Communication from President Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D.: Important Announcement Regarding Year-In-Israel Program

June 9, 2020

Dear HUC Community,

I am writing with the disappointing news that we have decided to postpone sending our first-year rabbinical, cantorial, and education students to Israel in 2020-21 due to the risk and uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus. The cantorial and rabbinical students instead will participate in an Israel program during their fourth year, and we will be exploring options to ensure a meaningful Israel experience for our education students at some point in their studies.  For this coming academic term, we will create a unique online program for our current first-year students that will build a solid foundation for their subsequent studies.

The decision comes after an extensive process of evaluation that involved our Provost, Rabbi Andrea Weiss, senior administration, and the Year-In-Israel Decision Making Task Force, which included Jerusalem Dean Rabbi Naamah Kelman, Year-In-Israel Director Dr. David Mendelsson, Israel Seminar Coordinator Jeremy Leigh, DFSSM Director Cantor Richard Cohn, School of Education Director Dr. Miriam Heller Stern, and Rabbinical Program Directors Rabbis Dvora Weisberg, Lisa Grant, and Jonathan Hecht. This work was advised by Dr. Ed Septimus, who has been providing guidance to the College-Institute as we confront our current public health challenges.

Our decision to postpone sending our students to Israel is due to both the risks and uncertainty ahead. During the first hard weeks of the pandemic, we moved the summer portion of the program online. While we all have been heartened by the current conditions on the ground in Israel, there remain additional challenges involved in sending students from abroad there.

As of June 5, the CDC maintains a Level 3 warning that “recommends that travelers avoid all nonessential international travel” and warns that “U.S. residents may have difficulty returning to the United States.” Our students would have to take on additional risks of traveling through airports in the U.S. to get on international flights to Ben Gurion airport. By postponing our Year-In-Israel program, we are protecting not merely our students and their families who would be traveling to Israel, but those whom they might inadvertently infect should they unknowingly be carrying the virus.

Once they arrived in Israel—again, should they even be allowed permission to enter—our students would then have to spend their first two weeks in quarantine. It is also widely predicted that COVID-19 cases will return in the fall and winter.  So even if our students were to accept the risks of travel, and even if they were to arrive safely without causing harm to others, we then had to envision the pedagogical impact of our students spending at least part of their limited time in Jerusalem being socially isolated for an undefined period.

In recognition of the current public health risks, we already have committed to online learning in the Fall for our stateside campuses, and we canceled all work-related travel for HUC employees because of the coronavirus. We did not feel we could consistently or appropriately create a special exemption for the incoming class and move forward with the Year-In-Israel.  To achieve our pedagogical goals of keeping Israel travel and study as a centerpiece of our seminary education, we will shift this experience to the fourth year for our clergy programs and work to find an appropriate time for the students earning our new dual education degrees, a Master of Arts in Jewish Learning and Master of Educational Leadership.

At the College-Institute, our commitment to Israel as Reform Jews is unwavering. HUC first opened a presence in Israel in the 1950s when my predecessor Dr. Nelson Glueck had the foresight to secure land abutting the Old City of Jerusalem at a time when the Old City was occupied by Jordan.  The campus expanded in the 1980s and now constitutes the beautiful Taube Family campus on King David Street, near the historic King David hotel.  This site has been the location of our Year-In-Israel program, a requirement of all first-year rabbinical students since 1970, education students since 1973, and our cantorial students since 1986.  Indeed, it is especially disappointing that our decision comes as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Year-In-Israel. The Year-In-Israel is a foundational, transformative component of the education of the Reform religious leaders trained at HUC, fostering life-long bonds among our students and with the Jewish People and Israel.

At the College-Institute, our approach to the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic has been driven by a commitment to the preservation of life and to minimizing the risks to our own community and to those with whom we are in contact.  We also have been managing this crisis with a sensitivity to the local situation on our individual campuses.  The other vibrant programs on our Jerusalem campus—the Israeli Rabbinical Program, Rikma, Teacher’s Lounge, Sugiyot Chayim, and Ulpan Milah—will continue next year as conditions permit.

We know this will be a significant disappointment to our first-year students and to the Jerusalem faculty and staff who are so dedicated to the Year-In-Israel program and our students. They have been informed prior to our sending out this broader announcement.  I am confident that, as future Jewish leaders, our students will show the resilience and strength that our times demand.  As Psalm 137 implores, we will not forget Jerusalem. Our decision today will simply make our return that much more urgent.  We pray for a quick end to this terrible pandemic so that we may soon learn and sing in Jerusalem once more.