Hanukkah Greetings From President Rehfeld

Click on the links below to jump to each greeting:

First Night:
Celebrating Our History of Innovation

I have been saying and reiterating for years that either we move ahead with vision and boldness… or we must inevitably go backwards. There just isn’t any standing still.
— HUC-JIR 5th President Nelson Glueck, October 31, 1968
Dear Governors and Governors Emeriti,

More than at any other time in recent history, the themes of rededication and light that define Hanukkah resonate for our world.  These themes resonate for us as a Board as well.  For the monumental challenges of 21st-century Jewish life will require both a rededication to the spirit of our College-Institute even as we embrace a “vision and boldness” that will require significant change.

Over the next eight days of Hanukkah, I will be sharing messages and resources to link the themes of our holiday to our work.  My hope is to develop a shared language for us as a Board.  Some of these materials come from our faculty and academic leadership, whom I invited to share items that they believed would help inspire your thinking about the holiday and our work together. These faculty and leadership have shaped and continue to shape my own understanding of our College-Institute and our future ahead.

To start, I recommend the attached essay by President Aaron Panken, z”l, on the history and meaning of the holiday, suggested by our Provost, Rabbi Andrea Weiss.  The essay was published posthumously in Oxford University Press’s The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha earlier this fall.

Hanukkah, like much of Jewish life, brings meaning to our present by grounding us in our past.  As we begin to navigate change ahead, the history of our own HUC-JIR is the most important place to start.  I recommend the Centennial History of HUC by HUC Emeritus Professor Michael A. Meyer that was sent to you when you first joined the Board.  That work has been the most important resource for me to understand the animating spirit of our beloved College-Institute. Here is a lecture by Dr. Gary Zola at Temple Emanu-El in NY in 2014 about the emergence of HUC and Reform Judaism in America.

Hanukkah also teaches us that the meaning of our history can and must change in light of changed circumstances.  Our history as an institution and movement exhibits this same commitment as captured by the quote of President Glueck at the beginning of this letter.  Throughout his tenure, our fifth president understood that HUC’s success in the future would require doing things differently than we had ever done before—including merging with HUC’s rival, the Jewish Institute of Religion, and expanding into Los Angeles and Jerusalem.  For Glueck, the models that had been successful for us in the past would not be successful going forward.  How much more so in a post-Covid world?

To help you think about the need for innovation in our Jewish world I recommend this article by Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove (also attached).  And I share with you a video from Erik Ludwig, director of HUC’s Zelikow School of Non-Profit Management:  Benay Lappe’s ELI Talk: “An Unrecognizable Jewish Future: A Queer Talmudic Tale”

I hope the materials and messages during the coming eight days will deepen our shared work together, and perhaps inspire a bit of joy – a joy that is beautifully expressed in our students’ message of thanks in this video.

Happy Hanukkah!

Hanukkah Essay by Aaron Panken
American Judaism is ready for disruption – and COVID has accelerated the need for it

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Second Night, Shabbat:
Celebrating Our Faculty as Makers of Meaning

Dear HUC Board of Governors and Governors Emeriti,
The modern celebration of Hanukkah is a remarkable example of how Judaism can make meaning in the world, for we have transformed an event of religious fanaticism into a celebration of pluralism and tolerance.  Hanukah demonstrates the power of Jewish life (and religion more generally) to give meaning and purpose to our lives.

On the second of our eight nights of learning together, I draw your attention to the inspiring work of our faculty who help our students find meaning and purpose through our texts and traditions.  In April, I invited them to use those talents to help our communities make meaning of this dark moment in history.  Their writings resulted in the web-publication Scriptions that are bringing some light into the darkness of our times.

As Merri Lovinger Arian, faculty in our Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music writes in her inspiring contribution:

Surely, this pandemic has shone a light upon the inequities in our society, and the work that we must do to right these wrongs. But, it has also shone a light on how deeply we can love – how we can act like God and be like God – b’tzelem Elohim – through the loving compassion shown by our frontline workers. We have seen how deeply we can love through people donning masks to protect not only themselves but others too, and through caring neighbors reaching out to people who need food, who need people to shop for them, people to check in on them.” (Read Merri’s essay: Challenges and Silver Linings from the Pandemic.)

