My Two Shekels: Check Your Assumptions at the Door

In 2004, I graduated with two Masters Degrees, one from the USC School of Social Work and one from Hebrew Union College (HUC) Zelikow School of Nonprofit Management (formerly School of Jewish Communal Service). Those 2 years of studying solidified that I was on the right path to serve the Jewish people. The curriculum and faculty challenged us to see ourselves as revolutionaries, as change agents, and as community builders, while our mentors demanded that we learn and grow as people.

I have always felt like work in the Jewish community, whether in a congregation, JCC, JFS, Jewish camp, a Federation, a Hillel, or at any one of the important Jewish institutions of today, is sacred. To build community, inspire people to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life and learning, and to help people of all ages develop life-long relationships with Israel has been a blessing for the last 20 years.

For the first time in 5 years, I attended this week’s HUC graduation ceremony at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles. It was wonderful to see so many friends and colleagues. I was also proud to hear from this year’s graduation speaker, Dr. Andrew Viterbi, who received the Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa. Sitting in the pews listening to Dr. Viterbi was a moment in which my past and present worlds – HUC, and now the San Diego Jewish Federation, collided in a beautiful and meaningful way. Dr. Viterbi shared moving and touching remarks about his life story, about his professional career, his life as a philanthropist, and about the life and memory of his late wife, Erna Viterbi. He reflected on the miracle of the founding of the Jewish state of Israel and the refuge it has provided to Jews for over 70 years. Dr. Viterbi lamented rising anti-Semitism and invited the newly minted graduates to confront the challenges of a constantly evolving and dynamic Jewish future.

My colleague Marsha Katz Rothpan, who was among those recognized for 25 years of service in the field, received the Doctor of Jewish Nonprofit Management. Her poignant remarks that evening resonated with me as a veteran Jewish communal professional and as someone who cares deeply about our Jewish future. I am proud to share some of Marsha’s remarks below.

I was asked to share words of wisdom from my experience as a Jewish communal professional. Here are a few practical pearls:

  • Do not have a conversation with a colleague on the elevator – or in the bathroom – you never know who may be listening.
  • Check your assumptions at the door.
  • Proofread – more than once.
  • Conscious use of self should be a daily practice.
  • Think critically. Act intentionally.
  • Process is important.
  • Have a vision, and a plan and be flexible.
  • Listen.
  • Say thank you. Be grateful. Be kind.
  • Consider how things may occur to others.
  • Be vulnerable.
  • Live your values.

Marsha asked former classmates for their own wisdom that she might include in her remarks. She noted the following common thread in their replies:

“…the importance of community and relationships. Not only relationships with people, but with Judaism, community and even with ourselves – and how important it is to demonstrate caring in every word and deed of our day. The work we do is sacred work. We impact lives. We strengthen Jewish identity. We create connection and build community. We help ensure the Jewish future."

I especially LOVED her reflections on the challenges we face as Jewish leaders as well as her sense of optimism about the future:

Our work is gratifying, full of meaning, and these days we are faced with an increasing complexity of challenges - many of which can have both positive and negative influences - such as the influx of technology, changes in how generations connect to Judaism, community, and each other.

There is much to be done – and we are prepared to do it. As we learned at HUC, our texts and traditions give us the foundation and context and our experiences and relationships lay upon it the connections that make our lives and the lives we touch that much better.

Marsha reflected on how it says in the Torah (Deuteronomy Rabbah 1:10) – “A community is too heavy for anyone to carry alone.” Marsha and Deuteronomy, are so right! All of our communal institutions play an integral role in shaping Jewish life today and the Jewish community of tomorrow. I’m proud to lead an organization that plays a role in this work and proud that my experience at HUC has connected me to so many incredible people, like Marsha and Dr. Viterbi, to outstanding organizations, like the Jewish Federation, and to be part of inspired and inspiring Jewish communities, like the one right here in San Diego.


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