Rabbi David Ellenson's Letter from Jerusalem - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Rabbi David Ellenson's Letter from Jerusalem

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Monday, September 2, 2002

August 21, 2002
13 Elul 5762

Dear HUC-JIR Community:

As I write these words I am sitting at Ben-Gurion Airport preparing to return to the United States. This is my seventh trip during the fourteen months since I became President, and the second time this summer. I need not report what the sad conditions have been that have necessitated my taking so many journeys to the Jewish State so that I could be with our students and lend the moral support of my office to those at our Jerusalem campus - both Israeli and American.

Each trip is different, and I have found that each one takes on a character all its own. In July, I flew to Israel to meet with sixteen of our entering North American cantorial, education, and rabbinical students and their spouses/significant others who had come to Jerusalem to enroll in a summer ulpan offered at our Israeli campus. I also taught at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Givat Ram campus of Hebrew University, as well as at the Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem. Teaching stints allowed me to renew my friendship with many of my academic colleagues in both Israel and the Diaspora and permitted me to enter the classroom for which I must admit I occasionally still pine. I had the opportunity to host our HUC-JIR students on more than one occasion, and was able to spend private time with my son, Micah, who is in Israel this year as part of his education at the University of Judaism. Jerusalem was quite peaceful during this entire period, and I loved being with our students, Micah, as well as our Israeli friends.

This August visit has been dissimilar from the one last month in many ways. The bombing at the Mt. Scopus Campus of Hebrew University, at the end of July was devastating in every way. The loss of life and the destruction that occurred in this oasis of civility and learning in the desert of conflict that currently surrounds both Palestinians and Israelis could not leave untouched the hearts of anyone concerned with the State of Israel today. This bombing had a direct impact upon many persons within the HUC-JIR community.

In the week following this explosion, eighteen of our entering first year North American students joined seven others who had decided previously elected to defer for this year the requirement to study in Israel. With this growth in the number of students who elected to study stateside, the Administration was compelled to rethink the plans the College-Institute had previously announced concerning the stateside study alternative that the Board of Governors had approved in June. Many hours were spent during the first week of August deciding how this stateside option could best be put into effect for these twenty-five students. Our primary concern was to provide these students with the best possible academic program. After extended conversations, it was determined that the unity of the class and the integrity of their educational course of study could be maintained most efficiently and effectively by having the five entering students in the School of Sacred Music enroll in the New York campus, and the twenty entering students in the Rabbinical School enroll in Cincinnati. The time period during which this decision was made understandably created anxiety and confusion among a great many of these students and their families. However, as persons preparing for careers of leadership among the Jewish people, these students displayed an expected maturity and patience that allowed them to respond with great flexibility to this unprecedented situation in the life of the College-Institute. This decision to hold the stateside option for rabbinical students in Cincinnati and cantorial students in New York was finalized only moments before I boarded a plane at Kennedy on August 12th for Israel, where I was scheduled to meet on August 14th with forty-one entering students who elected to fulfill their Year-in-Israel requirement in Jerusalem this year.

It was against this backdrop that Chair of the Board of Governors, Burton Lehman, Vice Chair, Fred Lane, and former Chair, Richard Scheuer and I arrived in Israel during the week of August 12th to greet these students and their families. From the moment we met with them and their loved ones, it was apparent to all of us that their morale, as well as that of our Israeli students and staff was extremely high. Among the entering students, four are preparing for a career in education, three are cantorial students, and thirty-four are enrolled in the rabbinical program. Seven of them are forty-five or older, and a number came with their spouses/significant others, and children. These students and their families want very much to be in Israel at this time, and Dean Michael Marmur and Associate Dean Shaul Feinberg, our Jerusalem staff and faculty - especially Director of Student Services, Rose Ginosar and Lecturer on Israeli Studies, Paul Liptz - have made extraordinary efforts to ease the transition of these students into Israel.

In addition, a great many of our current thirty Israeli students enrolled in our Israel Rabbinic Program, as well as all sixteen of the entering North American students who were already in Jerusalem did everything in their power to welcome all "the newcomers" who came last week. These students met the newly-arriving students at Ben-Gurion and hosted and oriented them throughout their first days in Israel. The spirit of community that has already been established among these people is palpable and will surely stand the entire HUC-JIR/Jerusalem community in good stead during the days ahead.

The days in Jerusalem were full ones. On the morning of August 14th, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert took a full hour of his time and greeted the students in a warm and fulsome manner at breakfast. He candidly acknowledged the dangers that currently exist in Jerusalem. At the same time, he spoke appreciatively to the students of their decision to be with their Israeli brothers and sisters, and the Mayor stated that their stay in Jerusalem this year would contribute immeasurably to their growth as Jewish religious leaders. His words were inspiring and direct, and the students gave him a standing ovation. We were honored by his presence, for a second year in a row, and surely hope this will become an annual part of our Israeli orientation program.

A religious service was then held. Shaul Feinberg and Director of the Cantorial Program, Eli Schleifer, conducted the prayers, and the words of welcome and support several of our Israeli rabbinical students offered to their North American counterparts were surely a highlight of the service. The unity that marks HUC-JIR and our multi-national Israeli and Diasporan student body could not have been more evident than it was on that morning.

