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Hands-on learning for local rabbis

Jerusalem's Hartman Institute teaches about war as rockets fall

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From left, Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky, Rabbi Ziona Zelazo, and Rabbi Neil Tow

If local rabbis attend the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem to take advantage of what Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner calls “great learning and great people,” this year they got more than they bargained for.

Rabbi Kirshner, religious leader of Temple Emanu-El in Closter, who this year spent his fifth summer at Hartman, said that “ironically, the topic was war and peace in Jewish texts. Little did we know it would be so relevant.

“A lot of rabbis in the diaspora talk about Israel from a distance,” he said. “But to be there, to attend the funerals of the three boys” – Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah, whose abduction and murder were the catalyst for the ongoing situation in Israel and Gaza – “to be familiar with bomb shelters,” makes a big difference.

And, to intensify the situation even further, he had his family with him.

“My youngest didn’t quite grasp what was going on,” Rabbi Kirshner said, adding that the child’s conception of “security…is looking both ways before you cross the street.” His older child, however, “fully comprehended it.” While she was with him in Tel Aviv, she was visibly nervous when she heard about the sirens in Jerusalem, where the rest of the family remained.

“But I told her about Iron Dome and she literally saw it at work when the rockets started to fall. She was incredibly relieved to know that it’s there.”

While his children have been to Israel many times and are “deeply Zionistic, I would say that for them to have this experience gives them a different depth and different angle” on what that means.

Not surprisingly, Rabbi Kirshner said the conflict was a major focus of conversation among the rabbis at Hartman.

“It’s one of those safe spaces for all viewpoints,” he said. “The ethos there fosters dialogue and mutual respect.” He noted that many who saw rockets falling indiscriminately became somewhat more “hawkish,” pointing out that even such left-of-center writers as Ari Shavit and Amos Oz “drew a line between a two-state solution and protecting your loved ones. It doesn’t mean that they didn’t feel pain knowing the civilian casualty toll, but it was understandable.”

Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky of Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom also was at Hartman this year. It was his second summer at the group’s Rabbinic Leadership Institute.

At Hartman, Rabbi Pitkowsky said, “we delve much deeper into an understanding of what it means to be a leader in the Jewish community today. But to do it in real time, not just through texts…. We were confronted with serious questions about the role of the Jewish state in the world today and the role of the American Jewish community vis-a-vis the Jewish state when it is in conflict.

“How can we help? Are we in the way? Is there anything we can do? To be presented with these questions – almost in our faces – meant we had to deal with it on a different kind of level. I’ve been to Israel many times, but I never had to go into a bomb shelter. Or have discussions with my children about why we were changing plans or what it means to stay,” despite the hostilities.

“I think they really understood that we were doing what we could to support the State of Israel,” he said, adding that it was easier for his children to relate to the concept of Israel as a home for family and friends.

“We care about them and love them,” Rabbi Pitkowsky told his children. “Being here helps us feel closer to them. We tried to be honest, but present it in a way that was understandable.”

He said that one of the most difficult and fascinating aspects of the experience was being in Jerusalem, “where most of the time it’s very easy to just go about your day as if there’s nothing going on.”

Still, he said, whatever they did during the day, the family would watch the news at night and talk about it.

“It’s easy in the incredible Israeli way to go about regular life,” he said. “But for the kids, the disconnect between the news and [their experience] was very hard to understand.”

Discussions among rabbis were spirited, Rabbi Pitkowsky said. “There were definitely some people who felt that their assumptions about what the conflict was about were coming under fire, just as their bodies were. Now they were experiencing a small taste of what Sderot and Ashkelon were feeling, and questioning their assumptions about how, and if, the conflict could be solved.

“One of the casualties of the summer was a sense on the part of many that the solution is just around the corner if only the groups would reach an understanding about what we know is so clear.”

The rabbis also discussed their role as American Jewish leaders. “This just accentuated the difference in the lives of Jews in both countries,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said. “We were going to go home.”

Rabbi Pitkowsky said he wonders “where those of us there this summer will be in six months. Now that we’re back in our home environment with the usual group of people living in safety, will those experiences permanently mark us, or will they be temporary glitches? I wonder what we’ll say on the High Holidays. What is the message? I’m honestly not sure.”

Rabbi Ziona Zelazo, a local synagogue educator, chaplain, and leader of religious services, has spent six summers at the Hartman Institute.

