12 Shevat 5774 / January 13, 2014
I write to you from Israel, where I am spending the week beginning work with the faculty, students, and staff of our beautiful campus in Jerusalem. Upon landing at Ben Gurion on my first official trip as President of HUC-JIR, I was greeted with all the usual emotions: a feeling of boundless commitment to the Jewish people and its concrete expression in the Jewish state; love for the Hebrew language, its traditions and texts, and its development in Israel; excitement over all that has been achieved since 1948 in education, farming, technology, medicine, and on and on; joy at the way Shabbat descends quietly here as it does in no other place; and the uniquely Jewish mix of unfettered optimism and deep concern we all harbor about the future of Israel, its government, and the potential for lasting peace and security.
As I write, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was laid to rest at his ranch in southern Israel. At this sad time, I cannot help but consider the evolution of Medinat Yisrael – the State of Israel – as it is reflected in the events of his life. In his 85 years, Arik Sharon was involved in virtually every major development in Israel’s history, until a lingering health crisis removed him from government in 2006. One of the very last of a generation of larger-than-life leaders, he was a giant but not a saint. At so many turning points, he was there: he was injured at Latrun during the War of Independence; he formed Israel’s first commando unit, controversially retaliating for cross-border terrorism; he led his troops across the Suez Canal and helped force Egypt to a ceasefire through brilliant tactics during the 1973 Yom Kippur War; and he was the controversial mastermind of Israel’s war of choice in Lebanon in 1982, inspiring lasting anger after the massacres by Israel’s Lebanese allies in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. He leaves a particularly complex legacy as Israel searches for peace: building up the settlements over the course of his career, striking back hard at terrorism, and then, in what turned out to be his final act of statecraft, designing and implementing Israel’s unilateral 2005 withdrawal from Gaza. A fierce warrior and ambitious strategist, his life evinced tireless commitment to the protection of his people, from determination in war as a young man to later years as Prime Minister when he shifted course toward the unilateral withdrawal that he felt could improve security. He leaves behind a controversial legacy, one of both continuity and change, and all who care about Israel must grapple with the meaning of his long and full life.
Our campus in Jerusalem, unique among the Jewish seminaries, offers a home in Israel where our North American and Israeli students can explore the history that occurred both during Sharon’s life and over the thousands of years of Jewish history that preceded him. As a beneficiary of the Year-In-Israel Program during my first year of rabbinical studies in 1986-87, I am proud to be a part of the only Jewish seminary that sustains a full campus and extensive programs in Jerusalem. In this campus we express a concrete Zionist commitment that HUC-JIR has constantly affirmed since the establishment of our campus in 1963, during good times and bad. To see our students hard at work learning Hebrew, studying texts and history, and grappling with the challenges of living in modern Israel brings to mind the Rabbis’ statement: “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh” – “All the people of Israel are obligated to one another.” The various national origins, worship styles, ideologies, customs, and even foods one sees in Jerusalem bring this statement to life. The combined sense of history and collective responsibility within Israel and between Israel and Jews throughout the world is palpable and inspiring here.
During these days in Israel, I have been privileged to spend time with the United States Ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, his wife Julie, and their wonderful family. Ambassador Shapiro, a fluent Hebrew speaker, is a product of our Movement. He spent many years as a camper at OSRUI – the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute – the Reform Movement’s camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. I have prayed with our students, and over the next few days will share in conversation with the North Americans studying in our Year-In-Israel program, as well as the Israelis preparing to be rabbis and educators. I will participate in the Abramov Colloquium on the Pew Study, sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York, along with Rabbis Joy Levitt and Jeremy Kalmonofsky, and Ruth Calderon, a respected Israeli academic and member of the Knesset. I also look forward to sharing in the lively mentoring conversations that take place between students and faculty during our Mabat program, thanks to the generosity of the Mandel Foundation. Each day will see planning sessions with our Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Provost, Rabbi Dr. Michael Marmur; our Jerusalem Dean, Rabbi Naamah Kelman; and our program directors, faculty, Hebrew teachers, and students. The schedule will also include conversations with the leadership of MARAM (the association of Israeli Reform Rabbis), the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (the association of Israel’s 30+ rapidly growing Reform congregations) and the World Union for Progressive Judaism. A busy week, to be sure, but filled with exciting potential for the months and years ahead. Similarly meaningful times await me in Cincinnati, New York, and Los Angeles within the next month, and I fondly anticipate all the energy and commitment I will encounter at each of our sites.
As I begin my tenure as President this month, I am grateful for the manifold blessings that we share in our HUC-JIR community. Those great leaders who have been my predecessors, especially my friend Rabbi David Ellenson, have shaped an institution that is bold, innovative, and influential. I look forward to continuing to advance the College-Institute as a place where we feel responsible for one another, for all Jews, and all humanity; where we take Jewish obligation and history seriously, allowing texts and traditions to inform and shape our lives even as we creatively reshape them; and a place where we extend the meaningful traditions of Reform Judaism toward a bright, educated and vigorous future.
I will be in touch regularly with updates on our work, and appreciate your ongoing partnership in making HUC-JIR the best academic and communal institution it can become. For now, let me simply express my gratitude for the blessing of this new phase of my life, this occasion to revisit Jerusalem, and the opportunity to reflect on the past and envision the future.
In friendship and gratitude from Jerusalem,
Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D.