I visited Hebrew College and here’s what happened

Before I talk about Hebrew College itself, I’ll say a bit about why I might want to be a rabbi:

I want two things. First, I want more access and skill with text than I have. A lot more. I want to be able to wonder about something and go look it up and see what different corners of halachah have to say, in the original Hebrew or Aramaic. Part of the reason for that is personal and part of it is because I really enjoy the thrill of helping someone figure something out. I want to be able to help other people figure these things out and I want to teach in the community (broadly, vaguely defined) as well. Second, I want to work in the pluralist, non-denominational world. If becoming a rabbi at HC is what will give me those two things, then that’s what I want to do.

I first became aware of Hebrew College at my first Limmud NY, in 2008, when I first began to seriously question not just the nature of my Reform identity–I’d already been at that for a while–but also whether I had a real Reform identity any more. I made a friend at Limmud NY that year, Getzel Davis, product of the Reform movement–as they call us–who was about to begin the rabbinical program at HC. Despite our distinct differences–Getz calls himself a neo-Chasid and I’ve been known to call myself a neo-Litvak–he started trying to convince me to come visit him at HC. At the time, I was still pretty convinced that I wanted to go to Hebrew Union College.

Two and a half years later, I got over fears that HC would be too woo-woo kumbaya, and went for a visit. I should say that my fears that there would be some sitting in circles and sharing positive messages were completely justified, but I’ll get to that.

These fears sprang from two things–Getzel and Arthur Green. Getzel, as I said, called himself a neo-Chasid the first time I met him, which scared the shit out of me. Green, the founding leader of HC’s rabbinical program, is noted for being all into mysticism and for having re-introduced spiritual stuff to Jewish life in America. That, by the way, is a gross understatement of who Green is. If you feel like slapping me on the wrist of for that description of him, that’s fair. Green also helped found Chavurat Shalom–the premier first-wave chavurah–so that gives him some thumbs up from, but, from what I hear, they were pretty woo-woo themselves.

I arrived around 2:00pm yesterday and, unable to locate the rabbi in charge of admissions, just ended up going to class with Getz. It was a class in pastoral care stuff. Despite the irony of it being 4/20, the were talking about drugs and addiction. There was considerable g-chatting about the humor of this. The class was fine, very interesting, but not particularly exciting. Then I went home with Getz. I got up at the ass-crack of dawn so that I could take the 15-minute walk to the T so that I could get from Brookline back to Newton and walk another 10-15 minutes back up this crazy hill to HC so that I could go to shacharit.

On Wednesdays, I was told, there are two minyanim that meet. Apparently, different things happen on different days of the week. There seemed to be a slight element of chaos to this, which was an encouraging sign. (As discussed before on this blog, Jewish prayer without some level of chaos makes me nervous.) One minyan was the “contemplative minyan.” I didn’t quite know what this was and didn’t want to find out, so I headed to the traditional egalitarian minyan. This minyan’s egalitarian-ness turned out to be neither here nor there because only five people turned out for it, all of them men.

As I came in, one professor was going on about how he’d read that at Yeshiva University, they read halel and slichot on Monday. I said that I’d read that too, at Jewschool. He said that where he read it. I said I write there and that I’m David A.M. Wilensky. And he said, “Oh! I’ve been reading your stuff.” Moments like that make me happy.

Now we get to the part–every regular reader of this blog knows it’s coming–where I begin judging people based on what siddur they use. In this group of five, there were three different editions of the Koren Sacks siddur, one very experienced davener who seemed to be futzing about with an Eidot Hamizrach siddur–I assume this because it definitely wasn’t any of the popular siddurim out there and he made some comments after about something Edot Hamizrach does that Ashkenaz doesn’t–and one guy with a siddur on his iPhone. So, my judgement is so positive, I’ll forgive the fact that two of them had t’chelet in their tzitzit.

My morning continued with the first year students’ halachah class, taught by the awesome Jonah Steinberg, whom I’ve previously met at Limmud NY. They were studying some stuff in the Tur about larger spaces annexing smaller spaces, which I was pretty engrossed by and understood more of than I expected myself to. Also ran into David Fein-Silber who I met this summer when he had his wedding at Kutz, where I was working at the time and how is now a first-year rabbinical student at HC.

After that was Beit Midrash. I hung with Joel, a first year student who I assume was in his sixties and his chevruta partner, Ari, who couldn’t been older then 25. They were translating and studying the story of Joseph’s time in Egypt and we all read and translated together and I had a great time with them.

