HUC-JIR/New York Graduation Address by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, President, Union for Reform Judaism

Monday, June 25, 2012

I am honored to receive this degree in the distinguished company of Professor Kay and Professor Nash, and it is a special joy to be honored together with my dear friend Peter Weidhorn, my partner for so many years in the work of our Reform movement.  I also extend my congratulations to all of my colleagues who receive honorary degrees today for their long years of service to our people, as well as to all who are receiving prizes and earned degrees.

In addition, I offer my thanks to the College-Institute and its extraordinary President, Rabbi David Ellenson, who blesses us with his learning and leadership.  And I am pleased to be here today with Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who succeeds me in the Presidency of the URJ and who inspires us with his vision for the Reform Jewish future.

I am asked, on occasion, what I have to say about the Jewish condition after serving as the Union’s President for 16 years.  My answer is always the same:

I believe in the power of leadership.

I believe that a people dies from the top.

And I believe that the role of religious leadership is fundamental and decisive.

In saying this I do not minimize in any way the part that volunteer leaders and national institutions play in Jewish life.   After all, I headed such an institution, relying heavily on the skills and insights of our dedicated volunteers who lovingly held me up.

Nonetheless, it is our klei kodesh who are central—the rabbis, cantors and educators who do the holy work of serving the Jewish people and supporting them in their religious life; they are most important of all.

After all, let us remember what we are: We are a liberal religious movement constructed on pillars of Torah study, piety, and spiritual integrity.  And Torah study, piety, and spiritual integrity depend on teachers who believe; on those who serve as exemplars of religious living; on those who convey to their students their passion for Judaism, and who share their struggles with the text and not only the skills required to decipher the text. 

Every Jew I know who is religiously motivated and inspired learned from an inspiring teacher.

How do you teach Jews mesirut, and anava, and mentshlikeit?  How do we teach them to be not only talmid chacham but also yirei shemayim?  How do we fill the religion deficit and the ecstasy deficit that exist in their lives?  Such things are not done with books or with programs; they are done with people – with teachers.  And it is the rabbis, cantors, and educators of Reform Judaism who are those teachers.  And if they are not, our movement can devise a hundred programs and it will make no difference.

I am often asked if I am an optimist or a pessimist about Jewish life.  The answer, I suppose, is that I am an optimist who worries a lot.

But when it comes to our klei kodesh, I am optimistic to the core.  I have travelled North America from one end to the other, meeting with the religious professionals who serve our congregations and community.  And I can tell you that our religious leaders are very, very good, and our younger colleagues are outstanding.

And who are those who find the most satisfaction in their work; who have a lasting impact on the community; and who are best able to shape people’s lives?

I have been giving this a great deal of thought, and it seems to me that there are five things that characterize them. 

First, they, like me, are optimists.  They are spiritually alive, they find in themselves a spiritual center, and they project and share their enthusiasm and their belief in the future.  They avoid endless whining about survival and reject the language of victimhood with which we have become so obsessed.  They are, to be sure, honest.  They say that Judaism is a religion of personal commitment and personal responsibility—a religious discipline that expects a lot from us but, in return, promises to transform our lives.  But, above all, these leaders project a message that there is life and joy in Torah.

Second, they learn.  Most of us will never have the time for serious scholarship, but I find that our klei kodesh are reading and studying more than they ever have—whether alone or in hevruta, whether in person or on-line.  And they refuse to fall victim to the trendy spirituality of ignorance and passion.  Yes, they are Jewish leaders of enthusiasm and energy, but they know the danger of soul without mind, and of spirituality that is mere feeling.  In the best Reform tradition, they appreciate that passion and the search for authenticity cannot become substitutes for thinking, and they know that only a spirituality rooted in God and Torah will endure.

Third, they value the spoken word:  the sermon, the d’rasha, the d’var Torah.  And they prepare their sermons carefully and thoughtfully.  This is mostly a matter for rabbis, but not for them alone. In some ways, preaching may seem less important now; sermons are shorter, and may not be the “main attraction” of the service, as they once were.  There is a trend toward simple stories and the five-minute d’rash.  Still, the best leaders understand that our Jews still care very much about sermons—Jews in Reform communities listen carefully, have high expectations, and search our words for honesty and meaning; sitting in synagogue on Shabbat, they want the preacher to care desperately about his or her message; they want to listen to a sermon and wonder how it’s going to come out.  With the vast flood of verbiage in this world, they still expect from preachers in our congregations some electricity, some playfulness, and some courage; they still crave a life-giving word of Torah.  Our best leaders know this and work hard to present sermons that are not petrified or predictable; and they know too that a good five-minute sermon is a lot harder to prepare than a good twenty-minute one.

