HUC/Los Angeles Graduation Address 2022
Stephen D. Smith, Ph.D.
The great philosopher, inductee of the baseball hall of fame, and featured name on the Economist’s 50 Wisest Fools, baseball player Yogi Berra, once said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
And here you are at a fork in the road.
Just like the one that brought you here to HUC, for sure you are going to take it. As our distinguished alumni being honored with doctorates here today will attest, you will follow your path until the next fork, and the next, and the one after that. Sometimes, you get to choose your own adventure, other times life will intervene in good ways, and sometimes bad. The very fact you are graduating from HUC (or did so eons ago, honorees), means you have already made a life decision about what is important to you. You have chosen a path that prepares you to be upholders of community, practitioners of faith, teachers of the next generation, managers of meaningful organizations, and thoughtful leaders. You make tikkun olam real, everyday, and boy does our world need that. You chose that, otherwise you would not be here. But for all the learning there is no diploma for “how to make a good decision about the next agonizing fork in the road.” That’s just life, and it’s right ahead, everyday, until the day you die.
I grew up in Sherwood Forest. Well not the actual forest, but nearby. One might imagine oak trees, Robin Hood, deer bounding through the verdant English countryside. Wrong. Think coal mines, Billy Elliot, Pittsburgh in the 1980’s. It was dirty, sooty, working class, hard grind. My father was a Methodist Minister, my mother a religious education teacher. They were conservative evangelical zealots. And they desperately wanted to go to Israel to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. I was just 13 when I stood in front of the Kotel looking up at the majestic stones that had once been humble temple foundation walls. It made me wonder. If Jesus was a Jew and came here to pray for the same reason as these Jews, how come I have no idea what is happening here? It was my first fork in the road. And so, I took it. I wanted to know, “who are these people and why do they still come here to pray?”
Back in my mining village of New Ollerton I asked the librarian if she had any books on Judasim. “I don’t think so.” she replied, but returned with two books, Martin Gilbert’s Atlas of the Holocaust and Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. Another fork. I took The Chosen, I wanted to know how Jews lived, not how they died. I fell headlong into the existential dilemma of hasidic teenagers of immigrant parents living in New York, along with all of their Yiddishisms. I was the only kid in my school that knew what kindele, streimal, kishkes, and tsores meant.
There was no fork in the road when I reached sixteen and could leave high school. I was straight out of the door and onto my beloved tractors. Yes, somehow, I had decided I was going to be a farmer. I read the Farmers Weekly as religiously as the New Testament. But then I hit another fork, I needed a degree, any undergraduate degree, to go to farm management school. This was my perfect chance to complete my quest. I would farm by day and study Jewish studies by night. I wanted to understand Judaism from early Israelite religion and Jewish history up to the founding of the State of Israel. There was no such course at the University of London, and so I made one up. I majored in Christian theology and then took every class on the “old estament,” Jewish history, and religion available. I began to see a theme, a terrible earth-shattering theme. Wherever Jews lived in Christian lands, they were persecuted, hounded, and murdered. Anti-Jewish hatred followed them everywhere they went. Could my beloved Christianity really be responsible for this?
Another fork. Agriculture school or a Ph.D. in Theology and Philosophy? And so, I took it. I wanted to know where the anti-Jewish hatred came from. How could a religion that preaches peace and love murder the Jews?
Back in Israel in 1991, I was studying at the Hebrew University summer course. My brother James took an internship at Haddasah Hospital. We went to Yad Vashem. Somehow, I had seen the Holocaust as a Jewish issue, something almost sacred, despite its profane nature. James and I stood in front of the image of the young woman holding her child, her knees buckled, a rifle pointing at her just feet away. It dawned on us, standing there watching this woman still die in slow motion fifty years later, that while the Holocaust is a profound tragedy for the Jewish people, it is not their problem. The problem is West European Christian civilization. Who was going to deal with that? Another fork in the road. Do we walk away from that woman? Or confront the evil that murdered her and her child?
We decided to volunteer for a Holocaust center in the U.K. But there wasn’t one, nor was there going to be one. Another fork, we were not qualified to build the National Holocaust Memorial Museum, but there needed to be one. I switched my study to the Holocaust. But I did not want to study the death of Jews, I wanted to know about their lives. And so, I went to the Oxford Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies so that I could study the language, culture, and history of the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. I travelled several times to Eastern Europe to the small towns and villages that had been thriving centers of Jewish life and learning, to find nothing. Nobody. Not a trace except ghost synagogues and broken matzeves. I had never realized how successful the Holocaust had been. The Jewish people had survived, but its entire European history had been erased.
