Rabbis give sermons all the time, and our homiletics classes prepare us for this weekly activity. But it’s not all the time that rabbis deliver sermons in front of a room full of rabbis, cantors, and Jewish educators, and no amount of preparation makes us fully ready for such a powerful occasion.
Every HUC-JIR rabbinical student has the privilege to address his or her campus community in what we call a Senior Sermon. This is an opportunity for students to demonstrate their rhetorical skill, to teach Torah, and to share their passions with their classmates and teachers. For many, it is considered a pinnacle experience of rabbinical school.
I delivered my senior sermon during parashat Bereishit, in October 2012 in New York City. In many ways, this was like a minor Sinai for me, a pivotal moment that reflected considerable preparation and launched a new trajectory in my student career.
For over a year, I had wanted to address with the HUC-JIR community an issue that’s close to my heart: HUC-JIR’s policy not to admit, graduate, or ordain students with non-Jewish partners. While this is a contentious and sensitive subject, I had full confidence that the community would engage seriously and respectfully in dialogue on this issue. After all, Stephen S. Wise, founder of the Jewish Institute of Religion, had started his own synagogue in order to safeguard “freedom of the pulpit,” and his legacy lives on at HUC-JIR today.
As soon as the fall semester started, I began working seriously. I immersed myself in HUC-JIR history, CCAR responsa, sociological studies, and Torah commentaries, seeking to discern the clearest message I had to deliver on the topic of intersection between Jewish professional leadership and relationships between Jews and non-Jews. My sermon advisor, Dr. Carole Balin, was enormously supportive, encouraging me on my issue and helping me with my research and writing.
As the sermon date got closer, I spoke with David Ellenson, the president of HUC-JIR, to confer with him about the school’s policy and to invite him to attend my sermon and the discussion afterward. Dr. Ellenson was—and remains—a respectful and encouraging dialogue partner, and he made many helpful suggestions about how to heighten the quality and impact of the conversation I hoped to begin.
The sermon delivery itself, coached by HUC-JIR NY’s Speech teacher Sandra Kazan, went over well (or so I’m told!), and you can read the text of my sermon online here (http://jonahrank.wordpress.com/2012/10/18/rabbis-with-non-jewish-partners-from-daniel-kirzane). Classmates, teachers, members of HUC-JIR’s Board of Governors and administration, friends, and family brought their wisdom and passion into the intense discussion that followed my sermon over lunch, and this dialogue launched a project for me that continues today.
The Senior Sermon process was ideal for shaping a conversation I hoped to have in our community. Faculty insight, student buy-in, and administrative support have all contributed to a rich discussion of this important issue at our school. Indeed, I believe that this process is responsible for many critical conversations that emerge at our school including our relationship with Israel, our expectations of Jewish practice, and our beliefs and practices around LGBT community members and interests.
Senior Sermons are climactic moments in our school community, and their echoes can often be heard for weeks or even years afterward. These peaks are like minor Sinais whereby our tradition speaks to us through our peers, urging us week after week to be wiser, braver, and more compassionate Jewish leaders.
Daniel Kirzane is a fourth year rabbinical student on the New York campus. He is also a graduate of the New York School of Education and has served as the coordinator of the HUC-JIR Soup Kitchen.