President Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D., Addresses 2020 Graduates of the Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles

June 2, 2020

Good afternoon graduates of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion!  How wonderful it is to be with you this afternoon to celebrate your significant achievements.  And what a strange way to celebrate on Zoom! I think I see Marsha and Greg Brady there, and is that Alice in the middle?  Oh no, wait a minute, that’s Paul Lind occupying the middle square!

Although I’m sure your parents and grandparents might like to hear more bad 1970s humor, and right now a bit of lightheartedness might bring a sense of welcome relief, the truth is, as we all know well, that the times we are living in are anything but frivolous. They are dark and frightening.  And in that context I am so grateful for the decisions you have made to enter into such meaningful and important work.
How much more important it is to celebrate your achievements today.Because we celebrate not merely that which you accomplished to get to this moment in time. We celebrate the promise that your future holds for all of us as you go forth from here to do and continue to do great things in the world.

As graduates of programs at the Rhea Hirsch School of Education and the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management, I hope you carry with you into the world these three important virtues that could not be more important today.

First, carry with you a love of Jewish learning that inspires your students and colleagues to teach and lead as embodiments of our highest ideals of moral character and leadership. Inspire others towards being their very best selves.  And understand that you do so at a moment when our nation is craving leadership that embodies these highest ideals, leadership in which the interests of the individual are sublimated for the good of the community.  For our work, your work, is not merely to help people live better lives.  It is to inspire people to work together to pursue our enduring Jewish values, values that aim at the Good and the Holy, the Right and the Just.

Second, at the same time that your education has helped inspire you to aim high to move our world towards what it ought to be, you have also been taught to be grounded, rooted, and connected to the world as it actually is.  Dr. Erik Ludwig is fond of saying that ZSchool grads lead the business of Jewish life.  In your educational programs you have been taught to ground what they do in the best practices of pedagogy and curricular design based on what actually works.  At a time when our desire to describe the world as we wished it would be gets in the way of using best practices of science to understand the world as it actually is, your being grounded in these proven practical skills will provide a powerful counterweight.

And finally, through the work you will do as a class, work that will take place both within and outside of the Jewish community, you represent the highest ideals of religiously progressive Judaism.  For you demonstrate that the power of our particular tradition and community is good only insofar as it can inspire us to make the world a better place.  Dr Miriam Heller Stern likes to say that Rhea Hirsch School grads are the “educational leaders who will transform Jewish lives through learning” and that they will “transform the world through education.”  And there she recognizes the link between the particularism of our tradition and our universal values.  At a time when noxious nationalism is again ascendant in our world, and when political leadership seeks to use communities to define “friends and enemies” – those who belong and the “others” who are not welcome – you demonstrate a different approach to the relationship between the particular and the universal. For you understand that the path to justice runs through one community at a time, built as it is upon concentric circles of affection, that radiate out from our attachments to family, to neighbor, to community, to nation and people, and ultimately to the word.  The very purpose of mastering our texts, engaging in our ritual, committing to our Jewish sources of values, the very reason we develop “strong chords of sympathy” with those who are like us, is to strengthen our collective ability to serve all who are in need.
And now you carry those values and commitments into the world, taking your place along side other moral leaders who count themselves as graduates of HUC, and are transforming the world around us.

Leaders like Mindee Fredman, the Vice President of Community Impact of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis.  A 1995 graduate of the Zelikow School, she was instrumental in creating and implementing an immediate Jewish communal response to the pandemic that provided needed financial and food support, health and mental services, and senior service support to the Jewish community in close coordination with the St. Louis Department of Health.  When I asked Mindee how HUC affected her professional development, Mindee was clear: “There are some who are in this business who happen to be Jewish and serve people.  HUC helped me do this work with a Jewish lens, to understand the connection between our tradition and our values and our service leading a community – this is not just a job, it is truly holy work.”

Or alumni like Missy Bell – a joint 2009 Rhea Hirsch School and Zschool grad.   In the earliest days of the pandemic, Missy, who is the educator and BJBE in Deerfield, Illinois, was able to quickly pivot and move all their educational programs to the virtual world.  Despite the radical change of venue and the obvious limitations of virtual learning, she is particularly proud of the high level of creativity they’ve been able to add to all their offerings. Her time spent coaching teachers who were not comfortable with the technology helped shift the programming to online and allowed her to continue building community in her congregation – not only among students, but among parents and among professional educators. The congregation has launched Virtual Villages, an online version of small groups, and she leads one called Teacher’s Lounge, for members who work in the local schools, which has become a wonderful way to connect with people who are dealing with similar circumstances in their careers!  “I constantly find myself reflecting on what I learned in my classes on leadership – both Michael Zeldin’s RHSOE class and Steven Windmueller’s then-SJCS class. I also keep in touch with my classmates on a daily basis, sharing ideas and brainstorming together.”
Indeed, you will have an outsized role as you join your communities as moral leaders, whether in the classroom or the conference room. For unlike the national and world historic crises of the last century, we must now turn to local communities for strong moral leadership more than ever.

And just as your communities and our world will look to you for support, so too have your educations been made possible by your teachers and leaders of the school.  During your time in Los Angeles, Drs. Miriam Heller Stern, Lesley Litman and Erik Ludwig provided inspirational leadership, supported by our Dean Dr. Josh Holo and Associate Dean Dr. Madelyn Katz, and reinforced institutionally by our Provost Rabbi Dr. Andrea Weiss. Along with their professional guidance, we are all grateful to the extraordinary encouragement and assistance of our HUC Board of Governors, led by Board Chair Sue Neuman Hochberg and Vice Chair Larry Tarica, along with our Western Region Overseers, led by Chair Cary Davidson and Vice Chair Hal Reichwald.  Their collective time, wisdom, and resources, along with generous support from our alumni and thousands of others, provided the very foundation for your journey, for which we are all so deeply grateful.

And so, three values:

  • A commitment to a tradition that helps you inspire others to be their best selves and create a world as it ought to be.
  • Training in the practical skills of your profession so that you may be stay grounded in the world as it actually is so you may have some hope of actually achieving your goals.
  • And a commitment to using your grounded-ness in Jewish life and learning, to enrich your souls and your minds, in a manner that helps you strengthen your resilience to help others in meeting the challenges that we collectively face in the larger world today.

Mazal Tov – congratulations!  As God told Abraham, Lech l’cha – go forth from here, and make us all proud!