Rabbi Samuel K. Joseph: 2021 Cincinnati Graduation Speech

“A Sense of Place for Post COVID HUC-JIR”

President Dr. Rehfeld, Chair of our Board of Governors Sue Neuman Hochberg, Provost Rabbi Weiss, Deans Rabbis Hecht and Schwartz, Rabbi Sarason, Director of the Pines School of Graduate Studies, Rabbi Kamrass, Dr. Kampen, Jewish Educational Leader Rachel Margolis, my honored faculty colleagues, those receiving their earned degrees today and those receiving awards, members of the HUC student body and staff, those who sit on our Board of Governors and Board of Overseers and friends of the College-Institute…

I am honored by the invitation to present the graduation address today and I thank you for this opportunity. I also thank Dr. Rehfeld and the administration for the honor paid me this day with the awarding of an honorary degree.

I moreover must take a moment of personal privilege and point out that without my life’s partner, my wife Dori, I would not have accomplished even a fraction of what I have done. She is the best. I cannot put into words how lucky I am to have you Dori as my colleague, coworker, equal, and most of all my best friend. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

This is indeed a quite special time in my life.

My colleagues and friends, here we are back together again as a Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion community. Nineteen months ago, we were to gather for Founders’ Day in Cincinnati and award honorary degrees. Seventeen months ago, we were to gather for our annual awarding of graduate degrees. The COVID19 pandemic forced us to cancel those face-to-face ceremonies. Today the HUC community final gathers together after all this time to joyously celebrate the hard work and accomplishments of our students.

זֶה-הַיּוֹם, עָש יְהוָה נָגִילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָה בוֹ
This is the day which God has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it. (Psalm 118:25)

And though some may say that this prayer is overused, I say it from the bottom of my heart:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הַעוֹלָם שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה
Praised are You, Spirit of the Universe, who keeps us alive, sustains us, and brings us to this moment. Amen.

Graduates and their families, alumni, current students, faculty colleagues, administrations, lay leaders of HUC, members of the community…we are here with all the artifacts and trappings that resonate joyfully within us after so many months of separation. There are academic gowns and hoods, diplomas to be literally handed to graduates, music, speakers, printed programs. It is all wonderfully familiar. My nostalgia, your nostalgia, for this event is filling us up.

We are gathered here in this magnificent sanctuary of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise’s congregation, KK B’nai Yeshurun. Constructed in 1866, these walls, pews, this bima have been eyewitness to more than 150 Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, hundreds of other holiday celebrations, life-cycle events both joyous and sad, and countless events of the Jewish community and the greater Cincinnati community.
I enter this room and it is very personal for me. I think of the consecration ceremonies of our daughters Rachel and Bethami when they were six years old. This is the place of their bat mitzvah ceremonies and their confirmation ceremonies. This is where they stood under the chuppah for their weddings.

This is the place where I was ordained a rabbi in 1976.

For the past close to 40 years, I walked down this aisle to witness the ordination of our rabbinical students.

This space is a very, very powerful place for me.

It is in this place I am animated today by a quote from Dr. Suess which he reportedly wrote while a student at Oxford: “I will skip through time and space / So you can find a sense of place.”(1)

What is a sense of place? What happened to it during pandemic? What will be the new normal?

During these many months of isolation, loneliness, and social distancing we have tried to create for ourselves a new equilibrium. For those of us who are teachers and learners we had little experience of formal learning programs where we did not gather with others to explore and debate ideas. We deeply internalized the physicality of classroom spaces and the technologies included in such… desks, tables, white boards, (some of us chalk boards and erasers) computer spaces and large screens for example. We have spent untold hours in these spaces from when we were 3 or 4 years old until now. Several decades, many decades. What now?

These pandemic months forced us to…dare I say it…pivot. Turn on the proverbial dime from learning in a face-to-face community to learning remotely. That is, sitting at our computer…one of my students last fall was in her home in Sydney, Australia, 16 hours ahead of Cincinnati time…and joining a community of learners separated by space and quite a time gap.

