Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D., Delivers Ordination Remarks in Cincinnati

June 1, 2019

Dear friends,

Boker tov, Good morning.

It is my pleasure to welcome you, our faculty, administration, board members, students, alumni, supporters, along with friends and family of this year’s graduating class, to our 2019/5779 Ordination ceremony, concluding our 144th academic year.
It is a particular honor and privilege to greet you today in this beautiful sanctuary at Plum Street Synagogue. Thank you to Rabbi Lewis Kamrass Temple President Elissa Habib, and Rabbi Karen Thomashow for their presence and participation in this program, and the I. M. Wise Temple staff and clergy for your hospitality and partnership throughout the year.

Our thanks go to our College Institute Leadership with me here on the bema:
Our Provost, Dr. Andrea Weiss, who today will fulfill a historic milestone as the first woman to ordain clergy in the Reform Movement and HUC;

Dean of the Cincinnati Campus, Dr. Jonathan Hecht;
Associate Dean, Rabbi Dr. Julie Schwartz;
and Director of the Cincinnati Rabbinical School, Rabbi Dr. Jan Katzew.

A special greeting to all of our faculty gathered with us today for their devotion to our students that has made this day possible.

We also welcome our Board of Governors, led by Sue Neuman Hochberg, and the chair of our central Region Board of Overseers, led by Debbi Sorrentino. We are especially honored to have the professional leadership of our Reform Movement partners with us today:

Rabbi Hara Person, our Ordination Speaker, Chief-Executive-Elect of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and a distinguished alumna of the Class of 1998;
Rabbi Steven Fox, Chief Executive Officer of the Central Conference of American Rabbis;
Karen Sim, Board Member of the Central District of the Women of Reform Judaism;
and Mark Sass, representing the Board of Trustees of the Union for Reform Judaism – today exemplifies the fulfillment of your support for our mission and our partnership in bringing forth the next generation of Jewish leaders for Reform congregations and the institutions of Jewish life and learning.

Today is a day of endings and beginnings, of beings and becomings.

For our ordinees:
Today marks the end of your becomingand the beginning of your being.
The end of your formal classes and a beginning of a lifetime of learning.
The end of your internships and student pulpits, and a beginning of varied careers of service to the Jewish People.

The end to your status of student and the beginning of your status as Rabbis, as Cantors, as klei kodesh. It marks the endof your becoming, and the beginning of your being.

Your transformation from becoming to being will occur in just a few moments through a ritual drawn from our Torah, by the actions of a single individual who will transfer the accumulated authority of our people as envisioned in our story from Moses, through Joshua down to each of you today.

And here we recognize our own ending, beginning, being and becoming as an institution in which women take on the most central roles.  For today, this transmission of authority will be conveyed to you by our Provost, Rabbi Andrea Weiss, who becomes the first woman in our 144-year-history to ordain our movement’s klei kodesh.  In doing so, Rabbi Weiss will take her place alongside Rabbi Sally Priesand, as a pioneer in our movement’s history.   Just 47 years ago—a mere blink of the eye in our people’s history—Rabbi Priesand became our movement’s and our nation’s first female rabbi.  It is a moment deserving of celebration.   I would Rabbi Weiss to please rise so that we can recognize her at this moment.

On a more personal note, Andrea, I have been moved these last few months by your support and leadership, as we both have taken on new beginnings, as you have approached your role with the full support of your colleagues and peers, humility and seriousness of purpose, recognition of your own limits countered by the courage and self-confidence to take on the mantle of spiritual leadership for our institution.  You have been a model of leadership to our entire team and more personally to me.  And I thank you.

The path that will take each of you, our ordinees up the bema embodies the very virtues of Rabbi’s Weiss’s leadership I just described themselves the embodiment of the highest ideals of Mosaic leadership:  to sit simultaneously with the self-confidence to lead and the humility to question whether you are even worthy of that leadership.

For what self-confidence it takes to walk up those steps to offer yourselves before God and our people to be worthy of beingRabbis and Cantors.  The confidence to offer yourselves as moral and religious exemplars to lead communities and congregations, just as Moses had: to pastor and serve, to inspire with your words, your deeds, and your actions, to strengthen the Jewish People and our collective Public Sphere.   And you will do more.  You will build communities in which individuals live lives with dignity, meaning, and purpose, embracing Jewish ritual, practice and learning as part of a life, well lived, in pursuit of Holiness and Goodness, Rightness and Ethical Action, bringing Justice into this world for all who inhabit it.

But, famously, it’s not only self-confidence that defined Moses’s leadership, but humility as well.  And what humility you will draw on as you walk up those steps, with the sheer weight of this sanctuary and majesty of the moment upon you, in front of this congregation, your friends and family, before the sanctity of God, knowing yourselves all of the limitations that you carry on your shoulders, just as Moses had;  limitations that will surely be tested in the years ahead:

your own self-doubt,
your own questioning,
your own profound recognition of all you have yet to learn…
and yet, still, despite that humility, you will have the courage and confidence to accept that burden in service to our people.  And we collectively are grateful for that.

I want to wish for you that those two virtues of confidence and humility should remain forever in tension within you, for they are necessary complements to one another.
Without humility, whatever self-confidence has led you to this moment, that caused you even to think yourselves worthy of this role, the confidence that will carry you up those steps can, without humility, that self-confidence can so easily become hubris: the mistaken sense that this becoming has transformed you into something that you are not and none of us ever can be.  For what is being transformed today is your being, what you do with that being will determine the confidence that you inspire in others and will need to succeed in your future roles.  And self-confidence unchecked by humility is simply less likely to generate the respect and authority that each of you will now have to begin to earn through your actions.

