Shalom from Israel,

I’m writing to everyone from beautiful Jerusalem.  Jodi and I arrived here two days ago.  The first time I came to Israel was about fifteen years ago as a university student.  Even that first time coming to Israel, I had a sense of coming home.  There was something familiar about Israel to me.  I was raised with stories about Israel, about how important it was to the Jewish people and how someday, like every Jew in the world, I too could go and visit if I wished.  I fell in love with the land that first trip.  As a side note, to my great pleasure, nearly every time I return, I see my first Israeli tour guide and now friend, Rabbi Nir Cohen.  He wasn’t a rabbi at the time of my first trip, but we reconnected in rabbinic school when we were both students there.  He is still living in his hometown, Jerusalem, and also taking part in the same programme that I am at the Hartman Institute.   Anyways, after that very first trip, I decided I had to come back, which I did while still a student to attend Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University and then later on as a rabbinic student.  After having lived and travelled throughout Israel it has become something less of a myth for me and more of a real place, where real people live and work and go on about their lives.  Yet Israel still retains its magic for me.  Israel is a place of dreams, and while they are not always realised, they still inspire.

Yesterday began the Rabbinic Torah Study Seminar that is run annually at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.  I’m joined by 170 rabbis from North America, Europe, Israel and even one from New Zealand.  Not only do we represent geographically diverse Jewish communities, but the rabbis participating run the gamut in terms of affiliation–Reform, Conservative/Masorti, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and none of the above.  They all have their own political inclinations as well.  Yet, despite the real differences between us, the goal is to spend the next week and a half studying together and learning from one another.  The theme this year is Justice and Righteousness: Personal Ethics and National Aspirations.   Yesterday opened the seminar with and introduction from the President of the Institute, Rabbi Donniel Hartman (The Shalom Hartman Institute was started by his father, Rabbi David Hartman and named after his grandfather, Shalom Hartman).  He spoke about the centrality of justice to the Jewish tradition and spoke about how the needs of others translate into commandments for Jews.   Because there are needy people in the world, Jews are commanded, that is, Jews have a mitzvah, of providing assistance.  For example, Bromley Reform Synagogue helps to fulfil this mitzvah by supporting Club 999.  In the spirit of pluralism and dialogue across boundaries that animates the Hartman Institute, they invited two Palestinians to speak to us last night about their personal stories.  One spoke about how the land where his house is located had been in his family for over 700 years and was taken by the Israeli government in the late 1970s and now he has to lease it from the state.  This is a rather common occurrence.  The other, who is a secondary school Head Teacher with an academic background in Hebrew literature, spoke about teaching both Jewish and Muslim students.  She told me how not all of her students realise that she isn’t Jewish, especially as she has a background in Hebrew Literature.  It happened once that a student heard that there was a Muslim teacher in the school and that student was surprised and complained to her about it, not realising that she was the Palestinian Muslim teacher.  The student told her that he didn’t like Muslims and Palestinians.  When the teacher revealed to the student that it was her, it initially shocked the student, but it led to a complete rethinking on the part of the student of who Palestinians and Muslims actually are–and that they’re not just Hamas supporters launching rockets, but that one of them was actually one of his favourite teachers in school.  Statistics show that the majority of Israelis–both Jews and Muslims–hold significant prejudices against the other, answering in the affirmative to statements such as “I wouldn’t want a Jew/Muslim as my neighbour.”  That changes the second that a Jewish or Muslim child has a single teacher not like them.  Unfortunately, Israeli schools are segregated.  Muslims go to one school, secular Jews another, Orthodox Jews a third and then the Ultra-Orthodox have their own schools.  This of course leads to people growing up without significant contact with people not like them.  Prejudices unfortunately have a habit of flourishing without contact.  When Israeli children do have contact with someone not like them, particularly when it is a teacher, studies show, prejudices almost (but not entirely) disappear.   This is definitely something to think about.

Today’s learning was equally fantastic but very different.  One thing, in particular, that I want to share was today’s evening lecture by Rabbi Arthur Green.  He runs a rabbinic school in Boston, Massachusetts and his interests are primarily in Chasidim and Kabbalah.  He said one thing in particular that I want to share: synagogues need to grow their learning programmes for all ages.  As he sees it, we live in an age that doesn’t focus so much on teaching wisdom anymore.  Rather, we teach skills or trades, or ways to critically analyse, perhaps, but on the whole, Western civilisation, modern Jews included, does an exceedingly poor job at the pursuit of wisdom.  This is one area where a synagogue could excel.  There is no reason, he claimed, that synagogues should primarily be houses of prayer, although prayer is very important to him.  Rather, he argued, that it is better that synagogues be primarily centres for learning, dialogue, and the pursuit of wisdom.   Of course, we all do some of both, but the balance and the emphasis needs to switch to more Torah.

This coming Monday we are taking a trip from Jerusalem to South Tel Aviv where there are a large number of asylum seekers, primarily from Africa.  Many countries around the world, including both Israel and the United Kingdom, are receiving significant amounts of people who are seeking refuge from war, political chaos, famine, and so on.  Each country handles it a bit different and nearly all find many challenges in accepting large numbers of refugees.  Yet, Jews know what it’s like to be a refugee and to be in need of help.  I am greatly looking forward to seeing how the Jewish state addresses this issue.

There is much more to share, of course, as our days begin at 8:30am and don’t finish until close to 10:00pm.  There is much conversation and learning.  I look forward to sharing more with you both through blogging, as well as in person upon my return.

Warm Regards from Israel,

Rabbi Holtz