May 21st: The Year in Israel – A Year Later

One year ago today, I got on a plane and returned home after my first year of rabbinical school in Israel. At the time, I remember the feeling as though I had just experiencing something too big for words, too profound to be understood in a day or a week or a month. I knew, as I sat on that plane a year ago, that I was going to do a lot of growing as I came to terms with who and what I had become after the experience of leaving everything I had known about my life and moving to the other side of the world.

Now, a year later, I think about the processing I have done. Truth be told, rabbinical school leaves surprisingly little time and space for reflection, throwing one experience at us after another. Almost as soon as we finish a phase of the process, we move on to the next with little more than a debrief.

What I have had the chance to do is to better understand who I’m becoming, and how I grapple with the challenges I face. I spent a large part of my time in Israel counting down the days: days til breaks from school, days I spent away from my fiáncé, days left before I got to go home. WIth this focus on arriving at certain benchmarked days, I lost sight of the experience I was having, instead looking too far out in front to truly embrace where I was.

Looking back, I engaged with my year in Israel as an observer, more like an anthropologist than a resident or citizen. I wanted to learn as much as I could, and I treated that learning as something I did for the purpose of furthering my understanding, not necessarily participating in what I was finding. This is neither a bad thing nor a good one. It simply was how I experience the year. It allowed me to see what the world was doing, how things operated, while also maintaining my tether to who and what I was, something that not all students abroad are able to do.

Of course, at the root of the Hebrew Union College requirement to study in Israel is the hope of building a connection with the state of Israel itself. In the 365 days since I left the country, my relationship with it has changed every time I’ve examined it: at times, I have been angry with what I see, at others deeply and profoundly connected to the nation of my heritage. One of the lessons I’m walking away with most clearly is the comfort with the knowledge that I will never have just one stance on Israel. Israel is a vital part of who I am and what it means to me to be Jewish, and that is going to change as the world around me does. While I went to Israel expecting to concretize my understanding, and even came home thinking I would have, I am now more comfortable than ever to be at peace with my fluctuating and maturing love for the Jewish homeland.

Before going to Israel, I was terrified of leaving my home and everything I loved in America. I built up my departure so large that I was consumed by my anxiety associated with it. When I came home, I was convinced that I was never going to worry about anything again; I had conquered my greatest fear, and had no reason to stress to that extent ever again. Reality has shown me that I am not going to simply stop stressing or worrying overnight, that they are a part of how I process my relationship with the future. Yet, what I have been able to learn from my experience in Israel was the constant need to remind myself of the context, to constantly be putting things into perspective for myself, so as not to lose sight of the opportunities I am afforded, even when I am anxious about what the future may hold.

My experience in Israel a year ago was not one that I was going to understand when I completed it, and I am even more confident that I am still not finished with internalizing and growing from it, even a year later. My time in Israel and my time in rabbinical school as a whole are deeply interwoven, and will build upon one another the further I go into my experience.

I am grateful that I had the privilege of going to HUC in Israel, of getting the chance to experience first-hand the incredible world we live in and the richness of Judaism in the Jewish homeland. I am also extremely grateful to be home, living my life with the people I love and the pieces of society that are part of my way of life. And I am grateful that I have had the chance to continue to explore what life has to offer beyond the one experience in Israel, because it gives me the hope and excitement for what is to come.

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March 10th: Prophecy on the Street

There is a man who stands on a street corner across from the mall. The mall is in the nicer part of town, surrounded by money and affluence. The man standing on the corner holds a megaphone and a picket sign. He is telling the world his prophecy.

This man claims he has heard the word of God, spoken to him directly. He feels it is his duty to show the public what he has learned, railing against society to try to set us all back on the right path.

At face value, a man claiming to have heard the voice of God and was inspired to share it would cause us to pause and think. But, alas, this is not an original idea. Almost every college campus in the country has a guy like this, raging against homosexuality and blasphemy and sins of all kinds. While these individuals claim a unique revelation delivered to them personally, they certainly are falling into place perfectly with a stereotype.

This individual came up during a class discussion in my Prophets course. While he and so many others are trying to recreate the impassioned social critique of the Biblical prophets, we came to the conclusion that he has missed one essential ingredient of what made the prophets effective: access to those in power. Most Biblical prophets had the ear of kings and leaders, and thus were able to have an impact on society. Instead of a suburban street corner or a college campus square, these modern-day “prophets” would be better served at city hall or in the governor’s mansion.

