President's Letter on the Year-in-Israel Program - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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President's Letter on the Year-in-Israel Program

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Friday, March 1, 2002

March 14, 2002 
1 Nisan 5762

Dear HUC-JIR Community,

I write to you with a heavy heart - not because of the decision I recently made to compress the formal instruction offered in our Year-in-Israel Program for the current academic year with the onset of Passover vacation. Rather, I am sad because the cumulative effect of events in Jerusalem and the Middle East during these past nine months necessitated such a measure on our part. I remain convinced that it was the correct decision to make.

HUC-JIR is unique among all North American seminaries in that the College-Institute alone makes a first year of study in Israel absolutely mandatory for continuation in our cantorial, education, and rabbinic programs. Students are not permitted to substitute another year of study in Israel for the first year, nor does our policy allow students to maintain matriculation in our North American courses of study should they elect to withdraw from our Israel program before the end of the first academic year.

Our sixty-two first year students in our Year-in-Israel program have been in Jerusalem since June. For nine months our women and men have studied Hebrew and a wide array of subjects linked to their future vocations as klei kodesh (Holy vessels) for the Jewish people, and they have experienced the existential reality of what it means to be part of the Jewish people in our reborn Jewish State. I am proud of each and every one of them, and I know personally how devoted and loyal they all are to the State of Israel and their course of study as future Jewish leaders.

Throughout this entire academic year, the College-Institute family and I have been mindful that we have dual obligations in providing this Year-in-Israel Program to our students. On the one hand, there is an absolute commitment to the academic integrity of the course of study offered in Jerusalem. There must be a positive educational and learning environment for our students. At the same time, the Zionist commitment of HUC-JIR to the State of Israel can brook no compromise. In light of the events of the past year in Israel and the Middle East, balancing these two concerns has not been easy.

My own concern for and support of this program as the initial year for the educational experience of our stateside programs had caused me to come to Jerusalem four times this year prior to March. In July and again in August, I was with our students as they began their course of study, and I returned in October to offer continued encouragement to our students in this program as well as to ordain two of our Israeli students who had completed their ordination requirements in our Israeli Rabbinic Program. I came to Israel again in December to indicate my ongoing solidarity and concern for our Jerusalem students after the tragic bombing in the heart of Jerusalem on November 29th, and I was in Israel for eight days this past week to attend the CCAR Convention as well as to provide continued support for all our students in both the Israeli and Year-in-Israel Programs of the College-Institute.

Over the last few months it became clear to me, both through reports transmitted to me by the Jerusalem staff and faculty as well as through my own observations of and dialogues with a number of students, that a significant proportion of the student body was showing signs of fatigue and stress. The constant sounds of bombings and the restriction of safety zones where students could feel secure had caused many of them to complain of sleep deprivation while others felt they simply could not study. During the week of March 5th it was clear that the violence in the State as well as Jerusalem itself had escalated to an unprecedented level, and matters were brought to a head with the foiled bombing of Kafit on Emek Refaim on March 7th and the terrible tragedy at Cafe Moment in Rechavia on Saturday night. It was now obvious that a sizeable number of students in our Year-in-Israel Program had come incrementally to the point where they were unable to focus on their academic work and the integrity of the program itself was clearly in jeopardy. For these reasons, as well as an imminent two-week vacation, my Administration and I decided to end the formal instructional part of our academic year with the onset of the Passover vacation on March 24, 2002.

The academic year itself will end on May 21st as planned and students are expected to complete all academic requirements for their specific program prior to that date. Each student has the option to remain in Jerusalem to finish the work of this academic year or he/she may travel to the Diaspora to complete her/his studies for this year. That choice has now been placed in the hands of each student. For the student who elects to stay in Jerusalem, a non-graded course of instruction will continue and our Jerusalem staff and faculty will provide options for the duration of the academic year. For example, a tour to the Negev scheduled for next week will take place as planned and twenty-three students under the direction of our faculty member Paul Liptz intend to tour Poland in the near future. Students who choose to complete their course requirements outside of Israel will each have a mentor. We ask that rabbis and others support and tutor them as they fulfill their assignments through the use of e-mail, faxes, video conferencing, and phone calls under the supervision of the Jerusalem advisor who will oversee the work of each one.

I would be remiss in closing if I did not offer a special word of thanks and gratitude to our Provost Norman Cohen as well as to our Jerusalem Dean Michael Marmur for their help in arriving at this decision. The integrity and level-headedness of Norman Cohen and his passion and love for our students and the State of Israel make him an ideal partner for me in our joint efforts on behalf of the College-Institute and the Jewish people. HUC-JIR simply could not fulfill its mission without him. Michael Marmur is an extraordinary human being by any standard. His love of Zion, his intelligence, his humor, and his grace are all devoted to the service of the College-Institute and the welfare of our students and the excellence of our academic offerings. The College-Institute is blessed by his presence and we are fortunate beyond measure that such a man is Dean of our Jerusalem School. To both of them, I express my gratitude.

There is the Hebrew expression, Kol hathalot kashot - all beginnings are difficult, that is known to every speaker of our people's tongue. I would conclude by amending the Hebrew and assert, Kol hahlatot kashot - all significant decisions are difficult. This was not an easy decision to make but I do take full responsibility for it.

The College-Institute looks forward to greeting its entering class of students in Israel this summer and plans for the 2002-2003 academic year will be announced in the near future. I wish all of you well and pray that somehow the logic of peace will prevail over the destructiveness of hate for both Israelis and Palestinians speedily in our day.

Bavirkat hag kasher vasameah - with warmest greetings for a meaningful Passover holiday, I am,


Rabbi David Ellenson

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.