Training the Leaders of Tomorrow: An Update from Israel

Program Director Rabbi Reuven S. Greenvald on the Year-in-Israel

March 4, 2024

YII students at Arkhō concert August 2023

Welcoming YII students group photo


At the beginning of July 2023, the new cohort of 24 rabbinical, cantorial, and education students gathered on Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s beautiful Taube Family Campus in Jerusalem for their Year-In-Israel. Through ritual, prayer, and study, and by getting introduced to the sounds, tastes, and sights of Jerusalem – the 11-month study program was launched in a spirit of hope, affirmation, and joy.

The summer term centered on Hebrew immersion and on foundational Jewish learning that would be applied throughout the year. Alongside their classes, these new HUC-JIR students participated in Shabbat programming in Jerusalem and across the country. By the end of the six-week summer term, students marked their progress confidently – they were ready for the full course of study greeting them in the fall semester to start at the beginning of September.

The fall Jewish holidays came a few weeks into the semester. As first-year students with no holiday placements, the YII affords them the unique opportunity to experience the deep meaning of the Jewish holidays in community with each other and in the pluralistic landscape of Jewish Israel. Then, almost at the end of the Sukkot vacation — on Simchat Torah and Shabbat morning — life in Israel was violently disrupted. Like the rest of Israel, life on campus immediately had to respond to the worry and fear all around us.

The first responsibility of the YII to its students is to support them. To that end, YII leadership helped each student to make the best decision for themselves to either stay in Jerusalem or to travel to places in North America or Europe until they felt safe or ready to return.

Our second responsibility as a graduate seminary is to do our best to ensure that students will move towards their degree completion as planned. Within days we put into place a hybrid program that guaranteed that almost all first semester academic and program goals would be met. The students who were outside of Israel attended all classes on Zoom; the students who stayed in Jerusalem had some classes on Zoom with those abroad and some in-person classes. All students continued to benefit from the spiritual support provided by communal prayer and meetings with advisors. The precariousness of life in Israel affected the students who stayed most directly and the YII leadership and faculty offered them additional ways to process their feelings, feel strengthened by being in community, and to act on their desire to help those most directly affected by the war through volunteering.

When it became apparent that Jerusalem and the rest of Israel’s central region were able to return to the regular routines of daily life, YII and HUC-JIR leadership announced that the YII program would return to being fully in-person at the start of the second semester in mid-January.

Most of the original cohort is now back in Israel to complete the year. The intended course of study is moving ahead supplemented by learning to deal with the war and its effects. But those changes are not merely additive. When we watch them pack up their apartments mid-May and say our tearful l’hitraot, we will be able to confidently say that we moved these first-year students one step closer to becoming the right Jewish leaders prepared to guide in uncertain times.