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Starting the Next Chapter

10/31/2019 08:40:34 AM


Rabbi Ron Segal

This past Sunday, October 27, most of the Jewish world was undoubtedly aware that the day marked one year since the massacre of eleven members of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. Throughout this past year, communities have held memorials, worked to strengthen bridges of understanding with neighbors and co-religionists, pursued further security measures within their own synagogues, and learned more about the roots of anti-Semitism.  And while unquestionably continuing to honor their loved one’s memories, one year later families of victims are also rediscovering their strength and necessarily seeking ways to move past debilitating grief into the next chapter of life. 

And, on the very same Sunday morning of October 27, Dr. Andrew Rehfeld was inaugurated as the 10th President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (, the rabbinical school from which Rabbis Kranz, Levenberg, Trief, and I were all ordained. I was delighted to be in Cincinnati for this historic weekend, magnificently chaired by Sinai’s own Joy Greenberg and filled with Shabbat services, dinners, receptions, learning sessions, and other events commemorating this auspicious and sacred occasion in the life of HUC.  

Some might recall, though, the dreadful circumstances which prematurely brought HUC, and by extension the entire Reform Movement, to this moment in time: namely, the tragic death of Rabbi Dr. Aaron Panken (HUC’s 9th President) in May of last year, only four years after his own inauguration. Sunday’s inauguration service, and Dr. Rehfeld’s address in particular, sensitively and movingly recognized the painful history that necessitated the appointment of a new President in the first place. Citing the names of several past HUC Presidents, Dr. Rehfeld noted the big shoes he has to try and fill. But concerning Rabbi Aaron Panken, he beautifully said: “I am not filling big shoes; I am filling shoes suspended in mid-stride.” I have thought repeatedly of these words and the impactful manner in which President Rehfeld and others named and gave fitting tribute to a life tragically lost in an accident, while also importantly recognizing that HUC’s future and vitality now depend upon an ability to unflinchingly seize this time and rally students, faculty and lay leaders to the mission and cause of the school.  

Of course, the fact that HUC’s Presidential inauguration and the one year yahrzeit of the Tree of Life massacre fell the same day was not lost on any of us; indeed, Pittsburgh was appropriately acknowledged. However, it strikes me that, while the differences in these tragedies could not be more distinct, there is commonality in the manner in which both communities responded in the wake of their grief. Both communities assuredly mourned untimely and devastating deaths, and then slowly over the past year sought healing, honored memories, and – welcome or not – recognized and determined the necessity of beginning to chart the next chapter in their lives. From this commonality emerges the enduring lesson that we are blessed with an internal strength that - even in the wake of our greatest sorrows – will ultimately propel our drive for survival.  We surely pray for nothing but peace, good health, prosperity, and long life for our loved ones and our friends in the coming year.  But should sadness - of any sort - strike, may we remember the personal fortitude with which each of us have been blessed.

Sat, July 4 2020 12 Tammuz 5780