March 26, 2023

We are Responsible for Each Other

By Shulamit Reinharz

HBI Director Shulamit Reinharz accepted an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters on May 31 from Hebrew College. Here are her acceptance remarks:

 Several years ago, I had the privilege of meeting and speaking with the Dalai Lama. At one point he asked me, “Shula, the Jewish people were exiled from their homeland 2,000 years ago, yet they never have forgotten where they came from. My people were exiled from Tibet in 1950 and I fear most of them have already forgotten their origins. How were the Jews able to remember?”

I took a deep breath and answered, “Your Holiness, our secret is that we don’t have a Dalai Lama. Instead, each Jew is responsible for all the other Jews.”

For me, the operative word here is responsible. In my opinion, an important yet typically unstated aspect of an honorary degree is to confer responsibility upon its recipient. Receiving this honor from Hebrew College led me to think about another familiar message about responsibility: “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

This famous saying from Pirkei Avot led me to the question, “Which tasks have I begun that I am responsible to continue?” Here is my one-and-one-half minute answer.

First, I feel responsible to follow the suggestion of Natan Sharansky who said that we should never ask someone to make aliyah, but rather we should make Israel so wonderful that Jews will want to flock there. Through the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, we have created countless opportunities for researchers, activists and artists to work in Israel.

What else? I feel responsible to remember what Blu Greenberg said when I asked her if there would ever be a female orthodox rabbi. She said, “Where there is a will, there is a halachic way.” Anything is possible. I have devoted much of my energy to understanding Jewish women and gender relations in history and to advancing the options for women in Judaism. I am committed to continuing this work for women in general.

And what other task do I need to continue? I remember what my father – a Holocaust survivor – told me, when I asked him shortly before he died, “What is the most important thing you want me to remember about the Holocaust?” He responded, “Remember that there are good people in the world.” What he was referring to was the fact that for each person who survived – as he and my mother did – there was at least one good person who helped. In their case, there were many good people who risked their lives to save my parents. I view it as my responsibility to write a book about my father, sharing this message. And I have started.

And what’s the final item on my current to-do list? Both my mother and father received graduate degrees in Hebrew language and literature. Their love of the Hebrew language is something they passed on to me. As my friend and chavruta partner, Chabad Shaliach Peretz Chein told me, “If Hebrew withers, we will lose touch with the Torah, and it will be difficult to sustain ourselves as the Jewish people.” I have tried hard to master the language, to give my children a Hebrew education, and through various initiatives to encourage American Jews to learn Hebrew.

So, I thank Hebrew College, and particularly its president, Rabbi Danny Lehman and the Hebrew College board, for this honor with its implicit message – I may have taken the first steps, but my work is not done. Todah rabah.

shula2015Shulamit Reinharz, founder and director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, is the Jacob Potofsky Professor of Sociology and director of the Women’s Studies Research Center.



  1. Beautiful. And don’t forget to learn Yiddish too.

  2. 6:30 a.m. This is very moving.

  3. Dalia Wassner says:

    Mazal Tov again, Shula. Your speech, as your work, is so inspiring. xo, Dalia

  4. Steve Whitfield says:

    Very nice done and conveyed, Shula!

  5. It occurred to me as I read your piece that another quality which has strengthened Jewish survival is our continuting curiosity about the world and its peoples, an ability to listen for wisdom and incorporate it in our own framework. Your lovely article ememplifies this so beautifully. Thank you Shula.
    p.s. I still remember the fun we had doing that interview/book event down in the Palm Beach, Florida area some years back.

  6. Louise Lopman says:

    “We Are Responsible for Each Other” is a global message that could change the world. Thank you, Shula, for sending it. Mazel Tov for the Honorary Degree!

  7. Reina Rutlinger- Reiner says:

    Another aspect special to the Jewish people : their openness to new ideas. On the surface – one many think that the statement “Hadash asur min Hatora” (it is forbidden to innovate) is applied rigidly in many Jewish circles . Nevertheless history has shown that throughout the ages new approaches and ideas have been adopted successfully , enrichening our culture. These have widened and deepened our Jewish existence and understandings.
    Shula- you represent this attitude . You believe that new ideas must be heard and supported in order to create ‘a change ‘ and that is admirable. .

  8. Margaret Fearey says:

    Todah rabah to you, Shula, for your thoughtful remarks. May we all clarify & fulfill our responsibilities to our communities, our families and ourselves.

  9. Lori B. Gans says:

    What an inspiring and meaningful piece, Shula! Thanks so much for sharing it, and mazel tov on this most deserved honor!

  10. Liliane Targownik says:

    Thank you, Shula, and Mazal Tov! This is a wonderful and moving text.
    (May be we could also advise the Dalai Lama to create some Holidays and connect them to food?)

  11. Helene Aylon says:

    Shula dear,
    More and more I realize your accomplishments which grow by the years in leaps and bounds:
    You have brought out the best in the women you teach and learn from;
    You are a true sister who raises Sisterhood to new heights in new ways.
    I am wanting to read the personal book you are now writing about your father.
    May you continue in good health, striving in your very own way.

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