And on the other hand without self-confidence, the humility that you carry with you to this moment, which you will feel as you walk up those steps, can so easily become incapacitating passivity, a sense of being overwhelmed by the limitations with which each of us struggles; limitations that, when confronted by hard decisions, with incomplete information, where your leadership is required, you might fail to act.  As you face that uncertainty, knowing that the decisions you are called upon to make may not be the right ones at the moment, may you then draw upon your self-confidence to keep that humility from becoming passivity.

If you can emulate the Mosaic model maintaining that balance between confidence and humility, you will build a more just and decent world as the Rabbis you are about to become.

I say all this to you as someone in a unique position to recognize one thing that most Rabbis do not—cannot—fully understand as adults: the continued power, influence, and importance of klei Kodesh to those of us who have not been ordained, who have not felt called to the kind of sacred service that has driven you here, and that will shape your future communities.  You are now beginning a profound calling, a powerful profession, whose actions will change and inspire lives.  And as I take on my own new beginning as President of HUC, I speak with both confidence in that knowledge and humility of all that you represent:  because I indeed am a direct product of your work.

Even as we gather to celebrate these beginnings and becomings, we recognize that all of them are built upon a life that ended much too soon.  During this month, we marked the first yahrzeit of my predecessor, President Rabbi Aaron Panken, who perished last year.

Aaron’s legacy will be carried forward by each of you, our ordinees, for our institution was imbued with Aaron’s spirit, his kindness, and his love of Torah and Talmud, that touched you through his teaching and leadership.  And his legacy will be carried by so many of you joining with us today, whether here in person, or watching via livestream:  Aaron’s sacred and varied relationships with you, his integrity, compassion and love of Jewish learning, and his very joy and spirited neshama, soul, will be carried forward by each you and all of us every day.

On behalf of the Hebrew Union College, I extend again my thoughts and prayers to Aaron’s family, and in particular to Lisa Messinger, a true partner to Rabbi Panken’s life’s work, whose efforts this past year have ensured that his values— their values—of scholarship, leadership, teaching, and love of Jewish life and learning will live on through the four Rabbi Aaron Panken Professors that Lisa helped was critical to establishing on our four campuses.   We are grateful for that partnership in helping sustain that vision and ensure Aaron’s legacy for generations to come.

As I close I recognize that our ordination celebrations fall during our season of commemoration and celebration, observing in the last month Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron, and Yom Ha’atzmaut.  These three dates in the Jewish calendar provide an historical and spiritual context for our thoughts today: the memory of our People’s destruction during the Holocaust, the ongoing sacrifice necessary to secure our People’s survival, and the gift of Israel’s statehood for which we should always be grateful.

And now we are in the season of the Omer, ritually counting the days from Passover to Shavuot, marking multiple transitions:

The agricultural transition from planting to first harvest
The spiritual path from the redemption of Passover to the revelation at Sinai.
And the political path of our transformation as a people defined by negative freedom, delivered from the oppression by others to a people defined by positive freedom, to the ability to decide what to do with that freedom, to enter into a covenant that formed our People as such for the first time.

So, it is poignant that during this last month as we celebrated and commemorated the persecution, sacrifice, resiliency, and reformation of our people, rockets again bombarded Israel in an act of terror, indiscriminately threatening all people who live there, no matter their race, religion or nationality.  Closer to home, we were once again attacked while Jews prayed on Shabbat in a synagogue in Poway.  For the third time in five years, the attacker again was a White Supremacist, an anti-Semitic terrorist, this time motivated to copy the massacres at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the Mosque attacks in New Zealand.  Adding the Church attacks in Sri Lanka, hundreds of people have now been slaughtered in houses of worship this year, simply because they have different beliefs or because of who they are.    And just a few days ago, members of the KKK marched in nearby Dayton – a reminder that the forces of prejudice and violence are ever present. The pain and anxiety of being in a world in which individual hate can so easily be translated into murderous action is deeply unsettling.

One way to preserve Aaron’s legacy is to remember the words he shared to the 2018 Graduating class in New York– an address that tragically he did not live to deliver here in Cincinnati– warning of “countries long civilized and democratic, reverting to policies of nationalism and tactics of scapegoating reminiscent of our darkest times. [… ] cynical and often violent supremacist protests, and the abhorrent targeting of innocent immigrants as vicious criminals.”

Would that his words no longer resonated so deeply.

But Aaron also knew that our people had the genius to respond.  Going on, he wrote, “the Jewish people, and our religious friends of other faiths, have seen this before, and we have lived through it, and thrived, and built again and again and again…The world we live in today may have its darkness, but let us remember that there is so much light as well. We cannot equate the current state of the world with the extremes of the enormous tragedies that have befallen us.”

Our ability to fulfill Aaron’s inspiring words will depend on each of our ordinees’s balancing their own self-confidence and humility as they go into our world.  It depends on the support of their family and friends whose love and material support brought them to this place.  And it will depend on the continued work of our 4,000 active alumni – Rabbis, Cantors, Educators, Nonprofit Executives, and Scholars — who lead our Jewish Public Sphere, building a canvas upon which our collective good is realized, and the highest ideals of our people and our world can be achieved.   And because of their work that we are in a very bright place indeed!

So, we now look to you, our ordinees, as sanctified leaders of our People, in partnership with the communities you will serve and lead.  May you go from here as Rabbis becoming the klei kodesh that you will be, lifting your eyes upward towards the Holy and the Good, sideways towards the care of those around you, and bringing Justice to the communities and world upon which you stand.

Ken Y’hi ratzon…may it be God’s will.