By a surprising coincidence of timing, this week I celebrated two thirtieth anniversaries. In Columbus Ohio, I celebrated the thirtieth year of the Wexner Foundation together with 1200 Jews who were graduates of the Israel Fellowship Program, the Heritage Program or, like me, were alumni of the Graduate Fellowship. I flew home on Monday night to drive into New York City for a two day Rabbinical Assembly celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the ordination of women.
Why such a big deal about thirty? (Believe me, I ask myself that question as I consider that Jonathan and I will celebrate thirty years of marriage this May.) In Ethics of the Fathers, one chapter lists developmentally significant ages and identifies each with a unique characteristic: “At five, the study of Torah. At ten, Mishnah. At thirteen, responsibility for mitzvot. At fifteen, Talmud.” The list continues until it declares: “Ben shloshim, l’koach.” At thirty years, the age of strength.
A midrash asks why thirty is the age of strength. The answer begins with a list of those who rose to greatness upon reaching thirty: Joseph began to serve Pharaoh at thirty. Priests began service in the Beit Mikdash at thirty. David became King of Israel at thirty. Then the midrash asks: why at thirty did they rise to greatness? The answer is stunning: Because at thirty, they were humbled and heartbroken.
This teaching played like a leitmotif in my mind throughout four days of intense learning, listening and rejoicing. True leadership requires humility and vulnerability. At the Wexner conference, much of the message was about leading through change – change in our lives, organizations and the world. Yes, leadership requires optimism, grit, resilience, and creativity. But in order to respond to the fierce urgency of now, we must first and foremost cultivate empathy to the other.
I felt challenged by questions of how to move people from caring about an issue to acting on it. I understood that in order for Jews to sit in a room together, we must acknowledge that all of us think about our Judaism from our own prisms. Partners in leadership must be asked to fine tune skills and generously use their gifts.
Shimon Perez was the great anniversary surprise. He told us that Israel is not just a country. Israel, he asserted, is an idea. He promised us that there are two things in the world that we can experience only if we close our eyes a little bit: love and peace. The common thread throughout the Wexner learning was that the leader who can lead through change must be humble and vulnerable enough to recognize the potential greatness in others.
At the conference of the Rabbinical Assembly, we learned sweet Torah, discussed models of successful change, and heard from inspiring thinkers and teachers, including one of my heroes, Letty Cotin Pogrebin, in conversation with her daughter Abigail Pogrebin. We celebrated with great joy the change that affected the whole Jewish world thirty years ago when Rabbi Amy Eilberg (another hero of mine) became the first woman ordained in the Conservative Movement after years of halakhic and sociological study and debate.
At the same time, we acknowledged that there is much work still to do in the arena of an equal place for men and women, boys and girls, in our congregations, schools, camps and communities. Rabbi Pamela Barbash taught that egalitarianism is not about women’s participation; rather, it is about increasing the adherence and participation of all Jews through obligation, study and mitzvot. I was reminded that women’s rise to a place beside men in Judaism would have never begun without the humility and vulnerability of men who became empathic allies to the cause as they studied and interpreted the Torah through the eyes of modern Jews.
Rabbi Scheff and I delighted in seeing OJC rabbinic interns, now our colleagues over these two days. We reconnected with friends and classmates, ate and prayed together, and recharged our leadership batteries. We’ll be teaching about the halakha, the sociology and the moral questions of the 30th anniversary of Women’s Ordination during Sisterhood Shabbat, June 19–20. We might even give you a version of the session that we taught about men and women as equal partners in pulpit life! Both rabbis look forward to sharing with our community the learning that filled us at the RA.
Kol tuv, All the best, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill