Rabbi Aaron Panken's Letter from Jerusalem - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Rabbi Aaron Panken's Letter from Jerusalem

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Dear friends,

Alas. Lonely sits the city, once great with people. (Lamentations 1:1)

Lamentations, the book we traditionally read on Tisha b'Av, a day of mourning, kept ringing in my ears all day long. Last Monday night I boarded a plane as Tisha b'Av fell in New York, and flew eastward toward Tel Aviv. As I winged across the Atlantic, a three-day ceasefire thankfully went into effect and a short and necessary respite commenced for the weary people of Israel and Gaza. Arriving in the cavernous arrivals hall at Ben Gurion, I was struck by just how few people were there. Tisha b'Av, I thought, and people just did not want to travel while fasting on a very hot day. Oddly, there were not too many cabs outside, either. I found my friend Momo, who loaded me into his taxi and off we went, ascending toward Jerusalem on quiet roads.

Between Momo and his son-in-law Micah, I got the real story. Business is down nearly 80% over the past four weeks for cabdrivers. Hotels, tourist attractions, guides-you name it-all tourism-related businesses are suffering. It was decidedly more than just the annual Tisha b'Av lull. Birthright participant numbers cut in half, congregational trips cancelling or postponing. We are once again at a time when Israelis actually thank you for coming to their country. This sort of over-reactive decline in visitors I had seen before, sadly, in difficult years past. Alas…lonely sits the city.

Arriving in Jerusalem, I spent the next 24 hours becoming ever more impressed with the spirit, the humor, and the strength of the 47 wonderful American students currently studying on our Jerusalem campus. I met with all of them together, and many of them individually. They asked terrific, insightful questions: how can we bridge the gap and explain just how normal the vast majority of our everyday experiences are in Israel during this time to our families and friends influenced by what they see on television and read in American newspapers? How do we hold our own against those espousing views we consider to be problematic, racist, or hateful on social media? What can and should a Jewish professional leader do to offer leadership in times like these? Should we participate in rallies, discussion forums, and other settings with those with whom we vehemently disagree, just because we agree on supporting Israel? The conversation was thoughtful and deep, proof of the incredible impact their time in Jerusalem is already having on their hearts and minds. It was sincere and exciting evidence of the enormous educational value of our Jerusalem campus, its faculty and programs, and the wonderful guidance of Rabbi Naamah Kelman, Dean; Dr. Dave Mendelssohn, Director of the Year-in-Israel program; and Nancy Lewitt, Head of Student Life; all of whom have done outstanding work this past month in helping our students navigate the current situation safely and intelligently.

The next day, with Dean Kelman and Dr. Michal Muszkat-Barkan, Director of our joint Program in Pluralistic Education with the Hebrew University, I drove down to the south of Israel where some of the worst and most frequent missile attacks had occurred. We visited Sderot, the town which, for nearly ten years, has been most often hit by rocket fire. It has come to symbolize the attacks on Israel from the Gaza Strip. We toured the kibbutzim and towns around it, and ended our day with a trip to Holon, another town in the southern end of Tel Aviv that suffered from large numbers of rocket attacks. It was sobering, there is no doubt, and a serious reminder of what it is like to live under constant attack - a very different situation from that which exists in Jerusalem.

About four miles from Sderot, we met Yael Karrie. Yael, originally from Haifa, is in her third year of our Israel Rabbinical Program, and she now lives on a kibbutz in the south called Kibbutz Dorot. Yael helped bring home the magnitude of the challenges the south faced during this past month, but, more hopefully, we were witness to the outstanding work she has been able to do by responding to the needs of others. She spoke of Shabbat services she led while huddled in bomb shelters, because if you live in Nachal Oz or other areas quite close to the Gaza Strip, you have, at most, 15 seconds to make it to a bomb shelter when the sirens go off. In these places, the sirens went off quite a bit, often dozens of times a day and five or six times each night. Add to that the comforting yet loud sounds of the sophisticated Iron Dome missile defense system sited nearby, and this makes for a hard time living regular life - whether leading services or simply trying to get to sleep at night.

Yael spoke of musical activities she created for kids, to help pass the time when they had to be with their parents awaiting the cessation of a particular volley of missiles. She pointed out the bus stops in Sderot, beautifully painted to hide the fact that each and every one of them had a built-in missile shelter to protect those engaging in the simple, innocent act of waiting for the bus. And she described the school in Sderot, built with the strongest reinforced concrete roof of any school in the world to ensure that students could study in safety.

Yael also told us of the Friday evening when 400 soldiers showed up at her kibbutz after a week of non-stop military service inside Gaza. Dirty, tired, tense, and in serious need of a shower, they cleaned up, and some of them went right off to bed. But many, it turns out, were attracted to the beautiful guitar and vocal music they heard emanating from the center of the kibbutz and came to Kabbalat Shabbat services. When a group of Orthodox soldiers hovered hesitantly by the edge of the circle because of the prohibition against playing musical instruments on Shabbat, Yael and her musicians laid down their instruments, and, a cappella, shared in making harmonies together and replacing the guitar they now lacked with their voices. As the Rabbis say, "Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh," "All Israel are obligated to one another," and never more than at moments like these.

