Exposing Israeli Rabbinical Students and Rabbis to No. American Jewry

Murstein Synagogue – Jerusalem campus, HUC-JIR

By Jean Bloch Rosensaft

“It is one thing to talk about the relationship between Israel and North America. It is another to do something about that relationship,” says Rabbi Michael Marmur, Ph.D., Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Provost at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).

Rising to the challenge is the Golden Family Hanassi Fellows Program, now in its fifth year, which is designed to forge stronger links of commitment and identification between North American Reform Jews and congregations and the people and State of Israel.

Established by Suzanne and John Golden, Vice Chair of the HUC-JIR Board of Governors, and the Golden Family Foundation, this innovative program links HUC-JIR/Jerusalem’s Israel Rabbinical Program and North American communities by placing Israeli rabbinical students and recently ordained Israeli rabbis in Reform congregations for a residency that is mentored by leading North American Reform rabbis. The Program has placed 18 Israeli rabbinical students during the past five years (with four new students arriving this fall).

“As we move farther away from generations with shared experiences, Israeli and American Jews need to understand more about each other,” states John Golden. “HUC-JIR has done a wonderful job of bringing North American and other non-Israeli Reform Jews to study and absorb Israeli life experiences through our Year-In-Israel Program. We are pleased that the Hanassi Fellowships serves as a bridge in the other direction, so that Israeli rabbinical students at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem can be more deeply exposed to Reform Jewry in North America.”

By leading services, teaching in congregational education programs across all generations, participating in pastoral care, and serving as ambassadors of Israeli life, culture, and politics, the Hanassi Fellows develop a deeper understanding the ongoing process of Jewish identity formation and affiliation within the North American Reform Movement.

Israeli rabbinical student David Benjamin served at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, CA, hosted by Rabbi Zoe Klein. A former career officer in the IDF legal division and active reservist who immigrated to Israel from South Africa 27 years ago, he will be ordained at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem in 20-18. Benjamin says, “Israelis can learn much from the level of organization and professionalism that characterize American Jewish institutions. Reform Judaism in North America is on the ideological and cultural cutting edge in thought, liturgy, music, and ritual.”

Rabbi Klein praises the program, explaining, “Benjamin was exposed to a community abuzz with activity, with hundreds of people of all ages choosing to participate in Jewish programs and gatherings. He saw what unapologetic, proud, happy, vibrant, bold Reform Judaism looks like. I think his rabbinate was strengthened by being encouraged to dream big. We as a community became invested in Benjamin and his work and want to be there to support and encourage him. The Golden Hanassi Program creates a vibrant team of lifelong supporters for these Israeli rabbinical students as they pioneer the future of Reform Judaism in Israel.”

Rabbinical/cantorial student Shani Ben-Or is currently a Golden Hanassi Fellow at Central Synagogue in New York City, where Rabbi/Cantor Angela Warnick Buchdahl and Cantor Julia Cadrain are her mentors and role models. “The versatility of Central Synagogue’s clergy – rabbis that sing and play guitar, cantors that teach – is inspiring, as is the spirit of flexibility and experimentation that makes worship alive and exciting for everyone. When Israelis like me come to where Reform Judaism is thriving, we can learn and bring back to our Israeli communities the North American innovations in music, prayer, learning, and other strategies.”

Shani’s training in North America will prepare her to be the first ordained Israeli woman cantor in Israel, a leadership role in which she will have great opportunities to transform worship and influence Israeli society. In the face of Orthodox Judaism’s restrictions against kol isha (the voice of women) in leading worship, she feels that “music is one of the ways of softening the heart and building bridges that are broken. Hazzanut preserves heritage and offers so much opportunity for outreach.”

Upon their return to Israel, the Hanassi Fellows are better able to engage Israelis who are seeking spiritual meaning in a society polarized between ultra-orthodox and secular approaches to religious life. Following their residencies, the Hanassi Fellows continue to be mentored by their North American clergy hosts through on-line meetings.

Among the communities that have welcomed HUC-JIR’s Israeli Reform rabbinical students are Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY, Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, NY, Temple Sinai of Roslyn, NY, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, NJ, Temple Judea in Palm Beach Gardens, FL, and Temple Isaiah, Los Angeles, CA.

Jean Bloch Rosensaft is Assistant Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs,
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.