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To the HUC Graduating Class of 2020: Be Lifted Up and Uplift Others

As the Hebrew Union College class of 2020 finishes while under quarantine, Rabbi Karen Fox, Instructor of Practical Rabbinics at HUC-JIR’s Skirball Campus in Los Angeles, shared this advice and words of encouragement for this new class of rabbis, who officially became rabbis on Sunday, May 17, 2020.

With the honor of conveying our trust in you, comes the responsibility to convey a truth to you; to tell you that you are both fully ready to become rabbis—and that you will never be fully ready, and that no single person here is. As you enter the rabbinate in an uncertain, frightened, and frightening world of COVID-19, may we be courageous enough to acknowledge that we do not know all the answers. However, we partner with each other in our search for strength and wisdom.

I have lived through a time of political assassinations; war protests; 9/11; California fires, earthquakes, and floods; the recession of 2008; the attacks on Charlottesville and Pittsburgh—and now I am living with all of you through this global pandemic. My career has allowed me to celebrate countless weddings, baby namings, bar/bat mitzvah celebrations, and camp openings; and to witness many forms of synagogue and community creativity. It was and still is a joy and an honor to be a rabbi. Today, I want to offer you my words; word of encouragement, inspiration, and hope in light of the realities that have already marked your lives.  

In this week’s Torah reading, B’midbar, Moses forms the Israelites into a coherent whole with the words, s’u et rosh kol adat Yisrael—“count every single one of the people of Israel” (Numbers 1:2). The text cries out: Darsheini—“interpret me.” We move beyond the parashah, the “literal meaning of the text” and highlight different ways those words can be interpreted: 

  1. S’u et rosh kol adat Yisrael—”Stand up to be counted, in your own way.” The medieval commentator Rashi explains that we count the people because each single “person gives to the mishkan, ‘the portable sanctuary,’” and each single “person’s contribution matters” (quoted after “Contemporary Reflections,” in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 810.). In the last session of the Senior Seminar on campus, each of you wrote about the ways in which you want to contribute to our contemporary mishkan, the “evolving Jewish community.” One of you shared, “I want to empower people to arrive at their own translation of the traditions; I want to welcome each person back into the holy Jewish community.” And yet another one of you summarized, “I want to move gracefully into the unknown together.” Yes, teach us to reconsider what it means to count, each in our own ways.
  • S’u et rosh literally means: “Extend the head.” What does it mean to extend your head and to assert yourself as a leader in this time? Psychotherapist Rabbi Edwin Friedman wrote, “’The basic concept of leadership requires the leaders’ will to take primary responsibility for their position as “head.” If they work to define their own goals and selves, while staying in touch with the rest of the organism, there is more than a reasonable chance that the body will follow” (Edwin H. Friedman, “Leadership and Self,” in: Generation to Generation, p. 229). In truth, Freidman might have declared, Stick your neck out sometimes! Take clearly defined positions. Invite those who disagree to continue to communicate and engage them with kindness. Assert yourself as a Jewish leader by defining your g’vul, your “boundaries.”
  • S’u et rosh: “Reach out with head and heart.” When life is filled with uncertainty, fear arises. In March, you described your fears: “Our world has become a dangerous place. We are witnessing another rise of antisemitism, climate change, gun violence. How can we guide amidst our own fears?”; “I’m worried that my flaws will raise their ugly head at inopportune moments”; “Do I know enough? Am I ready to fail sometimes?”; “I’m really afraid of being lonely.”

By raising those questions, you have already demonstrated your reflective qualities. Be that reflective facilitator for your community, friends, and family. And when you need strength and courage, do not wait. Reach out and get support from a psychotherapist, a spiritual director, a mentor, a professor. Extend yourself to them and know, chavruta tatzil mimavet“connection saves you from psychological and spiritual demise.” 

  • A final interpretation of s’u et rosh: “Be uplifted and uplift others.” Chasidic interpretations detect a deeper significance in the use of the term s’u, “lift up:” “The real counting of Israel points upward. The text demands: “Lift the head,” not simply “count.” This lifting raised people up to the highest rungs of awe and love, directing their hearts to the Holy One. Lift your eyes to the mountains and receive strength from above” (Yosef Bloh, “Ginzey Yosef,” in Leader Green and Rose Mayse (ed.), Spiritual Teachings from around the Maggid’s Table, Volume II, p. 5). Uplift yourself through the ways that nourish you—and may your spiritual strength uplift others.  

