It is a bittersweet feeling to be writing my farewell to you as I prepare to step down as president of Hillel. On the one hand, I look forward to rejoining my family in Israel and to participating in the daily lives of my children and grandchildren. On the other hand, leading Hillel has been an extraordinary period of professional challenge and fulfillment. It has been a pleasure to work with a passionate and committed group of Hillel student activists, lay leaders, and professionals. Hillel has brought about a renaissance of Jewish life and is poised to make even greater contributions to the significant survival of the Jewish people. I take satisfaction in the fact that I will continue to work with Hillel in my new capacity as President Emeritus.
Hillel is truly a reflection of the values that I cherish as a Jewish educator. I believe firmly that Jews are all members of a single global Jewish family. We may be Orthodox or assimilated, we may live in Kiev or Kansas, but we are still members of a single people. This family is bound together by a common memory that began in the Land of Ur with a man named Abraham and that has grown with centuries of learning, celebration and struggle. Our most important common memory is the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai which has determined the values that have held us together as a people. The Land of Israel is the cradle of our civilization and the place where we can best fulfill our Jewish destiny. And, I believe, the Hebrew language, with its many meanings, layers and interconnections, expresses the essence of the Jewish people.
As Hillel president, I have expressed these beliefs in communities around the world. I have been able to help shape an organization that is informed by these values and that meets the unique needs of today’s college students. I have worked to strengthen the Hillel enterprise financially and organizationally to achieve our mission. I believe that we have made great strides in development, human resources, social justice programming and education that will benefit students for years to come. Our Strategic Plan points the way to further achievement.
One of the unique qualities that has earned Hillel the respect of the Jewish community is its pluralism. Hillel brings together Jews of diverse, and sometimes conflicting, points of view. Inevitably, keeping such a broad coalition involves tension and compromise. As Hillel moves forward, it cannot shy away from this tension by embracing simple solutions. We cannot abandon our historical memory, our language or our sense of global peoplehood simply to achieve consensus. The more we give up of our Jewish essence, the poorer we become as a people – indeed, the poorer the world becomes. I firmly believe that we can be -- we need to be -- both distinctively Jewish and universally human.
Education is not a field whose successes are easily measured. How can we assess the impact we have had on a single student who participated in a large Hillel training program, a mission to Israel or an alternative break? Have we truly provided a Meaningful Jewish Experience?
I was recently traveling through Ben-Gurion Airport in Israel when I was stopped by a young American woman. She asked me my name and then showed me a locket that she wore around her neck. She had taken out the photo from inside and had the following words inscribed: Memory, Family, Sinai, Israel, Hebrew. She explained that she had heard one of my lectures as Hillel president and had made those five words a source of daily contemplation and inspiration.
At times like that, I feel my work at Hillel has been successful.
I want to thank you for your help and support in touching the lives of Jewish people around the world.
I look forward to working with my successor, partner and friend Wayne Firestone as he builds meaningful Jewish experiences for the next generation of Jewish students.
With best wishes of shalom u’vracha, peace and blessings,