Guided by mentors, Caitlin Brazner prepares to carry the flame forward, l’dor vador

By Student Rabbi Caitlin Brazner

Student Rabbi Caitlin Brazner will conduct the final Shabbat service of her UHC term at 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 21, 2021.

My journey to rabbinical school began with a meaningful conversation with my mentor, Rabbi Educator Vicki L. Tuckman, zichrona livracha.

After a great day working alongside Vicki at URJ Camp Harlam, a Jewish summer camp in Kunkletown, Pa., we found ourselves sitting on her cabin porch around midnight as the stars rose over the Mahoning Valley.

I still remember her exact words: “You’re going to be a rabbi — you just don’t know it yet.”

I still remember her exact words: “You’re going to be a rabbi — you just don’t know it yet.”

I laughed it off; a well-intentioned but incorrect prediction, I thought.

Eight years later, as I wrap up my fourth year of rabbinical school, it would seem an “I told you so” may be in order.

A truth lies dormant within us

Parker Palmer writes in The Courage to Teach, “The power of our mentors … is in their capacity to awaken a truth within us, a truth we can reclaim years later by recalling their impact on our lives.”

My mentor, Vicki, planted a seed in my mind and heart that sprouted years later, when I was ready to acknowledge and accept that wisdom.

Her personal interest and insight into my own Jewish journey did, in fact, “awaken a truth” within me. Her mentorship and advice, though she has since passed, still guides me.

Palmer’s understanding of the power of mentors rings true.

Today, I find myself blossoming into the truth that Vicki envisioned for me, which makes my rabbinical journey that much more special, and bittersweet.

Jewish tradition follows an unbroken chain

To be Jewish is to be part of an unbroken chain that spans thousands of years. Ours is a tradition of storytelling and torch-bearing; roots are important to us.

Ariel Sabar beautifully captures this sentiment in his book My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq.

He writes: “My son’s birth was … a stark reminder of continuity, that we are who we come from as much as who we make of ourselves. Jews had carried a flame into the hills of Kurdistan, and they carried it out, still burning, 2,700 years later.

We are part of a moving, evolving, continuing chain that connects us to Jews in all places, spaces and times.

“My father touched another candle to it and brought it across continents. I didn’t want it to die with me. If my children ever feel adrift, unsure of who they are, I want that candle to still be burning.”

My parents carried that flame, as did Vicki. From their candles I lit my own.

And when I came (virtually) to Terre Haute, I carried that flame here, to this historic community where you have proudly kindled your own flames.

Judaism is rooted in the concept of l’dor vador — “from generation to generation.”

We are part of a moving, evolving, continuing chain that connects us to Jews in all places, spaces and times.

We have made authentic memories in virtual space

I am honored to have served this community, to have learned and grown here, to be one of the many generations of student rabbis who have served this pulpit.

When I think back on the short year we’ve spent together online, many memories come to mind: singing together on Shabbat (muted and unmuted!), lighting the Hanukkah candles, celebrating the fun of Purim with our spiel, a wonderful virtual seder with many family and friends.

We have lived in Jewish time together, celebrated and enjoyed the warmth and light of this special community.

We have lived in Jewish time together, celebrated and enjoyed the warmth and light of this special community.

We have also supported one another in difficult times, lending a hand and keeping each other in our thoughts and hearts as we’ve faced pandemic, isolation and loss. The family you have built here is a strong one. It’s one you can be proud of and that I am so very thankful to have joined.

Thank you for a meaningful year

This month, as we move through our Torah cycle, we will hear v’ahavta lereiacha kamocha — “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

Since my arrival at UHC you have shown me great love and mentorship.

You have become my teachers; you have helped me continue carrying the flame that shines brighter for your encouragement and guidance.

When I think back on what Vicki did for me, it is much the same. The impact she made on my life was profound. She helped me to love Judaism and feel loved by Judaism.

Now it is my turn to do the same for others, informed by the lessons I have gleaned and beautiful memories I have created here alongside you.

Thank you so very much for a meaningful year.

Shalom aleichem — may peace be upon you all — and l’hitra’ot — a very hopeful “see you all soon!”

Student Rabbi Caitlin Brazner served UHC Terre Haute during the second half of the 2020-21 academic year.

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