Following services, the class gathered together and Michael Marmur and I had the opportunity to greet these students individually. Burt Lehman, Fred Lane, and Dick Scheuer then each addressed all of the students and their families. Burt told the students how appreciative and inspired he was by the decision they had made to serve the Jewish people, and he congratulated them on their deciding to become cantors, educators, and rabbis. He movingly pledged that the Board would do all in its power to support and assist the students at this point as well as throughout their years of study . Fred then offered a touching homily that spoke of the "magic" that marks the rising of the sun in Jerusalem even during these trying and difficult days, and Dick recounted the extensive history of the College-Institute in Jerusalem. During the remainder of the day, there was ample time for an informal lunch and many conversations,

In the early evening, a reception was held in the Presidential Residence for staff, faculty, the Board of Overseers and several leaders of the Israeli Reform Movement, including Rabbi Uri Regev, leader of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and dear friend. Later that evening, a number of us went for dinner in a crowded restaurant on Emek Refaim in the German Colony, and we were especially happy to have Yoni Regev, who arrived in army uniform on leave for several days from his current military service, join us in mid-meal. I am happy to report that restaurants are crowded, and the meal was pleasant and leisurely.

On the following day, virtually the entire morning and early afternoon was spent reviewing security arrangements at our Jerusalem campus. The Jerusalem Administration brought in a team of security experts to discuss our situation. Burt and Fred viewed every part of the campus in an extensive guided tour that was arranged for precisely this purpose. A number of steps to upgrade the security arrangements have already been made, and more are contemplated in the next few days.

The saddest and most moving moment of the trip came on Thursday afternoon. Burt, Fred, Michael, and I went to the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in the Talpiyot section of Jerusalem to fulfill the mitzvah of nihum aveilim B the commandment of Acomforting mourners.@ Pardes is an exceptional institution that has been providing a rigorous study of classical Jewish texts in a modern Orthodox and genuinely open environment for over twenty-five years. Over fifty of our HUC-JIR alumni have studied extensively at Pardes over the years, and I myself served as the first Blaustein Faculty Scholar during the 1997-1998 academic year. The head of Pardes, Rabbi Daniel Landes, is a man of exceptional knowledge and sensitivity whose love for Klal Yisrael is genuine and unmatched by virtually anyone I know. I have been his friend for over two decades. The Chair of the Pardes Board, Ruth Cummings Sorenson, is also a very close personal friend, and she was on hand to meet us as well.

Pardes is of course now deeply engaged in a period of mourning, as two of its students who were enrolled in a joint Pardes-Hebrew University program in Jewish education, were murdered in the Hebrew University bombing on July 31st. Michael had arranged for Burt, Fred, me, and himself, to visit Pardes so that we could express our personal condolences and sympathy as well as affirm the solidarity we feel for Pardes at this moment of overwhelming and unbearable pain. Rabbi Landes, Ruth, and two other members of the Pardes family received us appreciatively and with great warmth, and we all spoke quietly and intimately for an hour about the events of the past two weeks. Rabbi Landes indicated that he had co-officiated with our colleague Rabbi Martin Lawson of Temple Emanuel of San Diego, at the funeral of Pardes student Marla Bennett, a member of the Temple who was murdered and whose words of devotion and commitment to Israel and the Jewish people have been published in The New York Times and elsewhere these last weeks.

I have had the opportunity previously to comment on the devotion and concern that the members of our Board have for our students and the College-Institute, and it is not my intention to embarrass any of the lay leaders that I have mentioned in this letter by extolling them unduly in public. However, each time I actually bear personal witness to the care and commitment these persons display for our school and for the Jewish people I am moved and grateful, and I recall the words of the medieval Babylonian Geonic prayer that calls upon God to offer special blessings to those who toil on behalf of the community. I can only say once more that HUC-JIR is privileged to have such people as its lay directors, and I thank the Holy One each day for the good fortune that is given our Administration to work with such persons on behalf of the Jewish people.

The High Holidays are of course fast approaching and I am reminded as I conclude this letter how delusional it is to believe that life can somehow be set into pre-established patterns. I am aware every moment that while our Tradition teaches that our human responsibility is absolute, experience indicates that our ability to control events is at best partial. Yet, God continues to call upon us to affirm life and create community -- and this is precisely what is occurring now in Jerusalem and throughout the Jewish State.

On this past Shabbat, I had the honor of attending the Bat Mitzvah ceremony of my niece Ashley at the Shmueli Center for Progressive Judaism at Kehillat Ra'anan in Raanana. My sister-in-law Rachel is an Israeli of Yemenite descent, and she and my brother Jimmy had decided to celebrate my niece's becoming a Bat Mitzvah in Raanana - as they had for my older niece Kimberly two years ago -- so that Ashley could identify with her people in Medinat Yisrael. It was a wonderful way for me to end this particular visit in Israel, and as I was called to analiyah my beautiful and precious niece proudly chanted the words of Parshat Ki Tei'tzei. I beamed with pride thinking of how my parents would have felt had they lived to see this moment when their granddaughter came of age Jewishly. As Ashley read these words of Torah and later delivered her bat mitzvah address in Hebrew, I felt inspired by the continuity and courage that continues to define our people as we attempt to affirm the sanctity of existence even during such agonizing days. Even during this most aching of times, life is taking place in Jerusalem and all of Israel. I am glad that HUC-JIR is part of it.

May this year somehow be a sweeter and more peaceful one for you, for Israel, and for the entire world. Tizku l'shanim rabbot u'ne'i'mot - may each of you and those whom you love merit a year of pleasantness.

Kol tuv - best wishes,

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. www.huc.edu