Pointing out that the topic of war and peace had been prepared a year in advance, she said that this summer it was “not academic, not theory – but very real and emotional.”

Rabbi Zelazo, who spends part of every summer in Israel, said that “as an Israeli, I have experienced three big wars and served in the army. No way can I say that I feel unsafe in Israel. There’s turmoil year after year.”

But if she did not experience concern for her safety, she did feel a sense of sadness, “of déjà vu – I felt it in the kishkes.”

The sessions themselves were “amazing,” she said, adding that she will never forget the opening session with Rabbi Donniel Hartman, the center’s president, “where he talked about the challenges of the Jewish narrative of peace.

“When people talk about peace, they think about it in different ways,” she said. “Are we talking about Isaiah, or about utopia, or about the Messiah? Are we waiting for God to do the work for us, or do we need to take action and look at it as something we need to pursue and not wait for? How relevant that was.”

She also became emotionally involved in a session on modern poetry, “the kind of poems I grew up with. All those poets were talking about war. A lot of poems show the vulnerability of Jews in Israel but say do not lose hope, keep singing.”

She was especially moved by the poem “The Last War,” sung by Yehoram Gaon.

“I was sobbing at that session, when [the lecturer] put on those songs. I took it more personally because I lived through it. I left the room because I couldn’t stop sobbing.”

She said that she still is struggling with the question, “Is this the last war?” She said she plans to read that poem when she speaks at an upcoming fundraising event for Israel.

Rabbi Zelazo said that when the sirens went off in Jerusalem, “there were rabbis in the middle of the street. They had been out eating dinner. They didn’t know what to do with themselves.”

Afterwards, they met to discuss what had happened.

“I chose not to hear it,” she said. “I needed to deal with my own déjà vu.” As it turned out, however, she spent the evening comforting a colleague from California “who panicked so much I had to be her chaplain for the whole night.”

Rabbi Zelazo said she is careful to keep the resource booklets handed out at Hartman in good condition, because they provide so much good material for her to use with students here.

“It’s all there,” she said, adding that it provides “a good two weeks of intensive study.”

Rabbi Neil Tow, religious leader of the Glen Rock Jewish Center, attended his first program at Hartman this summer.

“I taught the iEngage curriculm in Bergen County, so I was familiar with the culture, approach, and thinking of the institute,” he said. “Also, Donniel Hartman had come here to encourage the use of curriculum. I was certainly expecting something intellectually stimulating.

“The experience of being on the ground in Jerusalem with over 100 mostly Conservative and Reform colleagues was energizing,” Rabbi Tow continued. “There were colleagues from all over the world. It was a great opportunity to meet people of all backgrounds.”

His take-away, he said, was the sense of “chevra, partnership, and sharing” that all the rabbis – who came from Israel, North America, or other nations – reported feeling. “It expanded the network of people I know and will learn with again.”

Despite the conflict the program for the most part went forward “without a hitch from start to finish,” Rabbi Tow said although the institute had to adjust some of the field trips. And “there was a sense that the choice of the topic – war and peace -was kind of prophetic; but at the same time, looking back, Israel has basically been in a state of conflict since it was founded.”

What was different this year “was being there at a time when the conflict was more active,” he said. “In terms of my own experience, this was the first time I experienced air raid sirens and going down into the basement of the hotel.”

Tow said he developed “a much more broad and diverse view” and acquired many new resources for teaching about war and peace in Jewish tradition.

For example, he used some of the modern Hebrew poetry introduced at Hartman on Tisha B’Av. “Seeing some of these issues through the eyes of modern Israeli poets provides an interesting and compelling lens,” he said. “I brought back great material.”

Rabbi Tow said that there was “something strengthening for him about being in Israel at this particular time to show his support.”

Not only did he reflect once again on how small Israel is, he said, but when the sirens in Jerusalem went off, he realized how people down south must feel, hearing that on a regular basis.

He also received an “education in practicalities,” as he watched tourism, which is so vital to the Israeli economy, begin to slow down.

“Store owners said the business they hoped for was not showing up,” he said. “It was reassuring to see that Birthright and USY trips were on.

“Israel can’t make it alone. It needs our help and support. Part of me was excited to go home, but I would like to go back.

“I feel like I can take the spirit of what I learned and share it. It gave me some good energy before the High Holiday season.”

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