Dr. Adriane Leveen, Senior Lecturer in Hebrew Bible, Reflects on New York Day of Learning

November 9, 2023

As I walk toward HUC-JIR on November 7 I am aware that this is the day when our new brit for the campus community is going to be presented and celebrated. I wonder, as I have many times over the last month, how will we concentrate, teach, and study on the NY Campus in spite of our overall sadness and concern for those on our Israeli campus. Especially on this day, November 7, that marks one month after the horrific attack on Israel, an attack that has swept up our students, faculty, and staff in Israel as well as many of my personal friends.

Those who planned the morning program in New York wisely begin with a powerful live report on zoom from President Rehfeld who is currently spending significant time in Israel. He is followed by the head of our Israeli rabbinical program, Rabbi Talia Avnon-Benveniste, who in fierce and moving words shatters our hearts. How could it be otherwise after we hear of the suffering and determination of our Israeli colleagues to persist in caring for their families, the HUC students, and a country traumatized and at war. The Director of the Year-in-Israel program, Reuven Greenvald offers us a Hebrew poem written after Oct. 7. Sarah Grabiner, Cantorial Program Coordinator, offers a song. Both song and poem bear witness to the anguish, longing, mourning, and humanity of Israelis in this collective catastrophe.

I wonder how we can move on from this first hour in our day to the planned teachings offered by Provost Andrea Weiss followed by Professor Alyssa Gray. Yet our tradition knows what tragedy and disruption are and how to express that awareness. Our tradition also offers us the consolation of a different and more hopeful future. These extraordinary teachers of that tradition are electrifying. The atmosphere in the room buzzes with questions and comments, some between faculty and others offered by students. The titles of their talks capture both the content of their teaching and how these texts are able to lead us from the profound grief and tears of our morning to the possibilities of living in community. That movement between despair to hope has sustained our people for thousands of years. Dr. Weiss’s talk, “Seeking Comfort in the concept of Covenant” leads to that of Dr. Gray “Maintaining Jewish Community: Some Perspectives from Medieval Halakhah.” From comfort to community leads us directly to now, to a room full of students and faculty prepared to take upon ourselves a commitment to the values and goals embedded in our tradition that will lead us to a flourishing community with a shared purpose within the walls of HUC.

The idea of a brit for our community came out of a recognition that we needed to intentionally reflect upon and create a path forward for HUC after some challenging years that included the disorienting and isolating lockdowns of COVID 19. After we returned to our shared classrooms in our seminary setting, what next? In January 2023, at the initiation of Dean David Adelson, Dr. Rabbi Lisa Grant, and Cantor Jill Abramson; Rabbi Rachel Gross-Prinz, the Dean of Students, put together a committee of three faculty members and four students to begin the conversation that eleven months later led to our new brit. In our three conversations, we began with what each of us loved about our time at HUC. Love was the word as our commitment and loyalty to this institution became obvious. We were quickly able to appreciate our shared purpose in drafting a brit. Our conversations were sometimes very difficult as we talked about experiences in which a student felt rebuked, or a professor felt misunderstood. Several examples of interactions that soured a relation, either between student and teacher or between students with one another, were described as well as challenges of living in an expensive and bustling city. Busy schedules and due dates, multiple tasks and demands on time, were all brought up as we continued to explore what life is like as a student or teacher at HUC. But the determination to listen, and to identify the most pressing concerns, grew over our meetings. When the time came to capture our shared concerns and create a document that could guide us personally and interpersonally as an HUC community Rabbi Gross-Prinz invited one of the students, Ezra, and myself, faculty, to structure and write the document with her. More hours than I had anticipated unfolded, including meetings over the summer months with faculty and students to share a draft version and receive reactions and suggestions. That process led to the emergence of the document celebrated on November 7.

The preamble to our brit states our lofty goal. “This brit is grounded in our distinctiveness as a seminary. As students and faculty, the starting point for all that follows is our recognition of the potential for holiness.” We commit ourselves to building a balanced and shared community, seeing ourselves in lives both inside and outside of class. It recognizes that faculty and students share the experience of many demands on our time, even if those demands are different. How do we respond to such pressures? Certainly, we aim to give each other the benefit of the doubt if we fall short in meeting deadlines or communicating in timely fashion. What professional habits do we need to cultivate? How do we apologize when in error? How do we give feedback? In a world of instant text and response, how do we put all of that aside and focus on what is happening right now, in front of us, in our learning and teaching. How do we communicate openly and honestly, respectfully, and sensitively? As Rabbi Gross-Prinz put it, our brit document serves as a written Torah while what happens next, through our word and action, will become our oral Torah. I pray that this brit, and our celebration of its creation, will offer us the necessary guidance to move ever closer to a holy community in which all of us may flourish in our shared endeavors.

Dr. Adriane Leveen
Senior Lecturer in Hebrew Bible