The Inspiration and Meaning of the Prize

by Rabbi Rachel Cowan

Senior Fellow, Institute for Jewish Spirituality, New York

The ordination ceremony is a significant and emotional moment in the lives of the young men and women who sit each year in the awe-inspiring sanctuary of Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York, poised between the conclusion of their seminary studies and their official recognition as rabbis and cantors. 

They worked hard to learn a wide range of texts, skills, and practices. They experienced tragedy and joy in the lives of congregants they met while serving as student interns along with the unruly behavior in the Hebrew Schools where they taught. They have known professional models that inspired them, and some that frightened them. They are now about to step into roles of responsibility, where they will be expected to spend more hours than they actually will have on their leadership tasks, and to be present at all moments for their congregants, their colleagues, their partners, and their children. They do not yet know fully how challenging is the vocation they have embraced. They are excited, nervous, relieved, proud, insecure, and joyful. 

These are the minds and souls listening to the words of the speaker chosen to receive the Roger E. Joseph Prize. They pray they will have the courage and faith to pursue justice and teach Torah in the years ahead. They are searching for inspiration and role models. 

I remember clearly sitting in one of those seats on the morning of my ordination, in May 1989. I drank in the words of Madame Vu Thanh Thuy, a courageous Vietnamese refugee who had fled her country for Thailand. Later, after several aborted attempts, she took off in a leaky boat with her family, drifting at sea, forced to land on a deserted island to escape pirates. Once they finally made it to the United States, she and her husband founded the Boat People SOS Committee, which helped to rescue 3,000 other people and worked to raise awareness of the endangered boat people and to aid in their resettlement in the United States. 

She told us that as she was hiding on the island, she remembered Anne Frank, whose book she had read at the age of 16, and found in it the courage and hope to keep going on her dangerous mission. We all had tears in our eyes, and we all knew that we would bring her words and those of Anne Frank into our hearts and into our work. 

As I look at the list of Prize recipients, whose stories are detailed in this wonderful book, I know that each year the ordinees took their words and infused their work with their messages. 

Twenty-two years later, I found myself sharing the pulpit with the 2011 Prize winner, Rabbi Levi Lauer of Jerusalem, a pioneer of creative, action oriented Jewish education, who—in the footsteps of so many others—spoke movingly to the fledgling rabbis and cantors. 

As the Ordination Speaker, thinking of the careers ahead of them, I talked about the challenges and opportunities of their leadership:

You don’t have to be Golda Meir or Gandhi or Martin Luther King. But you do have to try to be your most authentic, courageous, and inspiring self; to trust your heart and keep opening it wider; to be generous, compassionate, patient, collaborative, thoughtful; to be grounded in texts that speak to your lives and those of your people; to speak of God in your authentic way, in terms that help your people overcome their alienation and find a Jewish link to the transcendent; to have the equanimity that can embrace paradox and can welcome conflicting opinions; to speak wisely and help others end this dreadful scourge of turning political differences into personal attacks; to be able to hold the terrible grief of those who suffer in your communities without becoming traumatized yourself, so you can celebrate with true joy the simchas of others, and come home with full attention to your families. 

And, finally, to make a difference you must both embrace your power and cultivate humility. Power is not a dirty word. It does not diminish your capacity to serve as a pastor, a teacher, a prayer leader. To use it wisely, you need to understand what are the qualities and sources of your particular power, to connect with your vision, to work on the quality of humility so you do not confuse your ego’s needs with your community’s needs, to find the ways to link wisdom and courage. 

I believe that the recipients of the Roger E. Joseph Prize were role models of this kind of leadership. They are people who lived their lives according to the words of the prophet Micah. They were able to “love goodness, do justice, and walk humbly with our God.”