Rabbi Ellenson's letter from Jerusalem

Monday, March 1, 2004

February 29, 2004
7 Adar 5764

Dear HUC-JIR Community:

In the first chapter of his Hilchot B’rakhot (Laws of Blessings), Maimonides wrote, “If a person recites a blessing in the heart alone, that individual does not fulfill the obligation that is required for the recitation of a blessing.” Maimonides understood that the promptings of the human heart must find active expression if a blessing is to be realized. It is in this spirit that I tell you of my recent trip to Israel from where I just returned last week.

On the Friday of my arrival, my friends Naamah Kelman, acting dean of our Jerusalem School, Elan Ezrachi, and Marion Blumenthal, a member of the HUC-JIR President’s Council, picked me up at Ben Gurion Airport. As Shabbat was quickly approaching, we drove directly to Haifa where I was to see – for the first time – the Leo Baeck School, founded by Dr. Meyer Elk and guided and nurtured for so many years by Rabbi Robert Samuels. As President of HUC-JIR and as one devoted to Liberal Judaism in Israel, I wanted to see this famed school and learn of its workings and its accomplishments. I already knew that 1600 children attended the junior and senior high school programs there, but I learned that thousands of residents of Haifa – Jews and Arabs alike – are served through the community center, the sports center, the early childhood education center, and other educational outreach initiatives for children and adults alike. In addition, Leo Baeck houses the Ohel Avraham Progressive Synagogue and the Lokey International Academy of Jewish Studies. This Academy houses numerous study programs that will – among other things – bring college-age students, starting this year from abroad, to complete their first year of university education in Israel.

Leo Baeck is a remarkable institution in every way and Rabbi Samuels has passed over the reins of leadership to the very capable Dan Fessler, who now directs Leo Baeck and at whose home we had Friday night dinner. However, before our Shabbat seudah that night I was greeted by our talented and energetic HUC-JIR Israeli rabbinical student Ofek Meir, who serves as Director of the Lokey Academy, and given a tour of the entire campus. Following the tour, Shabbat enveloped us and I was not emotionally prepared for the Kabbalat Shabbat and Ma’ariv service that was to follow. Over two hundred Israelis came to Ohel Avraham that night, including scores of young families with their children and teen-agers.

The service itself was introduced and led by Ofek Meir, who is a gifted musician, and the spirit can only be described as exuberant. Everyone participated and the voice of Jews joining together in song and prayer was exhilarating. The rabbi of Ohel Avraham is Dan Pratt, who also serves as the Rabbi of the Leo Baeck Schools. Dan was my student at HUC-Jerusalem in 1998, and it was wonderful to have this reunion with him. Dan possesses a warm and outgoing personality, and he bears his knowledge with ease. He and Ofek along with other leaders and congregants have created an intensely joyous tefilah. It was an incredibly powerful and moving experience, and I was able to see with my own eyes the flowering of a culturally distinct expression of Progressive Judaism on Israeli soil that night.

The next morning, the renaissance I had seen the night before was once more evident. Naamah, Elan, Marion and I were blessed to attend the bat mitzvah of Eleh Esther Shadmi Wertman at Nahallal, a secular moshav adjacent to Haifa. The residents of Nahallal are the descendants of secular halutzim – pioneers who settled Eretz Yisrael at the beginning of the twentieth century, and they are heirs to a fiercely anti-religious heritage. Shabbat morning services had never before taken place at Nahallal and a Torah scroll had never before appeared there. Such indifference to if not hostility towards religious expression are not atypical of the non-religious legacy that has been bequeathed to so much of the secular Israeli landscape.

However, the winds of change are blowing and on Saturday morning we witnessed a new chapter in the ongoing development of Jewish religious history. In the late 1980s, a group of secular kibbutzniks and moshavniks decided to explore and mine the resources of Jewish tradition, for they believed that moreshet yisrael (The Spiritual Heritage of the Jewish People) did not belong to the ultra-Orthodox alone. They established Hamidrashah, a study center for the exploration of the Jewish literary and religious heritage that has grown exponentially over the years – to the point that thousands of “secular Israelis” have now and will continue to engage there in the study and exploration of Judaism from their own perspective. A native Israeli expression of Judaism is in the process of being born through their experimentation, and the phenomenon of Jewish spiritual renewal and creativity that the participants in Hamidrashah embody are among the most exciting as well as promising developments in Israeli Jewish religious life today. The persons involved in Hamidrashah are intensely intellectual, and they are highly passionate about their right to draw upon the religious content of Judaism both past and present while creating a Judaism that speaks in a contemporary Israeli idiom.

