Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D., Honors Suzanne and John Golden at HUC-JIR/New York Tribute Dinner
June 3, 2019
Erev tov, Good evening!
I am delighted to greet you on this special evening. Thank you for being with us, for your commitment to HUC, and your vital partnership!
It is a privilege to honor our dear friends, Suzanne and John Golden.
This institution is truly blessed to have your devoted leadership and tremendous support. Ever since joining the Board of Governors in 2003, John, you have applied your considerable wisdom and experience as Chair of Colgate University to help transform HUC. This is a year of transition for our institution, and tonight we honor your 16 years of service to our board. From the few hours we have spent together—whether on zoom interviews and in person—I am sorry that I won’t have your directness and candor that I so value around our board table. With any luck, I hope you will answer my phone calls now that you are stepping down!
When you recognized the urgency of strengthening our recruitment – you were there to provide the essential support. When you saw that there was a widening gap separating American Jews and Israel, you created the Golden Hanassi Fellows Program. And in so many ways, you and Suzanne have immeasurably enhanced the excellence of HUC.
I also want to express my gratitude to the Benefit Chairs: Martin and Michele Cohen, Larry and Pamela Tarica, and Bonnie and Daniel Tisch. The six of you are pillars of this institution and we look to you for guidance as we chart our future.
My appreciation also goes to the Alumni Chairs: Rabbi David Ellenson and Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, Rabbi Joshua Davidson and Cantor Mia Fram Davidson, and Rabbi Daniel Geffen and LuAnne Geffen. Your passionate commitment to your alma mater, HUC, inspires us all.
And David, I have to add a more personal note of thanks to you, for your guidance of this institution during this last very difficult year. Your wisdom, grace and warmth brought such stability and sense of calm to a year that was anything but stable and calm. Your continued advisory work as I step into this role has been so deeply appreciated. And as I said at our Ordination about a month ago, special thanks also to Jacqui for bearing the burdens that your re-newed leadership brought to your entire family.
Finally, I have to recognize our staff: This evening would not have been possible without the devoted work of the staff team that organized this event: David Adelson, Lissie Diringer, Jeanie Rosensaft, Elliott Kleinman, Serena Young, Kristin Young, Jillian Gramling, LaToya Caesar, and Allison Glazer. Thank you for all you do for HUC.
Friends, as I said a moment ago in thanking John for his service, this has been a year of transition. And transitions are never easy. HUC is at a transition point, as is the Jewish People. Of course, our leadership transition was brought about through the tragic death of my predecessor, President Rabbi Aaron Panken. While I am truly thrilled and humbled by the opportunity to lead HUC into our future, there is not a day that goes by that I don’t recognize the conditions in which this opportunity was created. The loss of someone so young, not even five years at the helm, provides a sober reality check about the fleetingness of life. We just commemorated Aaron’s yahrzeit last week with a day of learning led by our former provost Rabbi Michael Marmur, a terrific embodiment of Aaron’s values. I want to recognize Lisa Messinger who over this past year continued the work that she and Aaron dedicated their lives to by leading the effort to endow four Rabbi Aaron Panken Professorships that ensure that his values—really their values—will continue on for generations to come. Lisa, thank you.
John asked that I use my talk to give you a sense of who I am and what is important to me about the work of the College-Institute, and a bit of a sense of my vision. I don’t like talking about myself so much, but out of respect for John I thought I’d do three things in this talk tonight. Number one give you a sense of who I am and what shaped my own journey, second, explain how my own personal path actually connects to the kinds of challenges we are having in Jewish world today as well as the opportunities, and finally the critical role of HUC to address these challenges.
Today marks the end of my 64th day of service as President of HUC. I’ve been counting each day—uhhh….religiously!…since I started at the beginning of April. I must say that as thoughtful as the institution has been, the symbolism of announcing a start day of April First—April Fools Day…well, it may not have been completely thought through.
And now we arrive at the end of day 64…and my wife and I are in limbo between St. Louis and New York. We finalize the sale of our house on Thursday and while our apartment rental in NY began on June 1 our movers don’t come until Friday! HUC may have the tag line “we are here” but right now Miggie and I feel a bit like we are nowhere!