Spending time with all 28 essays is to spend time with the wisdom and richness of our faculty, to appreciate their scholarly depth and diversity, and their creative imagination.  I recommend to you these short essays in particular:

In “Judaism in the Pandemic Age,” Emeritus Professor Steven Windmueller observes that “It would appear that along with the rest of our society, elements of our communal structure are likely to leave the scene or face major reductions in size.”

In “Reading the Biblical Prophets…,”  Adriane Leveen, Senior Lecturer in Hebrew Bible, observes that this past Spring, “deeper meaning did emerge in classroom discussions out of an unexpected identification with prophetic expressions of grief and comfort, loss and renewal, as the prophets faced their own trauma and dislocation.”

In “Reformulating a Plague Theology,”  Los Angeles Dean, Dr. Josh Holo asks, “How can Reform Judaism…square our general sense of Divine goodness and justice with the persistent problem of Acts of God, which we experience as neither good nor just?”

Explore more of the brilliance of our faculty at Scriptions.  And to welcome in a joyous second night of Hannukah and a restful Shabbat, enjoy this video rendition of Debbie Friedman’s Shalom Aleichem performed by the students of our Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah!

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Third Night, Saturday Evening:
On Peoplehood, Zionism, and Pluralism

Shavua tov! I hope your shabbat was a day of rest and peace.  I treasure shabbat mornings as a time for reading and regaining balance after each of these exhausting weeks on Zoom.  I am currently making my way through George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, her Victorian novel prefiguring Zionism and capturing the tensions of our modern experience.  Like the tension of the Havdalah ritual that ends Shabbat by separating the holy from the profane, the tensions of the novel are tensions at the heart of our celebration of Hanukkah, between Jewish particularity and our commitment to assimilation and universalism.  Hanukkah poses the question:  to what extent does assimilation strengthen us and where does it become a path to losing our own identity?

Writes LA Dean Dr. Josh Holo, Hanukkah celebrates the affirmation of Jewish identity over assimilation. The story asks: “Should we Hellenize or resist?” And its answer is clear: “Resist!” The history of Hanukkah, however, has a much different message, one that says: “…It depends.” The Reform Movement, modern Jewish scholarship, and the American experience all offer some eerie parallels to the days of the Maccabees and the Jewish attraction to Greek culture in the Land of Israel, over 2100 years ago.  And college campuses seem to be at the heart of it (the way gymnasia were, way back then). So, as the Reform Movement’s institution of higher learning, reflecting both the secular and Jewish models of education, it seems that we have a stake in thinking about that question today:  What does higher education mean for Jewish identity?  Here’s a brief, thought-provoking article to kick off your thinking, while recovering from latkes and sufganiyot [donuts].” (Thank you, Josh!)

These tensions are captured in the history of HUC.  Our second President, Kaufmann Kohler refused to allow Zionist speakers on our Cincinnati campus at the turn of the century.  It was only fully after HUC merged with the Jewish Institute of Religion (founded by the liberal Zionist, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise) that the new HUC-JIR and our Reform Movement fully embraced the idea of Jewish Peoplehood and Zionism as a core value. Today, Jewish Peoplehood and Zionism are challenging to a new generation of Jewish North Americans who struggle to understand the very purpose and aims of the Jewish State.  Here I share with you my own essay “What it means to be a Zionist,” encouraging a renewed appreciation of the core values that Zionism as a liberation movement represented: self-protection, Jewish flourishing, and universal human rights.

A state in which our people live in Jewish time, speak our own historic language, and live in the land that was formative to our people’s history, fosters an immediate sense of belonging that encourages unselfconscious cultural flourishing.  And it is that immersive sensibility that explains why a year in Israel is seen as critical to the development of our rabbinic, cantorial and education students.  For two good examples of this flourishing, I offer you the attached essay, “‘Where Was Sarah? Depictions of Mothers and Motherhood in Modern Israeli Poetry on the Binding of Isaac?’” suggested to us by its author, Rabbi Dalia Marx, the Rabbi Aaron D. Panken Professor of Liturgy and Midrash at HUC in Jerusalem.  And for a joyous expression of this same idea of immersive Jewishness, enjoy this video shot in Jerusalem.

