Re-Imagining the Israel Experience for Rabbinical Students

By Alex Sinclair

Why do we send Rabbinical students to Israel for a year of study, and what should they be doing there?

For the past three years, the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of the Jewish Theological Seminary has convened a unique Israel education program in partnership with a Consortium of Rabbinical Schools: Hebrew College, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, and the Rabbinical School of JTS itself. Students from these four schools took part in their own separate programs of Torah study from Sunday to Wednesday, but came together on Thursdays for a joint program around questions of Israel. We began with a modest pilot program in 2015-16, which was intensified in 2016-17, and developed further in 2017-18.

The Consortium program was rooted in the shared realization that, for most students, this formative year in their adult lives is a crucial opportunity to get to know Israel as emerging Jewish leaders. It’s a real chance to get to know this country and its people, to revel in its complexities, gasp at its beauties, and fume close-up at its mistakes. Traditionally, much of rabbinical students’ time has been spent cloistered in a beit midrash, speaking English with each other. They open a lot of books while they’re here, but Israel often remains a closed one. How can we open the living text that is Israel for them?

Even when students have left the beit midrash, they have usually done so in a way that did not truly engage them with Israelis and Israeli society. I’ve written elsewhere, with Ofra Backenroth, about the fact that the differentiation between “inside” and “outside” educational experiences in Israel does not really tell us very much. Instead, a more telling distinction is between what we term immersion and seclusion. For sure, sitting in the beit midrash all day long is an act of seclusion; but so too are the traditional Israel experiences that rabbinical students have done. They encounter the Ultra-Orthodox community by listening to a Charedi speaker; they engage in issues of shared society by hearing from activists; they do the occasional hike in the desert, mimetically copying the Israeli rite, à la Meron Benvenisti, but doing so in an American bubble, where the only Israeli without an accent is the medic. These are all acts of seclusion, despite the trompe l’oeil of their taking place outside the beit midrash.

Even when these Israel education activities and tours are the best they can possibly be, students are still only passive recipients of information; they hear about what is going on. As Michael Rosenak z”l put it, they have been experiencing a “secondary relationship” with the subject matter. In order to transform this secondary relationship into a primary one, we gradually developed the curriculum of the Consortium program into one infused as much as possible with a pedagogy of mifgash. This past year, wherever possible, students’ engagement with Israeli society took place in bi-directional, dialogical conversation with Israelis, rather than learning about Israel and Israelis.

Which Israelis, though? In order to create mifgashim with Israelis who represented the true diversity of its society, we structured the year around President Reuven Rivlin’s model of the “Four Tribes.” Rivlin has consistently argued since taking office that Israeli society should no longer be seen as a secular-ish majority with various other minorities, but as four equal “tribes” – secular, Religious Zionist, Ultra-Orthodox, and Arab-Israeli – which are projected to become even more demographically equal in the future.

There are problems with the “tribes” model, and it has been criticized for failing to take account of Mizrachi Jews’ more complex religious identities, and for flattening out the nuances within each tribe. Nevertheless, it may still serve as a reasonable starting point for engaging with Israel’s cultural, religious and ethnic diversity. The students’ year was split into four equal parts, one for each tribe.

There are all kinds of barriers to this model, which are beyond the scope of this essay, but during the year we made some fascinating institutional partnerships in order to get the American students around a table with diverse groups of Israelis. We developed a partnership with the inter-religious beit midrash program at Ono Academic College, in which students met, studied, and conversed with young Israeli Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders, and a partnership with a group of so-called “New Charedim” who are leading quiet but revolutionary changes in Israeli Ultra-Orthodox society.

The photos give a taste of what these mifgashim looked like. They are really quite remarkable, and it’s worth lingering on them just a little. In the first one (top of page), from the Ono mifgashim, we see a small group containing one American rabbinical student, two Israeli Jews, and one Arab Israeli woman, with her head traditionally covered. They’ve been studying texts from Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and are talking about how those texts relate to their lives. One of the Israeli Jews is in army uniform: many of the Jewish Israeli students were studying for Master’s degrees at Ono as part of ongoing professional development as career officers. The Arab Israeli woman is speaking with him as an equal; he is listening carefully, attentively, learning about her and the way she sees the world, and in a moment she’ll do the same for him. This is, shall we say, a rather different dynamic from most encounters between those communities. In the foreground, you can see the top of the head of a female American rabbinical student wearing a kippah, studying in another group: the first time that most of the Ono students (Jews and Arabs) had every encountered a liberal Jew of this type.

In the second photo (below), a group of American rabbinical students is deep in conversation with an Israeli Charedi Jew, talking about issues of halachah in the modern world and Israeli society. You can see similar small groups in the background. For the Israeli Charedim in this mifgash, it’s the first time they’ve met egalitarian Jews, LGBTQ Jews, and theologically liberal Jews. For many of the American rabbinical students, it’s the first time they’ve truly engaged with Israeli charedim and their worldview in an environment conducive to reflection and discussion.

These mifgashim weren’t easy for the students. They were unmediated encounters with real Israelis that sometimes laid bare vast differences in class, religious mindset, politics, and more. Language was a huge barrier; for some of the students with weaker Hebrew, an almost insuperable one. Some students had moments of profound connection and relationship-building, and sometimes students left a mifgash feeling more alienated. It was enormously complicated. It was real.

For the Israelis involved, the mifgashim were often transformative. The American students acted as a kind of catalyst that sparked conversations that the Israelis would not otherwise have had with each other or with themselves. The feedback I heard from my Israeli colleagues strengthened the insight that when you put American Jews and Israelis in dialogue together, both sides learn, grow, and are challenged.

While the Consortium program will not be continuing next year, the lessons we’ve learned together from this experience are important for any who are involved in the training of future Jewish leaders. Their time in Israel is short, precious, gone in a flash. Let’s use as much of their time here as possible studying a live text: having real, serious, profound conversations with diverse groups of Israelis.

Dr Alex Sinclair is director of programs in Israel Education and an adjunct assistant professor of Jewish Education for JTS. He is the author of Loving the Real Israel: An Educational Agenda for Liberal Zionism. He lives in Modiin, Israel.

His Israel-based colleagues in the Rabbinical Schools’ Consortium were Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz of JTS, Rabbi Minna Bromberg of Hebrew College, Andrea Hendler of RRC, and Rabbi Joel Levy of the Conservative Yeshiva, representing the Ziegler School. While the project was the fruit of collaboration among these colleagues, the views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.