Perhaps the most creative and memorable thing I saw Yael do was to create a campaign called Adom v'sameah or Redeeming Red. Red, the color of the "code red" alerts that indicated incoming missiles, was significantly unwelcome in this month's color palette due to its destructive implications. So Yael re-imagined it, collecting photos from friends of red things that were positive instead. From pictures of infants in red outfits to crimson flowers and ruby shoes, Yael's Facebook page quickly filled with evocative images of what red could be instead of what it was. One image captured my imagination in a most personal way. A Jewish summer camp in North America, Yael explained, had dressed their campers and counselors in red clothing, arranged them in the shape of the State of Israel, photographed them, and sent it to Yael's page. This particular photo, in no uncertain terms, exemplified the unique global collectivity of our people, for there were the campers and counselors of the Eisner Camp, the precious place where my son and daughter, and indeed my wife and I, grew up and came to love Judaism. Six thousand miles away, under the most difficult of circumstances, for this to happen is a resounding testament to the value of our Reform Jewish community and the links we share everywhere we go. Adom v'sameah fortifies these global ties, even as it reminds us that through the power of community we can turn the overwhelmingly difficult into something exciting and uniting.

We drove on to a lovely, growing suburb of Tel Aviv called Holon, where we had a quick lunch with another one of our impressive Israeli Rabbinical students, Galit Cohen Kedem, who was on her way to officiate at a Brit Milah shortly after we met. Galit's community, which had also received its share of red alerts, came together in compelling ways during the crisis. Galit led meaningful Havdallah services coupled with pizza dinners for her families, in which people shared the names of soldiers, friends, and loved ones for whom they were concerned; programs in which congregants would visit one another; and outings and activities for the kids. On her mind, when we met, were those who were elderly or struggling with disabilities, those who physically could not make it to local shelters with each alarm, and so simply remained in their homes and hoped for the best. A frightening thought, to be sure. There was the contractor with whom she worked who could not meet with her one day, because a missile had landed in her backyard, and she had to wait for the army to come evaluate and remove it. There was the family who, paralyzed with fear, chose not to leave their apartment for three weeks. Through Galit, the psychological pain of this month's missile salvos became far more real, and she highlighted the tremendous gifts our students and alumni/ae give in being able to temper some modicum of the pain they see around them through their important service to God and community.

It will be, to put it mildly, a true honor to ordain Galit, Yael, and students like them in the years to come, and I look forward to watching their continued growth and leadership. By any imaginable measure, they will be extraordinary additions to the ranks of our alumni/ae, and will continue to make us proud of our Israeli Reform colleagues who serve tirelessly under challenging conditions.

Upon my return to Jerusalem, over the course of two hours I encountered a profound mixture of sadness and delight, which I take to be emblematic of the current situation. In watching the news that night, I was devastated as one channel showed a photo montage of all 64 Israeli soldiers whose lives have been lost in Operation Protective Edge. To see these young men who fearlessly confronted a vicious terrorist enemy for the sake of their nation, and now have lost everything, is heartbreaking beyond words. The pain of their families and friends, their wives and children, their fiancées and those who served with them, is etched on the hearts of our entire people, and their memory will be with us, painful as it is, for generations.

On the extreme other hand, and symbolic of the fact that life always goes on in Israel, I had the great delight of being in the audience for our Beit Café, a coffee house program in which our American students and their families performed music, magic, comedy, poetry, and so on. With joy and talent, they performed into the night, and I laughed and cheered with them until I had to depart for the airport. Once again, I left filled with hope, joy, and an abiding sense of a community that cares for each other, shares so much, and can face challenges with humor and wisdom, companionship and collaboration. That these talented, embracing, and committed individuals, both American and Israeli, that I have described here will be our future rabbis, cantors, and educators fills my heart with gladness, faith, and hope in a bright Jewish future, both within our Movement and beyond.

It is hard to tell exactly where this situation will go in the days ahead. With the resumption of missile attacks on the south over the weekend, a new ceasefire and the tentative, slowly-moving talks, no one can truly predict what lies ahead. We will monitor developments closely, of course, and our security team continues to evaluate the situation constantly with input from appropriate agencies in Israel. I feel saddened by the injuries and significant loss of life on both sides, and, most especially, for those trapped in the grip of ongoing terrorist actions in both Israel and Gaza.

The story of Lamentations, with which I began, is a sad one, there can be no doubt. Tisha b'Av symbolizes a low point for our people, one filled with undeniable loss. And yet, hope resides in the very fact that we continue to remember and retell this story, and that now, thousands of years later, we are a free people in a free land which is ours once again. I still have faith that we will find a way to bring the trials of this month to a positive conclusion that will bring us closer to the possibility of peace. May each of us do all that we can to bring peace, fairness, and justice to the world as we support our beloved State of Israel.

With continued prayers for peace for Jerusalem and the peoples of the world,


Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D.

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