Sukkah Dinner Speech by Chancellor-elect Arnold Eisen

When you're a modern Jew and a scholar of modern Judaism, it's natural to try to take the lessons you learned from your life and have them reflected in the questions you take up in your scholarship, and to take the things you learned from your scholarship and apply them in your life. And then when you're a modern Jew and a scholar of modern Judaism and they give you the opportunity to lead one of the greatest modern Jewish institutions ever created, The Jewish Theological Seminary, you want to take the lessons you learned both from your life and from your scholarship and put them to work at an institution that is already great.

I want to talk about that for a few minutes. As you can imagine, it's an emotional high point for me to be addressing you as the chancellor–elect of JTS from inside the JTS sukkah, which I've heard about for many years and not actually sat in before. But I have to tell you that the holiday of Sukkot has come to mean a lot more to me than it ever did before I moved to California. It was there that I truly appreciated the meaning of Sukkot that I had come to understand from my scholarship in the field of modern Judaism: I had the experience for the first time of building a sukkah with my kids. And Sukkot means something else entirely when the sukkah is something that even a person of my meager accomplishments in the manual labor arena can put up every year, with my own hands. And I can do it with the help of my kids, after we forage for s'chach in the suburban streets of Palo Alto, always confident that, no matter how late the hour and no matter how well the gardeners have cleaned up before us, we will always find just enough to meet our needs. And then to have put up the sukkah ourselves and to stand there all together and decorate it means so much more than going to the premade sukkot in many of the synagogues of which we had been members. The connection between this and modern Judaism is as follows:

When you are living as a Jew in Palo Alto, even more than when you are living in Israel (which is where I had been immediately before Palo Alto, or on the Upper West Side, where I had lived six years before Israel), you understand the crucial importance of building a Jewish time and space for yourself and of decorating that Jewish time and space with the symbols of your tradition. Because if you don't build it for yourself, it's not going to be there. And it's all the more meaningful to you because you and your family have done it together and you're entertaining your friends, many of whom, Jewish and non–Jewish, have never before been inside a sukkah, and this is part of your holiday.

Now, a scholar of modern Judaism knows that the number–one challenge facing us all as Jews is that, unlike the premodern periods (where we lived mostly in tight neighborhoods—sometimes in ghettos—where we always knew from birth to the grave who we were, we were Jews and generally had no choice to be otherwise), in the modern world, thank goodness, we have the choice about what to be. We are moving for the first time really as full citizens of a larger gentile time and space. I'm not mourning the loss of the ghetto or the loss of the shtetl where Jewish options were constricted and Jews were generally very poor. I'm celebrating the blessings and the openness of the United States of America and the best of the modern world, more generally, and certainly the State of Israel. I'm celebrating this openness to the world, but it makes for a greater need than we ever had before to create Jewish times and spaces so we can remember and remind each other and pass on to the next generation who we are and what makes us distinctive.

And I love the fact about the sukkah that it's not legal unless it's open. Part of the sides have to be open, and the roof has to have a certain amount of openness. It can't be closed off, and it can't be permanent. It's got to be a temporary dwelling. You build it knowing you're going to take it down and move on to something else. All of the symbols of the sukkah, all the things that we know best from experience and not from books, all the things we learned from sitting as we are sitting right now inside a sukkah—these are the lessons that we need to learn as modern Jews. How we are going to create communities—communities of such togetherness, of such fellowship and such beauty that Jews want to be part of them, choose to be part of them, want to spend a significant portion of their lives sitting inside a literal and figurative Jewish sukkah? They'll do that only if the meanings that we provide them for being in this community (not just meanings and words, but meanings and emotions, meanings of love, and meanings of profound depth) if these meanings are so rich that they are hungry for more. They will want to experience, as it were, that sukkah again and again. They will want to come back for the blessing of sitting inside the sukkah of Jewish communities of meaning.

Our job at JTS is to be such a community of meaning, to make sure that for our faculty this is a true community that provides not only an academic salary and an academic setting, but also a place of meaning and depth where the work you do every day is related to the deepest sense of who you are. Our task is to make sure that this is true of our students, as well. That the students in our five schools can work with each other and experience a sense of community to a degree that we haven't achieved before. And finally our task at this moment is to make sure that the sukkah of community and meaning that we build here is open to the outside. That the winds that blow outside are going to affect us. It's our job to feel them and to respond to them. It's our job to be open and make sure that we bring people in, Jewish and non–Jewish, and that JTS reaches out to Jews and non–Jews and does things for America, for the Jewish people, for the Conservative Jewish Movement. We want to be a force that is active not only inside our sukkah. We want to be able to take the strength and the meaning and the beauty and the fellowship that we bring about from sitting together and extend it outwards and serve the constituencies that JTS is here to serve.

I can't think of a greater privilege than leading an institution like this, and I hope you all join me in the belief that supporting this institution, being a friend of this institution, being a part of the dreams that are nourished at this institution, and will be a source of meaning and beauty and community for you for years to come.

Welcome. Chag sameach.