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Despite ‘situation,’ Reform Students Prepare for Rabbinical Study in Israel

When Mark Miller walks in downtown Jerusalem these days, he leans away from the street whenever he sees an oncoming bus.

While he rues the “insidious” way terror “gets under your skin” in Israel, Miller says trying to shield himself from potential bus bombings is just one way life in Israel is transforming his views of Zionism and Judaism.

“I feel so much right now that Israel is vitally important to our lives as Jews and to the Jewish community,” says Miller, a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “Things are more starkly illuminated with terror as a backdrop.”

Miller, 33, of Los Angeles, is among 61 first-year cantorial and rabbinical students who are spending their first year at HUC’s Jerusalem campus, despite the daily risks they face from what Israelis calls the “matzav” — the “situation.”

Only seven students in the entering class stayed behind, with the school’s blessing, largely for family reasons.

The rest elected to make the trip — after some soul-searching and after a speech by HUC’s president, Rabbi David Ellenson, who says the school’s mission to train future Jewish leaders is inextricably linked to its deep-rooted Zionism.

For more than 30 years, HUC has believed that Israel “serves a seminal role” in the development of future Jewish community leaders, Ellenson says. And the school cannot soften that commitment despite the threat that terrorism poses to students studying in Israel.

“From HUC’s perspective, our commitment to Israel cannot brook any compromise,” Ellenson says.

That contrasts sharply with the movement’s beginning nearly a century ago, when anti-Zionism was Reform’s ruling ideology.

Now, the HUC Board of Governors will hold its 2003 meeting in Jerusalem in solidarity with Israel, and Ellenson will be going to Israel shortly to teach at Hebrew University and the Shalom Hartman Institute.

HUC respected each student’s decision whether to live and study in Israel this year, Ellenson said, but added that “there cannot be any retreat” from the school’s core values.

HUC “embodies certain principles,” Ellenson said. “Foremost is that solidarity with the notion of Jewish peoplehood can only be experienced in the fullest dimension in Israel.”

Rabbinical seminaries for the other movements either require or suggest that students spend time in Israel during their studies, but only the Reform seminary mandates that students spend their first year in Israel. And, among the movements, only HUC maintains a campus in the heart of Jerusalem.

Several of America’s rabbinical seminaries have considered postponing their Israel programs, though none has decided to do so.

HUC’s decision to stick with its first-year rule means that nearly all of the freshmen class of 2002-2003 will be in Jerusalem, where more suicide bombers have struck during the current intifada than anywhere else in Israel.

But the security situation has not deterred anyone. The 2002-2003 class is HUC’s largest incoming class in 20 years — and even those who opt to remain behind now must spend a year in Israel before graduating.

The HUC group has been trained to take certain precautions, such as avoiding cafes and public buses, carrying cell phones and maintaining contact through phone “trees.”

Miller, who was last in Israel in January, came back to Jerusalem with his wife a week ago to find an apartment before the school year begins Aug. 14.

Already he has noticed that the landscape has changed radically, on the street and in his heart.

What first struck him is that “life goes on here,” Miller said. “Being in the U.S. or elsewhere, all you see in headlines or on CNN is a tremendous pall. But people are going about with their lives, and hope springs eternal.”

Of course, life has changed. Downtown Jerusalem’s thoroughfares — King David and King George streets, Jaffa Street, the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall — used to bustle with activity, but now have only a smattering of people.

Miller finds himself scanning faces, warily taking note of young men who are alone and wearing backpacks.

More soldiers patrol the streets. As one shopkeeper pointed out to Miller, there are no children around.

At nearly empty restaurants, Miller and his wife have been seated by the owners, who also served them and cooked their dinners.

Israelis, who at one time barely noted the arrival of American Jews, feel differently today, he said.

“I’ve never had so many people thank me for being here. Shopkeepers, taxi drivers, people on the street thank me, say ‘b’hatzlacha’ ” — Hebrew for “Good luck” — “and ‘Thank God you’re here.’ “

Israel “is a very large part of my personal commitment to becoming a rabbi,” Miller said. “It feels so good to be here.”

Other rabbinical students who will be in Israel shortly say the experience is sure to nurture their spiritual and ideological growth.

Debra Goldstein, 52, of Larchmont, N.Y., has been to Israel many times. Each time, this former advertising attorney has found that Israel played a formidable role in her life.

She first went in 1968, “amid Vietnam War angst,” and found her Israeli peers “full of jingoism from the Six-Day War,” often challenging her to live in Israel, she said.

She and her family visited again in 1996, and “all those old Zionist feelings came tumbling back.”

Now, “I don’t really have a lot of hesitation. I realize it won’t be as freewheeling as in the past,” she said.

Yet “I think we will have an incredible bonding experience from this,” she added. “Israel, both as a country and as a people, plays a central role in our religion.”

Daniel Septimus, 24, of Cincinnati, say he’s not especially worried about going. In fact, he said, he never really doubted he would go, despite the “matzav.”

“In the past year I came to feel that Jews everywhere need to realize that there has to be a Jewish state,” he said. “I’m not so sure I felt that way before.”

Ellenson insists Israel plays a crucial role in every Reform leader’s education today.

“We do not minimize the risks,” he said. “But we also tell them something else remarkable is taking place in Israeli life,” and “the path to leadership has to go through Israel.”

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