Learning in the Context of War

Thursday, August 14, 2014

HUC-JIR’s 36 first-year rabbinical, cantorial, and education students and 11 Cantorial Certification students began their Orientation in Jerusalem just as the Gaza rocket offensive was launched.  As they continue their studies in Israel, students offer personal reflections on their experiences to date.

Rabbinical student Avi Fine:

On Friday, some of us took a day trip to Tel Aviv.  I was in need of a day spent on the beach.  The water was as warm as a bath and the sand boiling hot, but it was so great to be there. After our day at the beach, we changed into Shabbat clothes and headed off to Kabbalat Shabbat, sand and all.  In stark contrast to the quiet in Jerusalem in the hours before Shabbat comes in, in Tel Aviv cars were driving and people were on the streets and eating at cafes. We arrived at Beit Tfillah Israeli, which during the summer normally has outdoor services at the port but has been unable to hold them outside due to the rockets. It was another very pleasant service all in Hebrew, with great participation from everyone there.  Much like at Tzion, at certain points in the service people would get up and dance.  Much of the service was a happy break from the world around us.  But everything here is colored by the matzav.  The rabbi said he could not read his prepared remarks due to the events of the day.  He talked instead of our need to ever be evaluating ourselves.  The service turned much more somber as we said prayers for Israel, and its soldiers, including a prayer for the soldier who was kidnapped by Hamas during the ceasefire. We then said the mourners kaddish after the rabbi read the names of all the soldiers who had been killed.  I was blown back by that emotional blow.  Something Rabbi Michael Marmur told us on Shabbat morning, when talking about Reform Jewish ideas of war and use of force, is that this is not a theoretical question, rather it is a very real one rooted in reality. The soldier has since been declared killed in action. In an earlier post I wrote about the amazing support and community that is so evident in Israel at this time.  Click here for a video of people singing outside the house of the family of the kidnapped soldier. 

Rabbinical student Robert Friedman:

Life must go on. This seems to be the unspoken, unwritten mantra of those Israelis who have not been called up to serve in this war. Despite the tensions, despite the worries, Israelis continue, and will always continue, with their daily lives - it is what they must do. In that spirit, so too have we at Hebrew Union College continued on with our lives. Over the past two weeks - my first two weeks of rabbinical school, I have been kept extremely busy, both being in class and building relationships with my classmates.

Currently, all the rabbinic/cantorial/educational students who are here for the year are in two classes - we are in a Biblical History class that meets twice a week (once for a lecture and once for a field trip) and a Hebrew ulpan course. For those who do not know what an "ulpan" is, it is an intensive Hebrew course. For us, it meets 4 hours a day, 4 days a week. Compared to a standard college-level Hebrew class that meets 3-4 hours a week, we are covering much more material.

For our Biblical History class, we traveled to one of my favorite places in Jerusalem - the Israel Museum. While we did not see my favorite part of the museum - the Dead Sea Scrolls - we did travel around much of the history and archaeology wing and we were able to see artifacts thousands of years old. It is truly an awe-inspiring experience to see right before you the artifacts you have read about in books for years, and to realize that it was my professor David Ilan and his predecessor Avraham Biran at HUC-JIR who uncovered much of them. I am truly blessed to be learning here, and there is absolutely no better place to be studying biblical archaeology than in Jerusalem.

I hope that everyone reading this knows that my classmates and I are safe and, in whatever language you pray and to whomever you pray, that you are praying for a peaceful resolution to the conflict at hand.

Education student Sasha Kopp:

There is an Israeli organization focusing on human rights that sponsored a tour of graffiti around the city center. It was interesting to look at the pictures on the buildings that we see every day and think about them in a whole new light. Talking about grafitti quickly became a conversation that resembled a text study. Everyone had different interpretations and different ideas about what the artist could be referencing. Some of the  graffiti we saw did have biblical references which was fascinating to see and read. 

One piece that stuck with me was the one featured in the picture on the top right, "Hakol Beseder" Hakol Besder is a phrase I probably say every day. It means "all is ok" and we talked about this one for a while in whether or not the artist crested this with a sarcastic tone or not. One of my peers said that she had seen this on bus stops and felt that it was a call to remind people that all is ok, HaKol Beseder and that no one should be worried about riding the bus. Others felt as if it was talking about the Jerusalem bubble. How can we act as if all is ok, when things in Israel are truly not ok? We live our day to days lives with very little interaction with the terror that is happening 3 hours away. What does it mean for all to be "ok?" Right now Jerusalem continues to be safe, I continue to live my personal day to day life in peace. However, when I see the graffiti I know how lucky am I to be able to say that right now things for me are, HaKol Beseder.

