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Centennial President’s Commencement Address

By Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld
rabbinical ordination 2022

On behalf of our faculty, staff, and alumni, on behalf of the Hebrew College Board of Trustees, on behalf of the entire Hebrew College community, I am delighted to congratulate you today and to wish you a warm and heartfelt mazal tov.

To all those who have supported and sustained you, who have rooted and rallied for you, who have believed in you, family members, mentors, colleagues, communities, friends. Thank you all and congratulations to you as well.

We are overjoyed to mark this milestone with all of you today and we are grateful that so many of your loved ones near and far are able to celebrate with us virtually as well.

100 years ago, a small group of pioneers opened the doors of Hebrew Teacher’s College on Crawford Street in Roxbury, Massachusetts. We have been celebrating our centennial all year — and this coming Thursday evening, we’ll conclude the festivities with a Centennial Gala at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley — to which you’re all warmly invited!

Throughout the year, we have returned to a three-part theme, captured in three words: Remember, Renew, Reimagine. I want to return to those words now and reflect on them briefly in relation to this moment in the college’s history and — for you, our graduates — to this moment in your lives.

To remember, both individually and collectively, is to acknowledge the debt we owe to our ancestors, to our predecessors, to those who have shaped us and made it possible for us to stand here today.

To remember is to be humbled by the sweep of history that forms the unfolding context of our learning and our lives, and by the awareness that those who came before us faced challenges at least as great — and sometimes far more grave — than those before us today.

To remember is to know that where we are is not where we have always been, nor is it where we will always be. In this sense, to remember is to hope.

To renew is to be alive. In Masechet Eruvin of the Babylonian Talmud we learn: “Eyn Beit Midrash b’lo ḥiddush.” There is no house of study without renewal, without the insights and ideas that emerge from the dialogue between the voices on the pages of our ancient texts and the living, breathing voices around the tables of the Beit Midrash.

At the heart of this teaching is the idea that Torah is a continual process of co-creation. It is essential to elicit the contributions of everyone in the room — not only as an act of hospitality, but because each person’s unique voice is needed for the fullness of the community to unfold, and for the expansiveness of Torah to emerge.

For each of us individually, and for all of us together, it is our continued capacity for renewal that enlivens us, that replenishes the wells of love and grief, wisdom and wonder, patience and strength, from which we draw.

We chose to put this word at the start of our new mission statement last year — Reimagining Jewish Learning and Leadership for an Interconnected World.

For the College, this has been a period of profound reimagining, as you can see quite literally in the construction site around you. I am inspired by the vision of collaboration that this new shared campus represents and I am excited to begin our next chapter with other partner organizations, creating a vibrant communal hub that brings together so many different expressions of Jewish life. Art, music, justice, movement, study, spiritual practice, prayer and more — each a doorway, an opening to deeper learning, growth, and connection.

In the face of forces that conspire to tear us apart, this vision feels like a powerful affirmation that we are part of a greater whole and we urgently need to learn to live and lead that way.

What does it mean for each of us to cultivate our capacity to reimagine? And what does it take to reimagine wisely?

Here I want to lift up a teaching from the Babylonian Talmud Masechet Tamid:

Eyzehu chacham? Ha’ro’eh et hanolad.
Who is wise? The one who sees what is being born.

Conventionally, this has been understood and translated to mean that the wise person can anticipate the consequences of their actions. I am going to go out on a limb and say that, at this point in my life, I am pretty sure this is narishkeit.

Yes, we can and should try to be responsible about the decisions we make. But, in spite of what all the pundits or prophets or strategic planners will tell you, we really, REALLY do not know what is coming around the bend. We just don’t. If we didn’t understand this before, surely the last two years of global pandemic have brought the lesson home. It is important not to confuse the work of reimagining with the work of predicting the future.

But listening more closely to the language of the text, I actually hear a different suggestion in this teaching from Masechet Tamid. Who is wise? Ha’ro’eh et hanolad. The one who sees the nolad.

The word nolad refers to a newborn child — or to the first sliver of moon at the beginning of a new month.

Thank God, already, we’ve been rescued from the realm of abstraction.

What is it we are seeing when we see a newborn child or a sliver of moon in the sky? We are not seeing outcomes. We are seeing possibilities. We are witnessing the insistent arrival of newness. In our world. In our arms. In our night sky. New possibilities waiting for us to take notice.

There is great tenderness in this act of seeing. And courage too. These vessels of possibility are so small and carry so much. And we don’t know what will be.

To reimagine wisely is to take notice and take care; to understand that we are witnesses and we are also midwives. Seeing, holding, beckoning others to see what is being born.

U’vachartem bachaim. May you, may all of us, choose life.

Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld is President of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA. She delivered these remarks at the College’s Commencement ceremonies on May 29, 2022.

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