Last Thursday, I had the honour of receiving my Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa, from my alma mater, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).
HUC invites its graduates to apply for this honour on the 25th anniversary of their ordination or graduation from their graduate programs.
I wasn’t expecting to feel so incredibly moved and touched by having this honorary degree bestowed upon me.
However, my colleagues – the rabbis and cantors – who were receiving this degree with me, spent the day together, studying, reflecting and sharing our experiences from the past 25 years. We continued our celebratory day by eating a festive lunch together, reminiscing, taking photos and catching up. We were then joined by our family and friends for the actual ceremony and the conferring of the degrees. It was a very moving, joyous and wonderful event indeed.
We began in the late morning with a study session on the bima in the grand sanctuary of Temple Emanuel (New York City) led by HUC-JIR President, Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D
We sat in a circle and studied a text from the Talmud about Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, who founded the great rabbincal academy at Yavneh immediately after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. The text discussed his characteristics as a “rabbi”: he was always first to open the building and last to close. He never took time for himself to rest or for personal time. His community was always his first priority – above and beyond all else.
We discussed this model of rabbinic leadership. Was this a realistic model? Were we supposed to sublimate ourselves to the exclusion of all else for the sake of our communities? Is that a healthy rabbinic/cantorial model? Did Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai make any time for himself? For his family?
We all acknowledged that engaging in Jewish communal work as a professional entails more than working “9-5”. For many of us, we strive to find the perfect balance between the ideal “model” of rabbinic/cantorial/Jewish professional and making time for a satisfying personal life. If we don’t take care of ourselves, we won’t be able to take care of others, to be “fully present” for each and every member of our communities when it is most important.
Each of us then had the opportunity to reflect on our own experiences from the past 25 years. Some of us have remained close over the years, some of us have not seen each other since we were ordained.
Our colleagues and friends are living and working in very diverse environments from as far away as Israel, Australia, Canada and all across the United States. We practice in large congregations, small congregations and not-for-profit organizations. Some have even retired. Like our congregants, we too have experienced the joys and sorrows of all that life offers during these past two-and-a-half decades. Our hearts have filled with joy watching our children grow and blossom; we have felt the pain of divorce, the heartache of illness and death. For some of us, our professional journeys have always been extremely rewarding and fulfilling. For others, there have been challenges and frustrations that have made the journey more arduous.
Through it all, each of us is grounded in the desire to serve the Jewish people. Our commitment and love of our Jewish heritage compels us to continue along this path we began so long ago.
For the past 25 years, each of us has done so with full hearts, open spirits and to the very best of our abilities.
As Rabbi Panken reminded us, we have earned our Doctor of Divinity degrees through our years of dedicated and unstinting service.
I was more moved than one can possibly imagine.
I feel so privileged and honored to be partners with a community where I can celebrate the cycles of life, the festivals of our Jewish year and elevate the everyday ordinary moments and help imbue them with a sense of holiness. To me, my 25 years in the rabbinate have been a wonderful gift and a great blessing.
It was so special to celebrate the day with Dr. Eugene B. Borowitz, Professor of Philosophy (and pre-eminent Reform philosopher of our time) who taught both my father, Rabbi Richard J. Sobel, z”l (HUC-JIR, NY ’66) while he was in rabbinical school and then me, two decades later:
And it was so wonderful to be sharing that special moment with my friends and classmates who started this journey with me 30 years ago.
I look forward to the next phase of this sacred journey!