When the 27 participants in the current Rabbinic Leadership Initiative program arrive at Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem soon for their first week-long winter seminar they will do more than breathe deeply of the cool, crisp Jerusalem air.
The hope is they will also think and study deeply and then return to their North American rabbinates intellectually, spiritually and physically refreshed.
The rabbis, from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform synagogues in major cities (see list below), will study texts about Jewish holidays in havrutot and then with Hartman faculty. There are also sessions where the rabbis teach each other. The overall theme of this year’s winter retreat is "Foundations of the Ethical: Holidays and the Development of Moral Character."
They will also hear lectures from leading Israeli writers and thinkers on subjects as diverse as Israeli notions of ethics and Israeli Jewish connections to New Age culture.
"We want to help our participants reshape their rabbinates," Berk says. "There is pressure on rabbis to be social workers and managers. But they also have to be educational visionaries. To succeed and have influence in their communities they need to be more deeply connected to the sources of the tradition and to become better readers of text."
The rabbis – all but one of whom are working pulpit rabbis in major congregations – also sit together in roundtable discussions where they put their own rabbinates under a microscope and discuss what they do in areas such as adult education, social action and the high holidays.
"This kind of peer review almost doesn’t occur anywhere," Berk says. Even though seminars on such topics may take place at rabbinical conventions, the duration of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative three-year program, and the close ties it fosters among the group, offer a deeper connection and analysis.
Deepen Israel connection
"There is a loneliness in the rabbinate," Berk says. "We help them build community. We are a working laboratory."
An additional goal for this already ambitious program is to deepen the rabbis’ connection to Israel, and for them to be special shlichim (emissaries) in their communities for Israel. To that end, aspects of Israeli culture are studied, as well as classic Jewish texts.
This week’s program is set to include a lecture from Orit Kamir
titled, "Israeli Ethics of Honor and Dignity." Kamir, a Hartman Institute fellow and Hebrew University professor of law, culture and gender, has published a book on the subject.
"Her talk will explore how the Zionist movement and Israel got wrapped up in the macho aspects of honor, a problem especially for women in the culture," Berk says.
, a Hartman Institute fellow who lectures at Tel Aviv University, will give a talk titled, "The Encounter of Israeli Jewish Identity with New Age Culture."
Berk says many North American communities have Israeli emissaries in their midst, but rabbis rooted in those communities can have a more lasting impact.
"By helping them get reconnected to Israel, we will help them pull their congregations closer to Israel," Berk says.
The rabbis’ days will be full. They will study havruta style twice a day, conduct their roundtable discussions and listen to lectures on the holidays from Rabbi Professor David Hartman, Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, Hartman Institute senior fellow Moshe Halbertal and others.
Center of attention
Berk says the havruta learning is crucial, both for the non-hierarchical way in which havruta operates, as well as offering the rabbis additional opportunities to build close relationships with their peers.
In addition, the rabbis will be, in a sense, the center of attention at the Institute when they are here. Their summertime residency puts them as one group among many. During this winter session they will shine under the attention and focus they are receiving.
"One of the biggest problems rabbis have is burnout," says Berk, himself a veteran pulpit rabbi from California and Arizona. "They are almost starving for nourishment."
With that the case, the week-long visit to Jerusalem should be just the spiritual, educational and communal refreshment these rabbis need.
Rabbinic Leadership Initiative
is a competitive, three-year program to which participants must be accepted. The current group is the third since the program’s initiation. The group is in its first year, which began with a four-week residency in Jerusalem at Shalom Hartman Institute last summer.
Participants are male and female pulpit rabbis from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform congregations in Baltimore, Boca Raton, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Montreal, New York, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Diego, San Francisco, Toronto, and Washington, D.C. One participant is executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.