A Letter from Jerusalem from HUC’s Rabbi David Ellenson

by Rabbi David Ellenson, Ph.D

I write these words from Jerusalem, Israel. I am here with my wife Jackie, in a city very close to our hearts and in a country we regard as dearly as our own. It has been a week filled with events promising a great future for Israel set against events that mark war and conflict.

The complicated nature of life in Medinat Yisrael has never been more evident to me than it is today.  Last night, in the midst of the bombings taking place in the South, Jackie and I saw a small group of Israeli Jews demonstrating outside the home of the Prime Minister against a potential Israeli invasion of Gaza.  When we returned home after dinner, we saw a television news broadcast reporting that a demonstration had been held by a large number of Arab students Thursday at the University of Haifa protesting the assassination of Hamas militant Ahmed al-Jabari.  This was followed by a response from the Mayor of Haifa who stated that he felt it was extremely inappropriate that such a demonstration was held yesterday in view of events in the South.   At the same time, the Mayor stated that Israel is a free and democratic society and asserted that these students – however misguided – had the right to engage in such protest.  At this moment, the streets of Jerusalem are calm and busy, full of the signs and noises of everyday life and people preparing for Shabbat even as missiles rain down upon the South of Israel and Gaza – and even as troops are called up and massed for an incursion that may or may not happen.  Life goes on even as tensions fill the air.  

Let me reassure you that our students, faculty and staff are well. As I said above, life in this city is proceeding with no interruptions. The Year-In-Israel students are a highly impressive group, whom I enjoyed meeting with and teaching this week.  They are dealing with a challenging situation with calm, focus, and sensitivity. We are part of a system run by the Jewish Agency for Israel, which shares security information and expertise with programs around the country. We have a range of communication and safety measures in place, and the Acting  Director of the Year-In-Israel Program, Dr. Dave Mendelsson, and his team make sure that our students remain well informed and supported.  The College-Institute takes every possible precaution to enhance the security and safety of our students.

While southern Israel is in turmoil, it is all the more remarkable to note some of the extraordinary highlights of these recent days. A meeting of the Board of Governors’ Israel Committee has taken place. The committee is chaired by David Harman and John Golden, and together with Dean Naamah Kelman they have built an outstanding program. Our Governors Mark Biderman, Marty Cohen, Jay Geller, John Golden, Fred Lane, and Burton Lehman as well as our Vice-President for Administration and Finance Sandie Mills and our Vice-President for Institutional Advancement Jane Karlin made the journey to Israel to be part of the proceedings. With members of the Jerusalem Board of Overseers and outside experts, we have grappled with such questions as the future of Reform Judaism in Israel and the prospects for attracting local Israeli funding for the College-Institute.  We have also surveyed the considerable progress made on our $1.3 million restoration project of our landmark campus here on King David Street.

The highlight of the week came on Wednesday night. More than 500 guests packed Blaustein Hall of Beit Shmuel–Mercaz Shimshon, overlooking Homot Yerushalayim, the Walls of Jerusalem, and the Jaffa Gate to see a record number of Israelis graduate from our programs. It was moving to see twelve women, a number of them Orthodox, graduate the Sugiyot Chayim (Life Texts-Talmudic Bibliotherapy) program of our Blaustein Center for Pastoral Care and Counseling. It was inspiring to celebrate with the six individuals who graduated the joint MA program in pluralistic Jewish education that we administer in partnership with Hebrew University. And I can hardly describe the sense of joy I felt to ordain seven new rabbis in Israel, graduates of our Israel Rabbinic Program. The life stories of these new rabbis are little short of amazing, and the fact that people of their caliber choose to devote themselves to the future of Judaism in Israel and around the world is a source of profound hope. All have jobs.  Five will be serving the Jewish people in communities all over Israel, while one will return to Sao Paulo and another to service as a shelichah (emissary) of the Jewish agency to the Reform Movement in the United States.

We honored two respected rabbinical colleagues, Daniel Schiff and Moshe Yehudai, for 25 years of rabbinical service, and granted honorary degrees to Avraham Infeld, one of the most transformative leaders in Jewish life, and in absentia to Justice Dorit Beinisch, former President of the Supreme Court of Israel. Although Justice Beinisch could not attend in person, she sent a message in which she re-affirmed the centrality of human rights and the rule of law. The words, the music, the emotion, and the energy all contributed to an unforgettable evening.

Just a few hours later, Jackie was present at the monthly prayer service of the Women of the Wall, as a number of the principles to which Dorit Beinisch had referred were being put to the test. Some women were arrested for wearing prayer shawls in the precinct of the Western Wall.

A week in Jerusalem can be like this – hope and concern, inspiration and frustration, the struggle for rights and the struggle to achieve security. I pray that the current round of hostilities reaches a speedy conclusion, and that the enormous promise demonstrated by our students, faculty, administrators and lay leaders can contribute to profound change. I am proud that our College-Institute is fully engaged in the strengthening of bonds between Israel and the Diaspora, and deeply invested in the forging of a new Israeli Judaism. May this Shabbat bring relief to all in fear and comfort to all in pain, and may the blessing of peace and security come speedily to our brothers and sisters in the State of Israel.

Rabbi David Ellenson, Ph.D is the president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and I.H. and Anna Grancell Professor of Jewish Religious Thought. he is internationally recognized for his publications and research in the areas of Jewish religious thought, ethics, and modern Jewish history.