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Curiosity and Commitment: My Graduation Student Address

I had the great privilege to be student speaker at the HUC-JIR Los Angeles Graduation ceremony on May 19, 2014, where I received my Masters of Jewish Education. Here is the text:
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I arrive in LA. It’s a big change.

Yes, the traffic here is just…wow.

And yes, adjusting to new teachers and other classes of students was exciting.

And yes, realizing I was going to have to actually work was just a bit intimidating.

But the most memorable moment of my first few weeks on the LA campus came when I first beheld a large web of socks woven together as potholders and hanging from the ceiling directly over the chairs in which we prayed every day. It was a colorful web, and although it was just a bit odd and quite controversial among the students and faculty, it grew on me over the weeks. It felt like a very west coast version of a sukkat shalom, a protective kippah over us all as we prayed.

It took months for me to realize that this…object was part of a temporary art display that changed every semester. I’d thought it was just part of the room!

I didn’t fully appreciate how the sock web added to the room until it was taken down. I was caught off guard by an unexpected change.

Now given that change is a constant, I want to talk about two tools that when balanced can guide us through change: curiosity and commitment. Curiosity welcomes change, while commitment resists change.

The first tool, curiosity, is that which enables us to move beyond ourselves, to explore new ideas and to be open to other perspectives and practices. Curiosity lends itself to spiritual exploration, interfaith work, pastoral care, and developing a vision. In the words of Michael Zeldin, “Question what is, imagine what can be.” Curiosity is never satisfied with the way things are.

The second tool is commitment.

Where curiosity gives us wings, commitment grounds us in who we are. Commitment is that which sustains relationships and stabilizes everything new that we discover through curiosity. Commitment enables spiritual development, community building and organizing. Commitment reminds me of my obligations to the needs of my students, my clients, my congregants. Commitment reminds me of my debt to the traditions of my ancestors. Commitment is investment in the way things are.

That first semester I was very invested in the way those socks enhanced my experience, but had I realized they were only there for a semester I would have cultivated my curiosity more. I would have thought more about where the socks came from and what they represented, and looked forward to the next exhibit.

When I first arrived, there were a great many things I thought were simply always around at HUC. Now I know that in a way we students are as unique, as interesting, as beautiful (and sometimes as controversial) yet ultimately as temporary as those art exhibits. For a while we hang out in the halls of our little building, and then before you know it, we are standing here preparing for the next stage. Even those of us that will remain a few years will be less and less present on campus.

Graduation is a celebration of what has brought us together even as it signals what will lead us apart.

Graduation offers us a moment to honor our commitment to our schooling while many of us are intensely curious about the work we will do in the coming years. I believe curiosity and commitment are not only reflected in this ceremony, but critical in our professional lives.

For without curiosity, there is apathy. Without commitment, there is only transience. Curiosity and commitment must be balanced. I am reminded of Hillel’s famous statement: If I am not for myself, who will be? (I see here commitment to self and to community.) When I am just for myself, what am I? (Curiosity moves us past ourselves.) And if not now, when? Given that change is a constant, you won’t have to wait long. As this moment of graduation moves us ever more towards a much-anticipated change – towards fully using our education in the service of the Jewish people, remember to commit to your gifts and to those who need them; and use curiosity to deepen your appreciation for the world, for Judaism, and for those around us.