Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you. -Deuteronomy 16:20
Among the programs operating at the Hebrew Union College Jerusalem campus are two different rabbinical training courses: since August, I have been directing the Israel Rabbinic Program, a four-year course of study designed to ordain Israelis to serve as Reform rabbis here. There are currently 22 students at various stages of completion. They tend to be in their 30s and 40s, often already experienced educators, from varied religious and cultural backgrounds. They study two days a week intensively, while also working on an MA in Jewish studies from an Israeli university. Meanwhile, we share the campus with another 50 or so full-time rabbinical (and cantorial and education) students spending their required first year in Israel before beginning their studies at New York, Cincinnati, or Los Angeles. They tend to be recent college graduates, from Reform backgrounds; their focus here is Hebrew language and Israel studies - and the experience of Jewish peoplehood. People often wonder why we operate two separate programs - after all, they're all learning to be Reform professional leaders. However, it is obviously not so simple - the gaps in age, experience, language, life-stage and program structure make it quite challenging for the faculty to design even limited joint programs and shared experiences. Having decided to try harder, Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback (director of the program for the North Americans) and I have managed to pull off a couple of interesting experiments this year.
Most recently, we held a joint study day on the topic of Reform Zionism - lectures, mixed discussion groups, a concluding panel. The discussions were lively and I think we achieved our goals. I personally had the privilege of introducing our featured guest speaker, Rabbi Richard Hirsch. When I was a kid at Union Institute Camp in Wisconsin, he was one of the dynamic young rabbis that turned us on to the connection between Judaism and the struggles for social justice that were so much in the center of American consciousness then; he went on to found the Religious Action Center, to march with King and Heschel. Enough for one resume. But then, in 1973 he made aliyah, and spent decades working to build the relationship between Zionism and Reform Judaism. That two-part career does not represent an obvious progression - I hope the students got its significance: I think it's not uncommon for those who are deeply committed to the universalistic, social-justice strand within Reform Judaism to keep their distance from Israel - because it represents the unabashedly ethnic/national/particularistic dimension of Judaism, and/or because as a society - or as a political entity - Israel doesn't always seem to behave according to our ethical preferences, leaving us frustrated/annoyed/turned off. When Dick Hirsch moved from Washington to Jerusalem he didn't leave his commitment to universalistic ethics behind - on the contrary, he made a powerful statement that is or should be the guiding principle of Reform Judaism in the Zionist context: if there is one place in the world where we Reform Jews have the opportunity and the obligation to translate our universalistic ethical principles into the messy reality of the political world, it is here, in the country that purports to be the Jewish state, the one place in the world where we are sovereign, where the buck stops with us. If we don't lead the way to building a state that is a Jewish state worthy of the name (and I don't just mean that Reform rabbis will have equal rights to marry), then, ultimately, Zionism will have failed, and Reform Judaism will be exposed as irrelevant to Jewish history.
Dick Hirsch is in his mid-80s, but he remains a great speaker. I only hope the students understood who and what they were hearing.