Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) awarded Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker ’06, with the Sherut L’Am Award at Graduation Ceremonies in New York on Thursday, May 5, 2022.
The Sherut L’Am Award is HUC-JIR highest award recognizing exceptional service to the College-Institute or to the Jewish People.
Past recipients of the distinguished award have included renowned Jewish songwriter Debbie Friedman and Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt.
Rabbi Cytron-Walker has served as the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, TX, since 2006. Originally from Lansing, MI, he graduated from the University of Michigan in 1998. After graduating, Rabbi Cytron-Walker worked at Focus: HOPE, a civil and human rights organization in Detroit, MI, and then became the assistant director of the Amherst Survival Center, which housed a food pantry, free store, and soup kitchen in North Amherst, MA.
His rabbinical thesis was titled, “Jewish Service-Learning: Integrating Talmud Torah and Ma’asim Tovim.” As a student, he served congregations in Ishpeming, MI; Fort Walton Beach, FL; and Cincinnati, OH. During his time at HUC, he received multiple awards for his service to the community, along with an award for leadership from QESHET: A Network of LGBT Reform Rabbis. Through his work in Colleyville, he developed positive relationships with local school districts and organized interfaith gatherings including National Day of Prayer events and a memorial service on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. He is a past President of the South West Association of Reform Rabbis and serves on the steering committee of Peace Together.
President Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D., shared, “It is my great honor to introduce our distinguished alum, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, for the presentation of HUC’s Sherut L’Am Award. Rabbi Cytron-Walker is a true hero of the Jewish people. He served for 16 years as the first full-time rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, TX – a place that has entered the annals of antisemitic terrorism in our nation in recent years. He now joins Temple Emanuel in Winston-Salem, NC, where he will continue to provide his welcoming and inspiring leadership, strengthening Jewish identity, education, and engagement among his congregation and building bridges of understanding within the larger community. I will now read the citation honoring his consecrated leadership throughout his career and under the most horrific of circumstances.”
HUC-JIRhereby confers theSherut L’Am AwarduponRabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker
Esteemed graduate of the rabbinical class of 2006, whose consecrated rabbinate is committed to living the value of welcoming and caring for the stranger, the Torah’s most cited mitzvah
Who demonstrated extraordinary courage during the hostage take-overof his synagogue, bravely rescuing his congregants from imminent deathWho models inspiring resilience and empathetic care, as he nurtures the healing of his community following the trauma of the horrific terrorist assault,
Who believes with all his soul that the willingness to meet and talk with those who are different, not judging others from afar without an understanding of their reality,can reverse the tide of harassment, hatred, antisemitism, and violence that has led to bloodshedand threatened the sense of safety of sacred spaces
Who provides a warm and inclusive welcome to all, from interfaith families and LGBT individuals and families, to those seeking to find a spiritual home in Judaism, along with all others, by sharing the blessings of spirituality, compassion, and learning,across the generations
Who, after the bigotry and violence of Charlottesville, led the creation of Peace Together, connecting 20 local organizations representing different faiths and backgrounds, to listen and learn from each other, to build new relationships, andfoster understanding, tolerance, and mutual support
And whose dedication to the values of ethics, social justice, human rights, and the power of empathy to change the world, serves as a source of inspiration to the Jewish People and larger world
May 5, 2022
4 Iyar 5782
New York, NY
Sue Neuman Hochberg Chair, Board of Governors
Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D.President
HUC/New York Ordination Remarks:By Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker ’06
This moment, along with much of my life over the past few months, is completely surreal. I’m overwhelmed. I’m honored. I am filled with gratitude. What a humbling moment to receive an award for Service to the Jewish People standing before friends and colleagues who are being awarded their Doctor of Divinity for twenty-five years of service. I know the service that each and every one of you has provided not only in your own communities, but to our larger kehillah. Individually and collectively, you are a blessing.
I want to say thank you to President Reifeld and thank you to HUC-JIR for this profound honor. It is not something I ever envisioned.
And Chag HaAtzmaut Sameach and Mazal Tov to all our graduates! It is a joyous day on many levels!
Before I entered HUC-JIR, I worked at the Amherst Survival Center in Amherst, MA. It was a small soup kitchen with a free store and food pantry in the basement of a huge old house. It was different than most soup kitchens in that most of the volunteers were people who used the services. Everybody ate together, including the staff and volunteers. Plenty of college students were surprised when I told them that part of their volunteering was having lunch. After a couple times, almost all of them understood just how important their participation was to that community.
Because I was doing meaningful work that was making a difference every day, at one point I wondered whether or not I should enter into HUC as planned. While I obviously decided to become a rabbi, at the time, I had to think deeply about what it meant to serve a community. I came to understand that each of us, at every moment, is a part of many different communities – family, friends, neighborhood, school or job, religion, and many more. I thought about how one person can’t do everything for every community – it’s too much. We have to narrow our focus or else we get overwhelmed. And ultimately, I chose to focus on Am Yisrael – my People.
