After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, David Novak reassessed his life and decided to become a rabbi.
The 39-year-old Novak, who lives in Los Angeles, opted to leave his longtime career in public relations and was accepted to the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).
But immediately he was plunged into another decision affected by terrorism — what to do about the school’s mandatory year in Jerusalem, a city devastated by suicide bombings.
With HUC-JIR considering whether or not to move the required program elsewhere or allow students not to go, Novak, like many of his classmates, feels conflicted about the coming year. On one hand, he’s apprehensive at the prospect of living in Jerusalem and never knowing whether it is safe to get on a bus or go to a cafe. On the other hand, he says, "I don’t want to sound like I’m a whiny American unsympathetic to the people who live in Jerusalem and Haifa and Netanya, for whom Israel is their home. I’m being asked to go study in Israel. I’m not being asked to go fight."
HUC-JIR is the only North American seminary to require all students to spend their first year in Israel. It also is the only one with such a centrally located campus — close to downtown Jerusalem. But unlike students at the other seminaries, such as the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) or the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), where rules about Israel study are more flexible and exemptions easier to obtain, the HUC-JIR students are awaiting word from the administration. HUC-JIR has already postponed the start of its fall semester to late August from July. The school’s president, Rabbi David Ellenson, says they expect to announce in early June whether the program will be in Jerusalem, as usual; at another Israeli location, or at one of the HUC campuses in the United States.
HUC leaders are well aware of the potential fallout if they move their program out of Israel. The Reform movement came under fire from many Israelis and other Jewish groups last year for canceling its summer teen trips to Israel. But HUC is also facing pressure from the other side, with many incoming students and their families expressing strong reservations about going to Israel. One student even opted for another seminary in order to avoid the Israel requirement, Ellenson said.
"We have a commitment to stand in solidarity with the people of Israel and the state of Israel, and a moral commitment to be concerned for the lives of our students and their families," Ellenson said.
Shortly after the suicide bombing at a Passover seder in Netanya, the seminary allowed this year’s students to come home early, a few weeks before the semester’s end. Twenty students opted to accept the offer.
The University of Judaism’s rabbinical school, which is also Conservative, issued a letter in April allowing students to choose whether or not to spend their third year in Israel or to defer their year in Israel to the following year. This year, all 10 third-year students went to Israel and stayed for the entire year. None of next year’s 11 students have opted to defer yet, although the school is not expecting final decisions until July and August.
RRC sent 13 students to Israel this year, one of whom came home early, and is not certain how many will go next year. The school also recently decided to pay for students to take cabs in Israel, and relocating costs if students opted to return home mid-year.
JTS sent 16 rabbinical students to Israel this year, and granted exemptions to nine. Rabbinical or cantorial students have until mid-May to file Israel exemption requests. The school also had to cancel its cantorial program in Israel, due to a large number of students requesting exemptions after the suicide bombing at Sbarro’s pizzeria. The program, which is for first-year students, is in peril this year as well — with only five students signed up to go.