Learning close to home
by Amanda Septimus
In 1963, the Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) opened a building on the Israeli-Jordanian border in Jerusalem. The institute was established partially to fulfill a promise that then president of HUC-JIR, Dr. Nelson Glueck, made to David Ben Gurion to bring all HUC-JIR rabbinical students to Jerusalem for a year of study. In 1970, the first Year-in-Israel program began with 35 rabbinical and education students from the North American Reform movement.
Today HUC-JIR's Jerusalem campus sits in a prime area of Jerusalem real-estate with a scenic view of the Old City and boasts over 100 rabbinical, cantorial, and Jewish education students - an unusually high number for the institute.
Among them are first year North American students, Israeli students and fourth year North American students who deferred their Year-in-Israel program in 2002-2003 due to what Director of the Year-in-Israel Program, Rabbi Naamah Kelman, described as "the year from hell" which witnessed the Moment Caf , Park Hotel and Hebrew University bombings.
In addition, there are fourth-year North American students who attended their first year in Israel but are taking the opportunity to return while their classmates are studying in Jerusalem.
The college's commitment to Israel is as strong as ever. According to Kelman, HUC-JIR is the only liberal seminary that requires rabbinical, cantorial, and Rhea Hirsch education students to spend one year in Israel before being ordained or graduating.
"We believe the journey to Jewish religious leadership is much more than an individual spiritual quest," explains President of HUC-JIR Rabbi David Ellenson.
"We call upon our graduates to recognize that they are part of a people, and that Jews throughout the world share a common destiny. The ideals of ahdut and areivut - Jewish solidarity and mutual responsibility - are the foundational components of education HUC-JIR provides for its students, and Israel constitutes the linchpin in this educational process of religious formation."
David Segal is a 24-year-old first-year rabbinical student from Houston, Texas. The Year-in-Israel program gives him an opportunity to explore the connection between Reform Judaism and Israel. Segal also hopes to explore various synagogues with diverse traditions to become well rounded in liturgy.
"I like Reform liturgy, but it is selective and I want to know what it is selected from." Although Segal feels like a visitor in Israel, he feels a connection with the country's history.
"The Year-in-Israel program is a reminder of an element of peoplehood that is easy to forget when living in Christian North America." Segal adds, "You do not have to love everything Israel does to be a Zionist."
All North American students are required to attend a weekly course on what Ellenson calls "yediat ha'aretz" that allows students to have a direct encounter with the land, its people and history. Ellenson considers this to be one of the most important aspects of the program.
Another learning experience which connects students to the country is a mandatory community service program that requires students to work with Israelis from different cultural backgrounds.
Volunteer opportunities include developing relationships with Ethiopian immigrants at Mevaseret Zion Absorption Center, tutoring underprivileged children in English at the Kol Haneshama Enrichment Program, serving food at the Carmei Ha'ir kitchen, and conducting research to advance religious freedom and pluralism at the Israel Religious Action Center.
Janice Elster is a fourth-year rabbinical student who did attend the Year-in-Israel program, along with around 40 classmates, during the trying year of 2002-2003. "When we were here (in 2002-2003), Israelis were so grateful. It made us feel like we were giving something small back when we volunteered." Elster felt that the volunteering and the weekly Israel seminar were two of the most valuable, insight-giving components of that year in Israel.
For the first time in HUC-JIR history, a curriculum has been set up this academic year for fourth-year students from North America who need to fulfill their required Year-in-Israel program.
Because of this, other fourth-year students who spent 2002-2003 in Israel were given the option to return and have an additional year of study in Israel. Six rabbinical students and three cantorial students have returned for this second study experience in Israel.
While Elster was studying in Israel during 2002-2003, she developed a deeper connection to prayer. She was moved as she recited prayers that mentioned Jerusalem while she viewed the old city from HUC-JIR's Jerusalem campus. She also learned about Israeli society through the political election that took place that year.
"I came back because I wanted to have more of these opportunities... During my first year, we were given gas masks during the war with Iraq. It was a difficult time, but we were here experiencing it with the people," Elster recalls.
"Israelis were not necessarily able to leave when times were hard, so I felt I needed to be here." Justin Kerber is a fourth-year rabbinical student who deferred coming to Jerusalem in 2002-2003 for family reasons. He is thrilled and delighted to be in Israel. "There is no substitute for the worldview of this place," Kerber comments.
"We [Reform Jews] are not well known here and we have a lot to offer this country. Much of the public here is turned off by what they see as Judaism and they could find a connection to religion with exposure to liberal Judaism."
Kerber, a former lawyer who came to Israel with his wife, nine-month-old baby and small dog, says that the transition to life in Israel has been challenging and rewarding. The adjustment is worth it because he feels that in Israel he learns during every second of every day as opposed to only in the classroom back at his stateside campus of Cincinnati.
Hebrew immersion, text study, Israel experience, community building, and professional development are the five goals of the Year-in-Israel program according to Kelman. Community building will be especially unique this year while students at different points of their learning come together in Jerusalem before departing to three separate campuses in the US.
"The Jerusalem campus is at the intersection where East meets West and old meets new, which is what Reform Judaism is," explains Kelman.
"Reform Judaism has surely moved light years away from the anti-Zionist stance taken by the movement in the early years of the 20th century. Reform has now come to embrace Jewish peoplehood as a central value and sees the state of Israel as an optimal setting for realization of Jewish values and hopes," concludes Ellenson.