Letter from Jerusalem: Reflections of a First-Year Rabbinic Student
By Eric L. Abbott
Not too long ago, I was asked by the rabbi of my home congregation, Rabbi Peter Stein, to write about my experiences in Israel and at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion so far. I agreed, figuring it would be a fairly easy thing to do. In reality, this has turned out to be tougher than I had originally thought, mostly because there is so much to write about! Nonetheless, here is a (very) short description of what the life of a rabbinic student in Israel is like.
Living in Israel is obviously different from living in America, but the differences are more subtle than I had predicted before first coming here. Language is obviously the key difference, but a lot of people, especially in Jerusalem, speak English. In my part of the city, you are about half as likely to hear English as you are Hebrew. In spite of this, living here is a great way for me to practice my Hebrew, and I try to speak it outside the classroom as much as possible. Food, clothing, and weather–these are also all different. Instead of a burger joint on every corner, there’s falafel or shawarma. Israeli society has different clothing styles; and as someone who is from New England but hates snow, I could not dream for anything better than this weather. On a deeper level, Israeli society has a different outlook on life, and you can see it in the way people interact with each other. Israelis have been described to me as “tough on the outside but soft on the inside,” and I find this to be very true. Yet besides this gruffness, there are still some things that boggle my mind. Israelis hate lines, for example, and they drive like maniacs–yet almost no one will cross a crosswalk on a red light!
Yet the biggest difference I find is that Israel exists within the rhythm of Jewish time. On Shabbat, most stores shut down, traffic is minimal, and the sounds go from a noisy city to that of a peaceful, quaint town. Yom Kippur was even quieter – there was literally not a car on the street for the entire day. Every other house had a sukkah set up for Sukkot. And even if you are not very traditionally religious, you are still affected by the holidays in ways one cannot experience in America.
In Jerusalem I am surrounded everywhere by people who are into being Jewish. They might be secular but still support the state. They might be Haredi, walking around in their black coats and hats. Or they might be Reform and taking on new, personal meanings of the mitzvot while staying connected to modernity – like those of us at HUC.
So far, my interpretation of this year at HUC has been that our educators are breaking down our presumptions–so they can help us build back up from scratch. They are opening our eyes, challenging our assumptions, and making us question what we believe. By doing so, we are reforming our answers–and therefore our answers (eventually) will become much stronger.
In our Bible course, we started at Genesis 1:1 and are moving through the Torah more or less verse by verse and story by story – in Hebrew, of course. Rabbi Michael Marmur, Vice President of Academic Affairs at HUC, meets with the rabbinic students once a week to discuss why we are Reform Jews. Our Israeli Seminar takes us to different locations in Israel each week – from the Galilee region to Tel Aviv to Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Museum and Memorial). This is just a sample – I’m taking six other classes besides these!
I’m here with future rabbis, cantors, and educators who share my interest in Judaism as I am. We often go from discussing the Mishnah in class to talking about the Torah in our apartment. We send each other interesting news articles about Judaism via Facebook. We organize our own Torah study sessions and prayer services. We constantly challenge but also, more importantly, support each other. I could not ask for a better group of classmates.
So that, in a nutshell, is my experience so far–and I’m only about a quarter of the way through. I look forward to the rest of my time in this Year in Israel program, to the next four years that will follow back home in the US, and to a life-long career of service in the rabbinate.
Eric L. Abbott is a first-year rabbinic student at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem, and in the following years he will be studying in New York. He grew up at Temple Sinai in Cranston, RI, and earned a B.A. in Judaic Studies from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.