Jewish Leadership in the 21st Century

Keynote Address to the Hornstein Class of 2017

By Rabbi Jonah Pesner, May 21, 2017

Rabbi PesnerThank you. I am profoundly honored to be the recipient of this year’s Bernard Reisman Award. Though I never knew Professor Reisman —his memory for a blessing — he was something of an icon in the field of Jewish communal service and he was beloved by so many in the Boston Jewish community, Brandeis University and beyond. Professor Reisman founded a critical program whose visionary faculty understand the paramount importance of identifying, training and mentoring every generation of new leaders in order to create the Jewish community worthy of our thousands of years of history, tradition, peoplehood and wider contribution to humanity. Professor Reisman knew that we cannot take leadership for granted; rather, it must be created. You fulfill this vision and make our community stronger. You, and your predecessors who are alumni of this prestigious program, ensure that his memory and life’s work continues on in communities worldwide.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge Professor Reisman’s visionary partner in establishing the Hornstein Program at Brandeis, Rabbi Leon Jick, his memory for a blessing. A hero of Jewish education and social justice, it fills me with pride that Rabbi Jick and I both served as assistant rabbis at Temple Israel of Boston. Rabbi Jick was among the 16 rabbis who heard the call from Dr. King and were arrested in St. Augustine Florida in 1964. Rabbi Jick went on to march in Selma with Dr. King, John Lewis, Rabbi Heschel and many other Jewish leaders who were willing to pray with their legs and put their bodies on the line. I hope all of us in Jewish leadership today would have the same courage Rabbi Jick had when he heard the call.

Today’s commencement celebration is an affirmation of the truth that leadership must be nurtured, as “mdor la-dor,” from generation to generation.

This week’s Torah portion is Bamidbar, the first chapters of the Book of Numbers. In the opening verses, God instructs Moses and Aaron to take a census, to count of all the men, according to their tribes, to set up their military capability. But God specifically tells Moses not to count the Levites, instead putting them in charge of Mishkan Ha-Eidut — the Tabernacle of the Pact. God separates out this group of leaders for distinct, sacred service. They are to set up and break down the tabernacle as the Israelites carry it throughout their journey to the Promised Land, as well as to care for all the sacred instruments and furnishings, and watch over all of it. Now the Levites aren't just sacred schleppers or righteous roadies! They actualized the divinely inspired vision for ancient community into reality. Take Miriam of the house of Levi, technically not a Levite because of Biblical limitations of her gender, who led the people in ritual singing and dancing with the now iconic "Song of the Sea."

This group of leaders stands apart. Listen to the deeper meaning of Mishkan Ha-Eidut — the Mishkan, often translated as tabernacle, is literally a sanctuary; God famously instructs the Israelites earlier in the Torah to “build me a Mishkan so that I may dwell among them” — many commentators have pointed out God’s use of “them” rather than “it” meaning God dwells among people, not a place — the Mishkan then is where the Israelites gather and experience the divine. New in our parsha is the phrase “eidut” literally “bearing witness.” So Mishkan Ha-Eidut is the gathering place where all Israel can bear witness — to the abiding truths, the enduring values, the applied wisdom, contained in the Torah, and passed down and interpreted from generation to generation until this very day.

And the Levites are set apart, as guardians — not just of the text and traditions; but of building up and organizing the sacred space for gathering and bearing witness.

That’s YOU, our new graduates from the Hornstein Program. You are the Levites of our age who have taken on the distinction of Jewish communal leadership, pledging to create and steward the modern Mishknaei Ha-Eidut of our day, those organizations, communities and institutions of Jewish peoplehood where we will gather and bear witness.

As you prepare to go forth from this community of learning, into the world beyond where you do your sacred work, it’s worth pausing to ask: Why? What is that truth to which you seek to bear witness to such an extent that you will devote your professional lives to it?

Too often in Jewish communal life, we lose sight of the why: Why we do this work, and in so doing, lose our way.

My first memory of that question was when Professor Larry Hoffman at Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion in New York challenged me and my colleagues in rabbinical school. The 1991 Jewish population study had been recently published (proving that we Israelites can’t resist taking a census of ourselves!) and revealed that 52% of Jews were marrying non-Jews.

Now I defer to Len Saxe and distinguished colleagues at Brandeis University who are expert in such things, but my own memory of it was that the population data fueled the crisis mentality first captured in the notorious 1963 Look Magazine cover story called “The Vanishing American Jew,” and gave rise to the phrase “Jewish continuity,” which echoed across the organized Jewish community, as leaders cried out: “How can we keep them Jewish???”

Never mind the fact that many of us saw and still see what Len Saxe saw, what Rabbi Alexander Schindler clearly articulated as early as 1983: the opportunity rather than the threat of intermarriage. In fact, there are more Jews in America today than there were in 1991.

