Jewish Journal


July 18, 2002

Terrorism Won’t Stop HUC-JIR

Reform students prepare for cantorial and rabbinical study in Israel.


Mark Miller, a first-year rabbinical student, stands on a roof overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem at the Hebrew Union College. Miller and his wife decided to go to Israel despite the security situation. Photo by Brian Hendler/JTA

Mark Miller, a first-year rabbinical student, stands on a roof overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem at the Hebrew Union College. Miller and his wife decided to go to Israel despite the security situation. Photo by Brian Hendler/JTA

When Mark Miller walks in downtown Jerusalem these days, he leans away from the street whenever he sees an oncoming bus.

While he rues the "insidious" way terror "gets under your skin" in Israel, Miller says trying to shield himself from potential bus bombings is just one way life in Israel is transforming his views of Zionism and Judaism.

"I feel so much right now that Israel is vitally important to our lives as Jews and to the Jewish community," says Miller, a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). "Things are more starkly illuminated with terror as a backdrop."

Miller, 33, of Los Angeles is among the 61 first-year cantorial and rabbinical students who are spending their first year at HUC-JIR's Jerusalem campus, despite the daily risks they face from what Israelis calls the matzav (the situation).

Only seven students in the entering class stayed behind, with the school's blessing, largely for family reasons.

The rest elected to make the trip -- after some soul-searching and after a speech by HUC-JIR's president, Rabbi David Ellenson, who says the school's mission to train future Jewish leaders is inextricably linked to its deep-rooted Zionism.

For more than 30 years, HUC-JIR has believed that Israel "serves a seminal role" in the development of future Jewish community leaders, Ellenson says. And the school cannot soften that commitment despite the threat that terrorism poses to students studying in Israel.

"From HUC-JIR's perspective, our commitment to Israel cannot brook any compromise," Ellenson says. That contrasts sharply with the movement's beginning nearly a century ago, when anti-Zionism was Reform's ruling ideology.

Now, the HUC-JIR board of governors will hold its 2003 meeting in Jerusalem in solidarity with Israel, and Ellenson will be going to Israel shortly to teach at Hebrew University and the Shalom Hartman Institute.

HUC-JIR respected each student's decision whether to live and study in Israel this year, Ellenson said, but added that "there cannot be any retreat" from the school's core values.

HUC-JIR "embodies certain principles," Ellenson said. "Foremost is that solidarity with the notion of Jewish peoplehood can only be experienced in the fullest dimension in Israel."

HUC-JIR's decision to stick with its first-year rule means that nearly all of the freshmen class of 2002-2003 will be in Jerusalem. But the security situation has not deterred anyone. The 2002-2003 class is HUC-JIR's largest incoming class in 20 years -- and even those who opt to remain behind now, must spend a year in Israel before graduating.

Miller, who was last in Israel in January, came back to Jerusalem with his wife a week ago to find an apartment before the school year begins Aug. 14.

Already he has noticed that the landscape has changed radically on the street and in his heart. What first struck him is that "life goes on here," Miller said. "Being in the U.S. or elsewhere, all you see in headlines or on CNN is a tremendous pall. But people are going about with their lives, and hope springs eternal."

Miller finds himself scanning faces, warily taking note of young men who are alone and wearing backpacks. At nearly empty restaurants, Miller and his wife have been seated by the owners, who also served them and cooked their dinners.

Israelis, who at one time barely noted the arrival of American Jews, feel differently today, he said. "I've never had so many people thank me for being here."

Israel "is a very large part of my personal commitment to becoming a rabbi," Miller said. "It feels so good to be here."

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