While Jewish cultural life flourishes in Israel, religious life is still limited, something that our faculty and graduates in Israel are striving to improve. This short video provides a good illustration of the impact and importance of Reform Judaism in Israel (some of it shot on our Taube Family Campus).  And here is a thoughtful reflection on the experience of being Jewish on college campuses in Israel by the Director of Hillel-Israel (with thanks to new HUC Governor Bob Millstone for the suggestion).

May each of you have a light-filled third night of Hanukkah and a productive week ahead!

“Where Was Sarah?” Depictions of Mothers and Motherhood in Modern Israeli Poetry on the Binding of Isaac

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Fourth Night, Sunday Evening:
Clergy Formation

Dear HUC Governors and Governors Emeriti,

The Maccabee uprising began a period of Jewish independence and sovereign strength unparalleled in our people’s history during antiquity.  Running from the revolt of Judah Maccabee around 165 BCE, the Hasmonean dynasty would last over a century, through about the year 37 BCE.  As Rome established its dominion over Palestine as a client state and installed Herod as governor, the beginning of the end to Jewish sovereignty was near, ending roughly 100 years later, with the fall of the Second Temple.  The fall would, however, usher in a period of Rabbinic Judaism, a rich period of sustained Jewish thinking and creativity that is named for the role that gained prominence as we became a diasporic people: the Rabbi.

1875 represented a major milestone in the development of rabbinical education with the establishment of HUC, the first successful academy for the training and ordination of Reform rabbis based on an entirely modern, academic model.  As Rabbi Mark Washofsky, Solomon B. Freehof Professor of Jewish Law and Practice has detailed in his scholarship, our rabbinical training was distinguished by its focus on an academic model of the modern university.  It would eschew the “yeshivish” approach of Eastern European centers of Jewish learning for one that eagerly embraced the modern methods and scientific scholarship of the academy.

Today, HUC has not stopped innovating.  And in the last few decades, we have recognized that the excellence of rabbis depends not only on their intellectual and cognitive abilities, but also on their formation as spiritual and organizational leaders.  We thus speak of “clergy formation,” the process by which HUC cultivates our rabbinical and cantorial students to become masters of our tradition, developed professionally, and with the character and comportment to hold and inspire individuals and communities in times of joy and sorrow.  That formation requires the creation of dynamic, vibrant communities of students and faculty, along with intimate spaces in which to grow.

A few sources on clergy formation to give you a sense of the heart of our seminary education:

*  On cantorial formation, see this engaging Webinar by DFSSM director, Cantor Richard Cohn on “Curating Cantorial Education: Breadth and Depth in Jewish Musical Life” (July 2020).

*  On rabbinical formation, see the attached, “The Chisma Curriculum,” by Rabbi Michael Marmur, our former Provost and current Associate Professor of Jewish Theology at our Jerusalem campus.

*  On rabbinical formation in Israel, see the attached, “Professional identity formation in a liberal Israeli rabbinical seminary” by HUC professor Michal Muszkat-Barkan & Marc J. Rosenstein.

As a bonus, I share this fantastic “Hanukkah Medley” video, featuring a reunion of three outstanding DFSSM alumnae: Cantor Emma Lutz ‘16, Cantor Shanna Zell ‘17, and Cantor Lucy Fishbein ‘17, with music arranged by talented DFSSM faculty member Pedro d’Aquino.  And this NPR story on Jewish Cantors is 3 min story featuring our HUC alum Cantor David Barash, and Cantor Faith Steinsnyder, adjunct faculty at the DFSSM.

With thanks to Rabbi Dvora Weisberg and Cantor Richard Cohn, Directors of our Rabbinic School and Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, respectively; Rabbis Lisa Grant, Jonathan Hecht and Dvora Weisberg, who direct our programs locally in New York, Cincinnati, and Los Angeles; and to our Provost Rabbi Andrea Weiss, our Deans, and faculty, from all of whom I have learned so much.

Happy Hanukkah!