One of the questions we barely ever touch was whether or not these people actually DO communicate with God. In many ways, it could be argued that it doesn’t matter. The individuals almost certainly believe for themselves that they have received some kind of divine revelation, or at the very least feel somehow commanded to speak to the public. The public, meanwhile, doesn’t listen. Catcalls and confrontations are more common than internalization and dialogue. For most people, their notion of God does not work like that. They don’t want to believe in a god that speaks to them through a megaphone-wielding antagonist.

And yet, despite our use of this radical as a counter-balancing case of prophecy, I have to acknowledge that, on one level, he has been at least partially successful. By thinking about God and how I feel God communicating with me, the street-corner preacher has caused me to think in ways that I hadn’t before. The fact that rabbinical school students used him as an example to talk about divine communication is no small victory. Whether or not God spoke to him, for some unbelievable and unintended reason, I’m trying to figure out what God is trying to say to me.

January 4th: We Aren’t Going Anywhere

In 2016, hate was a concept. We talked about it a lot, but for me, I had the luxury of talking about hate directed at other people. I didn’t have to deal with the feelings of anxiety, discomfort, and fear myself until my own community was targeted yesterday.

Hebrew Union College has served as the home base for the education of Reform Jewish Rabbis for over a century, and Cincinnati has been the home to the College since 1875. On Tuesday morning, a swastika was discovered, painted on the sign on Clifton Avenue outside of the campus grounds.

The swastika, by all evidence, appears to be the work of a petty vandal, hastily drawn before moving on. No direct threats were made, nobody was harmed, no property was damaged beyond simply wiping away the symbol. Yet, Jews all over the country feel intimidated, overwhelmed, and fearful, that their place as American Jews has somehow been called into question. Facebook, in the last 36 hours, has been filled with unending posts of sadness, support, and determination. We say “Never again,” referencing the Holocaust and origins of the Swastika, and Jews all across the world are programmed to stand up for ourselves to ensure that we will never been attacked like we were back then.

huc
HUC has been home to Reform Judaism in Cincinnati since 1875, and will continue to be a strong part of this city and this community.

For me, the hardest part was the inability to do much of anything productive. Sure, we can voice our displeasure, we can cry and stamp our feet and call attention to this injustice of it all. But an act committed by a silent criminal with no face is awfully hard to do anything about. We don’t know if this is a doodle by an ignorant punk or if this is a first step for a series of hate crimes. What we do know is that someone found the need to paint a specifically Jewish-motivated symbol of hate on our institution, and we cannot allow our fear to get the best of us.

The Jewish community of Cincinnati and America need to use this as a wake-up call. If we weren’t aware already, there are those who are intimidated by the presence of Jewish people and Jewish values in our country. My hope is that they are scared out of ignorance, not out of hate. Which means our job is to do two things.

First, we need to be educators. We need to be vocal about our Judaism, welcoming questions with sincere and kind answers. We need to tell others what we stand for and show non-Jewish America that our country is stronger with Jews in it than it would be if we weren’t here. We have an obligation to help demystify the “other”, to give an introduction to those who have never seen past their own identities.

Second, we need to be strong in our commitment to stand up for our values and stand up for ourselves. This first act is one of vandalism, but we don’t know what might happen next. This serves as a wake-up call for Jews all across the country to speak up for ourselves, to ensure that we continue to wear our Judaism with pride.

It would be easy to be afraid of going back to school after Winter Break. It would be easy to turn this small act of disgusting defacement as a threat, to scare us, to intimidate us, and to push us away. But what we have the opportunity to do now is to come out stronger, to show our Judaism and who we are as Jewish people.

The most beautiful thing has also come out of this dark moment. The administration of HUC as identified that support and offers of help and commitment have been rolling in, both from the Jewish community of Cincinnati and from the University of Cincinnati which is located just down the street. Members of the College Institute and the Cincinnati community at large have made it abundantly clear: HUC is here, HUC belongs here, and there are many people who will fight to make sure that remains true.

I am proud to be a student at Hebrew Union College. I am proud to be a Jewish member of the Cincinnati community. And I am determined to ensure that this city and this world knows what it means for Jews to be the agents of peace in all corners of the earth.

More information about the incident.