The idea of counting days in a new administration is of course reminiscent of how we track the accomplishments of US Presidents during their first 100 days. But there are so many different ways to count and track the moments of our life. Rent: “525,600 minutes.” When I was a kid I drew up a spreadsheet of all 79 episodes of Star Trek that were shown in reruns and ranked each based on the quality of the story. (Yeah, I was that kid.).
But I do think a more interesting way of tracking that is relevant to the work of HUC is the categorization of our population into generational cohorts. As symbolically significant as it is to have be appointed as the first non-Rabbi of the College-Institute, I think a more interesting frame is that I am the first president to have been born within Generation X. My predecessor, Rabbi Aaron Panken of blessed memory, was born 18 months before I was, and during the last year of the Baby Boom.
At a superficial level, this means I’m the first president of HUC who came of age, became a bar mitzvah that is, after the TV mini-series Roots and after the first season of the Love Boat and Fantasy Island had been aired. I experienced the Brady Bunch in reruns, and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” shaped my high school experience. While I was alive for Richard Nixon’s resignation announcement on August 8, 1974—I remember it only in a fog because my mother called it the best birthday present she could imagine. For me, Ronald Reagan was the first president in my mature memory—and I should say that my father voted for him. (No surprise…They were divorced 9 months after I was born!)
But more important for the work we are doing at HUC is that as a Gen Xer, I have no memory of 1967, the Six Day war, or of 1973, the Yom Kippur War. My first memories of Israel are really of it making peace with Anwar Sadat—that is of an Israel that was becoming normalized with the Arab world. Jordan would quickly become a de facto peace partner and the question that animated my time in religious school was less, “would Israel exist” and more the question, “what was Israel going to do with its political power.”
As a member of Gen X in the United States, my encounter with Jewish life was also markedly different than that of Baby Boomers and older Americans.
Sheila Russian was a rabbi of mine at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, and Gail Hirschenfang its cantor. I grew up with a single mom who had a full-time professional life, and it never occurred to me that Rabbi Russian and Cantor Hirschenfang—that women in positions of religious leadership—were anything but normal.
In fact—this is a true story—when I became the director of the New Jersey region of the NFTY—the reform youth movement—and I heard that Sally Priesand was a rabbi in my region I was gobsmacked. “Sally Priesand” I remember thinking. My God! She was the first woman Rabbi! She must be like 95 years old! That was in 1990, and I was so wrong. (In fact, I was thrilled to have been able to invite her just a few weeks ago to join us on the Bima to celebrate the occasion of our Provost, Rabbi Andrea Weiss, becoming the first Woman to ordain rabbis in our movement—and what a moment of celebration that was!)
So my own experience can be understood if we look to how generations are passing through the world.
Chronicling and counting—whether by generations, days or minutes in a life, or, John, years of board service—help us make meaning from life. But particularly during transitions, this counting gives shape to where we’ve been and where we are going, a sense of “the here” where we are, to the “there” towards which we are going.
Like so much wisdom of our tradition, our entire Jewish calendar is a chronicling of passages of time. There’s a song that I wrote to teach kids the order of the Jewish months with this as its first verse: [SING}:
“Calendars were made to do much more than just keep time;
They remind us of our special days our heritage we’ll find.
Jews look to the new moon to know when each much comes;
Then we celebrate and consecrate, as the year moves on and on….”
Right now we are in the very season of transition, the period of counting the Omer, the days from Passover to Shavuot. The omer was literally a measure of grain used for Temple sacrifice. But ritually, the counting involves recognizing the 49 days from Pesach, to Shavuot.
49 days from the holiday that commemorates our negative freedom, freedom from slavery, to Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates our positive freedom, the freedom we to determine what to make of ourselves now that we are no longer slaves.
The counting of the Omer is a recognition that we are going from here—a place where the burdens of slavery are metaphorically identified—and we set for ourselves a destination—the Sinai, if you will of “there” where we can live our most realized selves based on life commitments that form us as individuals and a people. Or as it is written in the book of Exodus, Chapter 24:12: “Come up to Me on the mountain and be there.”