But at the time, Rabbi Hoffman saw the real threat, as he came into the classroom, looked us in the eye and asked: “Jewish continuity. For WHAT? For its own sake?” Then after a long pause, he added: “That would be idolatry.”

Rabbi Hoffman was challenging us to ask WHY? Judaism for the sake of WHAT? Or as our text implies in describing the mishkan, so that we might bear witness… to WHAT? To something so important, so profound, that it is WORTHY of passing it down from generation to generation.

As Jewish leaders, today more than ever we must ask why? To what end? What is the sacred purpose for which God put us on this earth, revealed the abiding teachings of our text and demand that we bear witness today?

Rabbi Leon Jick was clear about his mission. The Judaism he taught, practiced and preached demanded that when Dr. King called, he joined other courageous rabbis and risked their lives and careers. Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner gave their lives to bear witness along with James Chaney in Freedom Summer in 1964.

There is a plaque in my office in Washington, D.C. that commemorates the spot where the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted.

In a Jewish institution, a true Mishkan Eidut!

Thank God for Rabbi Dick Hirsch, who also marched in Selma with Dr. King and Rabbi Jick, and then founded the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., inviting Dr. King and the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement to have their home in our mishkan! And thank God for Kivie Kaplan, a prominent Boston Jewish philanthropist who knew his mission, serving as a trustee of the Reform movement AND President of the NAACP, who donated the RAC building to the Jewish people, that we could live the prophetic call to "Do Justice, Love Mercy and walk humbly with God."

These inspired leaders were called to bear witness to the master narrative of our people: We are commanded to love the stranger as we love ourselves, since we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Year after year, we gather in our homes and retell that story, fulfilling the rabbinic maxim to see ourselves as if we ourselves were slaves in Egypt. To internalize and personalize, to gain empathy and proximity of those who are oppressed — and then love them. LOVE them, the Torah commands again and again. Not just tolerate or accept the other. As if people are an inconvenience to be tolerated. No, tolerating and accepting are not enough. We are called to LOVE.

We are the people who gather and bear witness — to the widow, the orphan, the stranger. To bear witness to the suffering in this world, and L’taken Olam B’malchut Shaddai — to fix it, so it resembles the idealized world where only God dwells…

And yet, today we are living in a time of profound suspicion of the stranger. We bear witness as refugees are turned away and immigrants deported. We cry out as racial injustice and income inequality only worsen. According to the NAACP, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population. And with more than 2 million people incarcerated, by some accounts, we jail more people than any other country on earth, and at a higher rate than even places like China and Russia.

We are seeing a rise in bigoted, hateful acts and rhetoric, aimed at racial minorities, as well Muslims and Jews. LGBT folks are afraid that so much progress for full equality is now being rolled back.

The temperature of the planet is climbing, sea levels are rising — and the most vulnerable people on earth will suffer the most.

One in every six women and girls is the victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime, according to RAINN, just as access to women's health care is under attack.

And both the rhetoric and the policies of exclusion, intolerance and hatred span from across these United States, to our beloved Israel and beyond.

We bear witness to all of it. We see our families, our friends and those with whom we share our communities, struggling with these painful realities.

So, the question to you, the Levites of our day: what will you do?

Will you create institutions that perpetuate Jewish continuity for its own sake? Or will they be sacred spaces for the Jewish people to gather and bear witness to God’s abiding challenge, repeated more often than any other in the Torah:

V’ahvta lo ka-mocha!

To love the stranger, as we were strangers in the land of Egypt?

Will you stand idly by, or will you, like Rabbi Jick, Rabbi Hirsch, Dr. King, Schwerner, Goodman, Chaney and the countless others throughout the generations walk humbly with God by doing justice and loving mercy?

Friends, we didn't start marching 50 years ago in Selma. We started marching 5,000 years ago, when we experienced the crushing weight of Egyptian bondage and the thrilling rush of redemption. And because we were strangers, we will love the stranger; and we will march for 5,000 more years if that's what it takes to fulfill God’s mandate for a world redeemed.

Remember the words that Mordechai spoke to Esther when he said: “Who knows? Perhaps it was for such a time as this, that God put you in this place.”

Rabbi Pesner serves as the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He has led the Religious Action Center since 2015. Rabbi Pesner also serves as senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Rabbi Pesner's signature accomplishment has been to encourage Jewish communities in efforts to reach across lines of race, class and faith in campaigns for social justice. In 2006, he founded Just Congregations (now incorporated into the Religious Action Center), which engages countless clergy, professional and volunteer leaders in interfaith efforts for the common good.

Ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1997, Rabbi Pesner was a congregational rabbi at Temple Israel in Boston and at Temple Israel in Westport, Connecticut. A graduate of Wesleyan University and the Bronx High School of Science, Rabbi Pesner is married to Dana S. Gershon, an attorney. They have four daughters: Juliet, Noa, Bobbie and Cate.

Page date: June 6, 2017