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Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky studies with Rabbi Marion Lev-Cohen, center, and a Christian colleague, Dr. Angela Kim Harkins.

When he applied this spring to become part of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Rabbinic Leadership Initiative, Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck knew that he would learn a lot from the intensive three-year program.

“I went looking forward to it and expecting a great continuing education experience,” said Pitkowsky, who recently returned from three and a half weeks at the Jerusalem institute, where he studied with 26 other North American rabbis. “My expectation was definitely fulfilled.”

“It’s important to keep learning and growing as a rabbi and as a Jew,” he added, and he looks forward to “learning even more and sharing it with the community.”

According to the institute’s website, the leadership initiative “immerses an elite cadre of North American rabbis in the highest levels of Jewish study, equipping them to meet contemporary challenges with ever-greater intellectual and moral sophistication.”

Over the course of the three-year program, participants spend a month each summer and a week each winter studying at the Hartman campus in Jerusalem. During the remainder of each year, they engage, via the internet, in eight weekly study hours with North American rabbinic partners and institute scholars.

“The program hopes to raise the level of the rabbinate in North America,” Pitkowsky said. By increasing rabbis’ understanding of classic Jewish texts, “it gives us the tools to ask incisive questions about both Jewish texts and Jewish life. We bring back a renewed sense of attachment to our classic stories – a feeling that every text, even if we’ve read it 100 times, can be read again with a fresh set of eyes. That’s a Hartman specialty, showing you a different way to read it.”

Pitkowsky said that the institute has “an excellent faculty, really wonderful.” He pointed out that many Hartman teachers have positions at Israeli universities – “and those not at universities have specialized knowledge of Israel, Jewish life, or Jewish texts.”

In addition to anticipating a high level of scholarship, he said he also expected to enjoy time with his cohort of 27 rabbis.

“It was really a great experience being with them,” he said, adding that the experience was enhanced simply by being in Israel.

“I haven’t been able to be there for that long since rabbinical school,” he said. “It was wonderful to see the vibrant aspects of Israeli social, cultural, and religious development.”

He was particularly impressed by the “remarkable” development in southern Jerusalem.

“One of the big things we heard from [institute president] Rabbi Donniel Hartman is that the phrase ‘secular Israeli’ is passé. So many of those we label as secular are reconnecting with Judaism in real and profound ways.”

He noted, for example, the proliferation of homegrown Israeli Shabbat programs, “not necessarily connected with one of the American religious movements,” citing weekly Friday night services in the port of Tel Aviv that attract between 300 and 500 attendees.

“They’re not American imports,” he said. “Israelis want to reconnect to their tradition.” The rabbi said the trend is also apparent in Israeli popular music, where mainstream Israeli artists are “putting out lyrics that are deeply connected to Jewish tradition.”

Pitkowsky said that he brings home with him “a tremendous attachment to the people and the land of Israel and a desire to strengthen the attachment of my community to Israel in many different ways, whether through spoken Hebrew or synagogue trips to Israel.”

In addition, having met “wonderful rabbinic leaders” – people from various denominations with whom he doesn’t ordinarily get to spend a lot of time – “I feel a great sense of optimism for our community.” Pitkowsky is Conservative, and although his cohort was made up mainly of Conservative and Reform rabbis, it also included two Jewish renewal rabbis and a rabba and an educator from Yeshivat Maharat.

Pitkowsky said that one of the high points of his experience was spending a day with participants in the Hartman/AJCommittee Christian Leadership Initiative (see story, p. 6).

“It was exciting to have the opportunity to speak with intelligent and thoughtful Christian theologians and academics,” he said. “I was glad to be able to do it.”

While Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, religious leader of Temple Emanu-El in Closter, also was at Hartman this summer, his visit marked the culmination of his studies. With the required three years of study behind him, “I came back the fourth year to graduate,” he said.

Describing the program as “a lot of great, serious education,” Kirshner said he also appreciated working with colleagues in situations similar to his.

“I was strengthened by them and their journeys,” he said, noting that many are rabbis of congregations with demographics like those at Emanu-El. Kirshner said his cohort is already planning a February reunion.

While the program was quite intense, he added, “it was incredibly rewarding and very meaningful. I can’t imagine my rabbinate without it.”

He pointed out that during the past year, his congregation’s adult education program was centered on Hartman’s iEngage curriculum, designed to strengthen the relationship between American Jews and the State of Israel.

In addition, he said, “the congregation gets a rabbi who’s rejuvenated, with [his] batteries charged. That’s not to be discounted. It’s the best thing that’s happened to me professionally, without question.”