The High Holy Days are upon us, a time for Jews to reflect and to atone for any wrongs they’ve committed. During my time at Yale, the Jewish holidays felt incomplete without the presence of Yale’s leader in Jewish life. For over 30 years, Rabbi James Ponet has been the Jewish chaplain at Yale, and has inspired generations of Yalies with his unending, compassionate wisdom.
Last month, news reached students and alumni that Ponet will retire at the end of a yearlong sabbatical he will begin in January. On a recent visit to my alma mater, I made sure to stop by the Slifka Center to catch up with my former mentor, whose vigilant dedication to helping students made a strong impact on my time at Yale.
His role in my college life had gone beyond the call of duty. When I was growing up, I never had the opportunity to undergo the most important event in a young Jew’s life: a bar mitzvah. Then, one night during the fall semester of my freshman year, my friend dragged me to Shabbat dinner at Slifka. My stubbornness caused us to be late to the festivities, and by the time we arrived, the only seats left were at the “adult table.” There I met Rabbi Ponet for the first time as he broke challah for me.
I grew up without a Jewish community around me, and had always felt ostracized from those sharing my faith. However, sitting next to Rabbi Ponet, I sensed the warm and inviting nature of the culture at my table. By the end of the meal, I had built up the courage to ask Rabbi Ponet if it was still possible for me to have a bar mitzvah.
I took free Hebrew classes at the Slifka Center and met with Rabbi Ponet regularly to discuss reading material that he provided. On April 25, 2009, with family and friends in attendance, I had my bar mitzvah outside on the Slifka Center veranda. It was a beautiful spring day. It was also the first bar mitzvah ever conducted at Yale. For the first time ever, I felt I was a part of the Jewish community.
Since then, I’ve returned to Rabbi Ponet’s office to grab some tea and advice. My recent visit was no exception. We caught up briefly. He spoke about plans for his sabbatical and I described my first year at medical school in Chicago. At one point, I expressed my desire to foster candid, compassionate conversations, just as we were currently having, with my future patients. I told him I didn’t want to become desensitized to the plights of others, even as my career advances.
Just as he did during those many meetings freshman year, Rabbi Ponet sprang into action and saved me from entering a sand trap of concern. Compassion fatigue, he explained, is something people claim to experience after long-term exposure to the misfortune seen in others. However, Ponet told me, compassion begets compassion.
He described the phenomenon using a story from the Midrash, an important book in Judaism. In the story, one man believed that using his candle to light that of another man might diminish the brightness of his own flame. But just as we know that lighting another candle actually creates more light, we should also know that interacting with others in a compassionate manner does not deplete our compassion. In fact, it inspires more compassion. I thanked him for the lesson, and in return, he thanked me for helping him remind himself of that important story.
I left Rabbi Ponet’s office feeling lighter than when I entered, a sensation that reminded me of my college days. Mentors like him have an important place on Yale’s campus. They fulfill their job’s obligations and then continue to work by shaping young students into compassionate citizens. In turn, we pay their compassion forward in our own actions.
Thank you, Rabbi Ponet, for the years of service to the Yale community. Your words have inspired countless students and your contributions to Jewish life on campus have been invaluable. I urge students and alumni to reflect on a career dedicated to promoting compassion. Just as one candle has given light to countless young Yalies, those inspired people will continue to spread compassion for years to come.
Adam Weiner is a 2012 graduate of Silliman College.