Chancellor Eisen: Commencement 2018

It’s now my pleasure to welcome everyone to this commencement ceremony, always one of the happiest days on the JTS calendar and on mine. 

To our graduates and their families and friends: mazal tov.  

To our faculty, staff, trustees, alumni, and supporters in the room, and to those viewing the livestream broadcast from afar: thank you for making the achievements that we are celebrating today possible. 

To our honorary degree recipients: thank you for honoring us with the opportunity to honor you and associate your good name with JTS. The difference that each of you has made in the world is perhaps the most important lesson that any of us can convey to our students and particularly to the future leaders among them. God knows there is every reason for anxiety and cynicism these days. Concern about the future of our country and our planet is on the rise. Rates of anxiety and depression among young people in America are higher than they have been in many years. A Poor People’s Campaign is underway this week in Washington, DC, and around the country to highlight the continuing blight of poverty and injustice. Our problems are many. Progress toward solving them is slow.

That makes it all the more important, I think, that each of us demonstrate how much can be accomplished with requisite learning, determination, idealism, and integrity. Jewish leaders more than ever need to show through personal example the depths of meaning that can be had in this life and shared with others, and the measure of goodness that can be achieved. We all need to do this. It seems to me a positive commandment in 2018—what our tradition calls a mitzvat aseh—to establish and strengthen whatever communities we can build and nourish together, and to celebrate those we have already built and nourished over the years.

JTS is one of the most precious communities I know, and we are currently engaged in the largest building project of our history. I decided upon my topic for this address when I looked out my office window a couple weeks ago, and marveled at the latest developments in the progress from demolition through excavation to construction. Exactly one year ago, the plot of land on which The JTS Library and courtyard once stood was a largely vacant lot. As of this morning, the core structure of our new library and auditorium is complete. Our new residence has begun to rise above The Library. Concrete has been poured for the light-filled atrium where future commencement ceremonies will take place. 

I know it is a little frustrating for the class of 2018, after putting up with so much disruption and noise over the past few years, to contemplate not being here for the dedication of the new buildings, scheduled for fall 2019. I hope that you will return to campus for the alumni festivities that we are even now beginning to plan for the opening, and that you will return often to JTS in the years to come, attracted by exhibitions in the new library, performances in the state-of-the-art auditorium, or conferences and public programs in the atrium. We want the renewed JTS campus to be a source of “capital M Meaning” and “capital C Community” for you throughout your lives—and we need your help, your thoughts, and your involvement, now and in the future, to make it so. A generation that grew up with the internet, programs its smart phones with ease, and is thoroughly at home on social media is far better equipped than those of us who lack these qualifications to imagine and teach the Torah that will help guide us through the uncharted terrain that we know lies ahead. Things are already changing so fast and so dramatically that one can barely keep up. Jewish tradition and the Jewish community must keep up, and they need you, as JTS needs you, for that essential work. Our new buildings will help make it possible.

I want to speak to you today, and especially to the JTS class of 2018, about three lessons for leaders that are taught or reinforced by the experience of building. They are described in a classic Zionist slogan as livnot u-le-hibanot. We not only build but are built up by what we build together and by how we build it.   

The first lesson is that we do not build alone. I think I first learned the meaning of division of labor in junior congregation. My friend Barry, who was deemed to have a better singing voice than I did, was named cantor. He got to lead all the prayers. I was named rabbi, which of course meant that my one and only job was to announce page numbers. This is no doubt the original motivation for my work six decades later as chancellor of JTS: to increase synergy among rabbis, cantors, and synagogue educators. 

A vivid demonstration of truly complex division of labor takes place on our building site. Shifting arrays of workers, sometimes many dozens at a time, practice their skills together daily. The list includes electricians, glaziers, riggers, surveyors, truck drivers, water-proofers, flooring installers, equipment operators, carpenters, ironworkers, roofers, masons, painters, plumbers, and pipefitters. The planning for our construction project has from the start involved collaboration among JTS administration, faculty, students, trustees, alumni, and supporters, all of them consulted by our amazing team of architects. I’ve been heartened by the generosity displayed by so many people in so many ways during this project, by the expressions of support from all JTS constituencies, and by the encouragement received from individuals and groups beyond our extended community.

The word “seminary” conveys just such a division of labor. Its original connotation was apparently any sort of school or group that gets together for purposes of learning and teaching. Think “seminar” and “seminar table”: places where, if they live up to their names, a professor does not lecture but rather facilitates a conversation in which every voice in the room takes part and where, therefore,  teaching and learning are collective activities. The quality of what happens in the room varies directly with what individual students bring to the discussion. Diversity of backgrounds and points of view at times makes discussion difficult. It also makes it richer.