Keeping Faith in Rabbis
Professional identity formation in a liberal Israeli rabbinical seminary: Spiritual transformers in the learned curriculum

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Fifth Night:
Education—Schools and Approaches

“…learning can never be solely unto itself if Jewish society is to bear the imprint of the Jewish Spirit.”

Alfred Gottschalk, 6th President, 1977 

My earliest memories of Hanukkah are from Ventnor, NJ where I emerged into consciousness living with my mother and brother in my grandparents’ home.  The smells of the holiday, the taste of latkes, and the weight of my brother’s clay menorah (made from his hand-print at Beth Judah’s nursery school)…for me these tactile sensations are inextricably linked to the holiday, connecting my family, Jewish ritual and learning, our community and our people.

Like my pre-school experience, the success of our enterprise depends upon how we translate what we learn into how we feel about it.  Jewish education as moral education conveys knowledge that must speak to our soul. HUC-JIR has a sacred responsibility to raise up our students to be those educators.  I have come to see first-hand just how deeply our faculty connect those dots.

Yesterday, I shared with you a bit of what I learned about “clergy formation,” a process that forms the character and comportment of our cantorial and rabbinical students along with their mastery of Jewish texts, history, and tools.  Today, I share a bit of what I’ve learned about our School of Education which seeks to raise up teachers who speak to both the mind and the heart.

To begin with, I share this inspiring 45-minute podcast, “Re-Imagining Jewish Education,” a conversation with the Director of our School of Education, and Associate Professor Miriam Heller Stern, Ph.D.  You’ll be inspired by Miriam’s creativity and wisdom, and learn how she views the purposes of Jewish education molding our HUC Ed students.

Among the most innovative programs we run is our Executive M.A. (EMA) program—a distance learning program directed by Dr. Lesley Litman for the last decade.  Attached you will find a case study that Miriam feels “captures the intellectual and professional ethos of the EMA and the School of Education as a whole.”  You can see from the case study just how much the Jim Joseph Foundation (JJF) values our work and that of our professionals.  (I have also attached an email and pictures from Michael Muszkat-Barkan, Ph.D., Director of Rikma on our Jerusalem campus, celebrating the interaction between our EMA students and her Israeli students last January in Jerusalem, pre-Covid.)

Our work with the JJF over the last 20 months also helped me understand just how important our strategic decisions will be to our ability to raise funds.  You see, a bit over a year ago they declined to support us with a grant that the team had been expecting, in part because they believe we are using our resources to maintain duplicative programs at unnecessary cost.  That concern has been raised with me frequently by potential donors.  As we envision our future, we will need to inspire greater philanthropy by creating both a path to financial sustainability and demonstrating that the strategic choices we make—whatever they are—increase our mission impact in a financially responsible way that resonates with donors who are eager to invest in the leadership that HUC provides for the Jewish world.

I am confident that whatever path we take we will succeed in doing just that.  And that’s because of the work of faculty like Miriam and Lesley and others I’ve had the pleasure to learn from over the last 20 months.  Like my nursery schoolteacher who dressed me up as a dreidel for our Hanukkah parade fifty years ago, they are helping our students connect what they know with what they feel.  And by doing so, our future communities will indeed “bear the imprint of the Jewish Spirit.”

Happy Hanukkah,

PS:  Because it is so good, and with his permission, I have attached an additional essay to yesterday’s theme of Clergy Formation written by Rabbi Larry Hoffman, Emeritus Professor, that he posted recently on Facebook.  Enjoy!

Rabbi Larry Hoffman on Rabbinic Formation
Forged by Jewish Historical Experience Case Study
Rikma and EMA Encounter

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Sixth Night:

Dear HUC Governors and Governors Emeriti,

A few years ago, I spoke at the groundbreaking for a new senior housing project on the Millstone Jewish Community Campus in St. Louis.  The building would take its place alongside other major institutions of the community: the Federation, the JCC, the Holocaust Museum, the library, the newspaper and our JCRC.  The idea of a central campus came from its namesake: I.E.Millstone, a significant investor in HUC (his grandson Bob now serves on our HUC board).

As I stood there, I noted that we were not just breaking ground on a senior housing project.  We were investing in a network of institutions that depend upon each other.  I came to call that network the “Jewish Public Sphere” (JPS).

