As I write this letter to you, we are all reeling from the horrific events in Charlottesville. As I hope will be obvious to all of our alumni, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion condemns and fights against all manifestations of racism, neo-Nazism, and anti-Semitism, and their violent and deadly consequences in Charlottesville earlier this month. We will continue to affirm, in all we do, the values of diversity, humanity, and tolerance, and ceaselessly pursue our mission of building a world of justice and freedom.
We have posted a new College Commons podcast featuring faculty and experts analyzing the current situation. You can access the podcast here.
In addition, we are partnering with the RAC on the #BeTheLightForJustice campaign, and ask your community and you to share a photo of yourself holding a candle with this hashtag to express our solidarity in advancing light in the midst of moments of darkness.
I also wanted to make you aware of the news from Jerusalem. Rabbi Naamah Kelman and I shared the following statement with the HUC-JIR community:
As they often do, many of our first-year rabbinical, cantorial, and education students, our Israeli rabbinical students, our faculty member Cantor Tamar Havilio, and over 200 others joined Women of the Wall for their Rosh Hodesh service. Our students were there to support Women of the Wall’s right to pray, blow shofar for the month of Elul, and read from the Torah in a sacred space for all Jews. We are proud of our students’ activism on behalf of women’s rights at the Kotel and their commitment to the right of Reform and Conservative Jews to worship there.
When entering into the Kotel plaza security area, our students wore kippot and brought tallitot as proud Reform Jews. This prompted Kotel security guards to search two of our female students in an inappropriate manner, ostensibly “looking for Torah scrolls” and “other ritual objects” which have been restricted from the women’s section of the Kotel by order of Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Orthodox authority in control of the Kotel by order of the state-sponsored chief rabbinate. Because they were identified as Reform Jews, they were taken aside and asked to lift their skirts and shirts in front of the guards before they could enter the Kotel plaza. A third student was only spared this embarrassment due to the immediate intervention of two of our alumni, Rabbis Noa Sattath and Gilad Kariv, on legal grounds.
This search was a dramatic and disgraceful new tactic in the effort to demean Reform and Conservative Jews, limit the right of Women of the Wall to pray at the Kotel, and intimidate those who stand for religious pluralism. To subject committed women studying to be Jewish leaders–lovers of Israel and supporters of Jewish life—to an illegal and inappropriate search is deeply disturbing and divides us as a people. Throughout this encounter, our students honored all of us by their composure. They tell us that they emerged from this experience more energized than ever to fulfill their sacred mission as future leaders of the Reform Movement and the Jewish People. We count on them to build a vibrant Jewish future in Israel, North America, and around the globe with respect and understanding for a broad variety of approaches to Judaism. Our students will continue to lead and join in the fight for religious pluralism in Jerusalem and the State of Israel, and we will always support them in all they do.
No Jew should ever prevent others from exercising their rights to pray peacefully in the manner they choose.
We will continue to be vigilant in ensuring that the voices of reason, compassion, tolerance, and hope will defeat the forces of ignorance and injustice in our society and in Israel.
On a happier note, I recently returned from two weeks at our beautiful Taube Family Campus in Jerusalem and am happy to report on some of the happenings at the College-Institute as an exciting new year begins for our students.
The academic year began with orientation and our summer ulpan, and the arrival of the first cohort of Koret Foundation Scholars in the Year-In-Israel Program. I am delighted to note that the Koret Foundation’s generous $3.75 million three-year grant fully funds tuition for all first-year rabbinical, cantorial, and education students spending their required first year of study in Israel. This gracious support essentially subvents all tuition for the students in the Year-in-Israel, making it possible for them to focus on their studies, gain the most from their Israel experience, and return to our stateside campuses without incurring substantial debt.
We are enormously grateful to the Koret Foundation for their commitment to our strategic vision of advancing Jewish higher education that is imbued with a love for Israel and Jewish peoplehood. The Koret Foundation Scholars Program will enable us to recruit more outstanding Jewish leaders who will build and sustain the crucial sense of mutual responsibility--arevut–between North American Jewish communities and the State and people of Israel for generations to come. This arevut is more important than ever before in these challenging times.
