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Community Blog Commencement 2024: Presentation of Honorary Degrees

By Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld
Sharon Anisfeld

Hebrew College President Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld delivered the following remarks to our 2024 Honorary Degree recipients — Cochav Elkayam-Levy, Parker J. Palmer, and Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum — at our Commencement ceremonies on June 2, 2024. Learn more about the honorees on our Commencement website.

CochavElkayamLevyCochav Elkayam-Levy

“We are putting together the pieces of a burnt puzzle.” This is the way Cochav Elkayam-Levy described the efforts she has been leading to document the sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas on October 7. She and her colleagues have called the world to account for looking away, minimizing and, in some cases, denying the brutality committed against women on October 7.

These words spoke to the deep sense of fracture that I have felt during these last months, the loss not only of life, but of a life-giving sense of coherence in the face of violence and moral chaos. They spoke to the heart-wrenching experience of trying to piece together both physical evidence and some kind of framework of meaning for moving forward.

I was profoundly moved by the way Cochav moved between tenacity and tears as she spoke with us. This is a woman who has been unflinching in the honesty and rigor of her research and her activism; she has been in almost perpetual motion over the last several months, meeting with leaders at the U.N., at the White House, and all over the world. And yet, she also sat and wept openly with our group of women leaders from the Boston Jewish community.

The broken heart can close and contract, or it can expand and become even more capacious. Cochav has shown us what it means to allow a broken heart to expand.

On that trip in January, we also met two Israeli women, one Jewish and one Bedouin, working together with an organization called, “Have you seen the horizon lately?” They said to us, “The only treatment for being exposed to crimes against humanity is to be exposed to an abundance of humanity.”

To be in Cochav’s presence, to witness the work she does and the way she does it, is to be exposed to an abundance of humanity.

In recognition of her courageous and compassionate work the board of trustees of Hebrew College has voted to confer upon her the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, Honoris Causa.

Parker-J.-Palmer-Parker J. Palmer

It is not every day that you get to speak to and about someone whom you’ve never met but who has been a close personal companion and mentor for decades.
Yet, that is what I have the opportunity to do today. As my students know, with the possible exception of Yehuda Amichai, there is probably no person whose writing i have returned to more frequently, whose teaching i have quoted more often in my own teaching, than Parker Palmer.

I have drawn deeply upon Parker’s wisdom in my work as an educator: his emphasis on the integrity of the whole person; his compassion for both teachers and students; his acknowledgement of how much courage teaching requires; his insistence on paradox as a core spiritual and existential value.

On a more personal note, I was first introduced to a gorgeous essay by Parker Palmer by my mother. The essay is called To Everything There Is a Season.

I still remember my mother tenderly calling my attention to these lines: “In retrospect, I can see in my own life what I could not see at the time — how the job I lost helped me find work I needed to do, how the “road closed” sign turned me toward terrain I needed to travel, how losses that felt irredeemable forced me to discern meanings I needed to know. On the surface it seemed that life was lessening, but silently and lavishly the seeds of new life were always being sown.”

I offer those lines now, to express my profound gratitude to Parker Palmer, for these — and so many other — hard-earned words of wisdom that offered comfort to my mother looking back on some of the hardships of her life, and to me, looking ahead to some of the unknown hardships of my own.

I offer them also as a gift to you, our graduates. May you be blessed to look back on the journeys ahead of you now, with an ever-deepening awareness that “silently and lavishly the seeds of new life were always being sown.”

Parker, for all the gifts you have given to so many — greater than you will ever know — the board of trustees of Hebrew College has voted to confer upon you the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, Honoris Causa.

Sharon-KleinbaumRabbi Sharon Kleinbaum

Sharon, we began our journey to the rabbinate together 39 years ago.

I mean, we literally began our journey to the rabbinate together. I was lost, walking to our first day of orientation at RRC, and you spotted me on the side of the road and offered me a ride.

During the years since then, i have been lost many times. And you have always been there, offering the greatest gift one human being can offer another — the gift of loving accompaniment.

Countless people have received this gift from you. This has always been at the center of your rabbinate. The courage, and capaciousness of heart, mind, and hand to accompany people through whatever life brings.

When we arrived at RRC in 1985, the school had just decided to admit openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual students. You understood that the school needed to figure out what it would mean to accompany LGB students to and through their rabbinates. You created the “what now committee,” because . . . You are constitutionally incapable of identifying a problem and not showing up to help address it.

When you arrived at CBST 32 years ago, the community was in the devastating throes of the Aids crisis; the disease claimed 40% of the congregation. In a time when so many felt abandoned and alone, you were there — steadfast in your commitment to accompanying them and their loved ones.

Over decades of visiting and living in Israel, you have developed deep ties with both Israelis and Palestinians, insisting on the necessity of staying present to each other’s pain. This commitment has entailed an extraordinary blend of honesty, intelligence, and heartache, and a fierce insistence on hope.

As a mentor to students and young rabbis, you have quoted the late great social justice leader, Revered William Sloan Coffin, of blessed memory: “If you don’t show up in the hospital, don’t expect your congregants to support your political activism.” You teach this not as a strategy but as an existential posture. You’ve been at too many protests to count, but a world where people show up at demonstrations and not at each other’s bedsides is not the world you seek to create.

Sharon, as you retire this summer, we know your work is not done; we know you will be asking, “what now?” And we can’t wait to see how you respond.

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, in recognition of your visionary and loving leadership, locally, nationally, and globally, the board of trustees of Hebrew College has voted to confer upon you the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, Honoris Causa, with this diploma.

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