Israel Update from Rabbi David Ellenson
November 19, 2012
5 Kislev 5773
Dear Members of the HUC-JIR Community,
In the days since my letter from Jerusalem to you on Friday, the situation in Israel remains a serious and challenging one. As all of you surely know, a rocket fell outside Jerusalem on Friday just as Shabbat began and the threat of expanded war has surely escalated as I write these words on Monday afternoon in New York. The complexities of life in Israel and the commitment to normalcy that Israelis hold on to as daily life continues against this difficult and threatening backdrop is hard to capture for a non-Israeli audience. Yet, as I attempted to convey to you in my previous communication, normal life does indeed unfold in Jerusalem as elsewhere in Israel even at this time of anxiety and uncertainty – and our students participate in this reality as they embark on the educational and religious journey that will prepare them for their positions of leadership and service to the Jewish people.
I want to express special thanks to our Administration and Faculty in Jerusalem for the outstanding leadership they have displayed in this crisis. Knowing them as I do, I am hardly surprised by this. However, I remain grateful to our Dean, Rabbi Naamah Kelman, and our Vice President for Academic Affairs, Rabbi Dr. Michael Marmur, for their vigilance and good judgment as they lead our Jerusalem campus at this time. I would acknowledge as well the efforts of Nancy Lewitt, Head of Student Services for our Year-In-Israel Program, and Dave Mendelsson, our Acting Interim Director of our Year-In-Israel Program, for the devotion and love they display for our students and our mission. The absolute commitment each one of them has for the well-being and security of all our students as well as the love each of these exemplary human beings has for Am Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael and the highest and most humane values of our Massoret (Jewish tradition) is a blessing for our students as well as our institution. We are so fortunate to have them in their posts.
The current situation in Jerusalem, while of grave concern, does not in our opinion call for any dramatic decisions. The College-Institute continues to monitor the situation and is in contact with the Situation Room of the Jewish Agency, which receives regular updates from the military and other security services. The Administration is in consultation with them about the upcoming field trip for our Year-In-Israel students to Kibbutz Yahel in the Arava that is scheduled for Wednesday through Motza'ei Shabbat (Saturday night) of this week. At the moment, the trip is scheduled to go forward. Of course, we will continue to monitor the situation as it unfolds over the next few days and will keep abreast of developments and take all the security service recommendations into consideration as decisions need to be made.
In the midst of all that is happening, I must say that the calm and confidence of our Year-In-Israel students is impressive. When the siren accompanying the explosion outside Jerusalem on late Friday afternoon went off, it did create uncertainty among all of us in Jerusalem, even as preparations for greeting the Sabbath continued. Right away, Nancy Lewitt activated an internal messaging system which allows the College-Institute to be in immediate communication with all our Year-In-Israel students. This permitted the Administration to confirm that all of our students were indeed safe and sound and members of our Faculty and Administration did make personal contact with many of our students who were in attendance at services in various venues throughout Jerusalem.
Jackie and I attended tefilah at Kol Haneshama that evening. Usually, the synagogue is full on Friday night. However, attendance, which usually is bursting at the seams, was a bit sparser than at other times. At the same time, a significant congregation was still there and many parents of current soldiers were in attendance. Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman conducted services in a secure yet sober mode.
On Saturday morning, we attended services at the Murstein Synagogue on our Jerusalem campus. Our students, under the direction of Cantor Tamar Havilio, conducted the entire service and my classmate and colleague Rabbi Shelton Donnell, Rabbi of the Murstein Synagogue and teacher and counselor to our Year-In-Israel students, delivered a sensitive and timely sermon focusing on the weekly Torah portion that featured the story of Jacob and Esau. Virtually the entire Year-In-Israel class was in attendance. The singing was spirited and I marveled at the sense of security and composure that marked our students. Their maturity bodes well for the Reform Movement and the Jewish people. At the end of services, Dean Kelman, Rabbi Donnell, Rabbi Marmur, Cantor Havilio, my wife Jackie, and I offered to meet with the students to discuss any concerns and fears they might have. Much to our surprise, not one stayed for this purpose. Instead, a number of them simply thanked us for being there and others actually invited us to accompany them to a park where they were going to play basketball after Shabbat lunch. Once again I would repeat the words I have stated before – life in Jerusalem remains remarkably normal.
In closing this letter to you, I would provide the words of prayer that Rabbi Weiman-Kelman asked our Israeli rabbinical student, Noa Mazur, to read at the end of services last Friday night. Her father, our Israeli colleague Rabbi Yoram Mazur, is the author of this tefilah. As Noa read the words, which capture our hopes and concerns at this time of distress and fear, the congregation listened in rapt and silent attention.
Entitled, "A Supplication (Tachanun) for Days of War," the prayer states:
Our God, Who blessed our Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and our Matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, bless the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces and all those defenders of our people who stand on guard. Protect them and save them from all distress and anguish and grant blessing upon all the deeds of their hands. Hear our prayer and their prayer and save them.
Send Your blessing upon Your people, Lord of all worlds, to concerned mothers and pained fathers, to citizens who are banished from their homes and to children who have ceased their play. Show Your compassion for the sake of schoolchildren who sit in bomb shelters. Please remember us favorably, grant us Your salvation, and offer us Your mercy, for in You we trust.
Please, merciful God, set Your mercy upon us, and remember Your covenant, with Abraham our father, Your beloved. Spread Your shelter of peace upon the seed of Ishamel the son of Hagar and upon the children of Isaac the son of Sarah, and may the prophecy inspired by the verses in Zechariah 8:12-13, ‘But what shall be sown will prosper – The vine shall produce its fruit, the ground shall produce its yield, and the skies shall provide their moisture. I will bestow all these things upon all of them … and you shall become a blessing, have no fear,' be established for them and for us, and let us say, Amen.
The College-Institute will be in touch with you again soon.
Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion is the nation’s oldest 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 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 history, identity, art, and archaeology, and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.