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A Rabbinical student in Israel

Rafi Spitzer and his wife Rachael spent the last year (including six weeks at Hannaton) living and learning in Israel as part of Rafi’s rabbinical studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary.  In previous newsletters, we shared some of their experiences with our readers. Below, Rafi and Rachael reflect on their time here in Israel and what they will bring back with them to the United States. 



What was one of the most moving experiences you had over your year in Israel?

There were many: From walking on the ancient Second Temple period streets of the Old City
to standing at attention during the siren on Yom Hazikaron at a high school in Jerusalem. From standing on the roof of a half-finished mosque in an Area C Palestinian village and being able to see the village’s one room school house and the big beautiful yeshivot and schools of Alon Shvut to participating in a silent retreat on Yom Kippur. From volunteering at a hospital in Afula to hiking from Tekoa to the Dead Sea by the light of the full moon.

Rafi and Rachael with classmates during a coexistence tour in the north

Rafi and Rachael with classmates during a coexistence tour in the north

I live in Yemin Moshe, and nearby are several public fountains. On hot days, there are always kids in the fountains. Little secular kids wearing just their underwear; little haredi boys running around in their shorts and tzitzit; Arab kids, with their mothers looking on wearing the traditional hijab. And everyone is splashing in the water all together. Like the world has stopped. Like some kind of alternate reality.

What surprised you about being Jewish in Israel? About your identity or about your practice while you lived here?

I’d been told over and over the sense of Jewish time is different in Israel: supermarkets with Tu Bishvat displays, but no Christmas displays. And boy is this true! Watching secular groups of Israeli teens at various youth hostels doing their own version of Friday night religious rituals, and seeing in the Old City everyone’s oil chanukiyot sitting outside their houses, you can really feel a sense of Jewish community and living that you cannot feel elsewhere. Yet the thing that surprised me the most was not the sense of Jewish time, but the sense of holy spaces.

I grew up with this strong emphasis on “holy time” (a la Abraham Joshua Heschel) and a vague sense that over-emphasizing the importance of place was a bit like idolatry. Yet this year, I’ve developed a strong connection to the land as holy, to places as holy, to the power of history and ritual and religion in creating holy spaces as well as holy times.

What specifically about your experience in Israel this year will inform your rabbinical studies and eventual practice?

This year I spent a lot of time learning about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an Encounter Fellow. Yet more important than the information was the time spent practicing how to facilitate conversations about Israel with other American Jews. These are divisive issues, and I think that the facilitation training and experience I received was invaluable.

Another thing that will inform my practice is my experience of the Jewish renaissance and the development of liberal Judaism in Israel: from the 6 weeks I spent at Hannaton, to the internship at Hod VeHadar in Kfar Saba, to davening at Nava Tehillah, Kol Haneshama, and Zion, to visiting Alma and Bina, the secular Yeshivot in Tel Aviv. What an incredible amount of creativity and community building is going into developing a unique Israeli Judaism, and what an opportunity for cross pollination with the American Jewish community.

In general, how do you think spending time in Israel prepares rabbinical students for being rabbis?

I think it is different for every person. The two great projects of the Jewish people at this moment in Jewish history are the State of Israel and the American Jewish community and it is very important for leaders in each of those communities to be fluent in the other group’s methods, zeitgeist, goals, and vision. I know that I have been enriched by being here, and I know that it has been a huge part of my growth as a rabbi and as a Jew.



What surprised you about being Jewish in Israel? About your identity or about your practice while you lived here?

People were constantly surprised this year when I told them why I was here, that my husband was studying to be a rabbi. They would look at me, in my shorts or pants, with my hair uncovered, and say, “Oh, reform?” I realized that there aren’t a lot of safe spots for Conservative Judaism here. Hannaton, however, is one, as is Kfar Saba, where Rafi was a student rabbi. These places exist.


Whereas it’s easy to be Jewish in Jerusalem. The city is quiet on Shabbat. You have to work to break Shabbat here. There’s kosher food everywhere, and it’s way more affordable than in the United States. At the same time, I felt like I wasn’t always seen as “religious enough” to be a part of all that. I was pleased by my ability to practice and a little bit disappointed by the lack of space for supported growth in observance. The spiritual level of Judaism here is beautiful and flourishing and I liked that. My final sort of unrelated thought about being Jewish here is that the different groups/sects/whatever you want to call them are always fighting amongst themselves about marriage, divorce, kashrut, etc. and that to me is a big problem and not the way that Am Yisrael is supposed to behave.


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