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At the Intersection of Torah and Israel

At the Intersection of Torah and Israel

A Conversation with Israel Engagement Expert and Ten Minutes of Torah Commentator Reuven Greenvald

The author (wearing tefillin) and a student with a Sephardic Torah scroll

Rabbi Reuven Greenvald is the Union for Reform Judaism’s director of Israel engagement. He led similar efforts to promote deeper understandings of Jewish peoplehood and stronger ties between Jews in North America and in Israel at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in partnership with the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), and earlier at Makom at the Jewish Agency for Israel.

He received his M.A. and rabbinical ordination from JTS, and his B.A. in ancient near eastern studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He has also studied at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem; the Hebrew University graduate program in Jewish studies; and in the doctoral program in educational policy and planning at the University of Maryland. From 2002 to 2004, he was a Jerusalem Fellow at the Mandel Leadership Institute in Israel.

Who were your early Jewish influences?

Every Friday night our family traveled to Brooklyn from our home in Forest Hills, N.Y., to have  Shabbat dinner at my grandmother’s house. The only ritual we observed was candle lighting, but the experience made a lasting impression on me. My parents started me a year late in Hebrew school, so to catch up with other children, I received private tutoring from a sweet woman who loved Torah. She became my third-grade Hebrew teacher when I was formally enrolled at the Forest Hills Jewish Center. I loved Hebrew school and everything it offered me, whether Hebrew, Jewish history, or learning how to lead services at junior congregation.

In high school, I was active in United Synagogue Youth. The young, charismatic, compassionate rabbinical students who led our Shabbatonim were a very strong influence on me, as well. Through them, I felt the personal urgency to devote my life to Jewish study and practice.

When did you decide to become a rabbi?

That happened at the University of Pennsylvania. My interest in Jewish studies combined with the influence of our Hillel rabbi, Michael Monson, and engaging professors, including Art Green, started me thinking of the rabbinate. In addition to being very involved in the Hillel community, I spent summers working at Camp Ramah (a Conservative Jewish summer camp) in New England, over the years serving as a bunk counselor, unit head, and educational advisor. Between my experiences at Penn and Ramah, I realized I wanted to be a rabbi with a focus on education.

What role has Israel played in your life?

I’ve loved studying and speaking Hebrew since my teen years. I read books in Hebrew and longed to be in a Hebrew-speaking environment. So I was thrilled to be able to spend my junior year of college in Jerusalem as part of a new Conservative yeshiva program. Since then, I’ve returned to Israel multiple times a year, and at one point, lived there for four years as well.

At a recent learning session with Reform Jewish summer campers, you described Israel as a work in progress. What message did you hope to convey?

I wanted them to see that like in their own country there is always work to be done, that no place is perfect. When we look at Israel as a place that is constantly evolving and working on itself, that outlook doesn’t take away from our appreciation of Israel. If you view Israel as a work in progress, you can bring in your own aspirations of what you want Israel to become and help make your vision a reality.

How much of your effort is devoted to creating dialogue among Reform Jews who differ on Israel’s policies and the direction of the Jewish state?

That’s a big part of what I do. I think there are enough unifying values around social justice and Jewish peoplehood to find common ground on divisive issues such as the best way to ensure Israel’s security.

This past summer, for example, I used the poem, “From the Place Where We are Right” by Yehudah Amichai at camp to help prepare staff for civil conversations about Israel.

From the place where we are right
there will never grow
flowers in the Spring
The place where we are right
is trampled and hard
like a yard

In your Ten Minutes of Torah d’var Torah on Sh’mot (Exodus 1:1-6:1), you write, “Leaving Israel – yetziat mitzrayim – is foremost about realizing spiritual destiny, not geographical settlement…possession of the Land ultimately is conditional to fulfillment of the commandments.

What emerges from a close reading of Exodus is only, in part, a story of political liberation. I believe the overarching theme of the Exodus story is a theological revolution. The purpose of the modern state of Israel is to put into action the highest values of Judaism and democracy. It’s not about the place, but what happens in the place that matters. That idea goes back to the Torah and is expressed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence: “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious, and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance.”

Rabbi Reuven Greenvald is the director of Israel engagement at the Union for Reform Judaism.  His prior experience in re-thinking Israel engagement comes from work on innovative initiatives in the North American program of the Jewish Agency for Israel.  

Rabbi Reuven Greenvald
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