Professor David Harman; Rabbi Aaron Panken; President of Hebrew Union College; Andrew Berger, Chair of the Board of Governors; Rabbi Na’ama Kelman, Dean of HUC in Jerusalem; Dr. Deborah Weissman – Mazal Tov on your honorary degree; the new rabbis and graduates – Kol HaKavod on your accomplishments; and all the members of the Hebrew Union College Community: It is with great humility that I accept this Hebrew Union College Presidential Medallion today. I am greatly honored to receive this award from an institution for which I have the greatest respect. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
For me, this place, this institution, even this building, is ground zero for my personal experience in Israel. Let me explain. Julie – my wife and partner, who is with us tonight – and I grew up in the Reform movement in the United States, learning in our synagogues and summer camp a deep love for Judaism, the richness of Hebrew, the values of tolerance, pluralism, and Tikkun Olam, and a personal connection to Israel.
So it was no surprise the after high school, I chose to spend a semester in Israel on a Reform Movement program – the Isaac Mayer Wise Inside Israel Program. My very first night in Israel on that program, we slept here, in Beit Shmuel. I lived with a wonderful Israeli family, but 13 King David Street was like my home address. For three months, we studied here at HUC – Zionism, Hebrew, the history of Jerusalem. This was in the spring of 1987, when the construction of the campus was not yet complete, and without exaggeration, the workers were literally completing it around us while we studied.
And while Julie and I have traveled many diverse roads in our Jewish life – becoming active in Conservative synagogues in Washington and Israel, choosing Orthodox conversions for our adopted daughters, educating our children in a community Jewish day school in Washington, DC – we still hold on to the values that we received in the Reform Movement and from this institution. Our story, which is a story of Jewish diversity and pluralism in America, is the story of HUC and the Reform movement in Israel.
Today, Julie and I find ourselves in Israel in a different role, with different responsibilities, representing our country, the United States, to our ally, the State of Israel. But the truth is, to fulfill these responsibilities, we and our colleagues at the U.S. Embassy draw on the same values we grew up with and continue to champion, and which remain central to your work: strengthening the connection between the American and Israeli peoples; the constant search for peace and security, with two states for two peoples – the very essence of Tikkun Olam; respect for people of all backgrounds, and all faiths; embracing diversity and coexistence and tolerance and pluralism as signs of strength in democratic societies.
In Parshat Hayyei Sarah, which we read this week, Avraham’s servant embarks on a long journey, beyond the land of Canaan, to find a suitable wife for Isaac. In a distant land, he finds Rivka, who refreshes him and his camels with water, and he returns with her to Eretz Yisrael. Like Rivka, the Reform movement was born overseas, and it flourished in my country. But it also made its way to Eretz Yisrael, and like Rivka with her water pitcher, it has nourished and strengthened Israeli society with its values. And as Rivka gave birth to Yaakov, to Yisrael, so has the Reform Movement become deeply rooted in Israeli society. You are Israel, and Israel is you, as President Ruvi Rivlin recognized in an important meeting this week, even if there is a still a long road to walk before the vision of pluralism and inclusion is fully realized.
Permit me to echo President Obama’s words in celebrating Jewish American Heritage Month in May this year: “We also renew our unbreakable bond with the nation of Israel. It is a bond that transcends politics, a partnership built on mutual interests and shared ideals. Our two countries are enriched by diversity and faith, fueled by innovation, and ruled not only by men and women, but also by laws. As we continue working in concert to build a safer, more prosperous, more tolerant world, may our friendship only deepen in the years to come.”
I accept the honor of this Presidential Medallion with the pledge to continue to work for the values that the United States, Israel and Hebrew Union College all share. Thank you.