“The Last Sermon” Yom Kippur 5779 – 2018
Rabbi Joseph Topek, Stony Brook Hillel
I began my work as a Hillel director in 1979, the year of the Iranian Revolution and the holding of American hostages began. Jimmy Carter was President and you could earn well over 15% interest on a certificate of deposit. As a fledgling director I went to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, a largely commuter campus with a modest Jewish population and a somewhat shabby Hillel building. It was there that I found my professional and intellectual home for the next 40 years. As many of you know, I will be retiring from my post as Hillel director this coming summer.
Hillel has been a part of my life since I was an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin. UT had an outstanding Hillel with a building whose dedication plaque bore the name of my uncle, D. Aaron Topek, who had been the President of District 7 of B’nai B’rith when the structure was built in 1949. It had been the place where at least a dozen other family members had found a Jewish home while at the University as it had for thousands of Jewish students from around the state and the rest of the country. After my sophomore year a new rabbi was hired as the Hillel director and I was among the first students he called to introduce himself. He had heard that I was studying Jewish history and was thinking about rabbinical school and, of course, my family’s name was on the building. He became a mentor, along with some Jewish faculty members, and later introduced me to my wife Sue. After graduation we were married in the Hillel building and he officiated. Perhaps that sealed my fate, in a way, but it would not be until I was recruited by Rabbi Sam Fishman from national Hillel, that I would consider this a career.
From the late 1950’s through the early 1980’s the annual conference of Hillel directors took place each December at the venerable Grossinger’s hotel in the Catskill Mountains. A couple of hundred Hillel staff, then mostly male and mostly rabbis, would spend the better part of a week feasting on lox, herring, borscht, and brisket and sweating out our budget anxieties in the Grossinger shvitz. Back then Hillel was still an arm of B’nai B’rith, which was already in significant decline as a power in American Jewish organizational life. As a newbie in December 1979 I checked into the conference and was handed a key to my room and an envelope. The envelope contained a letter informing me that my program budget from national Hillel had been cut by half and this was right in the middle of the year. I wondered what I had gotten myself into.
The content of the conference, however, was stunning. I was among some of the greatest intellectuals of the American Jewish community as well as some of its most creative geniuses. These were the Jews who had recreated Franz Rosenzweig’s Lehrhaus Judaica in Berkeley, California, founded a Jewish arts festival in, yes, Stony Brook, New York, the havurah movement in Boston, had counseled and comforted students after the protests of the 1960’s at Columbia and many other campuses and officiated at memorials for slain students at Kent State. Most importantly, these directors believed passionately in learning for the sake of learning and in education for its innate value. In addition, this was an assembly of Jews from across the denominational and ideological spectrum, from the rigidly orthodox to classical Reform and they sat and learned together, studied, argued, debated, and discussed, and then ate, drank, and celebrated their milestones together with genuine respect and admiration. No one was questioned or diminished because of their observance or the ideology. Hillel’s long commitment to Jewish pluralism was alive and well and on full display.
Pluralism being a cornerstone of the Hillel movement was both impressive and attractive. Not being bound by a single ideology, but encompassing the totality of Judaism was refreshing and appealing. Reform rabbis led study groups on Hasidic thought and orthodox rabbis quoted professors from the Conservative and Reform seminaries. The openness to ideas and the inclusion of all points of view made Hillel a model of the university applied to Jewish life where intellectual inquiry and discovery was given full credence. If there was a tension it was between the Hillel world and the rest of the Jewish community where tribalism, denominationalism, and parochialism ruled. On the campus, and in our director’s microcosm of it, we just didn’t care about that stuff.
Of course there was a price to pay, of sorts. Many of us were considered outliers in the Jewish community or certainly within a particular denominational group. I avoided that by attending a pluralistic rabbinical seminary but most of my colleagues were ordained by a movement seminary. The prevailing consensus in the Jewish community and in the rabbinate went something like “the Reform Hillel rabbis are too religious for the temples and the orthodox Hillel rabbis are too liberal for the shuls and the Conservative Hillel rabbis are all wannabe academics.” Sweeping generalizations for sure, but with some truth to them as well. Then there was the question of whether or not Hillel could be a career. For one, we got paid a lot less than rabbis or Ph.D.’s with other Jewish communal or academic jobs. Second, would we be taken seriously if we sought a job in a more establishment institution or would we be tainted by our counter-culture experience? I noticed that many colleagues would spend a few years in Hillel and then move on to the congregational rabbinate or other educational positions in the Jewish community, so I don’t think it was a barrier. Perhaps because of economics or a diminishment in idealism, but it seemed that fewer colleagues were considering Hillel to be a long term career. Meanwhile, though, I was very inspired by those who did. Each year the directors who were retiring were feted at our conference and their long tenures of devotion to their universities and dedication to their students were celebrated. I well remember the retirements of Rabbi Julius Funk who came to Rutgers in 1942 and started his Hillel in a telephone booth across the street from the student union, Rabbi Morris Goldfarb who came to Cornell in 1948, Rabbi Ben Zion Gold, who escaped from Poland in 1938 and came to Harvard Hillel in 1957, and many others.
Some Hillel directors were known not only for their innovations but for their willingness to take risks and try things that may have been impossible in more parochial venues in the Jewish community. Rabbi Joe Polak at Boston University had been ordained by the Lubavitch sect of Hasidism and began his Hillel work in 1967. While the director at Boston University Hillel he hired one of the first female rabbis in Hillel as his associate director, one of many to find meaningful careers in our movement. Rabbi Al Axelrad, who for decades was the Hillel director at Brandeis, was known as the “maverick rabbi” and authored a somewhat autobiographical book by that title. Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, a modern orthodox rabbi and outstanding scholar with often unorthodox views, survived years of brutal criticism to lead the Hillel at UCLA to become one of the largest and most successful in the country. Many of us have been authors, teachers, and the official voice of the Jewish People to some of the most important institutions in this country and at some of the most critical times.
