Sara S. Lee: The Jewish Educator who Saved my Soul

By Paul Kipnes

Every year, as the High Holy Day season begins, I thank the Holy One for having brought Sara S. Lee, a gifted Jewish educator and a straight-talking organizational leader, into my professional life. Sara Lee’s wisdom and truth-telling  transformed what once was an anxiety-filled season of frenetic High Holiday scrambling into a more introspective period of thoughtful High Holy Day preplanning and ultimately deeper meaning.

Professor Sara Lee was a long time director of the Rhea Hirsch School of Jewish Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. She lives now in her beloved Boston. Sara Lee guided hundreds of future Jewish educators through a compact, life transforming process known as the Masters in Jewish Education degree. She took particular pride in taking young rabbinic students under her wing, and expanding our self-focused narrowness with broader visions and multiple perspectives. Many of us look at the RHSOE as the most transformational moment in our rabbinic school education. Most credit the program with preparing us to be able to do the work of leading the Jewish community. (I can tell from the high quality of my education interns that this fabulous preparation continues under visionary leadership of current director Miriam Heller Stern.)

I recall one High Holy Day season early in my rabbinic career. I was freaking out from the pressure of writing sermons, and equally frenetic about the impending opening of religious school. At HUC for some reason, I passed by Sara Lee’s office and she called me in. After explaining to her the reasons for the overwhelmed look on my face, and hearing her few words of encouragement, Professor Lee smiled and got right to the point.

She look me straight in the eye and said words that I will never forget. “You rabbis think that the world begins and ends with your High Holy Days. And they are important. As is the opening of your Religious School. But these Holy Days and school openings come around every single year. And very little is so unique to any specific year that you have to wait until last moment to craft your sermons or deal with the onslaught of last minute school registrants. Little is so unique that it can’t be addressed well ahead of time with  preplanning and thoughtful organizing.”

Sara Lee helped me realize then that the themes I might address in my Holy Day sermons should really be evident months before. Whatever specific events that occur between then and Rosh Hashana, even related to the always changing situation in Israel, could be dropped into a sermon written earlier. She further pointed out that every year at the last minute lots of our congregants are going to overwhelm our systems to sign up for religious school, or rush in to pick up their HHD tickets. Every year something will happen: someone’s need for another ticket, a thoughtless congregant bullying the staff, or a tragic death… and we as leaders will need to deal with it.

She said, “You know it’s going to happen. Year after year. So plan ahead. Organize your office; pre-hire extra temporary staff if needed. Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed and surprised by unsurprising situations.”

I try to take Sara Lee’s words to heart every year. I have been known to teach study sessions in the spring to help me gather the texts and organize my ideas for an upcoming Rosh Hashanah sermon. I have spent many a free afternoon in late June up at my faculty cabin at URJ Camp Newman writing a first draft of a Yom Kippur sermon. And at Congregation Or Ami, with the help of Rabbi Julia Weisz, my partner-rabbi who is also a RHSOE grad, we are getting better and better at anticipating the last minute rush and hiring and organizing for that reality.

Because of Sara Lee, I know I breathe much more easily in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah. I am not as thrown when a funeral comes along that upends my scheduled preparation time. I am more open to my congregants when they approach me during what is our busiest season because their hearts and minds are opening up and they need to talk to their Rabbi. I want to be there for them especially.

So I thank Sara Lee, who along with her successor as director Michael Zeldin, and then professors William Cutter and Isa Aron, took this baby rabbi and helped me pull up my “big boy pants” become the Jewish leader I needed to be.

Truth be told, I still fill up with anxious energy, and I will forever be editing (and sometimes writing) sermons last minute still. But I also have been known to drive over to Home Depot a day before Rosh Hashana to buy parts for a project that “can’t wait” or to write this blogpost on Erev Erev Rosh Hashana.

All because one Jewish educator had the chutzpah to talk truth to perceived power, on the morning before these High Holy Days the soul of this not-so-baby rabbi soars again.

Thank you Sara Lee. L’shana tova tikateivu.

This article is reprinted with permission from Rabbi Paul Kipnes’ blog

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