time – and wonder what it means to Lift your Head to assert yourself as a leader in our time. As our colleague, psychotherapist Edwin Friedman wrote: “ The basic concept of leadership requires a leader who will to take primary responsibility for their leadership position and works to define their own goals and self, while staying in touch with the rest of the”[iii] community.
Friedman might have said Stick your neck out sometimes!
Learn to take risks, make hard decisions, take clearly defined, non-reactive positions. Invite those who disagree to continue the conversation and engage them with kindness along the way.
In her first year as Chief Executive of the CCAR, Rabbi Hara Person, faced a serious dilemma: what would she do with the annual CCAR convention, due to meet in two weeks?. COVID 19 was just unfolding in the public eye. Since 1889, the convention had never been cancelled. Rabbi Person rallied her board, negotiated with contracted hotels and cancelled the face-to-face CCAR conference for 500 rabbis. She then led the way from cancellation to connection. With her staff, she created CONNECT 2020, the first online CCAR conference.
Yes, assert yourself as a Jewish leader by defining the G’vul—your boundaries and your opportunities.
Se-u Et Rosh— this third lesson demands that you look inward, to your own heart and soul.
When we sat in class, you shared your fears: “our world has become a dangerous place. There is a rise of antisemitism, climate change, gun violence; how can we guide in such volatile times?”; one of you revealed “I’m worried that my flaws will raise their ugly head at inopportune moments; ” and finally, “I’m really afraid of being lonely” (Written notes, HUC LA Senior Class, March 12, 2020).
In raising these questions, you demonstrated how reflective you are – you heard your heart and soul. That self-reflection will help you lead your community.
When you recognize your own need for support, whether you feel vulnerable, uncertain or lonely, don’t wait. Don’t wait-- Reach out to a friend, a psychotherapist, a spiritual director or coach or one of your trusted professors here at the College-Institute.
For me, support came from my Hevruta partner. After twenty years into the rabbinate, I felt isolated by the confidentialities I kept and the loneliness of being of the synagogue and not really a member. At that moment, Rabbi Sheyl Lewart z’l invited me to be her Hevruta. We began a journey together: a journey of Torah, mutual support and deep friendship. For over 13 years we studied each and every Tuesday lunch”. [iv] Connection can save you from psychological and spiritual demise. Hevruta Tatzil m’mavet.
A final interpretation of Seu Et Rosh—Be uplifted and uplift others:
Hasidic interpretation detects a deeper significance in the term Se’u, “lift up:”The real counting of Israel points upward. Torah demands: Elevate the head. This lifting raised people up to the highest rungs of awe, directing their hearts to the Holy One. As the Psalmist says, INPUT HEBREW “Lift your eyes to the mountains and receive strength from Above.” [v] As a rabbi, you live in a network of relationships with a diversity of people: teachers and mentors, colleagues and students, friends and family, and your community. You, my rabbi friends, are charged with elevating many in your circles. Be uplifted by God’s strength and thereby uplift others.
The ominous beginning of the 2020s has already changed our people, the nation and the world.
Yet, our society is learning what Jews have known for centuries: We need each other, we need a minyan, we need a community of shared purpose, to carry us through tears and trauma, joy and celebration. We need to connect, to embrace and be embraced, to appreciate what human beings give each other: empathy, love and hope. With open hearts, Seu et Rosh—Be lifted up and thereby, Uplift others.
Rabbis, I welcome you into our sacred life, into the rabbinate, into the sacred community of the CCAR. And this is My blessing to each of you on your Rabbinic journey:
[i] Letter to KLF,1978
[ii] (Spilker, R., Women’s Torah Commentary, p. 810)
[iii] “Leadership and Self”, Friedman, Edwin H. MSW, Generation to Generation, p. 229
[iv] KLF eulogy of Rabbi Sheryl Lewart, Dec 1, 2012
[v] Rabbi Yosef Bloh, Ginzey Yosef 1792, Green, Leader, Mayse, Rose. Spiritual Teachings from aroundthe Maggid’s Table, Volume II, p. 5