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  • Educating the Modern Rabbi: A Conversation with Michael Marmur

    Posted on August 29th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    The New Year is nearly upon us and this means that the new school year is also beginning. Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting with Michael Marmur, Vice President from Academic Affairs at Hebrew Union College to talk about educating the modern rabbi. -your editor Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Pictured from left to right: Tonya, trip translator; Sarah Fishman, HUC-JIR rabbinical student; Jaqui McCabe, HUC-JIR education student; Yael Rooks-Rapport, HUC-JIR rabbinical student; and Rabbi Misha Kapustin, leading Seder in Simferopol, in the Crimea region of the Ukraine.

    RAM: One of your main roles as Vice President for Academic Affairs is overseeing the training of rabbis. When the College opened in 1873, the goal was to train leaders for the realities of a new kind of Jewish community that was emerging in the United States. How does the College-Institute today envision the role it plays in educating rabbis?

     

    MM: The Rabbinical school curriculum is poised between different and sometimes competing desiderata. One, of course, is providing a basis of knowledge and the skills necessary to access the texts and concepts that a rabbi needs in every situation. These skills are essential to whatever a rabbi does and provide a critical foundation. Another element of the curriculum is the acquisition of practical tools that the rabbis need to survive and thrive. Yet another is the development of spiritual sensitivity and the inner life. From yet another angle, we want our rabbis to be engaged in the great moral and social issues of the day, and to be acquainted with the changing face of the Jewish community. Trying to balance these and other considerations is both complicated and exciting work.

     

    RAM: It is fair to say that we are currently experience a period of significant change in the Jewish world. Is this new reality changing the way the College-Institute educates its students?

     

    MM: First off, it is important to note that curriculum is always a few years behind the world it serves, and this is not accidental. If we were to teach our students just based on current trends or predictions it would be laughable. If we took a look at the predictions made over the years we know that many of them turned out to be quite wrong. That having been said, there is always a need for change. The days when you could assume (if it was ever right to assume)  that you would be ordained and start off as an assistant in a congregation, then graduate to become the senior rabbi in another larger congregations are over. It will be the story for some of our graduates but by no means for all of them. We can’t even assume that those who do get to the big pulpits will do so by following this path. Take Andy Bachman whose work with Brooklyn Jews and on campus was outside the congregation and now leads a congregation, or Rachael Bregman in Atlanta who works for The Temple but whose rabbinate is outside the walls of the Temple.

     

    RAM: So how is the College-Institute helping address this shift?

     

    MM: We are trying to educate ourselves about the changes which are taking place “out there” on the field.  We are in conversations with Hillel, for example, about what needs to happen in the consciousness and expectations of our students which will make them the kind of Hillel rabbis that they want to be. We are looking at changes taking place within the traditional congregations where the majority of our alumni still serve, and outside those traditional frameworks too. While continuing to fulfill our traditional role, we want to broaden our self-understanding. Our job is to serve Jews where they are while building models of where they yet might be.

     

    RAM: Does this mean changing the curriculum?

    Dr. Michael Marmur Vice President for Academic Affairs at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

    MM: Yes and no. We are now offering classes in areas which were not prominent in our curriculum – there are good examples to be found on each of our campuses. If you look at new possibilities in service learning, spirituality, management and leadership training at the College-Institute happening right now, I think you will be surprised and impressed.Our students spend time reflecting on their roles as leaders and grappling with issues such as intermarriage,  so that they have given the issue significant thought before they are faced with real decisions to be made. More and more students are given the opportunity to integrate their learning with the lives waiting for them “out there”. But at the same time, the more uncertain the scene the prospects becomes the greater the need to shore up core competencies. The where and why people want a rabbi might be changing a great deal but they still need the rabbi to know Jewish texts, to be a tradent of Jewish tradition. Without real knowledge and understanding of that core material the rabbi is ill equipped to be flexible as the settings demand. Folks need rabbis who are equipped with timely tools, but also rabbis who relate to timeless truths. And the very finest examples of people involved in congregational transformation and community engagement model this blend of capacities and passions.

     

    RAM: Are there limits to what can and should be taught?

     

    MM: Of course. There is a strong core of knowledge that one needs to become a rabbi but there are things that just need to be learned in the field and one only knows what those are going to be when you encounter them. For example, we want every graduate to know how to hold a balance sheet and read a budget but a specific course in new trends in bookkeeping is only going to be of use to a certain subset of experienced professionals.