Fourth, they follow the admonition of the Baal Shem Tov, who said to go down to the people so that, by befriending them, they might be raised up.  Our best leaders know that compassion and mentschlikeit come before all else; they know that our people want us to be with them in the joys and sorrows of their lives, to share the happiness of their hearts at times of marriage and celebration, and to be messengers of consolation and strength amidst illness and tribulation.  Our klei kodesh never forget that there is much our people will forgive us if we do these things, but they will never forgive us if we do not.

And finally, our most effective leaders are people of prayer.  This is interesting, because it was not always so.  Prior to my ordination in 1974, I interviewed in about a dozen congregations—resulting, by the way, in exactly 1 job offer.  In those dozen interviews, both with senior colleagues and selection committees, I did not get a single question about prayer, about davenning, about spirituality, about God – not one.  That would not happen today.  We know today that we must be thoughtful about leading prayer and about our own personal prayer lives.  We know that congregations intuit whether or not their cantors and rabbis are in fact people of prayer, and our congregations know, as do we, that the effectiveness of the tefillot at which we preside will be impacted by the fervor of our own prayer.   In short, our most fulfilled religious leaders recognize the centrality of prayer.  They understand that if our congregational worship atrophies and the flame of tefilla fades, no amount of organizational busyness will revitalize our synagogues. 

There are many other things that effective religious leaders do, of course, and protecting time with their families is surely high on the list.    But these five things are fundamental, I believe; I have learned this by watching our rabbis, cantors, and educators in action, and I am inspired and encouraged by what I see.

I am not naïve.  Some of us are tired; some of us need renewal; and we all have Torah to study and much to learn.  But on the whole, Reform religious leadership is strong, resilient, and infused with visionary power.

And what of our volunteer leadership?

This is mostly a topic for another time, but for now I will say that our volunteer leaders are more learned, more thoughtful, and on every level more deeply Jewish than they once were.  They may speak the language of individualism, but it conceals a hunger for belonging and a thirst for community and purpose.  They do not simply want to fundraise and reorganize the committees; and they certainly don’t want us to kvetch at them, to find an anti-Semite under every bed, or to tell them about being fabulously 50.  What they want is for us to help them “Jew,” to offer them a Jewish life of shared aspiration and hope, and remind them that they are part of a tribe and a people.

 It is true that they are more assertive than they were in the past, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.  It reflects changes in our culture and burgeoning financial pressures on our institutions.  In any case, this is not really new.    

Dr. David Ruderman, in his book Early Modern Judaism, looks at Jewish communities in Italy, Amsterdam, Constantinople, and Poland, from 1492 until the modern period.  In every place, what he sees is a vigorous power struggle between lay leaders and rabbis over decision-making authority, with the rabbis usually losing.  A major factor, he suggests, was that, because of the printing press, rabbis were losing control over the texts—an interesting parallel to our situation today.

Nonetheless, despite all of this, most of the time our volunteer leaders appreciate that faith in God depends on the servants of God---and that there will be a faithful Israel only if there are faithful rabbis, cantors, and educators in Israel.

Most of the time, our volunteer leaders are able to control their egos, and we professional leaders are able to control our need to be needed.

Most of the time, we feel their pain and teach their children, and they know that we are on their side. 

Most of the time, in other words, we are able to work together in sacred partnership.  And because we do, they recognize that rabbi, cantor, and educator are the main repository of Jewish wisdom and piety.  And, as I have said many times before, Reform congregations do not fear strong religious leaders; they crave them.

And so now, to return to the point from which I started, I suggest that the Reform Jewish future rests on the shoulders of our rabbis, cantors, and educators.

And we—the students and alumni of the College-Institute—will continue to do what we have always done:  We will advocate Jewish values, live Jewish lives, provide a message of strength amidst tribulation, and convey to our people and their children life-giving words of Torah.

And at those moments when we feel alone or demoralized, we will remember the things that we do and how they have nourished Jewish lives; we will remember too that we are not functionaries of the synagogue but bridges to the mystery of God; and we will remember as well the succession in which we stand:  The unbroken line of rabbis, cantors, and teachers of Israel who, for thousands of years before us, served God and taught Torah.

And when we remember these things, that, for us, will be enough.


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