HUC-JIR was begun as the Seminary of Reform Judaism and I believe the formation of Reform clergy must remain our central focus just as the center of the JPS must remain the synagogue.  But we have long recognized that the vibrancy of the synagogue and the entire Jewish community depends on more than clergy and congregations alone.  Thus, we have from very early in our history committed to developing Jewish leadership far beyond the pulpit as central to our mission.  With the founding of the School of Communal Service decades ago—now the Zelikow School of Jewish Non-profit Management—HUC remains at the forefront of professional leadership development.  Our graduates now hold prominent positions in local and national institutions.  (And many of them are clergy as well!)

Our tradition has long recognized that the Jewish community depends upon multiple sites of leadership and authority that strengthen the whole.  From Mishna Avot 4:13 we learn that there are three differentiated institutional sources: the authority to interpret law and text (given to Moses); the authority to mediate between the Jewish people and God (given separately to Aaron and the priests); and the authority to manage civil affairs (invested in David and the monarchy).  These three sources are expressed through the leadership roles of our community today—in our Rabbis, Cantors, educators, Jewish professionals, and scholars.

What does this leadership call for today?   In his essay, “Who’s Got Next?,” (also attached) Director of our Zelikow School Erik Ludwig, Ph.D., writes “What we are witnessing today may be described as a conceptual shift in the field from the practice of Jewish communal service to the business of Jewish nonprofit management. The leadership competencies have shifted from social service to business and innovation.”   (See also the references at the end of Erik’s article for good further reading as well.) Through Erik’s leadership, the ZSchool has grown significantly, fielding a class of 20 incoming students last year alone.  I hope you’ll take some time to browse the school’s website to get a sense of the dynamism and Jewish value investment behind the work that each of you is supporting.

I am also encouraged by organizations like Leading Edge (on whose board our own governor Daryl Messinger serves) that are looking for new ways to cultivate leadership for the Jewish Public Sphere.  This leadership is facing extraordinary challenges that will require courage to step up and directly address some of the most sensitive matters facing our communities.  I have found the attached white paper by the Hartman Institute to be a very helpful analysis of these issues for any Jewish professional today.  I also attach my own essay, published in the Forward this summer, about the importance of teaching resilience as we take on the most important social and moral issues of our times.

The Talmud may have identified three sources of authority that we can trace to our Hebrew Bible.  But as independent communities emerged in Medieval times, a fourth institutional source was developed:  the “berurim” –lay leaders upon whose vision, support, and resources our entire community depends.  In other words, individuals like each of you, who sustain HUC and our ability to produce leadership for the entire Jewish Public Sphere.   I thank you for taking up that fourth pillar of authority and making all that we do to shape the Jewish world possible.

Happy Sixth Night!

What the taboo on criticizing Israel can teach us about cancel culture
WHO’S GOT NEXT: Understanding the Need for a Jewish Nonprofit Leadership Pipeline Courageous Leadership: The Challenges Facing Jewish Leadership in a Partisan Age

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Seventh Night:
HUC as a Driver of Academic Scholarship

(Sent on the eighth night of Hanukkah, because…well sometimes even the best laid plans get waylaid…chag samaiach!)

We please our fancy with ideal webs
Of innovation, but our life meanwhile
Is in the loom, where busy passion plies
The shuttle to and fro, and gives our deeds
The accustomed pattern.
–George Eliot, Daniel Deronda, Bk III, ch 22

As I read Eliot’s words I am struck by how broadly applicable they are.  We long for innovation to “please our fancy.”  But our lives often remain stuck “in the loom,” as it were, committed to doing things the way we have always done them, following our familiar habits and customs. The monotonous movement of the shuttle going “to and fro” can be a significant source of comfort and generate a passion and attachment for what is so familiar.  And when that comfort becomes a part of our soul, it can be hard to recognize that the fabric created is fraying beyond repair.