     

    There has always been a range of opinions in the school about the personal and spiritual dimensions of being a rabbi. The founders of the school may have wondered if we are willing and able to tackle these aspects. Many of us now are aware that we cannot ignore them. There are interesting initiatives in the College-Institute which relate to these dimensions too.

     

    We have recently generated an interesting document listing the learning outcomes our faculty is looking for in our students. It is a challenging and stimulating list, and yet I am sure we have left many of the intangible things off the list. If our students come away with a sense of privilege at the opportunity to spend a life of service and Torah, and a wish to use and improve the tools they have been provided with, our work has not been in vain.

     

    RAM: Any final words going into the new school year?

     

    MM: To all our students, faculty, staff and of course our alumni, may it be a year of learning and growth. Shannah Tovah.

     

     

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  • Centropa: Old Stories New Meanings in Confronting Europe’s Past

    Posted on July 25th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 6 comments
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    Memorial where the bima stood at the Heidelberger Synagoge in Heidelberg, Germany.

    Stories are an essential element of Jewish tradition, but they can also be an essential element of Jewish history and Jewish education. This week Melissa Cohavi shares her new take on stories we often struggle with passing on.

    I love stories.  I especially love stories about families, history, and people affected by history.  Centropa is all about stories too, and perhaps this is why their materials speak to me on such a personal level.  I am the Director of Education at Temple Sinai in Stamford, Connecticut and learned of Centropa last winter.  Centropa, based in Vienna, uses technology to tell the stories of elderly Jews in Central Europe who survived the holocaust, and then made the decision to live their lives in Central Europe and not emigrate to Israel, Western Europe, or the USA.  Centropa has interviewed over 1250 Jews living in 15 countries between the Baltic and the Aegean.  Centropa has produced more than 25 short multi-media films and has cataloged thousands of personal photos from the interviewees.  Centropa’s goals include:  connecting us all to the lands of Jewish heritage by creating programs about the entire 20th century, not only about the period of the Third Reich; using these programs in innovative ways so that Holocaust education will have relevance everywhere; combating anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial by creating programs that students carry out themselves, and share with other students across borders, oceans and ethnic divides. I know what you’re thinking.  I have heard this before.  But Centropa is different.  Their films focus on the lives of Jews in Central Europe both pre-war and post-war.  For me, when we teach our students about the Holocaust it is important to focus on the stories, not only about the tragedies.  After all, stories are so much a part of Judaism and enhance learning in so many ways.  Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe prior to World War II was so vibrant, and now it is gone.  In fact, stories are what connect Jews around the world, and our students to their history.  I don’t know about you, but my students (both youth and adult) love to talk about themselves.  When we, as educators, can bring them stories of a previous generation that they can relate to in their own lives today, we have succeeded on so many levels.  I lived this myself when I was at the egalitarian minyan on Saturday morning, July 14th at the West End Synagogue in Frankfurt.  I attended services with five other Americans and one new friend from Stockholm.  We had so much in common with the approximately 20 or 25 others in attendance that morning.  We all knew the music and I was so happy when we sang Debbie Friedman’s Oseh Shalom.  I was even honored with an aliya to the Torah that morning.  The stories we shared with one another during the oneg brought us together on a very special level, and it was a morning I will never forget.

    Author, Melissa Cohavi

    The Centropa summer academy brought Jewish life and history alive for me.  I was able to visit places in Germany, such as Worms and Berlin that I had only had the opportunity to study about.  Today there are no Jews living in Worms, but there is a small Jewish community in Berlin made up mostly of former Soviet Jews.  It also allowed me to see that non-Jewish teachers in Vilnius, Krakow, Budapest, Bucharest and Vienna are both learning about the Holocaust and teaching it to their students.  I learned that there is one synagogue in Vilnius today, where there were hundreds prior to World War II.  I saw how Germany is taking responsibility for its past and learned how teachers in former Soviet-bloc countries are learning about how we live our lives in the West and that the connections between us and our students are so important. This trip was personally important to me on so many levels.  I must admit that I was hesitant to visit Germany, given the history we all know so well.  But I learned that Germans are aware of their mistakes and are working hard to make things right.  There are memorials and museums remembering the holocaust everywhere.  It is taught in schools from an early age and there are numerous exchange programs between Germany and Israel, all supported and paid for by the German government.  There is even a memorial for homosexuals persecuted and murdered by the Nazi’s, located in Berlin.  The connections I was able to make with educators from 14 different countries was probably the most invaluable and tangible thing I came home with. I learned about the Jewish communities in Stockholm and Helsinki, Vienna and Budapest.  Centropa has allowed me to grow in so many ways, and I thank them for that.  Share your stories, we all have something important to tell.

