Helping our Rabbinic Students

April 5, 2011 by

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I was troubled to read Daniel Gordis’ recent thoughts about the place of Israel in the lives of aspiring rabbinic students. Because Danny is a true ‘lover of Zion’ and a friend, I wanted to share a few thoughts…

Based on Makom’s experiences working with rabbinic students studying in Israel from the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Hebrew Union College, I would suggest Danny points to a real issue but may overstate his case by bringing the most extreme examples.

At the same time as there are students openly hostile (hostile is different than critical) to Israel, there are also students who are highly Israel engaged (whose parents are Israeli, who are graduates of Birthright, Lapid, and Masa programs, and who grew up in the Conservative or Reform camping systems, etc.)

Most students are somewhere in-between. The education that the Jewish community has provided them with – both about things Jewish and particularly about Israel – has been quite infantile. Jewish educational systems often choose to raise up consumers and not citizens; people who are willing to pay dues but not be active participants in building the Jewish present and future. Jewish education has not encouraged them to contend with questions of significant meaning, has not trained them to ‘hug and wrestle’. Their sense of Judaism/Jewishness is vague – combining two pieces in uneasy tension:

(a) a highly spiritualized sense that Judaism/Jewishness is a kind of comforting niche from the ravages of real life

(b) a sense that Judaism and American Liberalism are one and the same.

With regards specifically to Israel, these students have been failed by the Jewish community leadership and by the State of Israel:

(1) The American Jewish community – in traditionally promoting a ‘rose colored glasses’ approach to Israel has not left room for the nuanced discussion until recently. Additionally, the retreat in American Jewish life from an understanding of Judaism/Jewishness as not only communal but also ethnic/national (including Hebrew language fluency) renders connection with Israel nearly incomprehensible.

(2) The State of Israel promotes a status quo of Israeli ignorance about American Jewish life, and essentially ‘illegalizes’ non-Orthodox Judaisms. Increasingly the realities of Israeli public discourse reflect a growing tribalism and a reduced commitment to democratic values. Both play a role in molding an Israel that is increasingly difficult for American Jews to relate to in a positive way.

(3) The rabbinic training programs – although they have their students in Israel for the year – have found difficulty in articulating programs that put people’s personal-professional engagements with Israel on the table as a key part of becoming and being a rabbi and Jewish educator.

Danny is right about the emergence of an increasingly confident voice in American Jewish life that is a kind of neo-diasporism that sees Israel as something between an embarrassment and a crime. The voices that he brings in his article represent extremes – but are worrisome because of the profound lack of Jewish solidarity they express. Our Makom experiences suggest that the conversation for Jewish solidarity needs to be inclusive, and like the Pesach seder that all four sons – and daughters – deserve a place at the table.

Ultimately, training institutions need to provide future rabbis and educators with the conditions where a serious, well grounded conversation about the place of Israel in contemporary Jewish life. I know that Danny would agree with me in recalling Proverbs 29:18 “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

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