Two of our Israeli rabbinical students – Ofer Beit-Halahmi and Chen Tzfoni – have emerged from Hamidrashah, and Chen, along with Naamah Kelman, officiated at the services on Saturday morning, while Marion read from the Torah. Many of the persons in Hamidrashah have formed strong attachments to Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York, and the spirit of B’nai Jeshurun was surely present in Nahallal that morning.

Eleh’s parents are remarkably warm and talented persons, and her mother Sarala has played a pivotal role in Hamidrashah. However, it was her parents as well as Elah’s exposure to the Reform Movement in Denver during their years on shlichut there in the 1990s that led Eleh to make the decision that she wanted a bat mitzvah upon her return to Nahallal. Eleh was not only the first person in the history of her family to celebrate a bat mitzvah – she was the first person in the history of the moshav to celebrate the occasion of having arrived at the age of mitzvot through the observance of such a ceremony at the moshav itself!

Music abounded at the service, and Chen movingly led prayers with such ease and depth of spirit that one would have thought such services were a routine occurrence on the moshav. The siddur prepared for the bat mitzvah was marked by the significant inclusion of modern Israeli poetry, and the liturgical promise inherent in this literature was never more apparent. Eleh herself, as well as her parents and grandparents – Israelis who hail from every part of the Diaspora – spoke movingly of what this occasion meant and Eleh read expertly from the Torah. Seldom is one privileged to have such a rich Jewish religious experience. The role that HUC-JIR can and does play in making possible the unfolding of a liberal Jewish religious spirit in the State of Israel was never more apparent to me than it was that Shabbat. We are fortunate to be part of a generation that has the opportunity to make such a difference.

That Saturday night we returned to Jerusalem, and I had the pleasure of dinner with my friends Garri and Uri Regev, Executive Director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and their children Yoni and Liron. Yoni is completing his service in the Israeli Defense Forces, and Liron will graduate high school this June and enter the IDF shortly thereafter. Once more, I was reminded of how different our lot is here in the Diaspora from the destiny that marks the lives of our brothers and sisters in the State of Israel.

The next morning, a bombing near the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem destroyed the upbeat and joyous mood that had up until then marked my trip. I was having breakfast a the YMCA with Iri Kassel, the professional head of the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism, when our meal was shattered by the sound of sirens. Iri and I returned immediately to the College-Institute and we learned that all our students were unharmed, though eight Israeli lives were taken in the attack and countless more were wounded. Naamah Kelman and I met with the American students shortly thereafter, and a brief yet sober conversation took place. It was decided that all students present in Jerusalem – both North American and Israeli – would meet that night for an extended period of discussion and reflection on the meaning of their presence in Jerusalem at this time.

That afternoon, Naamah and I traveled to Tel Aviv where I visited Beit Daniel and Rabbi Meir Azari. My intention was to speak with Meir and to see for myself first hand the remarkable growth that has taken place at the Tel Aviv Synagogue that Meir has guided and that our friends Ruth and Gerry Daniel have made possible through their largesse these past years. The synagogue was buzzing with activity even on Sunday, and I had the opportunity to meet and talk with a dozen more of our Israeli rabbinical students at lunch. The range of their activities is astounding. Three HUC students work as interns at Beit Daniel alone, while the others work in every part of Israel as well– in synagogues, community centers, and educational institutions. These students are unusually mature and talented persons, and they have been steeled and tested by the reality of Israeli life. At the same time, they have maintained their idealism and they are determined to create a meaningful expression of liberal Judaism in Israel as well as a just Israeli society. I left Tel Aviv that afternoon feeling as I had when I left Haifa and Nahallal on Shabbat – blessed to be part of such an enterprise and inspired by such committed persons possessed of such positive and enduring values and spirit.

