A Call to “Re-member,” to Rejoin our People

Brandeis[The following is Dr. Zohar Raviv’s keynote address to the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program’s Class of 2015 during their commencement ceremony on May 17, 2015, at Brandeis University. Dr. Raviv, a Hornstein alumnus from 2000, is International Vice President of Education for Taglit-Birthright Israel, directing the largest Jewish educational program in the world. He is a master teacher, and his deep knowledge of Jewish history, culture and the modern state of Israel, along with his pedagogical acumen, make him one of the most influential Jewish educators in the world.

The Hornstein Program awarded Dr. Raviv with this year’s Bernard Reisman Professional Excellence Award. The Reisman Award is presented each year at the Hornstein Commencement to a professional who “has demonstrated innovative work and significant leadership … as well as a commitment to the standards of excellence, Jewish commitment and sensitivity to others as reflected by Bernard Reisman in his work.”]


Dear Hornstein graduates, the proud families, faculty members and friends.

Fifteen years ago I stood here, as you are now, not having ever imagined that the day would come where I would be asked to send off a graduating Hornstein cohort on its path to do great things for the Jewish world.

Receiving an award from the Hornstein Program is a great honor in itself, but receiving an award named after Bernard Reisman – a man, a mensch and a master educator whom I had personally known and deeply loved – is a different feeling altogether.

I am deeply humbled by it, as Bernie Reisman and his Hornstein faculty peers, some of whom are present here today, played a vital role in shaping my own thoughts on Judaism, on education, and most importantly, on the need to negotiate raw passion with intellectual integrity, conviction with practical skills, and the understanding that people will forever be far more complex, challenging, and beautifully unique to succumb to any theoretical canopy that wishes to bind them and their needs as one.

The time I spent in Bernie’s orbit has shaped my own professional trajectory, and his words served as precious context in many conjunctions along my path. Much like most experiences that stir a deep chord, Bernie’s presence stretches far beyond its physical expanse: while my time with him had to end at a certain point, it never truly concluded! His words, teachings and wisdom continue to echo in my mind and inform my thoughts on myriad professional and personal issues.

In one recorded interview, Bernie summarized in plain words his vision for future Jewish professional leaders: “What I feel is needed by future leaders of Jewish communities in America and anywhere else in the world,” Bernie said, “are individuals who can move beyond their own egos to capture the needs and interests of the folks out there, to be sufficiently sensitive to their hungers and aspirations, and to give them not only ideas, but values drawn from four thousand years of Jewish wisdom…”

Of these “four thousand years of Jewish wisdom,” I feel today that I have mastered a solid grasp of about…let’s say… a month and a half. But it is a precious “month and a half of Jewish wisdom,” and from which I’d like to share a tiny gem.

Our collective Jewish narrative arguably revolves around that seminal moment at Mt. Sinai, a moment usually acknowledged as God’s revelation to the entire community of Israel. This communal aspect of revelation arguably distinguishes the Jewish theological constitution from all others, and its impact on our Jewish consciousness and sense of communal cohesion and responsibility is obviously profound.

However, this dramatic communal revelation at Sinai – smoke, tremor, and booming voices from above – was not the only thing that happened that day, albeit what I am about to disclose has not made it to Charlton Heston’s The Ten Commandments movie. Something else happened there, at least in our Rabbis’ imagination of that moment, and whose lessons may serve us all well as aspiring leaders of a community.

Midrash Rabba discusses the enigmatic moment that features Moses and God in dialogue on top of Sinai, as the book of Exodus 19:19 states “Moses spoke, and God replied with a voice.” To the ensuing question “why does it say ‘God replied with a voice’ instead of simply saying ‘God replied’,” Rabbi Lulliani now says: “God replied in Moses’ own voice!” If so, my friends, allow me to ask each and every one of you: What did Moses hear?

At that dramatic moment of revelation, Moses heard HIMSELF! At that seminal point, Moses was not having a dialogue with God as a separate other, but what I’d like to call “an enriched monologue,” based on deep awareness of one’s place in the life of a nation.

This profoundly intimate moment is what we should all look for. Revelation does not necessarily have to appear in a booming voice from above, but rather, in a silent whisper of an awakened soul from within. Sinai, we may learn here, is not just a physical mountain to be witnessed by a community, but a mental backdrop for the individual inner quest that compels us as we strive to fulfill our potential on this earth.