Then it was lunch with Rabbi Sara Zacharia, the director of admissions. We were joined by Sarah, another Reform movement refugee. What she had to say had particular weight because she had spent a year at HUC before transferring to HC.She told me that HC was ten times more useful helping her transfer than HUC had been in helping her become the rabbi she wanted to be while she was a student there, which is pretty strong stuff.

After lunch was Community Time. This apparently happens every Wednesday afternoon and actually begins with the entire staff and student body of the rabbinical program sitting in a circle sharing news about their lives. Which wasn’t as painful as it might’ve been. It actually did a lot to give me an idea of what the community is like, getting to see and hear what everyone acts like when the whole group is together.

Other things I learned:

HC is located in its own very modern, but rather characterless building on the campus of Andover Newton Theological Seminary–ANTS as I heard a few people refer to it–which made me feel really comfortable because of the relationship I’ve developed with the Theo School at Drew over the past couple years.

Some students live in dorms at ANTS. Rabbi Zacharia told me that they’re trying to encourage more of that in coming class years to build a slightly more residential community. Now, most live in Newton (where HC and ANTS are located) or in Brookline (where Getzel lives) or elsewhere in Boston like Jamaica Plains or whatever.  Maybe because I live on a campus now and I’m comfortable with that, the option to live at ANTS is pretty attractive.

If I go to a rabbinical school, it’ll be HC. It’s pluralist, it’s rigorous and it’ll give me the text toolkit that I want.

Boltbus is still awesome.

I thoroughly inspected the liturgy section of the beit midrash bookshelf and determined that it was good.

The T is weird and why on Earth are those things called Charlie Cards? The opportunity for pronouncing Chahlie Cahd is pretty great though.

If I go to HC, I have to seriously increase my Hebrew skills, which may figure into my immediate post college plans.

People were my kind of people, without the kind of obnoxious negativity and cynicism I often hear from HUC students that I know.

Overall, good trip. Lots of food for thought.

24 Responses to I visited Hebrew College and here’s what happened

  1. Jen April 21, 2010 at 7:13 pm #

    What if someone davens from memory? How do you judge them then? :)

    • David A.M. Wilensky April 21, 2010 at 8:31 pm #

      That’s fine, though I often feel kind of bored with it because there’s nothing to judge. I think Edot Hamizrach guy was doing some of that as well. He certainly didn’t look at any books during the Amidah.

  2. BZ April 21, 2010 at 7:26 pm #

    First, I want more access and skill with text than I have. A lot more. I want to be able to wonder about something and go look it up and see what different corners of halachah have to say, in the original Hebrew or Aramaic.

    This is NOT a reason to become a rabbi. It’s a reason to study text.

    • David A.M. Wilensky April 21, 2010 at 8:35 pm #

      Coupled with the second reason and something I left out, it certainly is! I’ll add in what I left out here and in the post:

      Part of the reason for that is personal and part of it is because I really enjoy the thrill of helping someone figure something out. I want to be able to help other people figure these things out and I want to teach in the community (broadly, vaguely defined) as well.

  3. GSM April 21, 2010 at 8:02 pm #

    Maybe because of the Charles River? You’re going to have to learn these things if head even deeper into Yankee Land.

    • ML April 22, 2010 at 12:53 am #

      My first thought was the “MTA” song.

      • Sandy May 15, 2010 at 9:03 pm #

        Definitely from the Kingston Trio song about Charlie and the MTA!!

  4. T April 21, 2010 at 8:15 pm #

    I find it sad that people go to rabbinical school to learn to understand and discuss halacha, our holy texts, etc. To me, that’s not what rabbinical school is for .. and in fact I wouldn’t want my rabbi to be someone who went to rab school because they just wanted to learn, rather than because of a calling to do rabbinic work (which tends to have a lot of educational and pastoral components, not just living in a beis medrash 24/7). I feel like this is an unfortunate phenomenon in the liberal Jewish world – the idea that rabbinical school is the only way to get a serious handle on Jewish texts.

    • David A.M. Wilensky April 21, 2010 at 8:48 pm #

      Ah shit I hate myself. See my comment above in reply to BZ’s comment. I hate that I just promoted that nonsense for a moment.

      I know I know I know that it’s sad and I agree. It’s also increasingly untrue. There’s Hadar, Pardes, the Conservative Yeshiva–though the Reform movement is unsurprisingly making itself scarce in this emerging field…

      • T April 22, 2010 at 5:58 pm #

        And if being an educator is what you want, there are loads of graduate programs in Jewish studies, Jewish education, Talmud, etc.

        No worries, you are not the only one to think that way or talk that way – It’s totally common and our communities often support it. I just think it’s important to challenge, within ourselves and when other people talk that way.

