By Rabbi Melinda Panken '96
This past December, I took 35 congregants to Israel on a Temple trip. Our travels included the regular sites – the Kotel, the Dead Sea, Masada – all the places you visit, especially when you take people to Israel who have never been there before. We landed early morning Friday, toured the Old City and had a small Shabbat service in the hotel so that we could try to sleep off our jet lag and start the next day on Israel time.
For Shabbat morning, I took my congregants to HUC-JIR in Jerusalem to pray. I always find it interesting that the entire sanctuary is made of stone, generally a cold, hard surface, and yet the space always feels so warm to me. That must be because it takes me back to my first year in Israel and the connection to community that came with it. Yes, the sanctuary brought me back to morning Tefila, stumbling my way through chanting Torah and delivering a really unskilled d’var Torah. Then there was the time I fell off the bima when called for an Aliya because I took one step too far on the side of the podium. How uncertain I felt in those days, and how those beginnings have led to years of confidently leading a congregation without falling off the bima. The sanctuary holds for me the warmth of a new beginning and opportunities that were realized thanks to HUC-JIR. It was made even sweeter and a bit more nostalgic when a classmate of mine from that year appeared for services with his congregants as well. It took me back to that first year at HUC-JIR and not only the skills I acquired but the friends and colleagues that have become so dear to me along the way.
The service started, led by students from both the Israeli Rabbinical Program and the American Year-In-Israel program. There were glitches, as any laboratory for learning might have, but there was so much more. There was creativity, and joy, and inspiring music, and students who clearly show incredible promise as leaders. My congregants were blown away by their talent and exuberance, sharing that it was one of the best services they had ever attended. Each commented that if this is the future leadership of the Reform Movement, the future is extremely bright. They all decided that they wanted to attend services at HUC-JIR in New York with me in the coming months. I thanked them and explained that their Temple membership supported not only our congregation in Manalapan, New Jersey, but that it also helped to finance the work of HUC-JIR. What pride and ownership they felt in helping to grow future leaders such as these.
I too felt pride at seeing how this visit helped members of my community to connect with our school and our movement in a way that no sermon could ever accomplish. We were warmly welcomed by both the students and the faculty in the most meaningful way. Upon our return to the states I asked one of our trip participants what the highlight of her trip was. It wasn’t the Kotel. It wasn’t Masada. It was her time at HUC-JIR. All I could do was kvell and feel proud to be part of the HUC-JIR family. Next time you take the members of your community to Israel, go tour the college, and see all the great things that are happening at the HUC-JIR Taube Family Campus in Jerusalem.