A Letter from Jerusalem from Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Dear friends,

I write to you from our lovely Jerusalem campus overlooking the walls of the Old City, where I have been blessed to spend the past few weeks. The last few days, in particular, have been filled with many emotions, and I feel a keen awareness of the challenges that face our beloved State of Israel. The current situation is tense, certainly, but, at the same time, there are endless reasons to be very hopeful.

Last Saturday night was one of the most sorrowful moments in recent Israeli history, when the bodies of the three Israeli boys, Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaer and Naftali Frenkel were discovered. Wherever one went on Sunday, there was a shared sense of palpable pain. Watching the burial of these senselessly murdered young men, I mourned our communal loss even as I admired the strength of their parents and the way they specifically withheld calls for vengeance or hatred in their measured responses. They modeled for the entire community a sad dignity in the face of tragedy and did not ever call for their pain to be spread to others.

However, not long afterwards, a small group of extremist Israelis kidnapped and burned an Arab teenager, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, to death. His cousin, an American citizen visiting for the summer, was then badly beaten by the police. Demonstrations broke out at the entrance to Jerusalem with calls for “Death to Arabs” and Jewish protesters ran through West Jerusalem and into the Old City seeking Arabs to attack. As they ran, they asked passersby for the time, in an effort to determine, by their accents, whether they were Arab and thus liable to harm. Such vile expressions of racism and hatred have been opposed most vigorously by both the government and grassroots counter-protests in all the major cities.

The following days and nights have seen demonstrations develop in Israeli Arab towns in the Galilee, significant unrest and damage in the predominantly Muslim neighborhoods of Jerusalem, and a constant barrage of missiles from the Gaza Strip all over the southern part of the country. While most of the missiles are, thankfully, intercepted by Israel’s “Iron Dome” system, most others fall in open areas and do little damage. Nonetheless, the fear that is instilled amongst those in the south is significant, and normal life has definitely been interrupted there. The Israeli Air Force has responded by striking dozens of targets in Gaza, attempting to limit the capability of Hamas to inflict harm on those in large Israeli cities like Ashkelon, Ashdod, and even Beer Sheva.

With this as the context, it is clear that tension continues in Israel. No one knows precisely where these events will lead in the days ahead. And yet I am heartened by so much that I have seen in my time here. Last week, I attended a celebration of July 4th, America’s Independence Day, at the United States Embassy with Ambassador Daniel Shapiro and his wife Julie Fisher. While the traditional embassy fireworks were suspended out of respect for those mourning, the focus on the American values of democracy and peace were highlighted in moving ways. Among those in attendance were President Shimon Peres, who spoke meaningfully about America’s role in the world. He beautifully outlined four critical moments when America led selflessly and reached beyond her border to resolve pressing crises in the world out of a sense of altruism and hope: in World Wars I and II, with the Marshall Plan to rebuild a shattered Europe after World War II, and in its longtime support of the State of Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu reminded Israelis in no uncertain terms that Israel is a country of law, and that vigilantism and racial hatred have no place within this society. As an American and a lover of Israel, I was proud to be a part of this evening, as we celebrated the long-term friendship, cooperation, and hope that is the US-Israel partnership.

Last week, I spent a few hours with Professor Boaz Golany, Vice President of the Technion in Haifa, the premiere Israeli university for science and technology – a sort of Israeli MIT or Caltech. The engineer in me swelled with great pride in what our people are doing here. With more Nobel prize winners than any other university in the last ten years, with endless patents on groundbreaking inventions from pharmaceuticals and medicine to aviation and computer science, the Technion is a symbol of the many, many extraordinary contributions Am Yisrael has made and continues to make to our world.