As a teacher, questions flood my mind. How do I support and help build and maintain the interpersonal relationships, the trust one needs in a remote learning community? How can I make sure students feel safe enough in this remote community to learn? Learning requires that students be strong enough to be vulnerable and “give an incorrect answer” to a question.

Even more, I believe that the disequilibrium so many teachers and learners felt during pandemic remote learning was that deep within us our lifelong classrooms were/or are not simply four walls in a building. A space. We learned and continue to learn in special learning places.
A sense of place is when people feel a belonging towards a certain if not special space with which they are familiar. When people visit a place for the first time, there is a feeling of anxiety and excitement where they tend to explore their surroundings for the first time. If they enjoy the place and it has led to a positive emotion, then they will re-visit or return to the place. This sense of returning to the place frequently and having that deep connection with that place makes the ‘space’ become a ‘place’ of meaning and connection.(2)

Many of us here today can relate to the power of a place called summer camp. It was there that we learned to live away from the place we called home. We learned independence and care of self. We learned how to form special relationships with our peers and adults not in our family constellation.

For others, a powerful place in our lives is/was the summer vacation spot, whether seashore or mountains. Other incredibly influential places may be your Passover Seder or your Thanksgiving dinner…those deep connections…where connection and meaning intersect.

As learners and teachers, we have encountered learning spaces that did not become learning places for us. At the same time, we would not be here today…at this graduation…without a preponderance of our learning having happened in what were spaces that became places for us.
The idea that space can become place is complex. It requires us to hold opposing forces in intension, then to find personal, internal stability. A stability that brings meaning to the self. Some tensions include…safety/risk, belonging/displacement; continuity/discontinuity; consistency/novelty; homeostasis/instability; roots/routes.

We learners and teachers internalized in unconscious ways the classrooms of our lives. From the formal four-walled space, large lecture hall to small seminar room… to the outdoor spaces under trees, on lawns. These classrooms became, and in our unconscious are, our places of learning.
Yet importantly, because not all the learning spaces in our schools and universities over the past 100 years worked, the COVID19 pandemic is now our opportunity to rid our university world of those learning spaces that did not work. Those spaces that did not become learning places.
Before March 2020, very few of us…learners and teachers…had experience with fulltime learning via remote learning…Zoom and so on. Now we were thrown headfirst into this long-distance computer-based environment and a culture where all the unconscious assumptions we learned over time were called into question. No longer could we automatically take the emotional temperature of the classroom. We had no experience of teaching and learning outside of the three-dimensional world.

In this post-pandemic HUC the College-Institute must intentionally work to create the “new normal” learning place.
Clearly HUC is committed to doing so. The Provost, Dr. Weiss, and Instructional Support Coordinator, Dr. Litman, are working tirelessly so that HUC teaching, and learning, employs the best known for designing courses, those remote and face-to-face; the usage of first-rate technology; the most current data to promote high levels of learner accomplishment.

The path ahead is huge. The pandemic has required every educator in the world, with very few exceptions, to focus attention not only on what but on how we teach. (4) Our unconscious assumptions were tested during these many months. We thought, in the main, that all teaching and learning occurred at the same time and the same place. We now know for sure that teaching and learning can occur along a continuum that includes from same time/same place to same time/any place, to same place/any time…up to any time/any place.

Justin Hollander, professor and Director of Advanced Graduate Studies at Tufts University writes: “As a professor, I enjoy being in a classroom with my students, I enjoy lecturing, class discussions, group activities and field trips. Students will also undoubtedly continue to seek out the in-person college experience. But students will vote with their feet now that they have had a taste of online learning. We face today an inflection point in higher education: we cannot return to the old model of purely classroom teaching with some modest accommodation towards online learning. The dire predictions from 2013… when the massive open online courses (MOOC’s) began to proliferate and experts said the old fashion ways of professors would finally fall… did not come true immediately, but they are now upon us. The lecture hall and age-old traditional in-person classroom experience will no longer be the acceptable norm. With the vestiges of online stigma now erased, colleges will need to offer a diverse configuration of instructional modalities to the students who demand them. No longer hemmed in by archaic formulae for teaching, the internet can now be fully embraced for its power and potential to enhance teaching. But that does not mean an end to in-person learning. It just means we will need to reconfigure the in-person elements of learning to maximize their benefits.”(5)

After all these months, we professors, and learners…. future rabbinical leaders and future scholar teachers… know that we are no longer confined, restricted by how learning has always been done… hemmed in by archaic formulas for teaching, as Professor Hollander continues. The internet can be fully embraced for its power and potential to enhance teaching.

