Rabbis in Training
Rabbi Joshua ben Perachya said: Make for yourself a teacher (rav), get yourself a study partner, and give every person the benefit of the doubt in judgment.
-Mishnah, Avot 1:6
Last week saw the opening of the new academic year in the Israel Rabbinical Program at Hebrew Union College (in Israel, while public schools open September 1, universities open a week after Simchat Torah). We welcomed six new students into year one.
Of the six, four come from Orthodox backgrounds; one from the Former Soviet Union, where he grew up in a family that was cut off from Judaism; and one from a family with some links to liberal Judaism. Last year, we took in four students (our average yearly intake is indeed five), all of whom had grown up in the world of liberal Judaism in Israel. Last year, we congratulated ourselves on how the Reform Movement in Israel has "come of age," in that it is finally able to produce enough "born and bred" liberal Jews to fill an entire class in the rabbinical school. Indeed, that is a pretty impressive sign of how Israel has changed in recent decades.
On the other hand, there is also something very gratifying about the fact that the program is able to draw applicants from across the spectrum of religious life in Israel, and to produce rabbis who have traversed the kind of personal Jewish journey that we envision for Israeli society as a whole. In short, we are very excited that the student body of the Israel Rabbinical Program comprises such a dynamic mix, a cross section of Israel. (Full disclosure: I am the director of the Israel Rabbinical Program)
Our students study in the same building with the students in the Year-In-Israel Program (YII), which comprises students in the rabbinical, cantorial, and education programs at HUC's three U.S. campuses who spend their first year in an intensive ulpan (Hebrew immersion) and introduction to Israel and Jewish studies curriculum. The two groups have a joint weekly morning prayer service and a few structured activities together in the course of the year. But in general, they sort of inhabit parallel universes, for several interesting reasons:
- The Israelis, of course, study in Hebrew. The YII students are learning Hebrew, and in many cases can only really begin to understand lectures and academic readings late in the year. I attended HUC before the YII program was instituted and find that the upgrade in the entire HUC curriculum that has resulted from this intensive Hebrew experience is huge.
- The Israeli program follows the Israeli academic calendar, while the YII has to be synched with the American academic calendar, so there are many weeks when you will find only one of the programs in session.
- Israelis tend to arrive at rabbinical studies after a personal and professional journey, which usually includes establishment of a family - students are mostly 30 and older, with families and therefore with all kinds of personal, professional, and economic obligations. They are in class two full days a week; the rest of the time they are working. The YII students tend to be in their early twenties and are participants in a full-time program that includes academic as well as informal activities.
- YII students are pursuing a personal dream, but also a sort of "standard" professional training course that will open for them various employment options - they could have gone to law school, or social work school, etc. For Israelis, rabbinical studies are a leap of faith. They know that the chances of their finding a full-time rabbinical job upon ordination are minimal. Many graduates cobble together several part-time positions to make ends meet, hoping that ultimately they will succeed in building a community or institution that will actually provide them with a living. Fortunately, while it's slow going, there have been some great successes so far; our graduates have shown themselves truly to be agents of change in Israeli society.
Despite these differences and obstacles, the faculty are committed to the belief that the two groups have much to teach and learn from each other, and so each year we seek to institutionalize new opportunities for cooperation and interaction. They will, after all, all be colleagues in just a few years, and their relationship will have long-term impact on the connections between Israeli and North American communities.