Rabbinical student Zachary Goodman:

In the midst of everything that is going on in Israel, life keeps moving on. Between the bombings, meeting all of my new classmates, cease-fire developments and failures, my first two weeks of rabbinical school, and everything in between, its needless to say that I have had a busy mind. I anticipate, as school is getting more intense, that I will not have enough time to post as frequently as I would like. That being said, today I am enjoying a lazy afternoon after a rigorous day of Ulpan. I do feel guilty staying in and not exploring, but this exhausted boy/man/fellow could use a lazy afternoon every once and again. It has been a very busy couple of weeks!

One Thursday afternoon (the start of my weekend), I took a trip to Yad Vashem. I decided it would be most meaningful to me if I went alone and took all the time I needed to soak it all in. I spent three hours in the main Holocaust History Museum, reading every word of every plaque. Then I entered the Hall of Remembrance where I sat silently and paid my respects to those who perished. I reflected on the brevity of life as I stared into the faces of countless victims in the Hall of Names. In the Children’s Memorial, with a heavy heart, I thought about all the needless hatred that is seen too often in our world. At the end of the Museum, there is an amazing scenic lookout over the hill country of Jerusalem. I had a profound moment of gratitude for my life, health, and country. Yad Vashem was most certainly a high light of my time here.

It is a shame that in light of all these amazing things that I am experiencing, the current conflict is what everyone seems to be focusing on. In fear of sounding insensitive, the war has not been my priority these last few weeks. I have read countless articles, watched many news clips, and have mourned the loss of life on both sides. However, it is important to not let the conflict consume my every waking thought. I pray for an end to this… as difficult as that ending is to see. In the meantime, I have continued to laugh, play music, study, play basketball, and go out with friends. I wish that my friends and family could ask me how class is going and if I am enjoying the start of rabbinical school and did not have to ask “What’s your take on the conflict.” and “Are you safe?” It breaks my heart that our young Israeli soldiers are graduating high school and moving into Gaza. Nothing about this hatred and loss of life makes sense. I can read all the articles, inform myself as best as I can, but at the end of the day, I must continue living my life. Outside of this devastating mess, what a life it is!

Rabbinical student Bryan Zive:

This past Shabbat, we attended services at Kol HaNeshamah, the Reform Temple here in Jerusalem. This experience was a complete contrast of our first Shabbat experience there 6 weeks ago. In early July, the Sanctuary was filled with people...Rabbis leading groups, NFTY in Israel participants, brand new HUC-JIR students, combined with the regular citizens of Jerusalem who attend and pray together weekly. We filled the room with an incomparable spirituality and songs/harmonies that flowed like waves in the sea. My heart was filled with joy and comfort.

Jerusalem has been empty this past month. Sure, there are visitors here and there. Hotel occupancy is lower than the elevation at the Dead Sea and the streets aren't filled with the same "touristy" feel. Kol HaNeshamah was no different. The room seemed like it was missing something. It was empty. There were people there, but it was half full, and it wasn't the same. I love and appreciate communal worship and was happy that I was there with many of the locals, in their kehilah. A group of Dutch teenagers attended services along with 10 other HUC students. It was a beautiful service. And yet, I wanted more....I needed more.

The Rolling Stones put it perfectly: "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need."

We observed the yarzheit of my beloved Zayda this past Shabbat. He passed away 15 years ago (unbelievable), and I can still hear his voice, his teachings, his laughter and can still feel the pride he had for his family and friends. In a strange way, I felt his presence in our kehilah. I know he was not physically present. But, his soul certainly was. He had such a passion for Jewish history, and Jerusalem was his metaphorical "happy place".  So, why not feel his presence during such a difficult time...such an empty time?

His goal in life was to provide people with smiles, education and a sense of understanding of who we are as Jews, and why we are here. It is only fitting that his yarzheit falls during Shabbat Nachamu...the Shabbat of comfort, immediately following the observance of Tisha b'Av, the day commemorating the destruction of the Temples and other difficult tragedies throughout Jewish history. It just seems to make sense that his memory would fill my void during this time. It makes sense that he provided comfort during such a confusing and difficult time. Both of my grandfathers, lovers of Zionism and Jewish History passed away during the month of August. I can only imagine how proud of me they'd be knowing the journey I've embarked upon.

Even throughout the difficult times, we can look for the things...the people...the ideas...that bring us comfort. May we all find comfort and happiness throughout this week and beyond.


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