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‘Tonight, We’re Going to be Israelis’

American rabbis learn what Israelis go through when a siren blares during a rabbinic program lecture


RTS 2014 opened on Monday, June 30, with exuberance and excitement. We were welcomed with hugs and ice-cream, and colleagues embraced one another in the expansive courtyard. We embarked on what promised to be a rich ten days of study on the topic “A Time for War, A Time for Peace.” But on our very first night, we learned that the bodies of three yeshiva students who had been abducted 2 1/2 weeks earlier had been found. The next day, Israeli airstrikes, responding to Hamas rockets, began.

Our first week was rich and full, with provocative shiurim and electives, deep hevruta study, and extraordinary evening programs, including interviews with Ari Shavit , Yossi Klein Halevi , and a presentation by Nava Tehila . The second week began with promise, including an evening with Fania Oz-Salzberger . On Tuesday evening, July 8, the Beit Midrash was full. Our keynote speaker was Aaron Panken , recently installed as the President of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. His topic was “The Future of Liberal Judaism in North America.” Donniel Hartman opened the program by saying that he and those who planned our time of study knew that “the odds were in our favor that the topic was going to be relevant” when they chose the theme,“A Time for War, A Time for Peace.” He continued, “either a serious peace treaty would be on the table,” or, “if negotiations had fallen apart…we would look at our understanding of war in this impossible environment, and ask…how do we think about peace?”
Operation Protective Edge had been launched earlier that day. Donniel continued, “I want to welcome you to Israel. I want to welcome you to one of the greatest secrets of Israeli society… one of the sources of its greatest strength and of profound difficulty and potential failure…to live in Israel is the ability to bifurcate your consciousness; to live and hold onto a myth of stability regardless of the circumstances… Tonight we’re going to be Israelis.”
Rabbi Panken spoke, three of us responded, and then all present engaged in a lively and thoughtful exchange.
As the program concluded, a siren sounded. Those of us who were still on campus were herded down the stairs in the Beit Midrash into a series of rooms that comprise Hartman’s extensive miklat. The festive mood of the evening was shattered by the siren, the first that some of us had ever heard. We were an erev rav, a mix of rabbinical students and seasoned rabbis, friends and family members, Americans, Canadians, Israelis, and others. For some of us, this was the first time we had entered a miklat seeking shelter from possible danger. Some prayed. Some were silent. I held a rabbinic student who had just arrived in Israel for her first year, as she trembled with fear and wept. After what seemed like many minutes, Donniel told us that it was safe to leave the campus. We found others who were headed in the same direction and walked through the empty, quiet streets. As my group approached Emek Refaim, we agreed that ice cream was an appropriate antidote to our brief, and for many of us, deeply unsettling experience. “Tonight we’re going to be Israelis.”
I am deeply grateful to have returned to Jerusalem this summer, and with colleagues, to have studied texts of war and peace under the guidance of the extraordinary teachers of the Hartman Institute. My teaching over the course of this year will be deeper and, I hope, more provocative thanks to the tutelage of our skilled teachers. I am especially thankful for the continued guidance of Donniel Hartman and Tal Becker, who, through webinars and print matter, continue to share wise counsel as Israel struggles to move through these difficult times.
May all of us be blessed to continue the sacred work of pursuing the Torah of peace.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell is a Hartman Senior Rabbinic Fellow (RLI II) and the co-editor of Chapters of the Heart: Jewish Women Sharing the Torah of Our Lives (2013).

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