Rabbi David Rosenn's Speech

On May 25th AVODAH honored Steven Koppel and Rabbi David Rosen during the New York Partners in Justice event. To read Steven Koppel's remarks click here.

Upon accepting his Partners in Justice award, these were David Rosenn's remarks:



Thank you Cara. Thank you so much.

I am very deeply moved to be introduced by, and surrounded by, and feel the power of the AVODAH community this evening.

There is something remarkable about wanting so desperately to locate yourself in a community of purpose and vision, to have that community focused on realizing its ideals, to have the ideals define the community…

And then to turn around a few decades later and see it there

Not big enough, not even close to accomplishing what it wants for the world, but definitely there, strong enough to be shaking things up, and full of enormous potential.

This is what I see when I look around the room tonight. This is what I’ve always seen. And it’s what I’ll continue to look for and want to help to build for as long as I am graced with time on this earth.

Building communities of moral courage and purpose is how I understand my work as a rabbi.

It’s not the only way to interpret the Torah’s charge that we should be a blessing, but it’s the way that has always called out to me most powerfully.

It also seems to me to be a vital task for the continuity not only of the Jewish people but also for the continued viability of free and democratic societies, which require a core of committed idealists who will work for what is best in society and, who through their work, provide a living response to the twin pitfalls of extremism on one hand and apathy on the other.

The immediate aim of AVODAH is to bring together people at a formative stage in their lives and to help them make a concrete difference on urgent social issues. That is itself inherently worthwhile.

I want to say that again – that all by itself – is inherently worthwhile.

But the much more important point for me of year of service is that it is often a defining experience for people; it shapes their lives over the long run, provides them with a fund of experience and inspiration that influences their choices about what to do and indeed who to be in their adult lives as professionals, as citizens, and as Jews.

The values that emerge from that experience are the classic Jewish values of commitment to the community and the greater good, hope and a willingness to act even in the face of daunting odds, and the courage and drive to pursue a vision of a better world even when it is possible to choose much easier paths.

People do not simply wind up with values like these. They have to be taught, and not just in the classroom. It’s my belief that the most powerful and influential moral formation happens when people experience in their own lives what it means when a community lives out its ideals, when it shows what it values not only in its words but also – and more so –  through its actions

I think we are living at a remarkable time for the Jewish community, a time when some of the institutions and ground rules of the twentieth century are giving way. And it is not at all clear what is coming in their place.

As I look around this room, full of people dedicated to finding a path of living in the world that is intensely but not exclusively Jewish, a path
that recognizes the value of rooting ourselves in who we are so that we can most powerfully live and work beyond the borders of ourselves;

When I look around this room and see people who understand that we are, in the words of Reverend King, “caught in an inescapable web of mutuality” – and who act not because the world needs to be saved but because we understand that our destinies are tied up with one another;

When I look around the room and I see people who know that cultivating their spiritual lives is part of what it will take to have the courage and endurance to lead audacious political lives;

When I look around the room and see this, I hope that *We* are what is coming next for both the Jewish community and the world.

Or to quote Barack Obama quoting Alice Walker quoting June Jordan, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

It’s daunting to think that we are it. Especially at the beginning of a century marked by terrorism, wars, epidemics, and a rapid succession of horrible natural disasters.

But if we are the ones who determine how we will respond to all of what we’ve inherited, then thank God it’s we and not I.

Because we, together, are capable of astonishing things.

This particular astonishing thing called AVODAH that we are here to support and celebrate, is very much a collective effort.

I feel honored to have had the opportunity to play a leadership role in shaping AVODAH, but it has been as group effort from day one.

It would be impossible for me to recognize and thank all of the people who have contributed over the years to making AVODAH what it is today, but there are a few people who I’d like to mention before I close.

In the very early days, we had a founding Board full of smart, passionate committed idealists without two nickels to rub together. I want to thank all of the members of the founding Board of AVODAH, and their successors, who thankfully, have grown in both number and capacity over the years.

This organization has been blessed with extraordinary volunteer leadership, I want to thank the members and chairs of AVODAH’s local advisory councils and the members and chairs of the national Board, especially two people who got more than they bargained for when they found themselves serving as Board chairs during the transition I recently caused, my remarkable co-honoree Steven Koppel whose term just ended, and his successor as Chair of AVODAH’s Board, Steven Dow.

We have enjoyed remarkable support over the years from a truly wide array of individuals and institutions. Please look in your program for the full list, but I want to single out two of the very first investors in AVODAH, grant makers whose willingness to see the potential in an idea with absolutely no track record and no proven leadership made it possible for us to run this experiment in the first place.

Those funders are Rachel Cowan who at the time was at the Nathan Cummings Foundation and Alisa Rubin Kurshan and her team at the UJA-Federation of New York. Thank you for seeing what I saw back then, and for giving us not only financial resources, but also the hekhsher of two very important and well-respected Jewish funders. Even 13 years later, I am enormously grateful for the opportunity you provided.

The field of Jewish service is only recently a field, and to my colleagues
at AJWS, JOI, JFSJ, PJA, JUFJ, and the entire alphabet soup of Jewish
service and social justice organizations, I feel deeply honored to have been together with you on the ground floor of something tremendously important and exciting.

In that context, it’s impossible for me not to mention the person with whom I have done my best collaborative work and whose partnership and friendship are sources of great inspiration and sustenance to me. Thank you Ruth Messinger for being an amazing Jewish service *hevruta*.

Next, I cannot describe the debt I owe to AVODAH’s exceptionally talented and dedicated staff.  I feel like I lived with you for the last 13 years of my life. What we built together, and what we learned through building it will stay with me for the rest of my life. What an honor to have worked with you. How proud I am to have you as my colleagues.

If you thought I was a good boss, it is in no small measure because I was
raised by loving and wise parents, who couldn’t always predict or figure out where I was headed but who taught my by their love and their wonderful example. Thank you mom and dad.

And anyone who has met Jennie knows that I married far above my station, and am exceptionally fortunate to have a spouse who loves and inspires me tremendously, and who is a true partner in every meaningful way. Ben, you have no idea how lucky you are.

Finally, I want to add my thanks to the staff from our worksites here in New York; the many activists and teachers who have devoted their time to teaching and training our Corps members;

And with very special warmth, To the dozens of AVODAH corps members and alumni who are here with us tonight.

Can you please stand?

Now stay standing because I need you to help me sing something, and I think you know what it is.

Everybody starts one time through with the chorus. Then New Orleans and NY people you take Saints. DC and Chicago take “this train” The staff and I will hold down the chorus.

All of the rest of you try to follow along or just clap really hard at the

“I want to sing, sing, sing…”

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