Ordination Address Presented by Rabbi Rachel Cowan at HUC-JIR/New York Investitute and Ordination - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Ordination Address Presented by Rabbi Rachel Cowan at HUC-JIR/New York Investitute and Ordination

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Friday, May 13, 2011

Rabbi Rachel Cowan, Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, presented the Ordination address at New York Investiture and Ordination on Sunday, May 8, 2011 at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York.

"It is an honor be with you – the graduating cantorial and rabbinic students – and to have been chosen to speak to you today. 

But even more than honored, I feel lucky – because I get to give you a personal welcome into this extraordinary vocation that I cherish so deeply, into this blessed work of linking  thousands and thousands of Jews to the wisdom of our tradition, to their own deepest values and longing, to the pursuit of justice, peace and healing.  To God.  And to communities of meaning. 

I am also excited for you.  This is such an important time to become a rabbi or a cantor!!!  Our Jewish world is struggling with challenges and ripe with opportunities.  We wait for your leadership!

But – before we go on – let’s stop to acknowledge this very moment.  It is a precious moment.  You are no longer students – and not yet rabbis or cantors.  It is a moment poised on achievement and pregnant with promise.  It is a mikvah moment  - shortly you will walk up to Rabbi Ellenson for his blessing on one spiritual level, and leave on another.

So let us hold this moment in silence.

As you sit, see if you can recall the vision or mission that called you to become a cantor or a rabbi. 

·        What did you see then? 

·        What do you see now?  

·        Can you find an image to represent this aspiration?  What is a symbol of how you feel when you are in your strongest and clearest self?

·        Where is God in this picture?

And all of you who are here, take this time to send your blessings on these men and women whom you love, or to do the same meditation about your life’s choices.


This image is a representation  of your inner spiritual core:

·        It is the point of your deepest sense of truth – your moral compass

·       It is the place of your authenticity

·       It is the place of balance from which you can act most wisely

·       It is the place of your  strength – a strength that paradoxically  includes all your vulnerability and  your lack of control over most of the forces that affect your life.

·       It is the place from which you can choose to act with wisdom. 

·       It is the deepest guide for your leadership

·       It is the source of energy  -  you will plug in to renew yourself, to find the strength to continue, as well as the inspiration to keep imagining and hoping and singing and creating.

·       It is your inner tallit – the place where you rest under canfei hashekinah, in God’s loving presence

Your spiritual agenda is to stay in touch with your core, to nourish it, refine it, and allow it to grow and mature. 

I didn’t know I had a spiritual core 22 years ago when I sat in your pew, though I was beginning to suspect that there was something more I needed to understand to give me the confidence and courage and inspiration I would need to build my career and shape my life. 

The trajectory of my rabbinate on that day looked drastically different from what I had planned when I entered school.  Who knows what your trajectory will be!

But then the trajectory of my life had turned out to be different from what I could possibly have imagined growing up.  As a teenager in Wellesley Massachusetts, I was inspired by my Quaker summer camp and my Unitarian Church youth movement  - as well as my parents’ New England Protestant values – to become a social justice activist, civil rights worker, Peace Corps volunteer, feminist, birdwatcher.  A good person.

But more was called for from me.  I had the great fortune to meet Paul Cowan – to be entranced when he told me he worked for civil rights because he was a Jew – and to marry him.  Over the course of the next 15 years, raising two children, and making a home on the Upper West Side, we were drawn into Jewish life, and I to converting.  Thereafter, I became deeply involved with the people revitalizing the then comatose congregation Ansche Chesed, and was inspired to apply to rabbinical school. I was attracted to HUC for its emphasis on social justice, outreach and the emerging feminist consciousness amongst the women rabbis.

I planned to become a congregational rabbi   and build a spiritual community center.  My theology at the time posited a God whom Dr. Borowitz, with his trusty green-inked commentaries – said was the typical God-who-helps-those-who-help-themselves  favored by liberals.  Outside of Dr Borowitz’ classes, I did not think much about God.  We did not speak of the presence of God, the experience of prayer, or the inner life in those days.

Tragedy changed all that. Paul was diagnosed with leukemia at the beginning of my fourth year and died at the beginning of my last year.  The college community was unbelievably supportive of me. I don’t think I could have survived in any other setting.  Dr. Borowitz literally took me by the hand and guided me to Otzar Tehillim, a compendium of commentaries on the psalms, and we decided I would write about two psalms of despair. 

Through months of  shock and grief, I finally forgave the God whom I imagined had failed Paul and me and found a God who was present for the broken-hearted, and I could pray again. When I sat here that ordination day in 1989, in this awe-inspiring sanctuary, I felt Paul with me – high up above, radiating love and pride.  In my memory, my sense of his presence is mingled with my memory of Benjie Schiller singing like an angel from the choir loft.

I did not become a congregational rabbi – at that time I felt too fragile to interview, or to move away from my home community, and the only synagogue looking for a rabbi in the New York area was not sure it was ready for a woman.  Instead I took a wonderful position as director of the Jewish Life and Values program of the Nathan Cummings Foundation.  From that post I came to see clearly how crucial rabbis and cantors are to the Jewish future, how challenging their work is, and how critical it was and is that we pay sustained attention to deepening the spiritual dimension of their lives and of liberal Judaism.

