Reflections on Our Delegation to Israel

The HUC-JIR community came together in Jerusalem with a unique mission
February 6, 2024

Lisa Grant speaking into a microphone

From January 15-17, a delegation of 38 students, faculty, academic leadership, professional staff, and Board members from all four of our HUC-JIR campuses came together for three profound and powerful days in Israel. The purpose of this unique and unprecedented trip was to strengthen our mutual commitment to Israel and the Jewish People and to demonstrate support for our students, colleagues, and alumni of our Jerusalem campus community. The program was carefully crafted by a planning team consisting of Rabbi Talia Avnon, Iris Ben Zvi, Rabbi Lisa D. Grant, Dganit Jenshil, Jeremy Leigh, Rabbi Dana Sharon (IRP ’21), and Serena Young.

Group photo of students and faculty

Over these three days, we shared stories of how the trauma of October 7 has forever changed our lives. We viscerally experienced what it feels like to live in a world of continuous grief by hearing from Rabbi Yael Vurgan (’18) who serves the people in communities along the Gaza border that were most viciously attacked by Hamas and are now among the thousands whose homes were destroyed and are living as internally displaced evacuees. We also heard from Elana and Eyal Kaminka, lay leaders in the Reform congregation of Tzur Hadassah, whose son Yannai was killed in the first hours of the Hamas invasion on October 7. Yannai, not yet 21, was a young officer at a training base on the Gaza border. He and three others were killed as they held off Hamas militants until reinforcements arrived. His quick thinking and heroic action saved the lives of over 90 newly inducted recruits and 20 civilians who took refuge on the base. We also visited “Hostage Square” in Tel Aviv where we witnessed the pain of loved ones of the over 130 hostages still being held in Gaza. The fear, anger, and heartache were most powerfully felt in our meeting with Lee Siegal, brother of Keith Siegal one of the hostages whose fate grows more precarious each day.

People sitting down talking to each other

At our opening session, Jeremy Leigh, Director of Israel Studies for HUC-JIR’s Year-in-Israel program, provided an organizing framework for our time together. His presentation prompted us to consider the difficult question of how these tragic and turbulent times are challenging our fundamental assumptions about Jewish and Israeli life and existence. We wrestled with the questions of whether it is only tragedy that unites us as a Jewish people, and how do we navigate the politics of Jews and power.

A study session with Dr. Michal Muszkat-Barkan, Director of Education and Professional Development Programs, and Rabbi Dr. Michael Marmur, Associate Professor of Jewish Theology, helped us to process the fact that activism can be infused with doubt. Dr. Muszkat-Barkan, one of the main leaders of Safeguarding our Shared Home, the primary force beyond the pro-democracy protests in Jerusalem, shared how her organization immediately pivoted to civil response after Oct. 7, providing food, clothing, housing, counseling, and a host of other services for over 60,000 people who evacuated to Jerusalem from their destroyed homes in the south and from communities under threat in the north.

Andrew Rehfeld talking to a group of people

Dr. Muszkat-Barkan described how, despite her doubts about the future, she is not deterred from doing everything in her power to live her vision of building a shared democratic society. We heard similar expressions of doubt and determination from other activists, including the Kaminkas who are holding onto their values as peacemakers despite their devasting personal loss, as well as from Avi Dabush, Director of Rabbis for Human Rights. Dabush is a member of Kibbutz Nirim situated about two kilometers from the Gaza border. He spent many hours in a safe room on October 7, suffered the deaths of family members and friends, and has been displaced. Yet, he too, is holding firm on his commitment to working towards a just and sustainable life for all Israelis and Palestinians.

“רק בלילה רואים כוכבים.
Only at night do we see stars”. When reflecting on our One HUC Delegation to Israel I keep returning to the line of a poem by Eyal Kaminka, the father of Yannai Kaminka, a soldier who fell on October 7th defending his trainees, fellow soldiers, and civilians. In these dark days of war, the strength and resiliency of the Israeli people and Israeli civil society are showing us the way in the dark. Like stars in the sky, there are too many to count, but we had the privilege to meet and hear from some of them like our own Dr. Michal Muszkat-Barkan with the Jerusalem Emergency Command, Ronen Keller with Brothers and Sisters in Arms, Rabbi Yael Vurgan at Kibbutz Shaar HaNegev, and Rabbi David Azoulay, who has led funerals for fallen soldiers. An Israeli colleague said that at this moment hope is a word that burns the mouth, but for me hope is not only a word or feeling. I saw hope in the actions of Israelis coming together in a time of grief and tragedy, putting aside their individual differences for something much more important, each other. However long this night is we have them guiding us until dawn arrives. עם ישראל חי”

— Bill Anspach, HUC-JIR Budget and Financial Analyst

On an even more massive scale, activism and doubt is manifest in the work of Ronen Keller, member of HUC-JIR Jerusalem’s Board of Advisors and a founder of Achim BaNeshek/Brothers and Sisters in Arms, an organization established by former military officers that played a major role in organizing the pro-democracy protest movement in Tel Aviv and throughout the country. Like Safeguarding our Shared Home, since October 7, Achim BaNeshek has mobilized thousands of citizen volunteers to provide rescue, relief, education, and psychological support for people under attack and evacuees. They now see it as their mission to rebuild Israel as a safe, humanistic, and liberal democracy.

“Words fail to express my deepest gratitude for the opportunity to participate in this trip. It was a challenging but hope-inspiring experience in many ways. Most importantly, I was blessed to meet many of you in person, pray with you, and grieve with you and our Israeli friends over the tragic events of the past months. I am sure that what I have learned will shape me, my journey, and my appreciation and love for the Jewish people and the Jewish faith in many incalculable ways.”
— Christopher S. Beecher, M.A., American Baptist Churches USA, Campus Minister and HUC-JIR Ph.D. student

“My participation in the recent HUC-JIR mission to Israel was framed by the lessons of the book I read on the plane: human connection, showing up, and bearing “with-ness” are crucial to resilience in this time of crisis.”
— Sarah Bunin Benor, Vice Provost, Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies and Linguistics; Director, Jewish Language Project

In addition to these deeply impactful encounters, we met with faculty and students from HUC-JIR’s Israeli Rabbinical School and the Year-In-Israel programs. We wove together our chaotic and conflicting feelings through prayer, poetry, text study, reflection, and song. With Dr. Ruhama Weiss, Associate Professor of Talmud and Spiritual Care, we reflected on our own inner sources of strength that can help us navigate the uncertainty of what the future holds for all the peoples of this region, who must somehow learn to live together. Despite the trauma, distrust, hatred, and fear that feels so insurmountable at this time, the activism, commitment to humanistic values, and care for one another that we saw in every encounter, offer glimmers of light to guide our way in this darkest of times for Israel, the Jewish People, and our world.

Rabbi Lisa D. Grant, Ph.D.
Director of the New York Rabbinical Program
Eleanor Sinsheimer Distinguished Service Professor in Jewish Education