In My Own Words: A wonderful ceremony with bittersweet overtones

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

One of the friends who accompanied me asked if I was going to put an article in the paper about the ceremony and I said there was going to be a one-inch “Of note” (see page 3) and maybe something for this column. She muttered something along the lines that I certainly could not be accused of self-aggrandizement. 

The ceremony in question was the annual graduation ceremony of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. I was there to receive an honorary doctor of divinity degree for 25 years of service to the Reconstructing Judaism Movement. When I received notice of the degree, I immediately accepted even though my rabbinate had not taken the path I originally visualized. I frequently joke, “Forget about having a plan B, I’m on plan H, I or J,” something that could also be filed under the Jewish saying, “Man plans and God laughs.” After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1977 and RRC in 1998 with health problems, I’ve worked to create a meaningful life, even if it is very different from what I thought it would be.

The weekend included two events: a dinner the night before the graduation at the house of Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of the movement and college, who graduated a year after me. The dinner was very nice: Deb lives not far from RRC, so we stopped by the school building first so my friends could see it. (And had my picture taken in front of it. Yes, there were lots of photos taken that weekend.) At the dinner, I had a chance to catch up with some people I know and meet others. Since the people receiving major awards weren’t going to speak at the ceremony the next day, they had a chance to tell of their journey with the movement. One explained why she became a Reconstrucionist, which reminded me of why discovering this branch of Judaism meant so much to me. When the former Temple Beth El of Endicott became Reconstructionist, I’d found my true place in Judaism as an adult.

The graduation ceremony was held in a beautiful Center City synagogue I’d never been in before. (During my school years, I lived in Montgomery County near RRC and there were numerous synagogues nearby. I became a member of a wonderful Reconstructionist one called Or Hadash.) The ceremony this year’s graduating students designed was beautiful and moving. Their different ages and interests show how the movement is meaningful to many people. But it was the D.D. awards that were the most emotional for me and the one other graduate from my year who was able to attend in person.

My graduation class had six members and, while some classes contain people who started at different times, we were together throughout our years at the school. One person no longer works as a rabbi and is not affiliated with the movement. A second was taking the degree in absentia so he was not there in person. And then the bittersweet part: two people were not with us because they’d passed away. They were given a different award to acknowledge the work they’d done over the years. One’s husband came to the ceremony, but the other’s wife was not there because his death was so recent. I was fortunate to have tissues with me since I needed one and passed a second to my classmate when Deb talked about our friends. In fact, she had to pause for a minute to be able to speak because she’d also known them.

What also struck me was a major difference between my original graduation ceremony and this one. My ordination ceremony had also been bittersweet: I was unable to hear anything that was being said during the ceremony. At that time, my hearing was fading and then returning: I never knew if I was going to be able to hear on any given day. While my fellow graduates were excited about their next steps and their new jobs, I was wondering if I would be able to find work. I realized that before my cochlear implant, I probably would have missed most of the recent ceremony. I didn’t understand everything, especially when a person wearing a mask spoke. (Lip reading still plays an important role in my being able to understand speech.) However, I heard and understood a large portion of what was said. 

So much of life can be bittersweet, or at least, so much of my life has been. Where I am lucky is that I live in a community that supports and helps me. The service at Temple Concord in May where I was honored by my community means as much, if not more, to me than receiving an honorary degree. They are the ones who make my rabbinate possible; they are the people who have supported my work at this paper. At that Friday night service, I noted that I have received more than I’ve given. I can only hope that whatever path the new RRC rabbis take, they find people who are as wonderful to support them.