Nothing that had taken place up until that moment on this trip fully prepared me for the discussion that was to unfold that night between our Israeli and Diasporan students. Over sixty students gathered together that evening for several hours to discuss the events of the day, and the feelings they possessed about this year in their education as future Jewish leaders and about the meaning of their being in Jerusalem and the State of Israel at this time flooded out of them. In my introduction to the conversation that was about to ensue, I asked the students to speak about and attempt to articulate that which was in their hearts and I requested that each person listen to and respect the words of each of their colleagues and friends. I do not know if I can fully do justice to the dialogue among our student that then took place nor do I believe that I can fully capture the depth of emotion that was expressed that evening. I can only say that it was a moment of great intensity, and all who were there will never forget that evening.

Our Israeli students opened the discussion, and they each spoke passionately about what the presence of the North American and Australian students meant to them. One student – capturing a sensibility articulated over and over again by his Israeli compatriots – candidly described the sense of abandonment he and other Israelis had felt in 2002 and 2003 when the ravages of the Intifada caused so many Diasporan Jews to leave or refuse to come to Israel. The presence of the Diasporan students in Jerusalem at this moment made him feel that he was no longer alone, and restored his faith in the notion that Jews constitute a family. For this he could not thank them enough.

Our Diasporan students then described in equally emotion-laden terms – in so many ways and with so many different shades and tones of meaning – what the year as well as that day had meant to them. They confessed their anxiety while simultaneously affirming a sense of Jewish history and common Jewish destiny – even as some indicated how much they disagreed with many Israeli governmental policies – that bound them to their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem and Israel.

Laura Baum, one of our gifted first-year students, gave voice to the sensibilities that marked so many of her classmates the previous night when, in her sermon at Monday morning services, she spoke to her peers and proudly noted that this was “a time when we have come together so powerfully as a community to support each other.” She confessed that “there are days when I question what I am doing here, in rabbinical school and in Jerusalem.” While Laura maintained that “living in Israel is a blessing in my life,” she truthfully admitted that there are also times “when [living here] does not feel like a blessing, but more like a burden.” She then went on to say, “When we value something, when it is sacred to us, we want to convey that to others.” At such moments, when “I wonder why I am here, I remind myself that my being here is what is important – I let my hand teach my heart. We are working together as a community as we begin to process what is going on around us, and to make sense of it as future leaders.” Laura cited the words of the first century sage Elazar ben Azariah, who asserted, “’He whose wisdom surpasses his good deeds, to what is he compared? To a tree whose branches are abundant, but whose roots are few, and the wind comes and overturns it.’ This year we are growing many branches – our knowledge and our wisdom are constantly expanding. But I also hope that we are growing roots through our act of being here – that what we do here grounds us.” Laura wisely noted that the task of education is always a “work in progress” whose goal is to “strive for peace and wholeness.” Yet, this goal can only be realized “bit by bit.” In words of wisdom and admonition, Laura observed, “The journey to Jewish religious leadership is more than an individual spiritual quest. We are part of a people. By being here, we show our communities on other continents that we not only have an interest in, but a visceral personal connection to the State of Israel – we demonstrate this by being here.”

My stay in Israel concluded with a lunch that afternoon with my teacher and friend Rabbi David Hartman, and subsequent day meetings with the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency at the Dead Sea as well as a wonderfully engaging afternoon at Kibbutz Tzuba where the largest class of 10th and 11th grade teen-agers in the history of the Eisendrath International Exchange Program of the Union of Reform Judaism – 66 in all – is present. The exuberance and hope that mark these teen-agers is so life affirming, and I am certain that these maturing young Jewish men and women are destined for lives of Jewish leadership and commitment. They will bring the values of Judaism to life in the world, and HUC-JIR and other institutions will have the ongoing blessing and task of providing instruction for them.

However, it is our current students at HUC-JIR upon whom I focus as I conclude this letter. On that Sunday night in Jerusalem, all the students – Israeli and Diasporan – thanked one another for their presence. Their sense of connection to one another was so apparent, and the reality of Jewish peoplehood across cultures and continents so palpable. My entire experience this February in Israel – however challenging – left me with a sense of optimism and hope, joy and excitement. Our students – Israelis, Americans, Canadians, and Australians -- understand that persons are “not born into community as if by fate.” Rather, they understand that God calls them to the task of forging such community. To witness their struggles and their accomplishments is a privilege. To have a part in supporting such an enterprise is a blessing.

B’virkat shalom – with hopes for Peace,

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 men and women for service to 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, 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