When I became the first full time rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville and I knew there would be some difficult moments. I didn’t anticipate that we would have so many challenges at our small congregation that years and years ago our JFS Director hired a part time therapist with an office about a mile from our congregation. And even though I’m a Jewish optimist and I know that things could always be worse, I never imagined the events of January 15th.
As I’ve said repeatedly, we wouldn’t have survived without the preparation of active shooter training and the creation and implementation of an emergency action plan. That helped get us through the day. But I don’t know how I would have made it through the aftermath of that event without all of you. In the days and weeks that followed, I learned about all the vigils and all the prayers. We received an avalanche of emails, calls, texts, Facebook messages and assistance in all forms. All the love meant the world to me. It meant the world to our congregation. We were blessed with incredible support from all over the world.
Our friendships with the Multifaith community, government, law enforcement, business leaders, and so many who took us into their hearts helped to sustain us. Many of those relationships existed before the trauma and I can’t stress how important those relationships are – how much they continue to mean to us. But today, on this beautiful occasion, I want to focus on the love and support we received from the Jewish world.
It reminded me of the story that I first learned from Rabbi Michael Marmur about whether a person with two heads should receive a double portion of inheritance. King Solomon ruled that boiling water should be poured on one head with the understanding that both would cry out and they should be considered one person. Based on this passage, Rav Soloveitchik teaches (in Kol Dodi Dofek) about Jewish Peoplehood that ‘if boiling water is poured on the head of a Moroccan Jew, the prim and proper Jew in Paris or London must scream.’ On January 15, when four of us were being held hostage in Colleyville, TX, the Jewish world was screaming and praying and waiting.
I know y’all were with us that day. The whole of the Jewish People was with us at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville. Every rabbi and cantor, every Jewish professional or future Jewish professional, every Jew – it hit everyone on a deeply emotional level. Four of us were in the sanctuary, but you were all there with us as well.
And when something like that – something horrible, something tragic, or even something wonderful – happens to one of us, we all feel it. In those moments, we embody the spirit of Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bah Zeh – All of Israel is responsible for one another.
In those big moments, we truly feel that deep sense of connection. We feel the anguish and the pain; we feel the admiration and the joy.
But here’s the challenge – how do we maintain that same sense of responsibility every day? How do we infuse our daily lives with the same sense of connection, of community, we feel in a crisis? When we fall into our routine, when everything is more normal, that’s much harder and no less important.
Sometimes there’s great success. I love hearing stories from congregants and others about how their rabbi supported them, how their cantor changed their life, how they still remember this teacher, how the chaplain helped them make it through the most difficult moments of their life. I’ve heard those stories about Jewish professionals and Jewish institutions, and I take such pride in those stories. They are stories of Jewish engagement, Jewish meaning. They speak to the impact one person can have on the Jewish People as a whole. They speak to our sense of common destiny. Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bah Zeh – there are times, many times, when we live this value.
And sometimes we fail. We’re imperfect. We make mistakes. Because there are far too many stories about Holocaust Survivors living in poverty, or people who don’t engage in Jewish life because they feel they don’t have the money, or people who turn away from Judaism because when they finally tried and showed up, no one welcomed them or offered hospitality. Maybe they got turned off by all the infighting. Or maybe we got impatient and tuned out because they were really annoying. Yes – I know it’s a surprise to many of you – some Jews are annoying. And Kol Arevim Zeh Bah Zeh – we are responsible for them too.
How do we, as leaders – each of us, live that value? Is that one of the overarching factors that inform our decision making, our strategic as Jewish professionals at Jewish institutions? How would that change our work, our focus to place this value at the center?
At the very least, we should be able to prioritize this value more than we prioritize our disagreements. Look – I’m not happy about the Cincinnati decision, but we must be able to disagree and not give up on each other; disagree and still work together; disagree and find better solutions because we’ve had to see the problem from many different perspectives. Our responsibility to and for one another does not go away just because things get difficult.
We need each other now. We face rising Antisemitism, increased political polarization, continuing uncertainty about the pandemic, ongoing concern about Israel and a thousand other things. And there are more Jewish professionals who are burnt out and more Jews who are feeling disconnected from Judaism. This is a moment when we need to feel responsible for our People and we need to work together to create intelligent and practical actions, practical solutions to address these issues.
Standing before this audience is humbling. But if I have one thing to share, one thing to teach, it’s this: at our best, we can and do make each other, and our entire community, feel holy, feel embraced, feel safe, and feel loved. All Jews – Kol Yisrael – want to belong, want to be accepted. We all want a sense of meaning and purpose and spiritual connection that Judaism provides. Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bah Zeh – this is our sacred obligation.
Thank you again. It is an honor to be here. Mazal Tov!
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