When I was 15, I faced such a challenge.  I was living with my mom in Philadelphia stuck in my own “to and fro,” as it were.  The habits I had cultivated were not particularly good ones.  The fabric of my life was fraying.  I left the familiar comfort of my mother’s presence and my life in Philadelphia and, much to my parents’ credit and support, began a new life in Baltimore with my father and stepmother (of blessed memory).  It was there that I was warmly embraced by Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s youth group and set out on a path that would ultimately lead to HUC today.

Change for its own sake destroys.  But the failure to change when the loom is no longer operating can be destructive.  No more so than if one just hopes things will return to how they once were.

HUC-JIR has a bold history of leading through innovation.  We have taken risks by opening up new programs and stopping old ones, expanding and consolidating as we go.  Until 2018 we had two schools of Education; we now have one because the faculty recognized that consolidation was a good way to enhance program excellence and impact.  We started a School of Sacred Music some 75 years or so after our founding; it is now the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music and the premier Cantorial program in the world.

A particularly innovative period of time when innovation truly “pleased our fancy” was during the transformational presidency of our 5th President, Dr. Nelson Glueck.  Among the many innovations he brought to HUC (including its merger with JIR and the establishment of the Cantorial school), Glueck’s “long-standing and productive relationships with many Protestant and Catholic scholars…convinced him that Christian scholars should also be part of the student body at HUC; their time at the College would make them not only more knowledgeable interpreters of Judaism but also more sympathetic to the contemporary Jewish agenda.”  And so Glueck established “a new graduate program that would serve as the College’s response to the need for training Jewish scholars in America.”   (Nelson Glueck p. 117-18)

Among the many ironies of Hanukkah is just how completely the cultural agenda of the Maccabees was overturned in history.  For in my own view, much like adding carbon to iron creates a stronger alloy in Steel, it was Judaism’s ability to incorporate wisdom from other cultures that strengthened us as a people.  Maimonides most famously incorporated Aristotle’s teaching, particularly in his Guide for the Perplexed.  And there is a direct line, of course, between these ideals and the revolutionary aspects of Reform Judaism, forming a key part of our stated mission—to advance the academic study of Judaism grounded in modern research standards.

Academic scholarship at HUC has never been simply about producing knowledge for its own sake but also with a direct purpose for how it shapes the world.  As the academic study of Jewish life has exploded over the last thirty years, our training of a new generation of educators and practitioners has become even more important to the impact we have in our world.

In his afterword to the Centennial History of HUC-JIR, former president Alfred Gottschalk put it this way:  “…the guiding philosophy of the College-Institute was that Jewish scholarship served living Judaism, and that the critical application of the scholarly process would not destroy but rather vitalize the current validity of Jewish thought at home.”  (p. 287).  And since I joined this remarkable community, our commitment to scholarship and those ideals has become apparent to me.  One good example of this is the renewed life of our HUC Press, led by HUC faculty David Aaron and Jason Kalman, which is bringing forth serious scholarship and enhancing our impact and reputation.

We should also recognize that we are running two separate Jewish studies programs.  The Louchheim School of Judaic Studies in Los Angeles, directed by Leah Hochman teaches hundreds of undergraduate students enrolled through the University of Southern California.  And HUC’s Pines School of Graduate Studies, directed by Rick Sarason, offers graduate degrees including a joint Ph.D Program with the Department of Modern Jewish History and Culture at the University of Cincinnati.    We began these programs in the 1960s and 70s just before there was an explosion of Jewish Studies programs in North America.  Today we are in a much more competitive environment, navigating among over 250 such undergraduate programs alone.  One of the challenges we have to confront is how to remain competitive in this landscape going forward, given the increased competition and the accelerating decline of humanities programs more generally– particularly now as contraction and consolidation in this area is reported.  (See attached report from the Chronicle of Higher Education on some immediate challenges due to Covid, as well as two other attached reports of the Jewish Studies Associations that put undergraduate and graduate programs in a broader context.)

Our academic mission is secured through the scholarship of our faculty, whether or not they teach in our Jewish studies programs. Since you have had a chance to see many of our longer-serving faculty, I want to draw your attention to some of the scholars still in the earlier part of their careers:  AJ Berkovitz (Liturgy); Gordon Dale (Ethnomusicology); Daniel Fisher (Bible); and Sivan Zakai (Jewish education and more advanced). These are in addition to the two non-tenured Rabbi Aaron D. Panken named professors whom you have come to know over the last year: Jennifer Grayson (History) and Joe Skloot (Intellectual History).