I am imagining HUC as a hybrid school where our 146 years of residential education is in a tech-enabled world: a technology-enabled student experience. This is not only hybrid instruction, but rather a blended, immersive, and digital residential experience that fuses the online and physical worlds across campus. It transcends the current concept of blended education, which too often focuses solely on classroom instruction that toggles between face-to-face and online. Instead, the hybrid school can deliver everything an institution offers with a blended approach. (6)
An overarching challenge is how do we imbue the virtual classroom, in concert with face-to-face learning, with the power of a sense of place? Our new-normal place for learning. Several years from now how will we feel about this kind of learning place?

There is no return to normal. As I said a moment ago…we will exist in a new-normal. Central and key to our work as teachers, scholars and students is bringing the most important values from our former places of learning into our new places of learning.

I must emphasize that place is not simply a nostalgic synonym for space. It is carrying the values of the space we transformed, or by which we were transformed, into our new special place.

As I was writing this graduation address, I imagined that we were in a space where we could together create a word cloud. I imagined giving you the prompt “HUC is a place____________”. You would compete the prompt on your phone or Apple watch, send it in real time, right now, to a word cloud generator, and we would all see on a huge screen the collective thoughts about this prompt. I would so love to see what bubbles up as the most important ideas of HUC as a learning place in the new-normal.

Yet knowing the logistics of doing such in Plum Street Temple is incredibly complex, I instead created my own word cloud. It obviously represents my mind, my heart.

HUC is a place__________?

Here are few of my responses:

HUC is a place to be held in learning
HUC is a place of deep curiosity
HUC is a place where I can have fun with texts
HUC is a place to build skills and confidence
HUC is a place of growth and stretch
HUC is a place to develop long term relationships with colleagues
HUC is a place where each of us can bring questions, doubts, and challenges to think about together. (7)
My friends, I am so fortunate to be with you this afternoon and be in this place. This very, very special place.

What will make the post COVID HUC new-normal learning experience a special place?

HUC will have four fully interdependent/integrated facets:
1) HUC will exhibit a deep commitment to fostering the power of teachers
2) HUC will demonstrate its dedication to fostering the power of students
3) HUC will design a post-COVID new curriculum, a plan toward training Jewish professionals for the world ten years from now
4) HUC will show its full understanding of and responding to learning and practice in this post-pandemic setting
All these facets come together in the common place of the new-normal university…the result of which is HUC producing the best future Jewish leaders, and the best future scholars of Judaica and Hebraica possible.
This should be our mission; this should be our vision.
My friends…let us all join together and say to all humankind….
WE will skip through time and space / So ALL can find their sense of place
(1) Jamie Janczak’s project: “Dr. Seuss at Oxford”; http://www.la.utexas.edu/users/bump/OriginUniversities.html
(2) “What is a Sense of Place?”, Thejas Jagannath, 1/8/18, MEDIUM, https://medium.com/interviews-and-articles-on-art-public-spaces/what-is-…
(3) “Sense of Place, Sense of Self”, Allison Stern, PhD Dissertation, Saybrook University, 2017.
(4) Imagining the Post Pandemic University, Jody Green, The Humanities Institute, UC Santa Cruz, May 20, 2020.
(5) The Pandemic is Taking Higher Education Back to School, Justin Hollander, University World News, January 23, 2021.
(6) The Hybrid Campus: Three Major Shifts for the Post-COVID University, Jeffery Selingo, January 27, 2021, Deloitte Insights.
(7) I am fully indebted to and inspired by this material. “The SVARA Teaching Kollel”, A Jim Joseph Foundation Case Study. Rosov Consulting, June 2021.