Indeed, the term “Jewish professional leaders” might not adequately articulate the fuller scope of what I believe you are set to do. For you are, in truth, individuals who received a mandate from our community to traverse the magnificent landscapes of Jewish spaces, times, ideas and values, and weave them into a story whose backbone is filled with meaning, relevance, challenge, pride, and awe. You are not simply storytellers, but story-bearers: actual and significant players in the unfolding story that you yourselves now set to narrate. Make sure, my friends, to harness the language of meaning as you embody that story in your lives, for it has been way too long that we have forsaken that path for the sake of ritual and practice alone. We taught our people how to be Jewish, without addressing the vital question of “why to be Jewish.” In a historical perspective, this “triumph of ritual over meaning” yields a most regrettable outcome: a generation that deals with ritual devoid of meaning is ultimately bound to lose its attachment to both!

Many of us grew to believe that the mandate bestowed upon educators is to resolve questions, ease the burden of dilemmas, and combat ambiguity in general. The students, some maintain, are those with the questions, whereas we as educators are supposed to harness our wisdom, erudition, knowledge, and overall experience towards “answers.”

There is indeed no doubt that such a task sounds commendable, had it not arguably been restricted to the acquisition of “information” in its most basic form. Yet, our mandate, if taken seriously, is not to inform, but to transform: not merely give information, but lead people in a process wherein information is the means towards a superior level of inquiry, which now wrestle with context, relevance, values, and beliefs, whose stake, I maintain, is nothing short of existential. This level, which I call “knowledge,” is indispensable on one’s journey toward forming an “opinion” about life, its moral backbone, and one’s commitment to its perpetuation as an individual and as a member of a community.

Indeed, as aspiring leaders of such journeys, Bernie’s call to contextualize our work within “the values drawn from four thousand years of Jewish wisdom” serves to demonstrate the acute relationship between memory and commemoration.

The Jewish mindset has always sought to infuse the perceptive with the active, to merge idea with deed. This viewpoint is well articulated in our “Shema Yisrael” prayer, upon reciting “And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand {= deed}, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes {= idea}.

We are, indeed, story-bearers who may help others understand their own vital role in this continuous and ever-evolving Jewish story. Thus, my friends, the commitment to memory is not merely a call to remember, but also a call to “re-member,” to rejoin our people as a vital member of the collective and unfolding story.

This view requires an educational approach that might be rendered counterintuitive at first, for people never arrive at the educational table as a clean-slate, devoid of information, things they (think) they know, and even formed opinions about many issues that plague them.

In truth, many a time, education needs to wrestle with the profound disparity between low levels of knowledge and very high levels of opinion!

The true promise of our educational vision, therefore, does not lie with giving “answers” to questions, but with our ability to identify such pre-existing exclamation points and re-massage them into question-marks again, and do so in supportive, meaningful, and empowering manners.

Education, at its core, should always be a humbling process, not merely a gratifying one!

Indeed, Bernie’s charge for us to “Move beyond our own egos” serves as a constant reminder of the humility that should accompany the educational process. None of my words should resonate with you, unless you are willing to befriend the enchanting ambiguity which is the emblem of any true quest for meaning, and the true sign of any soul on its way to maturity. None of these precepts requires your true attention, unless followed by a genuine desire to push yourselves beyond your own zone of comfort and embody in your own lives the unrelenting search for context, depth, and conviction. None of these ideas should take hold in your hearts, unless you are ready to plant seeds whose fruits you might not live to witness.

You are standing here today as graduates of a renowned academic institution, trained by people whose voices, opinions, books, and ideas have shaped and continue to shape Jewish discourse worldwide. Should you desire, the professional journey that awaits each and every one of you may pave your trajectory toward serious leadership positions in the Jewish world.

A word of advice, my friends, as this word “leadership” is one often used, yet without much clarity. For at its heart, “leadership” is fueled by one’s ability to have a vision that surpasses one’s sight; it compels the mind and arrests the heart as one is plagued by the disparity that exists between what one sees and what one wishes to see – and trusts he/she can see!

“Leadership” combines the passion of a revolutionary vision with the wisdom in allowing evolution to see it to fruition. Leadership, my friends, is the ability to turn the world in which we live into a world in which we believe.

Allow me to conclude with the following words, as you embark on your journey today: Whether we like it or not, one day in the future we are all destined to become part of our people’s past, and the sort of a past we wish to become to our future is a question for the present! Aim to structure a Jewish present which will become a past worthy of remembering … and re-membering!
Good Luck and God Bless…

Dr. Zohar Raviv is International Vice President of Education for Taglit-Birthright Israel and an internationally recognized educator. His professional experience spans Israel, North America, South America, Europe, South Africa and Australia.

The Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University is a leading master’s level dual-degree (MA+MA; MA+MBA; or MA+MPP) program preparing visionary leaders for the 21st-century Jewish community.