You’ll notice I did not identify these faculty by where they teach.  That was on purpose because it represents a growing shift begun under Presidents Panken (z”l) and Ellenson to centralize our teaching as our numbers have significantly declined.   Over the last 15 years, we transitioned from a faculty of over 60 to around 35.  That reduction led to the creation of more cross-campus deployment of our faculty, and, through the efforts of our Provost Andrea Weiss last year, the creation of a centralized class schedule to facilitate even more faculty sharing (and all this pre-Covid).

Spreading a smaller faculty across four locations may be possible because of Zoom, but it weakens the intellectual dynamism that our individual faculty and our students experience in any one location when they leave their screens—in the hallways, around a lunch table, and at other informal gatherings.  Spreading ourselves in this way undermines our ability to project that we are a vibrant intellectual community—to both our faculty and our students.  And thus, we have a paradoxical situation: as an institution, we still have one of the largest Jewish studies faculties in North America.  But to a faculty member or student, the lived experience is to be part of a merely very good size department of Jewish studies.  Our largest group of faculty is about 12 people; JTS has over 25 in its single location.  If we decide to maintain our teaching faculty over multiple locations, forming deeper partnerships with other institutions (like we have with have in LA with USC), will be critical to maintaining a sense of vigorous intellectual life on campus.

Let us use the idea of rededication at the heart of our holiday of light to renew ourselves to the spirit of our College-Institute. This spirit inspired our past leadership to not merely please themselves with the luster of innovative shiny new things. Rather, it enabled them to recognize when the challenges we faced had changed and gave them the courage to do things differently.  Their visionary example teaches us that doing things the way we always have done them is unlikely to bring about change.

Happy 7th day (one day late)!

Jewish Studies in the Academy in 2018
Rona Sheravsky Report

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Eighth Night:
Our Mission, Vision, and Values

Dear HUC Governors, and Governors Emeriti,

Two days ago was the 42nd anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah.  My talk was entitled “Peace in the Middle East.”  Let’s just say that Cyrus Vance did not feel threatened.  However (as my mother is quite fond of telling me) after chanting my portion, Rabbi Max Hausen turned to our cantor and said, “well, you may have some competition ahead.”  She was thrilled; I don’t remember it at all.  What stuck with me was that Rabbi Hausen (zl) was the most inspiring Rabbi that HUC has ever produced.  He perfectly illustrated the potential of our graduates to see, hear, celebrate and value every individual as the very embodiment of the Divine.

Seeing, hearing, celebrating and valuing.  These last 8 days have given me an opportunity to share with you some of what I have seen and heard over the last two years. As the sun sets on the chag (holiday) and Shabbat comes in, I thought I would share with you one final thought about our mission and the future ahead.

At our board meeting this past February we discussed streamlining our mission statement based on input I received from 12 months of listening to our community, including our board.  During that conversation, Daryl Messinger made a powerful point that really stuck with me: our current mission statement may be long, but it expresses both the work we do and our values. We decided to leave the mission as it was.  I am glad we did.

In May, as we started our planning process, I put together a document to make sense of what I had learned about the challenges we face. It used our mission statement to discern our work, our identity and values.  I then posited a set of questions that continue to drive my own inquiry.  I attach a copy of that document for your review.

Mission and values are important.  But so is vision – a statement of what we ultimately hope to achieve.  HUC does not have a formal vision statement.  I share with you a vision that our community has inspired in me, the end towards which I believe we are aiming:

To create vibrant, religiously progressive, Jewish congregations and communities driven by inspiring Reform Clergy, educators and leaders, who hold individuals in times of joy and sorrow, helping them lead lives with dignity, meaning and purpose, drawing on Judaism as part of a life well-lived…so that together we may achieve Tzedek, (Justice), Chesed (Kindness), and Bina (Understanding) for the sake of K’lal Israel and our entire world.

It’s wordy, I know.  (After 8 days of this, did you expect less?!)  It may not be the vision you would choose for HUC.  Indeed, I would welcome your feedback on it. It nevertheless inspires me about the transformational potential of our College-Institute—because it describes the effect that I see our faculty and graduates having upon our world.

