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Behind the Headline Rabbinic Students Await Word: Will Israel Study Go on As Usual?

April 30, 2002
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After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, David Novak reassessed his life and decided to become a rabbi.

The 39-year-old Novak, who lives in Los Angeles, opted to leave his longtime career in public relations and was accepted to the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

But immediately he was plunged into another decision affected by terrorism — what to do about the school’s mandatory year in Jerusalem, a city devastated by suicide bombings.

With HUC-JIR considering whether or not to move the required program elsewhere or allow students not to go, Novak, like many of his classmates, feels conflicted about the coming year.

On one hand, he’s apprehensive at the prospect of living in Jerusalem and never knowing whether it is safe to get on a bus or go to a cafe. And his entire family is urging him not to go.

On the other hand, he says, "I don’t want to sound like I’m a whiny American unsympathetic to the people who live in Jerusalem and Haifa and Netanya, for whom Israel is their home. I’m being asked to go study in Israel. I’m not being asked to go fight."

HUC-JIR is the only North American seminary to require all students to spend their first year in Israel. It also is the only one with such a centrally located campus — close to downtown Jerusalem and many of the spots that have been targeted by bombers.

In December, while students were in morning prayer services, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside the hotel next door to the college.

Like their counterparts at other liberal seminaries, HUC students have a mix of views about the year in Israel. Some say they need to show solidarity with Israelis, while others fear they will not be able to focus on their work if the suicide bombings continue.

But unlike students at the other seminaries, such as the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College or the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, where rules about Israel study are more flexible and exemptions easier to obtain, the HUC-JIR students are awaiting word from the administration.

There are a number of rabbinical-training programs in the Orthodox world. Most, like Yeshiva University, do not require Israel study, but it is fairly common for students to attend yeshivot or other special programs there anyway, and that has not been affected by the intifada.

HUC-JIR has already postponed the start of its fall semester to late August from July.

The delay gives the institution more time to "monitor events," according to its president, Rabbi David Ellenson.

The school expects to announce in early June whether the program will be in Jerusalem, as usual; at another Israeli location, such as a kibbutz; or at one of the HUC campuses in the United States.

HUC leaders are well aware of the potential fallout if they move their program out of Israel.

The Reform movement came under fire from many Israelis and other Jewish groups last year for canceling its summer teen trips to Israel.

The movement, which had previously been the largest provider of teen trips, is resuming its teens trips this summer, but with different programming and, like all similar programs to Israel, a significant decline in participation.

But HUC is also facing pressure from the other side, with many incoming students and their families expressing strong reservations about going to Israel.

One student even opted for another seminary in order to avoid the Israel requirement, Ellenson said.

"We have a commitment to stand in solidarity with the people of Israel and the State of Israel, and a moral commitment to be concerned for the lives of our students and their families," Ellenson said.

Among this year’s incoming students are several with young children, Ellenson said.

"We’re not only asking students to spend a year in Israel, but we’re asking their husbands and wives and children as well."

Shortly after the suicide bombing at a Passover seder in Netanya, the seminary allowed this year’s students to come home early, a few weeks before the semester’s end. One-third of the 60 students opted to accept the offer.

All the liberal Jewish seminaries have been affected to some extent by the situation in Israel.

The Jewish Theological Seminary, which is Conservative, sent 16 rabbinical students to Israel this year, and granted exemptions to nine.

Like HUC, it offered students the option to come home early over Passover, but none did. It is not clear how many rabbinical or cantorial students will request exemptions this year — they have until mid-May to file such requests.

The University of Judaism’s rabbinical school, which is also Conservative, issued a letter in April allowing students to choose whether or not to spend their third year in Israel or to defer their year in Israel to the following year.

This year, all 10 third-year students went to Israel and stayed for the entire year. None of next year’s 11 students have opted to defer yet, although the school is not expecting final decisions until July and August.

The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College sent 13 students to Israel this year, one of whom came home early, and is not certain how many will go next year. Rabbi David Teutsch, RRC’s president, said the administration allows students to file for an exemption if they "have overwhelming fear for their safety."

RRC also recently decided to pay for students to take cabs in Israel, rather than buses. It has also offered to pay relocating costs if students opt to go to Israel, but then want to return home if the situation worsens.

This year, JTS had to cancel its cantorial program in Israel, due to a large number of students requesting exemptions after the suicide bombing at Sbarro’s pizzeria.

And the program, which is for first-year students, is in peril this year as well — with only five students signed up to go and a number of them undecided.

"Our hope is something will happen in the next few weeks that will encourage those people who are sitting on the fence," said Cantor Henry Rosenblum, the dean of JTS’ cantorial school.

"We’re holding off as long as we can. We haven’t said no program. We haven’t said the program is a definite go. We’re in a holding pattern."

That has Shana Onigman, an incoming cantorial student from suburban Boston, concerned.

Onigman plans to leave for Israel at the end of May, with plans to study Hebrew and Judaic texts in Jerusalem before the cantorial program begins. She was in Israel in January on a Birthright Israel trip — and since then has been looking forward to returning for the year.

"To think of not going to Israel would be the biggest disappointment," Onigman said.

"To let suicide bombers and terrorists keep me away, it’s like letting them win. It would be like if all the people in Israel left."

Onigman said she is nervous, particularly about riding the buses. Her family members are worried too, but not pressuring her.

"I think American Jews should continue to support Israel in any way they can and should not be afraid to visit. Or be afraid, but do it anyway."

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