Rabbi Avi Novis-Deutsch
When I am asked why Conservative rabbinical students should spend a year in Israel as part of their training, the intelligent response is Jewish peoplehood – cultivating the connection between Israel and the Diaspora. But my answer, as an individual who gives smicha, rabbinic ordination, is more complicated. The reason it is important for rabbinical students to come to Israel is that Judaism in Israel is different, the Jewish experience is different, and the sense of belonging is different. As a result, the work of an non-Israeli rabbi who has spent time in Israel will be more complete if he or she is able to observe and absorb Judaism as it looks here in Israel, compared with Judaism as it looks in the Diaspora.
And when you look deeper, the mixture is not comprised of only two components, but rather many different elements. It is not just Israel that is an important part of the mix. The gathering of students from JTS, Seminario Rabinico, Ziegler, the Frankel Seminary and Schechter is an opportunity to enrich one’s Jewish language, to add to it and to make it more colorful. If one institution emphasizes academic learning and another the spiritual experience and a third community service, training and youth, the intersection of all of these institutions allows for all students to broaden their horizons. And the tunes used in prayers in Argentina and Brazil alongside those from Romemu, Ikar, Craig Taubman and Debbie Friedman, sung in an Israeli house of prayer, a Karlebach synagogue, Kehillat Zion, Nava Tehillah or elsewhere, allows more people to experience the spiritual.
Still, despite all of this, what is special about being in Israel?
First of all – Hebrew. In Israel, we speak in Hebrew, we write in Hebrew, we create in Hebrew. Israel offers the chance to greatly improve one’s Hebrew if a person chooses to engage with Hebrew speakers and spend time with them. The essential Jewish and Israeli works were formulated in Hebrew and there is value in reading them in the original, and not in translation.
In addition, Israel offers us a challenging version of Judaism, one that believes it can exist without any real, practical action. The approach is “I am Jewish and I live here”. To meet a Jewish Israeli is to truly understand the educational task needed to make Judaism meaningful and to ensure that it is elevating and enriching.
Looking at Israel from another angle allows us to see what happens when Judaism is tied to political capital, when there is a connection between the state and the religious establishment. Only in Israel can one fully understand the result of this connection.
And on the simplest level, being in Israel is the only way to truly understand what it is like to live in a Jewish state, in which Shabbat is simply a day of rest, and every Jewish holiday is a vacation day from work or school, every hardware store sells sukkot, and a Shabbat plata (for heating food) is as easy to find as is a supermarket that sells kosher food. It is in Israel where Holocaust Remembrance Day is felt (almost) everywhere and Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers takes each person back to close friends who were lost in battle.
And, on an essential level, Israel is the most important place in which to clarify ones Zionist perspective. On the one hand, there is the challenge of building a Jewish state, the obligation to create a refuge for every Jew, the concept of a Jewish nation and our connection to it. On the other hand, there is the very difficult challenge of creating a state which is “a light unto the nations” and examining just to what extent the state we built stands up to this measure.
And why should a stay in Israel include time at Hannaton?
Alongside the need to get to know Judaism in Israel, in all its diversity, and the Masorti movement, it’s institutions (including the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, the NOAM youth movement and the congregations), Hannaton holds a very special place in the Israeli story. Hannaton tells the story of Zionism and its actualization in the 21st century; how a tiny community of five families became a town of 200 families, and continues to grow and develop. It is the story of how a community takes Jewish education seriously, without asking anyone to place themselves in any square along the spectrum of Jewish identity. It is the story of how people with diverse backgrounds and traditions – secular, Reform, Conservative, formerly religious, Masorti and Orthodox – can succeed in building together a meaningful communal space, in which one of the central spaces in it is the synagogue.
Hannaton is also in the heart of the Galilee, a place with a different rhythm, with neighborly relations between Arabs and Jews, with amazing views and a closeness to nature. In addition, Hannaton tells the story of how to bridge the space between individual, material aspirations and commitment to community, the State and the land.
The Jewish story in Israel is special and fascinating; and at Hannaton, one can experience this at every moment, in every minute.
Rabbi Avi Novis-Deutsch is the Dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem and a resident of Hannaton. He is also a guest lecturer at the Hannaton Educational Center.