42 years ago, I became Bar Mitzvah.  And while much to my mother’s disappointment I did not become the cantor of the synagogue, 40 years later—two years ago today—you appointed me as HUC’s 10th President (a close second-best in her book).  We now face significant challenges that will require of us the same boldness and determination exhibited by our past leaders upon whose shoulders we together stand.  Our solutions must come from drawing upon the spirit that has driven our College-Institute for 145 years even as we forge a new future filled with possibilities ahead.

Given what I have learned about your commitment, dedication and devotion, I have every confidence we will succeed.  Thank you for your partnership.  Thank you for your support.  And may the year ahead be a year filled with light.

Until then, Shabbat Shalom,

Mission, Opportunities, and Challenges Ahead

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The Ninth Night of Hanukkah:
Buber and our Shamashim

Dear HUC Governors and Emeriti,

When my older siblings returned home for winter break from college our family celebrated a “9th” night of Hanukkah.  We used the same readings we used for the holiday, celebrating themes of toleration and pluralism.  We concluded with the universalistic third verse of Ma-oz Tzur (Rock of Ages).  I loved this service so much as a child that we continue to use it today.   But it had an additional purpose:  the “ninth” night of the holiday drew our attention to the shamash or ninth “servant” candle that lights the other eight, reminding us of our own reliance on others to achieve our goals.

Last week we celebrated the core mission of HUC eight times.  For a ninth night, as it were, let us celebrate our shamashim—all those in our community who enable the work HUC is here to do.  These include our local staff who oversee our facilities and security, our teams in IT, HR, and the business office; our institutional advancement professionals who support our board and alumni, and who raise the philanthropic investments we need to succeed; our strategy, communications and marketing teams.  And the administrative assistants who support us all.  Like the shamash it is only because of their efforts that our mission is executed.

There is an important ethical reason to celebrate the 9th night as well.  The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber argued that when our relationships are merely “use-oriented,” (shamash-like) they can foster “I-It” relationships that lead us to treat others merely as objects to be used for our own purposes.  The celebration of a ninth night reminds us that without the shamash we would have no holiday.  It reminds us that those who serve are to be treated not merely as a means to our ends, but as valuable ends in and of themselves.  They are b’tzelem Elohim, made in the image of God, individuals who have chosen to join us by putting their considerable professional talents towards our shared purposes.  Through this recognition, we transform the objectifying “I-It” relationship to what Buber called the “I-Thou” relationship that recognizes the spark of divinity that burns brightly in each of us.

HUC relies on our Deans to manage much of the staff on each of our 4 campuses.  This year we have scheduled “meet the Dean” sessions to help you get to know them.  I share with you the videos of the first two sessions that we held this Fall with Deans Rabbi Na’amah Kelman (Jerusalem) and Rabbi David Adelson (New York).  I hope you will join the sessions with Deans Rabbi Jonathan Hecht (Cincinnati) and Dr. Josh Holo (LA) later in the Spring.

Finally, I leave you with a celebration of and by our 4th floor staff in NY, many of whom today are celebrating one of the two holiest days of the Christian year.  As you’ll see from their performance of “Lord Bless You and Keep You,” we don’t just have talented staff, we have talented staff!

As shabbat now arrives at the end of this Christmas Day, I note that it was under the direction of Rabbi Gustav Gottheil—who translated Rock of Ages from German—that the first Jewish hymnal in the United States was produced for Temple Emanu-El in New York City, a work that included hymns of a Christian origin. That spirit of mutuality, of supporting each other, can remind us of perhaps the most important idea behind Buber’s “I-Thou”—that when we embrace a true sense of collaboration, the “doing” and the “supporting” of our mission become blurred for we become part of the same holy enterprise.

None of our work would be possible without your guidance, vision and support as a board.  It is because of you that the light of HUC’s faculty and students, alumni and staff can shine for the world to see.  For that I am grateful.

May this last shabbat of the year be a day of peace and joy for you and our world.  Shalom Aleichem (once again) indeed!

Shabbat shalom,

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