    Centropa Summer Seminar 2012

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  • Advice for Jewish Professionals: What Every Grad Should Know 5

    Posted on January 27th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment
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    What advice has helped shape your career? What advice would you give new grads? Across the country and the graduating class of 2012 is thick in the depths of searching for jobs.  Each day this week, different alumni of the college will be sharing advice for the class of 2012, as a way of welcoming those who will soon join our ranks.

    Join the conversation. What has been essential to your success? What do you wish you had known? Please add your own advice to any or all of the posts!

    As we close in on Shabbat, we offer two different rabbinic perspectives

    by Rabbi Judith Abrams of Maqom

    The instructions are always the same: figure out what God wants you to do, then go do it.  If you’re still alive after completing your mission, God will give you another one.  And don’t be afraid of not making enough money.  God will always make it possible for you to make a living while you’re doing your mission.  You may not live in a mansion, but you’ll be ok.  How do you know what God wants you to do?  Find your bliss….that’s where the mission is.

    Author Judith Abrams

    What happens when you finish a mission?  You have to learn to let go of the trapeze bar you’re on and fly through the air to catch the next trapeze bar.  The next bar always appears.  And if you insist on hanging to your present bar, you’re not just messing up your own life, you’re clogging the works for everyone else.  The bar you’ve outgrown is the perfect bar for someone else.  They can’t move forward until you let go. And if you insist on holding on to that bar…woe betide you.  First God will gently tap your fingers.  If you don’t move, God will make the stimulus more painful and ever more painful as you persist in your stubbornness.  Finally, it will come to a choice of so much pain that it will kill you or you finally fly.  Once you finally fly, you’ll soar over that bit of space where you were stuck for so long.  And you’ll marvel that, instead of falling, you’re flying.

    The first time that you fly through that space between the two bars you might feel frightened but once you’ve done it a few times, you’ll actually enjoy that sensation of flying.

    And finally, never, ever believe your own press.  Nothing contaminates spirituality, art and your mission more than ego-contamination.

    by Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman

    Know your strengths and weaknesses — and I don’t mean “what you’re good at” and “what you’re bad at.” Marcus Buckingham, author of the outstanding book “Go Put Your Strengths to Work,” defines a strength as “something that energizes you” and a weakness as “something that drains you.” In other words, a strength is something that makes you feel strong, and a weakness is something that makes you feel weak.

    Author Geoffrey Mitelman

    So as you explore your strengths, think about these questions: What are your natural talents? What gets you passionate? What are the kinds of things that would be enjoyable challenges for you? What are the kinds of things you’d be excited to learn more about?

    And as you explore your weaknesses, think about these questions: What are the kinds of things that, if you never had to do them again, it would be too soon? What activities do you find putting off because you don’t want to do them? What do you find emotionally exhausting?

    Your goal should be finding a job that allows you to maximize your time using your strengths, and minimize your time using your weaknesses. Since the rabbinate is not a typical job, if you can find a position where you can frequently say, “I can’t wait to do this!” and infrequently have to say, “Ugh, I have to do this?!”, then you will find tremendous energy, fulfillment, and joy in your work.

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  • Advice for Jewish Professionals: What Every Grad Should Know 4

    Posted on January 26th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    What advice has helped shape your career? What advice would you give new grads? Across the country and the graduating class of 2012 is thick in the depths of searching for jobs. Each day this week, different alumni of the college will be sharing advice for the class of 2012, as a way of welcoming those who will soon join our ranks.

    Join the conversation. What has been essential to your success? What do you wish you had known? Please add your own advice to any or all of the posts!

     

    by Cantor Erik Contzius of Temple Israel of New Rochelle, New York

    Remember that as klei kodesh we serve the Jewish people. Sometimes that service leads us to places we never expected when we entered the Seminary. My first pulpit was in Omaha, Nebraska–not a place I had ever in my life I expected to visit, let alone live. It was a wonderful and enriching experience. Sometimes that service leads us to do things far beyond our comfort zone. This is the demand of being a “Professional Jew.” This is a career and a calling of service.

    Author Erik Contzius

    Be ready for the unexpected. While in Nebraska, through a very large series of events, I would up having someone accused of a white collar crime living in our apartment under house arrest for 3 1/2 months! For me, this was an issue of pikuakh nefesh–it was in the newspapers, some congregants were uncomfortable, but I had to do what I felt was the right and just thing. Hopefully you won’t go through that exact experience, but you never know.

