Shabbat Message to Year-In-Israel Students - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Shabbat Message to Year-In-Israel Students

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Friday, March 27, 2020

Dear Students, 

As we conclude this week and prepare to enter Shabbat, we wanted to offer some rays of hope and reflection on this time in your development as Jewish leaders and this time in history.  In this time of crisis and anxiety, some will be ill, some will perish, and others will suffer in numerous other ways - emotionally, spiritually, and economically. Yet, in this time of limitless unknowns, we do know that as future Jewish leaders, you are preparing for careers as the individuals to whom people turn in search of comfort, strength, and hope.  We know, too, that this terrible period will forever be a central part of your memory of this year, and will likely be a formative event that impacts your entire tenure as a student at HUC-JIR. We want to remain whole, as a class and as a community. So how do we, the ones to whom people look to for comfort and hope, find those things ourselves? It seems that we derive our strength from those leaders who inspire us, from our text and our tradition, and from our community of trusted colleagues, teachers, and friends.

Israel is the land where the prophets once voiced God’s critique of society, yet in the modern state of Israel it is often the poets, novelists, and writers who have filled this role.  This past week one of these modern “prophets,” David Grossman, published his reflection on the epidemic in the weekend version of Haaretz (if you’d like to read the full essay, you can find it in English or give it a try in the original Hebrew).  The concludes his reflection with these words:

For many, the plague might become the fateful and formative event in the continuation of their lives. When it fades away, at long last, and people come out of their homes following a lengthy closure, new and surprising possibilities might be articulated: perhaps having touched the foundation of existence will foment that. Perhaps the tangibility of death and the miracle of being rescued from it will jolt and rattle women and men. Many will lose their loved ones. Many will lose their place of work, their livelihood, their dignity. But when the plague ends, there may also be those who will not wish to return to their former lives. … Possibly a consciousness of life’s brevity and fragility will spur men and women to set a new order of priorities. To insist far more on distinguishing the wheat from the chaff. To understand that time – not money – is their most precious resource.

Indeed there are momentous events in history that do just this, which force us to confront the unstable, contingent nature  of our existence, which shatter the illusion that we control the world, and which remind us of how often we mistake the chaff for the wheat.  Yet we need not wait for a plague or other once-in-a-generation event to jolt us out of complacency. Each week we conclude with Shabbat, which reminds us of the precious resource that is time, which reminds us that we are not the creators or the universe but rather the last piece of Creation before that which is greater than all of us: Shabbat, that great void in our productivity, that continual reminder of our vulnerability the regular redirection toward what is truly precious and valuable in our lives. 

This Shabbat we begin reading the book of Vayikra, which the Rabbis call Torat HaKohanim, the handbook of the priests.  The book we begin reading is the original guide to Jewish ritual, the original way that the priests, on behalf of the people, sought to act in ways to cope with that which is beyond their control.  Each of you is training to continue their legacy, to help the Jewish people serve God and to guide individuals to act in ways which allow them to embrace their finitude, accept their mortality, and serve that which sustains life.  Together in the coming weeks we will gather together virtually to pray, to learn, to laugh and perhaps also to cry. Despite the distance, our year together is not done. Our time to learn from one another continues and is more precious than ever.  Even when the year is complete, and we hope to find ways to celebrate its completion together even in our dispersed state, we still look forward to a lifetime of being a community of colleagues, teachers, students, and friends.  May each of you find in this Shabbat with renewed strength, and with that strength may we go on to a semester filled with learning, growth, strength, and hope. And see you on Sunday for Tefillah! 

Chodesh Tov and Shabbat Shalom,

Your Year-In-Israel Team 

Rabbi Naamah Kelman
Dave Mendeslsson, Ph.D.
Rabbi Michael Marmur, Ph.D. 
Nancy Lewitt
Helen Linden
Cantor Tamar Havilio
Rabbi Josh Herman 

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.