This week, I was privileged to meet the Mayor of Tel Aviv-Yaffo, Ron Huldai, and discuss the tremendous inroads Reform Judaism has made in that great city. Together we praised the achievements of a brilliant alumnus of our Israeli Rabbinical Program, Rabbi Meir Azari, a visionary who has made Reform Judaism come alive in Tel Aviv-Yaffo. With 22 kindergartens, three thriving facilities, outreach to conversion students, hundreds of weddings, b’nai mitzvah and funerals each year, and endlessly creative ways of reaching out to the immense number of Jews in Tel Aviv, young and old, I was delighted to learn what he has built. I was also witness to the musical and spiritual talents of another alumnus of our Israeli Rabbinical Program, Rabbi Esteban Gottfried, who holds Friday night services at the port in Tel Aviv, and welcomes nearly 1000 attendees from Israel and communities all over the world. To pray facing the azure Mediterranean as the sun slowly descends and Shabbat begins is, to put it simply, incredible. HUC-JIR is a part of all of this, and we are proud of what each and every one of our alumni does.

This past Shabbat, 200 alumni gathered at the Jerusalem campus to learn with our faculty and enjoy the beautiful music of the American Conference of Cantors, whose convention took place in Israel this year. We awarded honorary degrees to three alumni/ae who have made significant contributions to education, social justice, and Israeli society. Through study, shared conversation and a lovely havdallah and seudah shlishit (festive Shabbat third meal on Saturday afternoon), we celebrated our link together as HUC-JIR alumni/ae and enjoyed refreshing looks at traditional texts, music, and philosophy. Our Dean in Jerusalem, Rabbi Naamah Kelman, and her staff did a superb job in welcoming alumni from all our programs, and I look forward to this “reunion in Jerusalem” growing larger and larger every year.

Perhaps the most wonderful part of my time here has been with our students. This year, we welcome a very talented, committed, and inspiring new class of first-year stateside students to the Year-In-Israel Program. So far, we have studied text and held the Torah together at sunset on a hilltop facing the walls of the Old City; we gathered for breakfast to reflect on their journeys to this stage in their life and their hopes for their future years; and today we held our annual security briefing, led by our superb team that has been helping students thrive in Israel for years – led by Dr. Dave Mendelsson, Director of the Year-In-Israel Program, and Nancy Lewitt, Head of Student Life. The students are calm and cool, and already displaying the promise of leadership despite the challenging circumstances that have arisen in their first week in Jerusalem. Our first-year rabbinical, cantorial, and education students are excited for the incredible experience that lies ahead of them in this amazing year, and our faculty and staff are filled with enthusiasm to help show them this beautiful country and to enhance their skills and build their knowledge. I look forward to returning a few times this year, to share in their growth and accompany them on their way.

I also had the terrific opportunity to teach our Israeli Rabbinical students, a very impressive group who came together with me to learn Talmud and discuss the future of the College-Institute in Israel. Our conversation in Hebrew went to the core of our hopes – to build and sustain a Judaism that lives up to the best ideals of our tradition, and one that is vitally connected with Jews all over the world. I look forward to ordaining four of them in November, and to watching students in earlier stages of their rabbinical education as they continue to learn and build an exciting and innovative Reform Judaism for Israel.

What can those outside of Israel do, right now, to be supportive?

If you have plans to be here, come. If you do not yet have plans to be here, make them soon. And, especially, if you are a member of our Board of Governors or Overseers, all of whom will have the opportunity to be here in November for a unique and special visit, sign up now to reserve your place for a trip that will expose you to everything this country is now and is becoming. If you cannot spend time here in the near future, then it is incumbent upon you to become informed – read Haaretz or The Jerusalem Post, and try to stay on top of events as they develop. Only with a long term commitment to reading regularly can one hope to become knowledgeable enough to understand the many aspects of Israel’s complex mélange of culture and faith, memory, and history. 

Let’s be sure to keep the events of this past week in perspective, for despite the tension they provoke, they should not color our understanding of this astounding country – the desert that has bloomed, the democratic and Jewish ideals that thrive, the diverse people and fantastic heritage and language that have come back to life within her borders. Let us continue our work together to build an Israel that is an or la-goyim, a light to the nations, a community founded on the ideals of our tradition – kindness to others, egalitarianism, and respect for different faiths and a universal God who sustains us all.

With continued prayers for the peace of Jerusalem,

Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D.


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's first 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 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