That transition from negative freedom to positive freedom, the freedom from domination by others to the freedom to take on a set of moral commitments, in many ways describes the transition of our Jewish world, and that explains why HUC is so critically important to our collective future.
In a remarkably short period of time we as a people have gone from a place of weakness to a place of strength that is unparalleled in our 3000-year history.
In the 20th century, we faced the urgent, existential threats of progroms, forced migrations, and the Holocaust. The joy and phoenix-like emergence of Israel from our ashes was met immediately by a four0decades struggle for security of the new nation.
We were a people in Exodus, seeking merely to be freed of external domination.
Those threats were urgent and existential—we had to act, and we did.
But we are in a period of transition now—and as my own story was meant to illustrate, this transition away from Exodus towards a new Sinai, a place in which we can renew and reform our covenant towards what we will yet be.
In a remarkably short period of time our people now live with unprecedented security, even with the alarming re-emergence of anti-Semitism. In the United States and Canada we have thrived, thanks to their commitment to liberal democratic values of toleration, free exercise of religion and economic opportunity, values that even as they are currently under attack, show remarkable resilience. And in a remarkable short period of time, Israel has gone from a struggling economy unable to care for its own, in need of infusions of wealth and military support from around the world, to a regional superpower culturally, militarily, and economically, one of only eight or nine nations with nuclear weapons.
The Jewish People both inside and outside of Israel still faces existential threats. But now the existential threats are not being dominated by others as we were slaves in Egypt, the existential threats are that we are headed to Sinai, headed to there, to the mountaintop, but have a weakened sense of what commitments we should take on, and even no clear sense of why Jewish life is valuable for its own sake and as a means toward realizing the Good, The Right, and the Just.
That transformation requires modern, sophisticated, professional leadership, of exactly the kind that we are training, educating, and inspiring at Hebrew Union College. And this is where HUC is critical to the future of the Jewish People.
Israel, for example, faces no immediate threat of invasion or military destruction as it once faced 40 years ago, but Iran and terrorism from Hamas and Hezbollah continue to threaten lives of all who live there. The more pressing threat comes from the cynical use of political power to back minority ultra-Orthodox political parties in order to secure coalitions. This cynical use of political power threatens to create an Israel that denies the equal rights of all who live there and undermines a fundamental commitment to Justice and that I believe all forms of Zionism from Herzl to yes, even Jabotinsky stood for. These are existential threats to Israel, but slow ones, ones that must be addressed.
Our programs to train rabbis in Israel are producing leadership for a renewed covenant, to envision Jewish life that is deepened, not merely by the existing of Halachic and Secular expressions, but Jewish religious life in Israel that is based on religious principles defined on liberal terms: principles of moral autonomy, reason, and free will. We have produced over 100 rabbis who are slowly transforming Israel by providing a third way to those who are seeking greater meaning and engagement with a tradition where halachic and secular approaches are leaving them feeling abandoned. Our graduates and HUC are working to build bridges towards shared society in Israel, with programs that are not only deepening Jewish life, but laying the groundwork for Palestinian and Jewish partnership in the future.
Turning back to North America, the existential threats that we face as a people in North America are a different kind of existential threat. Here we as a Jewish People suffer from insufficient Jewish education, inadequate engagement in Jewish communal life, and tenuous Jewish identity that often has very little substance to it. We are having challenges in the Knowing (education), the Doing (engagement) and the Being (identity) Jewish. Education, Engagement and Identity.
In part, our situation in America is not unlike the conditions that gave rise to the Reform Movement in Germany and Europe during the mid-19th Century. And this is where the work we are doing at HUC is so vital to our ability to address these slow existential challenges.