Soon everyone will know what Jews have known for centuries: We need deep teaching, we need each other, we need a minyan, we need a community of shared purpose to carry us through tears and trauma, joys and celebration. We need to connect, to embrace, to be embraced, and to appreciate what human beings give each other: empathy, vulnerability, love, and hope. With open hearts, s’u et rosh—”Be lifted up and uplift others.” Welcome, rabbis. 

Rabbi Karen L. Fox is Instructor of Practical Rabbinics at HUC-JIR’s Skirball Campus in Los Angeles. She is the principal of Rabbi Karen Fox: In Context, a private practice targeted to clergy of all faiths, providing a safe, compassionate and confidential place for clergy to be heard, reflect and strategize.


More than a “Didn’t Deviate” Degree

On May 4, I was honored to celebrate with my classmates, as we received our honorary Doctorate of Divinity degrees from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, recognizing the 25th anniversary of our ordination there.

We rabbis joke that the “D.D.” degree stands more for “didn’t die” or “didn’t deviate,” than “Doctor of Divinity.” That cynicism may reveal some discomfort at receiving a doctorate we didn’t earn through academic work. However, it masks a couple of important realities.

First, the day was impactful in personal ways that were hard to expect and more difficult to describe. I was touched to mark the milestone with classmates who shared a significant piece of my rabbinic journey, including the Rosh Yeshivah and Dean who bestowed the doctorates upon us.

Second, and more importantly, the occasion is an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of these twenty-five years, how much has changed and how much remains the same.

I became a rabbi because I craved the opportunity to inspire sacred living in covenant with the God of Israel through the performance of mitzvot. Though the ways in which I pursue that mission have changed with the years, my passion for it has never waned.

So, what has changed?

I pursue my mission ambitiously. I expect excellence of myself and of the congregation I serve. I am grateful for staff and volunteer colleagues at Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock. They share a vision that we can unite a congregation and serve a community meaningfully, with God’s partnership. Still, my definition of “ambition” has changed with time. Once, like most men in the rabbinate before me, but fewer women, and not unlike other professionals; I saw “success” as quantifiable, at least to some degree. A “successful” rabbi was one who served a large congregation, headed a comprehensive staff, and had tremendous resources at his (or her) disposal. Now, I am grateful to explore how much can be done with less – maximizing resources, while recognizing their limit at the same time – and celebrating each person who is enriched by this covenant rather than in the “body count.”

More broadly, Jewish professionals of my generation have experienced a tremendous shift, from an emphasis on standards to placing a priority on engagement. For example, as recently as three years ago, I believed strongly that every child in the Religious School must be unambiguously Jewish. While I still affirm, of course, that a person cannot be both Christian and Jewish at the same time, the flexibility I inherited at Congregation B’nai Israel has taught me that we can serve God and our community best by opening the door at the front end. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, talks about “engagement before dues,” meaning that we must welcome folks to synagogue involvement before we talk to them about formal, paying membership. Translating that principle more broadly, we are here to engage people in Jewish life, and we mustn’t be deterred because they haven’t (yet) reached *our* desired destination for *their* Jewish journeys. On Shavuot Eve this year, five young people will confirm their faith at Congregation B’nai Israel. A sixth, who has attended Religious School at our congregation and at a Methodist Church in alternating years, has engaged fully and faithfully with our Confirmation program. He is slated to participate almost-fully in that Shavuot Eve Confirmation service with his class, even though he’s not (yet) ready for Confirmation.

These last five years have been the most profound period of my growth as a rabbi over a quarter century, despite or even because of their having included a traumatic professional upheaval. Having met Mussar, first through a former congregant who introduced me to Alan Morinis, I have come to appreciate that even the most negative experience can lead to a soul’s growth. I pray that I may continue to grow and learn throughout the years ahead.

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Rabbi Block chairs the CCAR Resolutions Committee.