Community is built in seminars, as I hope you know from your experience at this seminary. Friendships form. Hevruta learning is more fulfilling than study alone. The diversity of voices brings you deeper into yourself and confers an expanded sense of personal and collective possibility. These experiences of community offer powerful guidance for the daunting tasks of living and leading in our wonderful and scary world.

We’ve all heard the old proverb, allegedly Chinese, “If you think you are a leader, look behind you.” The Jewish version, articulated in a rabbinic midrash on Genesis and newly relevant in our day, is, “If you think you are a leader, look beside you, and ahead of you.” If you can achieve and demonstrate personal integrity as a leader; if you stand fast for a cause and people know where you stand—they will stand with you, and have the confidence to walk before you on the path you walk together. 

That holds for individuals, and it holds for groups. All leaders need the reassuring knowledge, when they take a stand, that they have allies, inside and beyond the communities they lead and serve. Jews, ever a small minority in the Diaspora, learned this lesson a long time ago. The partnerships Jews have formed with others have enabled us to continue on our distinctive path, and have made possible our outsized contribution to the world.

One of the highlights of this past year for me was joining with the members of St. Matthew’s Baptist Church in Harlem for a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I brought with me the picture I have on my desk of Abraham Joshua Heschel and King speaking to the Rabbinical Assembly days before King was killed. The congregation in Harlem knew about Heschel and his relationship to King. They made me feel completely welcome in their church because of that alliance, and because JTS is working with their pastor to make sure the larger alliance between Jews and African-Americans is not just a thing of the past but advances a common agenda today. I preached on God’s command at the Red Sea, “tell the Children of Israel to get moving” (Exodus 14:15). We all fulfill that commandment more effectively if we find a way to move forward together.

Leadership always involves a degree of personal loneliness, and groups too must sometimes go it alone. Jews have learned this lesson the hard way as well. But leadership positively thrives on partnerships and outreach. The work sometimes requires long and complex relationship-building and negotiation. Other times, however, all that is required of a leader is being there when you are needed: literally standing with people, listening to their voices and thereby showing what you stand for. You receive in return a reminder that builders of bridges between people are never alone. People come to meet us from the other side. We build a lot better, knowing that.


This points to the second aspect of building that has impressed itself upon me over and over again this year: we build most successfully when we do not build for ourselves alone. I think that one reason JTS’s construction project has aroused so much enthusiasm and elicited so much support is that our new campus will serve the entire Jewish community, in and beyond Conservative Judaism, not only the faculty and students at 3080 Broadway. The new buildings will enable JTS to be an increased resource to all of North American Jewry as well as to our immediate neighbors and to our city. What is more, we are conscious that we build in 2018 for the generations to come, as our ancestors did when they erected the JTS campus in 1929.  Building projects, like leadership, generate support when everyone knows that you are not building just for your own benefit or ego. 

The Judaism I have been taught and teach proclaims—in contrast to some other faiths and worldviews—that each of us does not stand alone before our fellows and we do not stand alone before God. Nor do we stand alone in the world as a people. Jews are part of a larger human fellowship. The Torah begins with Adam and Eve. The first covenant is with Noah and the human family. The rabbis made it clear two millennia ago that one does not have to be a Jew to be good, to serve God, or to enjoy life in the world to come. Our task as Jews, now as ever, is to find a balance between what sets us apart from other groups and traditions and what makes us a part of the human family. This must be reflected in what and how we build and in how we lead.

We desperately need what sociologists call the “plausibility structures” that enable Jews to take seriously the claim—preposterous on the face of it—that a group comprising less than 2 percent of the American population, a bare 16 million souls in a world of many billions—can actually matter in the larger scheme of things. It is not easy to persuade ourselves and others that there might actually be “Truth” with a capital “T,” right and wrong, and a God that commands lovingkindness and justice. Once rendered plausible in camps, schools, youth groups, synagogues, or the public Jewish space and time of Israel, these claims can come to seem compelling, and thereby afford Jews directed by Judaism a chance of making a difference in the world. We do not build plausibility structures in order to ghettoize Jews or Judaism. We build them, as we build JTS, as a home base from which we can venture far afield with the confidence that Jewish human beings have something unique to say and contribute to the world. We cannot do that unless Jews and Judaism remain distinctive and strong.

Fellow students, fellow teachers, fellow leaders: we must never surrender to the forces telling us that polarization is the order of the day; that no one can be trusted; that we all build towers for our own egos and might as well admit that instead of pretending otherwise; that there is no such thing as “capital T Truth” anyway—not in politics, or science, or intelligence work—but only alternative facts. You know the drill. The person now associated most in our minds with all these claims against the Judaism I believe in and practice is not the cause but the effect of the culture and politics that he has taken down to new lows. My teacher Philip Rieff denounced it in the 1970 as the “anti-culture.” “Jews of culture,” he insisted, stand for conscience and truth, and so for culture, whether they are religious or not. When the world turns its back on the eternal, we must resist.