That was brought startlingly home when we funded  a group of rabbis to visit the Dalai Lama to talk with him about the ways that Jews  have devised to preserve our religion and culture through thousands of years of exile from our homeland.  The rabbis had one request:  “You have so many Jews coming to learn about spirituality from you.  Would you send them back to us?”

“I always do,” he said, “but you have to make a home that is hospitable to their search.  Otherwise, they will come right back here.”

Later, through working with my classmate and colleague Rabbi Nancy Flam and others to build the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, we helped rabbis, cantors and lay people to create such a home in many Jewish communities.

In this work, I discovered the concept of spiritual practice and ways to cultivate it.  By practice, I mean daily activities that cultivate qualities of mind, soul, heart and body, that are experiential, accessible, helpful – not simply intellectual, or rote.

Gradually, with a lot of work, I have integrated meditation, and prayer and blessing into my daily life in a way that centers me and helps me live with gratitude, joy, hope, patience, love and courage – even in times of stress, depression and despair.  I study regularly, and I try consciously to look for God’s presence in faces on the street and in the subway, in social interactions of all kinds and in walks in the park or flowers on fruit stands. Praying in shul is part of the work, but by no means all of it. I depend on the company and support of colleagues as they depend on mine.  

At the Institute for Jewish Spirituality we have worked with over 300 rabbis, cantors and educators, and I can tell you based on their experience as well as my own, that you who sit here today must make a commitment to yourself - that you will make time and space for cultivating your own spiritual practice amidst the demands of your work.  That means time for personal prayer, for meditation, for study, for caring for your body, for eating in a healthy way, and for art and music and being in nature – each of you will choose different aspects or find your own. 

You will always be tempted to postpone it – “I’ll do it tomorrow, not today,” you’ll say.  But start off with habit, and build around it.  Those of you here who love them, help them to do this.  You will be glad you did.

It sounds so corny, but it is exactly like those instructions on the airplane.  You have to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you can help others breathe!

Why am I sounding so urgent?  Because our Jewish community and our country need desperately and long for more thoughtful, calm, broadminded and authentically  inspirational leaders.   You can grow to fill this role, but not if you are running on empty.

You don’t have to be Ben Gurion or Golda Meir or Gandhi or Martin Luther King.  You just have:

·        to be your most authentic, courageous and inspiring self;

·        to trust your heart and keep opening it wider;

·        to be generous, compassionate, patient, collaborative, thoughtful;

·        to be grounded in texts that speak to your lives and those of your people;

·        to speak of God in your authentic way, in terms that help your people overcome their alienation and find a Jewish link to the transcendent;

·        to have the equanimity that can embrace paradox and can welcome conflicting opinions; 

·        to speak wisely and help others end this dreadful scourge of turning political differences into personal attacks; 

·        to be able to hold the terrible grief of those who suffer in your communities without becoming traumatized yourself, so you can celebrate with true joy the simchas of others, and come home with full attention to your families.

That is a lot of work, but wiith spiritual practice, teachers and trusted confidantes, you can do this!  You really can!

You are too important  to waste time and emotional energy

·        being overwhelmed with constantly trying to please everybody;

·        trying  to prove you are as smart or powerful or busy or important as everybody else;

·        collapsing into fear or confusion or doubt; 

·        burning out;

·        becoming cynical. 

With spiritual practice, teachers and trusted confidantes, you can believe in yourself and maintain faith in your purpose!  You really can!

We need you to see the good, to lead from a sense of abundance, not scarcity.  That is what we learn from Breishit:  How many times are we told “v’yaar elohim ki tov”?  In our morning prayer we acknowledge  God as hamekhadesh v’tuvo kol yom tamid ma’aseh vreisheit.”   How then can we not look for the good.  When we connect with God – we connect with an endless source of chesed, rachamim, ahava, emet and din.  We have the choice – do we limit the flow of these qualities in the world.  Or do we open the gates?

And finally, to make a difference you must both embrace your power and cultivate humility.  Power is not a dirty word.  It does not diminish your capacity to serve as a pastor, a teacher, a schlichat tzibur

 To use it wisely,  you need

·        to understand what  are the qualities  and sources of your particular power;

·         to connect it with your vision;

·        work on the quality of humility so you do not confuse your ego’s needs with your community’s needs;

·        find the ways to link  wisdom and courage. 

This kind of spiritual leadership is built from many small daily decisions, not from scaling mountain tops.  It is collaborative, reflective, compassionate. The more you pay attention to what is true in the moment and see clearly the choices that are open, the more likely you are to act wisely, and not just react emotionally or habitually. 

Waking up every morning with Modah ani, with blessings for our body, for light, for renewal of the good, we can strengthen our optimism and hope, our ability to see the good in others and the possibilities for the day, even when we feel the most despair.

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote,  "I was very fortunate in having lived as a child and as a young boy in an environment where there were many people I could revere, people concerned with problems of inner life, of spirituality and integrity.  People who have shown great compassion and understanding of other people."  With practice, we too can create such environments.

For we cannot heal the world without healing our soul,

We cannot love our neighbor without loving ourself,

We cannot transform the world without transforming ourselves. 

Ultimately we do this work on ourselves so that we can do what the prophet Micah commands: to love goodness, do justice and walk humbly with our God. 

May God bless you as you walk on your sacred path.

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