Another fork. I had come to love Judasim and disdain Christianity. Maybe I could replace one of those lost lives, perhaps contribute a few more. I wanted to convert to Judaism. I went to see the Rabbis: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform. Like Goldilocks, one was too soft, one too hard, and none was just right. Standing at the fork in the road my brother said to me, “the Jews don’t need converts, what they need right now are champions.” He was right, they do need non-Jews who get it. Who fight the hatred, who stand for justice. And anyway, I did not have time for conversion classes, I had a Holocaust center to build.
Then Rwanda happened, and then Bosnia, wave after wave of senseless killing. We were creating a memorial to the Holocaust fifty years prior and just eight weeks before we were due to open, 8,000 Muslim men and boys were lying in mass graves in Srebrenica. Another fork. How can we open a memorial center to the past when people are dying in the present? “I am going to Bosnia.” I proclaimed at the fork in the road. James was there again. “You aren’t going to Bosnia, because they need NATO, not you. Why not get the Holocaust center open and give every young person that comes through here the tools to prevent the next genocide.”
He was right (sometimes you need a little help to decide). I took the fork in the road. We opened the U.K. Holocaust center eight weeks after the genocide in Srebrenica – and we opened Aegis, the world’s first Genocide Prevention Center, in it. Sometimes the left fork and the right fork take you to the same place. Different route, same destination.
By this time my Ph.D. in Theology had turned to the subject of Holocaust witness. While building the Holocaust Center, no one in the Jewish community believed two Christian kids from a mining community were building the national center, except the Holocaust survivors, who said, “Thank you, how can we help?” We were surrounded and supported by people who had seen the worst of humanity, but still believed in humanity. They were our friends, our mentors, our journey men and women, to this day.
Then the government of Rwanda called. “Can you help us tell our story too?” Another fork in the road. Not everyone in the Jewish community was ready for Christian kids telling their story, even fewer were ready for us to tell the story of the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda too. We took the fork. (Notice I did not say which one, but by now you know). And so, we built the national genocide museum in Rwanda too.
By this time, I was married with three beautiful children, one of whom graduated USC on Friday. My marriage was not going as planned. I was trying to keep things together and was declining international speaking events. And so, when Yad Vashem called in 2008 to ask me to open their international conference, I was about to say, “no.” But on my way home that evening I hit another fork in the road, literally. I sat in the car for a second. Say “no,” and maybe save my marriage. Say “yes,” and be the person I want to be. I took the fork. You know which one.
At that conference I met with leaders in my field. I also met my future wife, which was the last thing I wanted. But I had chosen a road to be who I wanted to be, which led me right to California to lead USC Shoah Foundation.
Twelve years later, the Shoah Foundation is a global organization, it is right here, across the street, and please use it in your professional life, you have no idea what a treasure trove of wonder and life and wisdom is hidden there. It is the North Star of our community.
It is amazing what a heart attack will do to focus the mind. As I watched the ceiling tiles and fluorescent tubes from my gurney, I realized that my day of jam-packed meetings were not as important as I originally thought. My family was the only thing on my mind as the nurse wrestled my phone from me. Believe me, getting through that day has made big forks in the road all that easier.
Meanwhile, my brilliant wife, Heather, had developed the concept of interactive holographic testimonies for Holocaust survivors. And so together with a genius group of scientists at USC we created a new medium – interactive biography – a game changing way to tell their story. What if we could all speak to future generations? Another fork in the road. A. Be the best Holocaust scholar I can be, add to my list of academic chairs, publications and accolades, and coast to retirement. Or B. Start from scratch, set up a new business to tell the story of our world through the eyes of those that live it. I took the fork. You know which one.
In February I was back in Jerusalem now in my role of CEO of StoryFile. My wife and business partner Heather went to the women’s section at the Kotel as she always does, to pray for our family. I went and touched the ancient walls, then sat at the back of the plaza as I had done 42 years prior and watched the Jews come and go as they have done for thousands of years.
And there I was, at another fork in the road. I realized that I had spent over four decades fighting the haters, revealing the darkness, swimming against the tide, being an outsider to this beautiful wonderful ancient tradition. What if I stop fighting and become a part of this amazing people, a part of the future of something I love. And so, I took the fork. You know which one. (Just a few more classes, a little nip and tuck, and the mikveh lies ahead, hopefully in time for Chanukkah.)
I am not graduating today, but like you, I have no idea what forks in the road lie ahead. But I do know they are right around the corner.
To all of you who are graduating today – Mazal Tov! You made a great choice being here at Hebrew Union College and making learning and service your priority. For the returning alumni, welcome back, and thank you for your service to our community and our world. You all make tikkun olam real everyday. There are no doubt decisions that lie ahead for all of you, decisions that only you can make to find your own Mt Sinai. But it seems that the wise fool, Yogi Berra, was right after all: when you do come to that fork in the road wherever you are in your life and career. You know what to do – just take it!