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Presidential Inauguration

inaugSince becoming president of Hebrew College, just over six years ago, I had participated in three presidential inaugurations.  Andover Newton Theological School’s was my fourth. The first three celebrated the inaugurations of new presidents at three very different institutions of higher learning. Each president, however, was a committed and active Jew. The fourth one, this past Sunday, October 5, 2014, was for me a completely new experience, and the only one in which I had a speaking role.

The first was the inauguration of Len Schlesinger as president of Babson College, a school that focuses on business and entrepreneurship in Wellesley, MA. I processed in academic regalia among the other college and university representatives and, having just taken the reins of Hebrew College, I had never before paraded in public as a college president.

The second inauguration was at Brandeis, a secular university under Jewish auspices celebrating the new presidency of Fred Lawrence. At that time, Fred Lawrence’s nephew, Rick, was a cantorial student at Hebrew College and I was privileged to teach him and sing with him.

The third inauguration took place last year in New York City and celebrated the new presidency of Rabbi Asher Lopatin as he took over the mantel of leadership of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, rabbinical seminary for open Orthodoxy. As I observed the ceremony, a moving and joyful event, I thought that if this yeshiva had existed 30 years ago, I would have likely chosen it for my own rabbinical education.

The fourth inauguration was completely different. It did not involve a Jew becoming president; it did not take place in a synagogue. It was celebrated in the historic Old South church, in Copley Square, the heart of Boston’s back bay.

What should I wear? The academic robe seemed more appropriate for me than clerical vestments, though for a moment I did contemplate wearing my Hasidic garb, bekishe and shtreimel. But I did want my attire to have a significant Jewish element, other than the medallion with the Hebrew College seal, so I chose to wear a large and somewhat ornate kippah that matched my presidential robe.

Standing at the pulpit of Old South Church, the first speaker in the inauguration ceremony, I faced a crowd of dignitaries, supporters, faculty and trustees of Andover Newton Theological School who had gathered to celebrate the inauguration of Martin Copenhaver as the new president of the oldest theological seminary in America. Hebrew College is an institutional neighbor to and partner with Andover Newton, and I was asked to begin the ceremony with a reading of an English adaptation of psalm 148. I read the psalm first in Hebrew since I was representing an institution in which Hebrew language is at the center of its academic tradition. I wondered if any other Protestant seminaries had begun a presidential inauguration with a recitation of a psalm in Hebrew and when was the last time a psalm was read in Hebrew in this church.

The ceremony followed the contours of a Protestant worship service, and for much of the ceremony I was more of a witness than a participant as I sat between my dear friend, Nick Carter, the president emeritus of ANTS, and Dr. Rev. Mary Luti, who gave an inspirational charge to the new president. Though I stood silently during the singing of hymns, I found myself deeply moved by the blessings, the music, and the various addresses given by religious leaders within and beyond Andover Newton.  I was a religious “other”, and yet in Martin’s passionate and compelling presidential oratory, the dignity and value of the religious “other” and Hebrew College, in particular, was given great significance as a focus of Andover Newton’s mission. In the program booklet’s last paragraph, part of an overview of Andover Newton’s history describing the relationship with Hebrew College reads:

For the last 13 years the staff and students of the newest Jewish seminary and the oldest Protestant seminary in the country have formed a pioneering interfaith partnership.

Martin spoke about the importance of hope, a central religious theme as Andover Newton renews its sacred mission. The national anthem of the Jewish State, Hatikvah (The Hope), came to my mind as I listened to his beautifully constructed and delivered sermon. This year Hebrew College and Andover Newton embody hope in our first joint appointment, an Islamic scholar who will help lead our joint Center for Inter-religious and Communal Leadership Education (CIRCLE). This coming December our two schools will celebrate the opening of a new dedicated space for the CIRCLE in the building used previously as the president’s house. This inauguration ceremony and the holy work we share gives me great hope in the future of both of our institutions and in the future religious leaders we educate.

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