We hope to attract an ever greater number of students for this powerful opportunity for Israel engagement as part of their graduate studies and reach out to you, our most influential recruiters for all of our programs, to help us. Please spread the word among prospective students you may know that, for the next two admissions years, the Koret Foundation Scholars Program provides complete financial support by easing the burdens of their first year of study in Israel. Please partner with us in sharing this information, as well as our 99% placement rates for our graduates, as broadly as possible, to further increase HUC-JIR’s enrollment.
As for our newest students, we are pleased to report steady growth in the size of the first-year class, which this year includes 45 students. The terrific students who started the program this year come from exceptional educational backgrounds, with work experience throughout the global Jewish community, and origins in Australia, Ecuador, Canada, South Africa, the United States and elsewhere. They are all busily settling into the Israeli environment, acclimating to the complex political and cultural ethos of Israel, selecting their community service projects, and beginning their rigorous studies. As graduates of leading colleges and universities, they all express a passionate commitment to Jewish learning and leadership. We are privileged to have such remarkable young people preparing to make a difference in our world.
We need their optimism and idealism now, more than ever. In Israel, they are encountering the challenges of recent government actions restricting pluralism, as well as significant upcoming Knesset bills that could have a tremendous impact on the nature of religion and democracy in the Jewish state. As eyewitnesses to the unfolding legislation and public debate, they are learning up close what it means to advocate for liberal Judaism. They are beginning to develop the knowledge and skills that will enable them to serve as catalysts for strengthening the vital ties between diaspora Jewry and Israel, in the face of growing apathy and alienation.
I hope you share in my pride in knowing that our Jerusalem campus is expanding its role as an agent for tolerance and change in Israeli society. Over 200 Israeli and Palestinian professionals in pastoral care recently convened on our campus, in Beit Jalla, and in Bethlehem, for “Healing Hatred: Spiritual Challenges in a Context of Political Conflict.” This three-day conference, organized by the International Association for Spiritual Care, was a joint venture of HUC-JIR, the Holy Land Trust, and the Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue. International experts shared best practices in how to use spiritual tools to deal with conflict situations and to heal trauma, both personal and political. Attendees came with knowledge of peacemaking in highly diverse locales, from Gaza and South Africa, to the UK and North America. None left without being elevated and touched by the challenges and possibilities of this vital work in a war-torn world.
Furthermore, scores of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian teachers in Jerusalem are taking part in HUC-JIR’s “The Teachers Room.” Through this innovative program, religious and secular educators discuss their own fears and aspirations as they create shared pedagogies for tolerance and pluralism, which filters into the hearts and minds of thousands of their students. The summer training program is supported by the American Center, a project of the U.S. Embassy in Israel, and the family of 16-year-old Shira Banki, who was tragically murdered at the Jerusalem Pride Parade in 2015.
You are cordially invited to join us in Jerusalem on November 16, 2017, when we will ordain the 100th Israeli Reform rabbi. As we celebrate this milestone, we will also express our dedication to the furthering of a flourishing, native Israeli rabbinate committed to advancing religious pluralism, egalitarianism, and human rights.
Our stateside students are already on our campuses, ready to embrace another stimulating year of intellectual and spiritual growth. We continue to focus on our programs, as we revise our rabbinical program curriculum and explore ways to extend the reach of our degree program offerings. Through consultation and planning, we seek to better understand how the changing North American Jewish community will impact on our training of Jewish leaders. This emerging generation must have both the vision and the expertise to engage, build, and transform Jewish life for the 21st century.
As always, we rely on your indispensable help in recruiting wonderful young people with the capacity, compassion, and creativity to invigorate the Jewish future. We are tremendously grateful for your ongoing, generous financial support, and thank you for your sustaining encouragement.
Together, let us look toward 5778 as a year of achievement, healing and meaning, as we work together on behalf of the Reform Movement, the Jewish people, and humankind.
With warm regards and best wishes,
Rabbi Aaron Panken, Ph.D.