Reflections on the Beutel Seminar in Israel



by Jim Cherney

I had the great pleasure to participate in the Beutel Seminar in Israel for 10 days in January. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the program, it is an education/ enrichment seminar sponsored by the Saltz Education Center of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.  Reform and Progressive Jews from throughout the world can apply to the program which is held in the first quarter every year in Israel. For participants, the cost is subsidized by a generous sustaining gift from Austin and Nani Beutel of Toronto; the program is only one example of their enormous philanthropic support of World Progressive Judaism.

I am a veteran of numerous earlier trips to Israel so I was not sure what to expect.  Suffice it to say that the experience far exceeded any expectation I had beforehand.  The group consisted of eighteen individuals from eleven different countries; in addition to the U.S. and Canada, there were participants from: Israel, Brazil, the UK, Germany, Poland, Australia, Singapore, India and South Africa. It was a very diverse group—what we all shared was an interest in Reform/Progressive Judaism, some congregational experience, and a love of and interest in Eretz Yisrael.

It is not easy to characterize the content of the program. It included study, prayer, travel, some presentations, and much interactive engagement. Most mornings (in Jerusalem), we started with a combination of study and worship led by Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman of Congregation Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem. We had one Shabbat in Jerusalem at Hebrew Union College (in a service led by North American HUC students) and another at Kibbutz Yahel in the Negev. We visited the City of David and had engaging presentations about the history of the Old City. We rode around Jerusalem to understand the contours of the security fence; the Jewish and Arab neighborhoods; visited Mt. Herzl and Yad Vashem. We explored religious/ ethnic conflict issues with a panel of young people, which included settlement Jews and young Muslims. In Tel Aviv, we visited the Museum of the Jewish People and Independence Hall and spent time hearing about the exciting growth and programming at Beit Daniel, the Reform community in Tel Aviv. And finally, we spent two days at Kibbutz Yahel in the Negev where we celebrated our second Shabbat—and visited the cutting edge environmentally-attuned Kibbutz Lotan.

But I do a grave disservice to this program if it sounds like a travelogue. Many of you readers have likely had wonderful travel experiences in Israel as have I. What I gained from this program was a more refined sense of K’lal Yisrael Arevim Zeh l’Zeh—All Israel stands one for the other. A group of diverse individuals of different ages and prior life experience spent ten intensive days together in Israel and formed a community of Jews, whom I suspect will now be lifetime friends and colleagues. We became a true community. Those of us who focus so much time on building community in our synagogues would do well to study the Beutel model not to mention some of the innovative ways the Israel Reform Movement is reaching out to the secular population and growing so significantly.

Also, the mix of travel, education, dialogue, and study enabled us all to understand better the complex issues facing Israel as well as our developing Progressive Movement in Israel.  The Saltz Center hopes to build upon the success of the Beutel Seminar (this was the 10th Anniversary) to offer programs to congregations and other groups from North America or elsewhere. I certainly intend to encourage our North American Movement to consider additional opportunities to utilize the Saltz resources for study, meetings and programming on Israel and World Jewry issues. For those of you to whom the Beutel program sounds inviting, you should consider applying to the 2013 program. You will not regret it.   Or you might wish to tailor a program for a congregational or community-wide trip to Israel; I am certain that the Saltz faculty would be pleased to brainstorm with you. Please let me know if I can introduce any of you to the director and others at Saltz. You can reach me at james.cherney@gmail.com.

Jim Cherney is a member of Temple Sholom of Chicago

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