Enjoying political emancipation on a wide scale for the first time in modern history in the 19th century, our people for the first time were able to freely confront the ideas of the scientific revolution and Enlightenment without being sequestered and forced to live in quasi-independent communities, separated from the rest. Reform Judaism sought to reimagine Jewish life in ways that were consistent with living a fully integrated life, built on a foundation of reason, science, moral autonomy, and free will, to build a new, modern, religious framework that reimagined the sources of moral authority in the individual, that saw ritual as instrumentally important to reinforcing ethical values, and that elevated a part of our prophetic tradition to be a light unto others, elevating a call towards universal justice as a core to our being.
Orthodoxy or Halachic Judaism of whatever kind begins with an acceptance that God gave Torah to Moses at Sinai, and we as a people continue to be bound by God’s will. Jewish identity, education, and engagement are easier when you lack the freedom to do otherwise. The test of Reform and all non-halachic Judaisms is how well we can meet these slow existential threats of education, engagement, and identity in the absence of external threats or the imposition of a narrative that reason and evidence do not support as true. This requires a level of unprecedented individual acceptance and engagement using our liberty, our freedom as individual moral actors to take upon ourselves the discipline to use our tradition and our community to strive for the Good, the Right, and the Just.
Consider this challenge in terms that I used a moment ago in thinking about the counting of the Omer, the season in which we are going from here to there, from Egypt to Sinai.
When we lacked negative freedom—whether in Egypt as slaves or as we faced the urgent existential threats of the 20th century —we could not always focus on Sinai, that is we could not always focus on the there towards which we were heading. It required leadership to help guide and show us the way. But once free, we have to start worrying about where you are going to. We have to be able to define the purpose of the very thing that kept us together.
And this brings me back to the importance of HUC to create leaders for our community to offer a positive vision of Jewish life for an entire community that respects individual autonomy, and sees Judaism and Jewish life as important for its own sake, and instrumentally as a means to achieve justice in our world today.
One thing is for sure—there is no one place. Rather it comes from building strong and sustainable Jewish communities, strong and sustainable Jewish Public Spheres, that our graduates are singularly in a position to lead.
As rabbis, cantors, educators, non-profit professionals, and educators they are adding immeasurably to giving Jewish life meaning to those outside of the halachic world, in a manner that nevertheless recognizes the authenticity of pluralism, multiple approaches to Jewish life. They are building the canvas of Jewish Community, a Jewish Public Sphere, on which our values can be painted and expressed. A Public Sphere in which our Rabbis and Cantors this year will serve nearly 900 congregations in the US, the UK and around the world, the Hillel’s at Yale, Harvard, and Brandis, as well as community centers, Federations, community Newspapers, and Jewish schools. Where two HUC graduates this year are serving our nation as military chaplains.
Our graduates lead their communities in struggling with the Transcendent (or the Good) through our text and tradition. They a model individual ethical behavior (or the Right) by creating meaningful educational experiences and ritual practices; and they are invested with the skills to build communities of value based on our prophetic tradition and aiming at Justice for all. Together they are creating a Jewish Public Sphere that helps individuals live lives with dignity, meaning, and purpose, where Jewish community is part of a life, well lived.
As the video said, HUC is here, and we are here to get all of us there to the top of a new Mount Sinai. And as I think about the leadership that our graduates are providing to enrich Jewish education, engagement, and identity, I imagine to myself, what will our new Sinai look like, what will it feel like, what might it sound like….and this is what I imagine:
MUSIC/SINGING from HUC DFSSM faculty and students
How do we get there? Join with us.
Help us recruit the next generation of Jewish leaders by encouraging prospective young people to consider a career of meaning in the Jewish world.
Help us with your generosity, so that we can sustain the world’s finest Jewish studies faculty and provide the scholarship support that is crucially needed by young people today.
Help us by spreading the word about our institution’s vital role – bring your friends to our New York campus, where they will experience art, music, and learning opportunities that offer a contemporary spin on Jewish tradition.
And join us as full partners in protecting and preserving the Jewish People today, and for the generations to come.
In short: follow John and Suzanne’s commitment. Use the freedom you have to support the work that is so vital to all of us, so vital to the pursuit of the good, the right and the Just in our world. And thank you for coming tonight, for your support, and for all that you are doing – and will continue to do – to ensure a bright Jewish future.