This Sunday witnessed a remarkable gathering of colleagues, friends, and family at my alma mater, The Jewish Theological Seminary (known more widely by its acronym as “JTS”) in New York City. Known to the invitees as a Convocation for the awarding of 46 Doctor of Divinity degrees upon those alumni of the Rabbinical School who had served the Conservative movement and the wider Jewish community for 25-30 years, this assemblage portrayed all of the emotional hallmarks of a glorified reunion of classmates who had shared the rigors of study, dialogue, debate, and spiritual discovery for half a decade - arguably the most formative years of our lives.
As I gazed at the keepsake certificate of “Doctor of Divinity honoris causa” upon my return home on Sunday night, I pondered the meaning of this title, often reserved for graduation ceremonies … Honoris Causa (Latin), literally ‘for the sake of honor’. … The Doctorate Honoris Causa is the highest distinction an academic institution gives a person in recognition of his/her career in the academic, scientific or cultural fields, of his/her values, as well as his/her special link with the institution (Source: University of Valencia).
The biggest joke shared among recipients of this degree is that its abbreviation “D.D.” might also be interpreted by the shared alliteration of “Didn’t Die,” a poke at how we all survived in the field, in light of the perils of community leadership. The lead speaker at our Convocation addressed this melancholy habit right out front, and suggested instead that the award be re-couched as a celebration of what we “Did Do.” Later, the fellow recipient who was selected to give the acceptance speech supplemented that attitudinal flair by embellishing not only what we have done with our lives, but all that we have left to achieve, punctuating his reflection by stating that we might very well yet have the best of our fulfillments ahead of us.
As each celebrant was called to receive the award, one of the presiding members of the Seminary administration addressed us with a concise snapshot of our accomplishments since ordination. I listened with great enthusiasm to the amazing contributions that my friends have made -- and continue to make in their respective spheres of inspiration -- imagining if and how we could have predicted such feats as graduate students in the 1980s.
My fifty-second resume read as follows:
Rabbi Gerson, you provided spiritual leadership to congregations in New Jersey and Colorado and taught in Denver Jewish Day School for 25 academic years. Your community leadership included two terms as President of the Rocky Mountain Rabbinical Council. Beyond this work, your discovered a passion for community organizing and building mutual understanding across communities that has defined you among your colleagues.
As I revelled in the atmosphere of joy and fulfillment, tinged with the reality of how life in the rabbinate has made its physical marks upon each of us (although, I would argue, some of my colleagues look even more youthful than they did on the day we graduated), I came to the realization that the day we finished at the academy was in fact the first day of our actual schooling in the world of real life. My scholarship is but a measure of my accumulated worth as I look back nearly 29 years later. For me, in particular, this was all about Denver, and the myriad of mentors, congregants, students, affinity groups, and fellow faith leaders who have shaped me into the Rabbi I am (or, at least, the Rabbi who I was when I retired from the pulpit a short time ago). As the training school lends knowledge and license, the professional environment bestows distinction. While JTS gauged my D.D. according to the sheer passage of time, the spaces between the words on the certificate reveal the deep, two-way connections forged between myself and so many of you who are reading this piece.
Cheers to what we “Did Do” … for the sake of my honor.