Israel Engagement at HUC-JIR: Activism and Experiential Learning in Israel and Stateside

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Beginning with the Year-In-Israel Program as the foundation of HUC-JIR’s first-year rabbinical, cantorial, and education students’ education, to the Israel Seminar as a core component of its nonprofit management, cantorial certification, and executive degree programs in Jewish education, Israel engagement is a priority for HUC-JIR’s curriculum. Students continue to study modern and Biblical Hebrew, Israel’s ancient and modern history, and contemporary Israeli literature and culture throughout their studies, as they prepare for their leadership roles as vital links between North American Jewry and the State of Israel.  Students also embrace opportunities to reinforce their studies with Israel activism and experiential learning, both in Israel and stateside.

Andrew Trief, who came to HUC-JIR after serving in the Israeli Defense Forces, is part of the AIPAC Lefell Fellowship, an 18-month program to deepen students’ understanding of modern Israel, the United States–Israel relationship, and its place in the rabbinate. “I wanted to travel to Israel with AIPAC, attend their Washington policy conference, learn from scholars, and gain some tools to engage Israel from the pulpit,” he explains. Trief is also a Taglit Birthright Fellow, training and leading birthright Israel trips, which is “an amazing opportunity to learn from master Israel educators about how to best integrate experiential education into birthright trips, empowering each of us to tell our own stories while engaging everyone in our collective story as Jews.” He is also active with Project Zug, in which he is paired for text studies with an Israeli abroad via Skype and through which he has gained “a new friendship and appreciation for how hevruta study can connect us as Jews and as people.”

Another AIPAC Lefell Fellow is Samantha Shabman, who values this program also for the resources it provides for her to use with congregants, such as sermons and adult education sessions, which empowered her to speak about Israel during her High Holy Day pulpit. Furthermore, she enjoys the opportunity to discuss Israel with students from other rabbinical seminaries as part of the AIPAC program.  “This experience provides me with more confidence to talk about Israel and reinforces my knowledge so that I can engage in conversations about very controversial topics,” she says.  Shabman is staffing a Kesher Israel birthright trip this summer, which she says is a “powerful opportunity to guide participants as they connect with Israel for the first time and help them relate to the land, culture, and people.”

Jesse Paikin, a member of the Israel Working Group at HUC-JIR, is teaching a class on Jewish history at Brooklyn Heights Synagogue to 8th graders to prepare them for their trip to Israel next year.  This May he is serving as a staff member with URJ Kesher Taglit-Birthright Israel. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of ARZENU, the umbrella organization of Reform and Progressive Religious Zionists worldwide, with constituent groups in twelve countries, that represents their interests in the governing bodies of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency for Israel.  He is among the students on the New York campus who are participating in “Resetting the Table” conversations, which seek to transform dominant norms of communication on Israel. Funded by UJA-Federation, “Resetting the Table” provides students with the opportunity to engage with fellow students in supported small-group conversations on Israel, where diverse views, feelings, and questions are shared.

Jay Geller, HUC-JIR Governor and Chair of the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management Advisory Board, sponsored a Year-In-Israel student trip with Encounter, a non-partisan educational organization cultivating informed and constructive Jewish leadership on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sparked by his own memorable experiences as part of an Encounter visit to Bethlehem in November, Geller felt that HUC-JIR students’ two-day learning experience would “help them in their professional careers to explain the complexity of what life is like in Israel, as one part of a wide variety of experiences during their year in Israel.” Twelve rabbinical and education students participated in the February Encounter trip with former HUC-JIR Governor Nancy Kasten, who reflected on what she could share with the students:  “Don’t make it simple. Whatever your position is, make sure it is complicated, and don’t be afraid to talk about how complicated it is when you come back to the U.S.”

Amelia Lavrancuk concurred, saying, “It is my responsibility as a Reform Jewish leader to be able to represent Israel and explain its complexities to American Jews who don’t know or have difficulty understanding what is happening here. I learned so much about non-violent peace initiatives going on the Palestinian side; it was inspiring to hear so many voices expressing hope.” Tobias Moss added, “As an American Jew, I felt empowered that I can serve as a bridge in continued Palestinian-Israeli dialogue.” David Reinhart noted, “I realized how much work is needed to reach peace/normalization, within both societies and between them.” Harriet Dunkerley said, “I learned that there are people who care and who are working every day on both sides of the separation barrier to come together in a peaceful solution, and it is their work, not that of the politicians, that will one day shift the balagan (chaos) to solution.”

Sarah Berman and Jenn Mager are in the third cohort of T’ruah’s 2015-16 Israel Fellows. T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, which brings together rabbis and cantors from all streams of Judaism, together with all members of the Jewish community, to act on the Jewish imperative to respect and advance the human rights of all people. These rabbinical students will take part in intensive learning and leadership training during their year of study in Israel. In addition to their own training, the Fellows will help facilitate the Year-in-Israel Program, which gives all North American rabbinical and cantorial students spending the year in Israel the chance to meet Palestinians, Bedouin, asylum seekers, and Israeli human rights activists. Rabbinical students Lexi Erdheim, Dan Slipakoff, Joshua Mikutis, and Elana Nemitoff have served as T’ruah Israel Fellows in the past two years. 

Maya Glasser became an AIPAC Lefell Fellow because “spending a year in Israel made me feel deeply connected to the country emotionally and spiritually, and I wanted to feel more connected politically and to learn about Israel through the lens of U.S. politics, and how Americans outside of the Jewish community feel about Israel. I want to help my future congregants develop their own individual relationships with Israel, to be informed and to advocate for Israel in ways that are meaningful to them.” She values her ongoing interaction with her AIPAC rabbinic mentor and the enrichment of sessions with scholars and educators at the AIPAC Policy Conference, where “it was very powerful to be in the same room with thousands of people, including many different types of Jews and many non-Jews, who all care deeply about Israel and are passionate about its existence.” She was on the ARZA slate for the World Zionist Organization elections, and actively campaigned for the elections on campus. “I am involved in ARZA because I am passionate about an Israel that is democratic and liberal.  I want Israel to reflect Reform Jewish values and be an ethical and moral exemplar. I believe in a two-state solution and in gender equality, and those values are central to the ARZA campaign.  If I am elected a delegate, I will strive to create an Israel in which every Jew feels like he or she belongs.”


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 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 Jacob Rader Marcus Center of 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.