2011 SJNM Culmination Address by :Dr. John Ruskay, President and CEO, UJA-Federation of New York, :2011 Rabbi Louis Bernstein Scholar-in-Residence, :August 2, 2011

Friday, September 2, 2011

I begin by first thanking my colleague and friend, Richard Siegel, for inviting me to spend the last two mornings with 25 of the extraordinary students of HUC-JIR’s School of Jewish Nonprofit Management.  I welcomed the opportunity to return to the classroom where, as usual, I learned far more than I fear I imparted.  I leave inspired by the talent and commitment continually revealed by the students during our time together.

For the graduates, those “culminating" today, I congratulate each of you and your families who supported you; HUC-JIR’s faculty and administration who prepared you for this sacred work, and equally important—your fellow students.  I witnessed how you continually share your insights with one another—a positive indicator of the collaborative culture needed in our community.  I will leave tonight uplifted knowing that there are men and women with your talents, your commitment, and your passion to serve our community and our people long into the future.

We find ourselves at a moment of substantial change and enormous opportunity.  During the first half of the 20th century, our community focused on enabling waves of immigrants to integrate successfully into America and for the second part of the 20th century, while continuing to strengthen local communities, we responded boldly to the urgent need to rescue Jews and build the Jewish state.  During this period, we were essential partners in bringing 3 million Jews from throughout the world to Israel to establish new lives in freedom.  We  meet this afternoon with the “age of rescue” behind us, with an Israel that continues to face formidable external and internal challenges beyond what we might have imagined but a decade ago, but Israel today is nothing less than an economic, cultural and democratic miracle.

Today, as American Jews, we find ourselves in the most accepting and generous society where Jews have ever lived.  Until the l960s and l970s, although we gained access to the finest universities and increasingly obtained employment in every part of America’s economy, American martial norms contained Jewish communities.  All of this has changed; we are no longer a kept community, maintained by exclusivity American social norms.  The boundaries that maintained identity have been eliminated hence we live in the most open society where Jews have ever lived.

This is the moment of testing the promise of the Hasklaah and the enlightenment.  Can we live in both the open society and as identified Jews?  From my perch, this is the challenge, this is the opportunity, of our times and each of you, the professionals who have chosen to devote your precious talents to serve our community, you will be the architects shaping our response and our future. 

We are increasingly all “Jews by choice,” hence from my perch, the challenge of our generation can be stated as follows:  can we create Jewish life and Jewish communities that are sufficiently inspiring and compelling so Jews choose to self identity not because they have to; for they do not; not because of guilt, for they have little; but because Jewish life and jewish communities provides meaning, purpose, community?  Because Jewish life ennobles and enriches.  Because in engaging in Jewish life, we provide an enhanced means for engagement in the world, framed by the wisdom of our tradition, the values of our people, and the recognition of shared history and destiny.  And I might add, this is the identical challenge facing Jews in Tel Aviv, Moscow (which I visited last week), and in many other countries. 

Those culminating today will lead congregations, Hebrew schools, camps, Jewish communal agencies and agencies that are today only ideas; agencies that will be challenged to becoming models of inspired Jewish living.  Each of you will be called upon to inspire people to create Jewish lives of meaning; to engage in Jewish learning and service.

Another challenge will be to make the case for collective responsible.

We live at a time of unbridle individualism, including in philanthropy.  Increasingly, individuals want to provide financial support  for their own projects or areas of interest, which they should.

But if they follow this road, if they only support those projects which respond to their areas of interest; sustaining the essential institutions of our community and our people globally—synagogues, Jewish community centers, hillels, day schools, human service agencies and I might add Federations—will be increasingly challenged if not undermined.

In traditional Jewish communities in Europe, one could not build one's home higher than the synagogue. This might not work in the Manhattan real estate world but this minhag, this tradition can remind us yet again that we are part of a people which has a nuanced understanding of the relationship between individual and community.

At the Passover seder, We say avidim hayinu, we were slaves in Egypt.

On yom kippur, we say al chayt shehatanu, for the sins we committed.

We do not pray alone, we pray in a minyan.

We believe that live is enhanced by creating sacred communities that connect people to meaning, purpose, and for some God; and treat every human being as they are created “btzelem elohim,” in the image of God.

In this way,  we stand with pride,  against the grain of some aspects.

And there are other ways as well.

As but one example, consumer culture is today driven by advertising which took root in the 1920s.  At its core, advertising seeks to evoke a sence that  what you have isn’t sufficient.  You have a red car; this year you need a silver car.   You have a blue sweater; this year you must have beige.

And yet our tradition asks; “me ashir?”  Who is the rich individual?  ha-sameach bcheko, he or she is rich is the one who is satisfied with his portion.. 

Contemporary culture is powerful, to be sure. And we are all are both part of it and yet we must stand proudly as architects of sacred community, that affirms “the wisdom  of crowds:”; that affirms that live is lived far more richly if we are part of communities that actualize kedushah; that extend care to all; that take responsibility for our entire community and our entire people.

I congratulate each of you who are concluding your studies today and hope that your work will be enriching and satisfying professionally and personally.

We live at an extraordinary moment of Jewish opportunity when there is a recognition that we have the privilege of being able to forge communities that can model sacred and caring Jewish living.

What a moment of possibility. 

What a privilege to undertake this work together.

I look forward to working with each of you as colleagues and co-authors of the Jewish future.

Mazal tov.


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's first 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 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