Universities and colleges are among the most important institutions in our society but also the least well understood by most Americans. While there are some notable exceptions, nearly all important scientific discoveries and advances are products of research done at universities or at businesses that have cooperative relationships with research universities. The private technology, science, and medicine sector would be lost without the training ground provided by American higher education. Universities train the teachers who teach our children, the doctors who heal us, the attorneys who represent us, the engineers who design the cars we drive and roads we travel. Universities, though, are not trade schools and while they often prepare graduates for a career in a specific field, they also exist to provide their students with a broader education and knowledge of the world. While I want my doctor to be a skilled medical practitioner who can diagnose and treat my illnesses, I also want her to have a knowledge of human history and to have read at least some of the great works of literature that describe human experiences and emotions. For all of their flaws, universities can teach us not so much what to think as how to think. They can challenge us to face daunting tasks and complete them, to become expert in a subject, to become proficient to practice a profession or to teach others, and to do research that can lead to new discoveries that benefit all of us. The intellectual mentor of a generation of Hillel directors, Rabbi James Diamond, of blessed memory, said that universities are places where “ideas take on a life of their own.”
For us as Jews the idea has precious value. In many ways our existence as Jews is partly predicated on an idea, a big idea, and it’s called the Torah. It’s really a collection of a lot of ideas as well as stories and legislation, but one of its central tenets, monotheism, is an idea and many refer to it as our gift to humankind. Our entire rabbinic tradition is built around ideas, some good, some bad, some retained, some rejected but all still found in the many pages of our sacred texts. These universities are attended by about 90% of American Jews. The children of first generation Jewish immigrants are often sent to college at great sacrifice to the family because of our devotion to learning and education is a foundational Jewish value. Judaism teaches us that learning for its own sake has worth and in fact is a form of serving G-d. There is also a practical reason for our commitment to higher education and it’s because should we have to flee and cannot take our material possessions with us, our knowledge is not something that can be taken from us. With knowledge and skill we can begin anew in another place.
For me, like so many others, Stony Brook has been a place of great ideas and great experiences. Our children grew up here and we met many of our closest and dearest friends here who have become part of our family. My wife Sue reminds me that when we first came here in 1982 I said it would probably be for five years but it turned into many more. There have been some incredibly stressful and frustrating times and trying to raise enough money to adequately fund a significant Hillel foundation has certainly been one of them. But in the end it is and always has been about students. Jim Diamond also taught us that if you want to be a Hillel director you must love students and despite other demands, they must come first. The sine qua non of this job is that students are only here for a short time, perhaps four years of their undergraduate years, and they are at a transitional time in their lives. Many still behave as adolescents but most display an emerging maturity as young adults. I learned early on that if we treat students as adults there is a good chance they will begin to act that way, but if we treat them as children their maturity will only be hindered. There have been few disappointments along the way from students and mainly impressive and outstanding displays of leadership, imagination, and devotion from most of them. In addition to the vast number of physicians, attorneys, business people, and academics who are alumni of our Hillel we also have some rabbis, social workers, educators, and even professionals at other Hillels or Jewish institutions. I have my family to thank for indulging me this career. My wife Sue, of course, for graciously welcoming generations of students into our home for meals and for teaching so many of them how to bake challah and hamantashen. My daughters Leah, Sara, and Chana, and later their husbands Dan, Eric, and Josh, for tolerating those generations of students at our table, some of whom were their babysitters and others the subject of their complaints. One thing that has been so meaningful has been to see how so many students have formed enduring relationships through Hillel that continue in their lives beyond Stony Brook. Of course we have many couples who met at Hillel and subsequently married but also those who have maintained close friendships and partnerships which I can now track via social media. We help students form enduring relationships that can last a lifetime.
Nearly 40 years ago my senior Hillel colleagues published a handbook of sorts to guide fellow Hillel professionals. At the time our national office was very small and most of our in- service professional training was self generated. Much of guidance is practical but some is theoretical or ideological as well. Rabbi Daniel Leifer, of blessed memory, who served for many years at the University of Chicago, writes about the Hillel director. He quotes the great German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, who writes in his essay “On Being a Jewish Person,” “nothing Jewish is alien to me.” Danny wrote that he saw this as what informs the work of a Hillel director; we must want to encompass all that is Jewish. He goes on to write that “the Hillel director must embody a fullness of Jewish tradition and culture, of Jewish learning and living. That person must affirm positively and publicly all the ways of being Jewish, so that by his or her very being and professional practice he or she will affirm and uplift the Jewishness of the Hillel constituencies.” Certainly we all have our opinions and we all have our preferences and often it can be a challenge to affirm those views and practices that are not your own or that you even find objectionable. There have been times that I have failed at that and times when I found it a refreshing departure from the parochialism that often besets other Jewish institutions. Tonight on Yom Kippur I ask your forgiveness for the times I have missed the mark or found something Jewish alien to me or otherwise failed to live up to the highest aspirations and standards of my field. Tonight I also want to thank you, my community, my university, my students, my board, and my staff. I have been blessed with the greatest colleagues one could ask for in the University, in the Hillel movement, and in the dedicated Stony Brook Hillel staff that I have had the honor to work with for 37 years. Our current professionals, Jenn Handel, Lisa Hymowitz, Gal Malka, Trudy Morse, and Rabbi Shlomo Agishtein attest to that. I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to serve this community and to do the work that has most inspired and fulfilled me. Within Jewish life Hillel work is like no other because of its locus in higher education and its abiding commitment to embrace all that is Jewish. I cannot imagine having done anything else.