    Get in therapy. Therapists see other therapists so that they can treat their patients better. We need to do the same. Our profession demands our constant presence for others. Heed Hillel’s words: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

    We are still people. Just because we are clergy or have a Masters Degree from HUC does not make us “above” anyone else. Sometimes congregants will put us up on unnatural pedestals. Don’t buy into the hype! We are all weak, all fallible, all human, everyone of us. Don’t forget it!

     

     

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  • Advice for Jewish Professionals: What Every Grad Should Know 3

    Posted on January 25th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    What advice has helped shape your career? What advice would you give new grads? Across the country and the graduating class of 2012 is thick in the depths of searching for jobs. Each day this week, different alumni of the college will be sharing advice for the class of 2012, as a way of welcoming those who will soon join our ranks.

    Join the conversation. What has been essential to your success? What do you wish you had known? Please add your own advice to any or all of the posts!

    by Rabbi Irwin Zeplowitz, The Community Synagogue, Port Washington, NY

    A few days before I started ulpan at HUC in Jerusalem I went to visit Rabbi Hank Skirball, who I had never met before (or since for that matter!). Our visit, however, was memorable because he gave me three sage pieces of advice about the rabbinate:

    - First, loving Judaism … that’s the easy part.  It’s loving the Jews that’s the hard work – and what matters the most. 

    Author Irwin Zeplowitz

     

     

     

     

     


    - Second, always take what you do seriously; just don’t take yourself too seriously.

    - Third, you are never as bad as they will tell you are, and you are never a good as they will tell you are, either.

    His words ring true over the decades – and are wise reminders about loving others, being passionate about the work we do, yet always being humble.  His wise counsel, it seems to me, is not just for rabbis, but for any graduate of HUC-JIR dedicated to a life of Jewish service


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  • Advice for Jewish Professionals: What Every Grad Should Know 2

    Posted on January 24th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    What advice has helped shape your career? What advice would you give new grads? Across the country and the graduating class of 2012 is thick in the depths of searching for jobs.  Each day this week, different alumni of the college will be sharing advice for the class of 2012, as a way of welcoming those who will soon join our ranks.

    Join the conversation. What has been essential to your success? What do you wish you had known? Please add your own advice to any or all of the posts!

    by Andi Milens, Vice President at Jewish Council for Public Affairs

    One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard was something my grandfather told my father when my father went to work for him. He said: “Always remember that the people who work for you depend on you for their livelihood.”

    Here’s my attempt to contribute to the canon:

    1.      Follow your passions.

    2.      Give 100% but save some for yourself. No matter how much you love your chosen field, no matter how much you love being immersed in the Jewish community, find something outside the Jewish community that you enjoy. Everyone needs to take a break every now and then.

    3.      Find mentors and confidantes – people close enough to understand your circumstances but removed enough that they can offer you objective guidance. And be a mentor to others; serve the Jewish community by fostering the next generation of Jewish professionals.

    Author Andi Milens

    4.      Establishing good working relationships is key to your success. Develop strategies to work with all kinds of people.

    5.      Diversify. Remember that there are a lot of pieces that make up the Jewish community puzzle. Shimon the Righteous said that the world stands on three things: Torah, the service of Gd, and deeds of kindness. So too, the Jewish community stands on many professions and institutions – each is necessary but none alone are sufficient.

    6.      There is always something more to learn. When you think you’ve learned it all, it’s time to think about your next career step. Take advantage of opportunities to learn new skills. Find people to learn from, inside your institution and outside. And remember that you can learn something from everyone – even if it’s an example you don’t want to follow.

    7.      Trust your subordinates to do their jobs. Give them an appropriate amount of guidance, then give them the resources and the autonomy to carry out their responsibilities. Back them up publicly, teach them privately. If you don’t trust them, find new subordinates.

    8.      Most of the time, it’s not life and death. Sometimes it is. But most of the time, it can wait until tomorrow. And remember that everyone thinks that what they’re doing is the most important thing.

    9.      Know how to accept, admit and apologize when you are wrong. And sometimes even when you’re not. It’s more important to be effective than it is to be right.

    10.  They say that knowledge is power. But sharing knowledge builds trust, which is more powerful than knowledge.

    And always keep a copy of Pirkei Avot handy…whatever you’re looking for, you can probably find it there.


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