Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Spring is graduation season.
My Facebook feed is crowded with photos of my friends’ children in cap-and-gown garb, sporting smiles, and degrees from high schools, colleges, universities and professional schools all over the country.
In New York City this week, the Jewish Theological Seminary will award an honorary doctorate to my teacher and President of The Schechter Institute, Rabbi David Golinkin, along with other esteemed professors including a Nobel Prize winner. Meanwhile, here in Atlanta, I’m grading my students’ final projects, presentations, and exams, and gearing up for graduation on Friday morning of The Weber School Class of 2019.
I love this time of year and—it will surprise no one who knows me to learn—I cry at every graduation I attend. I can’t help myself; I find the pomp and circumstance, arcane traditions and aspirational speeches fill me with both nostalgias for my own student days and hope for the future.
It’s not only the anticipation of walking down the aisle with my colleagues in the processional at graduation that keeps me smiling as I strive to complete report card narratives. I’ve also been thinking about three emails I recently received, all reminders of who I was before entering rabbinical school and who I have since become as a rabbi.
The first and last emails were newsletters from the Jewish Women’s Archive, each containing a mention of another woman’s ordination in their “This Week in History” section. The first arrived before May 12th, the anniversary of Amy Eilberg’s ordination in 1985, which coincided this year with Mother’s Day. Reading the headline, I immediately recalled three ways in which her life influenced mine: When I first heard the JTS faculty had voted to accept women for ordination, I was sitting in class in an old, gothic building at Bryn Mawr College. My professor, Dr. Rela Geffen (z”l) asked if I would consider attending JTS and becoming a rabbi. Some years later, I read a personal narrative Amy wrote about giving birth to her daughter. I was not yet a mother then, and not sure I wanted to be one, but reading her eloquent description of the act of childbirth as a kind of spiritual revelation inspired me to keep an open mind on the matter. Finally, I recall meeting her when, on a dean’s leave of absence from rabbinical school, I was working at Stanford University Hillel and deciding whether to return to JTS to complete my course of study toward ordination. She had recently left a pulpit to found the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco. Amy showed me the myriad ways to be a rabbi and a mother.
The JWA newsletter this week highlights Sandy Sasso’s ordination as the first female Reconstructionist rabbi on May 19, 1974. Though I’ve never met her personally, I was profoundly affected by Rabbi Sasso’s work, particularly her children’s books God’s Paintbrush and In God’s Name, which I discovered in 1995 when I was a newly ordained rabbi working at The Solomon Schechter School in Westchester and a new mother.
Right in the middle of that decade of my life, in 1990, I studied in Israel with Rabbi David Golinkin, who taught a course in Jewish Law. David’s encyclopedic mind and his ability to memorize entire tractates of text served to inspire, as well as intimidate, many of us. Using an old-school methodology of instruction, he required us to memorize entire chapters of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah. Ten years later, I offer my seventh-grade students extra credit for reciting the first chapter of Pirke Avot from memory, knowing they’re primarily motivated to boost their grades, hoping they will also acquire a sense of ownership of the text.
This year, when I assign my 10th graders their final project, several choose to present material from Golinkin’s Responsa in a Moment. Having heard repeatedly how he influenced me as a student and teacher of Jewish Law, two illustrate how they feel Jewish wisdom is transmitted to them, placing Golinkin-Yoda on the shoulder of Gottfried-Skywalker.