So what is Jewish about Jewish leadership? It is acting, enacting, inspiring, and doing, based on the texts of our history and culture; of our covenant; of our teaching and our learning; and of our lives.

—Ellen Smith

Jewish Texts Jewish Leadership


The following is Hornstein Director Ellen Smith's address to the Class of 2016 at their commencement ceremony, May 22, 2016.


Dear Parents, Grandparents, Family, Friends, Faculty, Hornstein and Brandeis alumni, and graduates—Welcome!

We are so excited to have you with us today to celebrate the commencement of this extraordinary group of graduates. 

Two years ago, when we gathered the Hornstein Class of 2016, we opened with the question, “What is, and what will be, Jewish about the leadership roles we will assume?”

This class in particular has continued to focus on this question, in class, in cohort conversations, with faculty over cups of coffee and tea, and in a variety of workplaces. We know that as Jews we are not alone in seeking social justice, in striving to build lives and communities rooted in deep mutual caring, values, and personal meaning. So what helps frame these desires, this context for Jewish leadership and living?

One answer this class would give you is “Jewish texts.” And “texts” to them is a large, open word—reflective of their open minds and hearts. 

Our Jewish texts belong to all of us and unite us as a people. Here’s how we’ve come to understand them.

Professor Joe Reimer, on our Hornstein faculty, and Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, Dean of the Rabbinical College at our neighboring institution, Hebrew College, suggest that the “Jewish” way of leading, of living, of being, is at its core rooted in our relationship to Jewish texts. Sharon talks about the “4Cs” that Jewish texts provide and compel. The categories are hers; the explorations are, in part, mine. Thus works the living conversation that Jewish texts invite.

Jewish texts, Sharon tells us, bring:

Comfort: hayei olam. When we engage with Jewish texts, we are comforted knowing that we are never alone: that by being in conversation with Jewish texts and all the issues they raise, each of us is a strong link in the long chain of all the Jewish people that extends back long before—and will continue long after—our own lifetimes.

Jewish texts highlight real-world Complexity: davar acher. Jewish texts tell us: Don’t be afraid of the complexity, the contradiction, the challenges, even the confrontation that Jewish history and life bring. Life is messy. People are messy. Communities are messy. Leadership is messy. Talk to the texts. As Professor Jonathan Sarna says, our past matters. We take on these complexities with millennia of wisdom—and successes—helping to guide us.

Jewish texts undergird Commitment: la’asok bi-divrei torah. Commitment is not only our personal choice. We have the enormous privilege and responsibility that comes with being claimed, commanded, committed to lives and values larger than our own.

Jewish texts invite us to, urge us toward Creativity: ein bet midrash b’lo hidush. Revel in the reality that there is room in our Jewish history and tradition for all kinds of creativity, creative conversation, creative expression, change, and growth.   

And here, briefly, are four types of Jewish texts that our graduates brought to, and discovered, in their time at Hornstein. Know that in your own lives you can add and write your own Jewish texts.

  1. There are the texts of our Jewish history and heritage, the classic historical and rabbinic texts of Jewish belief and practice. Add to them our cultural texts—our Jewish people’s millennia of diverse poetry and novels and artwork and dance, in many languages and many places. All these texts belong to all of us, regardless of our background, our practice, our levels of knowledge. These texts unite us as a people when sometimes so little else seems to. 
  2. Our texts and our leadership are “Jewish” because of the text of covenant: our charge to live in mutual obligation, in support of one otherthe charge to live justly and to make the world a living testimony of justice and righteousness. This is commanded to all of us. The Jewish people stood together at Sinai—every one of us—women and men, the frail and the strong, every person. Each of us was given the same set of promises, the same set of responsibilities, the same calling. And each of our graduates honors and lives that call. We see it in your relationships to one another, to the full Hornstein community, to the people with whom you work, to those you love. 

  3. Jewish leadership is based on the texts of your own learning and writing. Each of you brought true knowledge and wisdom and experience to Brandeis. While here you grew in all of these dimensions. You studied current and past Jewish communities in North America, Israel, and Eastern Europe. You learned Jewish history; financial and management skills; to write and implement and evaluate policy; and to apply all this learning in new workplace settings. You learned in community… and as a community of learners, you learned that being a leader is being a teacher, and that teachers learn as least as much from their students as students learn from them. Leading is a lifetime of teaching and learning. You are all superb at both. 

  4. And then there is the text of your lives—the stories you tell about yourselves, and the stories you will generate throughout your lives. Our lives are indeed open books. How you live, how you work, how you love, how you care, is up to you to write. This, we know, you will do well. You already do. 

So what is Jewish about Jewish leadership? It is acting, enacting, inspiring, and doing, based on the texts of our history and culture; of our covenant; of our teaching and our learning; and of our lives.

And so we welcome you, Hornstein graduates of the Class of 2016, to your ever-growing roles in the Jewish community. We welcome your spirit, devotion, your vision, and your ability to get things done.

Bring us challenges. Confront us with complexities. Help us to build valued and valuable lives. Enable us to construct meaningful and just communities. Bring us comfort. Live in the joy and the love of your people. And know that every day, every one of us in this room and well beyond, loves you and thanks you for all of this. Welcome, and congratulations!

Ellen Smith, Director