Remember too that there has been ample evidence that gives the lie to the claims of Judaism for as long as there has been Judaism. The editors of the Bible took pains to place the counter-claims inside the covers of the book. Think of Job, Ecclesiastes, Psalms 44 and 73, the death of Aaron’s sons as they sought to sanctify God at the altar. Our sages made sure that Jewish tradition would contain these disconfirmations of “capital M” meaning, in both senses of the word “contain.” The Bible includes them, and thereby limits the damage they might otherwise have caused.   

Jewish leaders today, lay or professional, must be community builders, community organizers, trust builders, builders of bridges across all sorts of boundaries, builders of personal relationships and thereby of persons. If you build for yourself and your own glory, what you put up will not long stand.


The third and final lesson for leaders to be learned from our building project is that you will not build well if you build in fear about the future. Better by far to build in confidence. 

There are so many unexpected developments in a building project of the scope and complexity of the one in which JTS is engaged. Just ask Executive Vice Chancellor and COO Marc Gary, who deals with such developments almost daily. When the JTS trustees and administration made the decision to invest in the renewal of our campus, we did so with recognition that the future of the Jewish community in North America, and particularly of the kind of Judaism to which JTS is committed, was by no means guaranteed. How could it be, in this age of massive societal and cultural transformation? We are convinced that the people and tradition we serve will survive and thrive in coming decades, thanks in part to the leadership that JTS—and you, its alumni—bring to the tasks at hand. 

Homogeneity, predictability, cleaving to the tried-and-true:  these will not save us going forward, any more than change for the sake of change or disrespect for all things old or past. You all recognize, I think, that the diversity in the JTS student body today is unprecedented in our history. The curriculum and public programs that you have experienced are far different than they had been only a few years earlier. Whether it was clinical pastoral education, or social entrepreneurship, or the walk on Broadway from a computer science classroom or a neurobiology lab to Bible or Talmud study that themselves benefited from new educational technology and new approaches to the study of text; whether it was the experiment of melding classical hazzanut with rap and Coltrane, or learning how to educate kids with the help of smart phones and video games—you’ve been part of our bet, as a school, that these things will give you better purchase on the reality awaiting you out there and so enable you to move into the next chapter of your life with confidence.  

I wish more Jewish leaders led with confidence; that we as a community operated with far less fear and a lot more imagination. The reasons for fear are obvious. The dangers are real. Even so: we are the bearers of a tradition that has changed profoundly over the centuries and often flowered as a result. We belong to a people that has survived for more than two millennia because of that same experience of change. And, as our friend and teacher Alan Mintz (z”l) eloquently reminded us, “Jewish society . . . has had massive national catastrophe visited upon it [many times in our history] and still survived . . . It is the story of the transcendence . . . rather than of the catastrophe itself which is compelling . . . the emphasis is not on destruction but on creative survival.” And let’s not forget that we live, you and I, in a time of incredible blessing and opportunity for Jews, a time when creativity and learning loosed upon the world, infused with a passion for justice, can and do make a major difference for our own community and for others.

Just imagine what Jews today could create—what you could create—if freed of the concern for survival! What would you dare to imagine? What risks would you take on behalf of your “capital C” Jewish community or its “capital M” Jewish meaning? How would you emulate the daring of the rabbis after the destruction of the Temple or the kabbalists after the expulsion from Spain? Can we accomplish in the digital age the kind of revolution that followed the onset of printing? Can we picture a second Jewish Enlightenment that follows on the growth of AI? Can we imagine a second movement of Jewish Emancipation alongside a thriving state of Israel?

This is no time for giving up on possibility, or indulging in elegy for what was or might have been. Let’s not sing the poet Rachel’s mournful plaint: “Perhaps those things never happened.”  

We should not give in to the notion that the kind of Israel we imagined, or the kind of Judaism, was only a dream.

Better to sing the determination of Naomi Shemer: “Take the thorn along with the honey when you must, embrace the bitter as well as the good, but never ever uproot what has been planted over centuries, or forget the hope that has so long sustained us.”  

Hold on tight to what is precious, in the face of people who say it does not matter anymore, even as you act boldly, in the face of the voices warning you to be cautious. Always, always, find new ways to teach and practice Torah.

Our rabbis taught, as you know, that scholars of Torah have it in them to increase peace in the world, as is written in Isaiah, “Your children shall increase peace.” Do not read banim, children, only, but bonim, builders. May God give you, give us all, the strength required to prove them right.

Go well.