by David Ellenson
Neuroscientists teach us that the most fundamental elements of our identity are forged in childhood, and I am surely no exception. My own values are inextricably bound up with my early days as a Jewish boy growing up during the 1950s and 1960s in a tightly-knit Jewish community in the largely Christian world of Newport News, Virginia.
One of my earliest lessons as a child was to esteem and emulate individuals who demonstrated knowledge, care, and concern for Judaism. My father instructed me over and over again to show our Rabbi Nathan Bulman--an Orthodox rabbi he revered--the utmost kavod (respect).
One day, as Rabbi Bulman and I were studying the first paragraph of the Amidah prayer, we came across the phrase, "God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob." Rabbi Bulman commented, as Jewish teachers have for hundreds of years, that each of us, no less than the fathers of our people, must strive for a personal relationship with God. I imbibed his words and looked at the text. "There is something that troubles me," I said. I pointed out that the text said, "Abraham" and not "Abram," the name his father Terah had bestowed upon him. In contrast, the first name of the third patriarch appears as "Jacob," rather than his other name, "Israel," which he earned as he struggled with the angel.
When I asked the rabbi why this was so, he broke out in a tremendous smile and rushed over and kissed me on my forehead. His answer to the question--which was that Abraham was the name given Abram when he became a Jew, while Jacob was born a Jew--was almost beside the point. What I remember most was his kiss. Through this single act, he displayed the passion and joy involved in the study of Torah, and he embedded a love for Jewish learning and discovery in my neshamah (soul) that burns at the core of my being to the present day.
I have thought of that kiss often. In every teaching and personal setting in which I have found myself over the years, I have attempted to display and transmit the same love of learning to my students that Rabbi Bulman did at that decisive moment in my own life. Sometimes I am successful, sometimes not--but always I attempt to recognize the awesome responsibility I possess as a teacher. For, in the words of the rabbis, "great leaders of the Jewish people (g'dolei Yisrael) may spring from among those who sit before me," and each encounter presents an opportunity to touch their very souls.
Charles Olshanksy, director of the local JCC, reinforced another message I had learned from my parents: all persons have to be treated with dignity, as each of us is created in the image of God. I watched Mr. Olshansky speak politely and respectfully to everyone he met. He engaged every individual--the largest donor as well as the custodians--with the whole of his being. Most of all, he showed me that Judaism required that one love real flesh and blood people, not just an abstract ideal of humanity. Years later, when I read the words of Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer (1795-1874) of Thorn, "Even sinners sometimes perform mitzvot," I identified this as a teaching Mr. Olshansky embodied--that Judaism regards fragile and finite human beings who are prone to error as nevertheless capable of being partners with God in the task of repairing the world.
This lesson remains of the utmost importance to me. In my many dealings with people, I often reflect on my own shortcomings--my lack of patience, my failure to "be in the moment" with the one who is before me, my overly excessive need for external affirmation, my misjudgments. I am aware how limited all of us are, and I often regret that I cannot live up to my highest ideal of self and fulfill the mitzvah of k'vod hab'riyot (respect for all creatures), as I feel I should.
And yet, despite the despair that often captures me at those moments of critical self-awareness and self-judgment, I see that all these weaknesses do not prevent either me or others from saying, as Abraham did, "Hineini," "Here I am," and being fully present in the moment to assist and support those who are in need of kindness and respect. This aspect of character calls upon me to be ever mindful of the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said that when he was young, he would first ask how smart an individual was. However, as he matured, he would first ask how kind that person was.
Growing up in Virginia during the late 1950s, I was also influenced by our then Governor Lindsay Almond's actions to challenge injustice. At that time, there were still separate water fountains for "whites" and "colored," and African-Americans and "whites" could not sit in the same sections on a bus, in movie theaters, in restaurants, or in any other public facility. The struggles that ensued in the wake of Brown v. Topeka seared my childhood. Senator Harry Flood Byrd of Winchester, the undisputed political leader of Virginia during this period and the architect of a policy of "massive resistance" to desegregation, vowed to close rather than integrate public schools. It was as if the Civil War had never been fought. Or, to put it more correctly, it was as if The War Between the States was going to be waged all over again. Part of the spirit of that time was captured in an obscene statement uttered by Governor Almond's predecessor: that integration--whether in schools or in public facilities--was akin to "sprinkling coal dust on vanilla ice cream. It ruins the ice cream and does the coal dust no good." I will not even repeat what my father said when he read these words and we discussed them at the dinner table.
I was then eleven years old and painfully aware of all this turmoil when Senator Byrd handpicked one of his chief lieutenants--Lindsay Almond of Roanoke, the attorney general of the Commonwealth--to serve as governor. Everyone presumed he would execute the policy of "massive resistance" that his political mentor had forged. However, in a completely unexpected development, Governor Almond broke with Senator Byrd and demanded that the Commonwealth bow to the will of the Supreme Court and the federal government and "obey the law of the land."
For his extraordinary act of valor, integrity, and steadfastness of resolve Governor Almond was literally vilified by the press and completely estranged from many of his most intimate friends. This model of character and decency has remained with me as a "profile in courage" throughout my lifetime. Since that day, whenever I read the words of Pirkei Avot, "Bamakom sh'ein anashim, hishtadel lihyot ish," which I would translate as, "In a place where people no longer behave as human beings should, strive to be human," I think of Governor Almond.
During these last four years as president of HUC-JIR, I have thought often of Governor Almond's example. While I would hardly say that I have confronted moral issues of the magnitude he did, I have felt the need to offer a Jewish moral voice on a number of occasions. For example, I wrote several pieces defending the full religious and civil rights of our lesbian sisters and gay brothers that sadly elicited venomous responses, mostly from individuals outside the liberal Jewish community. Severe criticism did come my way from within our Movement early in my presidency for maintaining our mandatory year of study in Israel for all rabbinical, cantorial, and education students during a time when terrorist bombings were commonplace in Jerusalem. I will confess that I often spent sleepless nights during this period. However, I remained convinced that HUC-JIR could not surrender to the evil of terrorism a policy which seeks to transmit to future Reform leaders the classical Jewish ideal of areivut--mutual solidarity with and responsibility for the Jewish people.
The virtues I attach to character--kindness and love of people, courage and leadership, gratitude and fairness, persistence and love of learning--are rooted in what I learned from people in my childhood. These moral anchors have shaped my being to this day.
Rabbi David Ellenson is president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.