  5. Daniel Burstyn April 21, 2010 at 8:27 pm #

    Charlie cards – because of the song, silly! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3VMSGrY-IlU

    Hebrew College is the most supportive academic environment I’ve ever been in contact with. I got my MA through their online program. I wish I had been able to study there in the Rabbinical program, but I didn’t want to leave the kibbutz for good, which is what that would have entailed.

    Art is one of Gedolei HaDor.

    And I second what Dreyfus said above. Text is text and rabbi is rabbi. Own it. You’ve wanted to be a rabbi since you were knee high to a Texas Longhorn. It’s totally ok to want to be a rabbi, and to become one, and to be one. Just know that most people think rabbis are full of @#$& and you’ll be fine.

    And of course, the rabbis want to keep the guild small, so they keep saying “it’s ok to be an educated jew in the pews, too.”

    • BZ April 21, 2010 at 8:47 pm #

      It’s not about keeping the guild small; it’s about having Jewish communities with educated participants. And on the contrary, rabbis usually aren’t the ones promoting that view.

      • ML April 22, 2010 at 12:56 am #

        Most Reform rabbi’s would love to teach the kind of classes you envision yourself learning at (or as a rabbi, teaching). Most liberal Jews aren’t interested.

        • David A.M. Wilensky April 22, 2010 at 2:11 pm #

          Give me a break. It’s the rare Reform rabbi that is anywhere near equipped to teach the kind of classes in halachah available at HC.

          • ML April 23, 2010 at 12:42 am #

            And grads of HC probably aren’t equipped to teach them either.

            But that wasn’t your point. However, my point was that the kind of study you are clearly seeking places you in a distinct minority among Reform and Conservative Jews. I’m not saying this to be contrary, or that it’s right or good.

  6. Alan April 22, 2010 at 12:20 am #

    (1) What’s your beef with techelet?

    (2) Look up the history of the song “Charlie on the MTA”.

    • David A.M. Wilensky April 22, 2010 at 2:09 pm #

      I just think it’s silly and overly mystical. And I don’t buy that this creature that they’ve rediscovered is really techelet.

  7. Larry Kaufman April 22, 2010 at 3:56 pm #

    Semantic question, emerging from your comment:
    This minyan’s egalitarian-ness turned out to be neither here nor there because only five people turned out for it, all of them men.

    Seems to me that it’s not just the egalitarian-ness that’s neither here nor there, but the minyan-ness. Maybe we have found that elusive distinction between indy minyan and chavurah — a chavurah doesn’t have to have 10 qualified participants unless it so chooses. But while a minyan may make its own policy as to whom to count, by definition, it has to count to ten. What then does one call a prayer group of five? And what can we infer about the rabbis that HC will produce — in terms of their interest in (daily) davening?

    It would be interesting to know how many people showed up for the contemplative session….and for that matter what happens there. To me, that would substantiate your fear about a woo-woo kumbaya environment (an environment I would hate, an expression that I love).

    And just curious — how does HC do in terms of placing those of its ordinees who want the pulpit rabbinate into pulpits?

    • David A.M. Wilensky April 22, 2010 at 4:32 pm #

      There were three people in the contemplative one. Apparently, it was, as Edot Hamizrach guy (this his new name, as far as I’m concerned) termed it, a “chidush,” an innovation. He seemed to think it was anomalous. Some days, the two groups come together for kadish, but that’s usually as bad as it gets.

      And I’m willing to call a group a minyan even if it doesn’t have a minyan on a given day.

      As for pulpits, keeping mind that there have only been two or three graduating classes so far, check out this page of their website: http://www.hebrewcollege.edu/rabbinical-school/placements

      scroll to the bottom for an actual list of placements

  8. Larry Kaufman April 22, 2010 at 5:01 pm #

    I’m impressed with the placement success, including the number of placements in URJ congregations. Hopefully, with time, their alumni will be more geographically dispersed, rather than so heavy on Massachusetts. (Reminds me of the Quaker tri-partite credo, the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of Man, and the neighborhood of Philadelphia.)

    While I’m perfectly comfortable with the knocking down of denominational barriers, and I’m OK with recognizing that words add or change meanings over time, I think you’re on thin ice when you eliminate the quorum idea from the definition of minyan — and al achat kama v’kama if you want to preserve the idea that you need 10 for barchu or kaddish yatom. (But then, I also get queasy when the Minyan at my shul counts the sefer Torah as its tenth — in preference with walking down the hall and joining the Kahal, which has never in my experience — going on three years — had a numbers problem.)

    • BZ April 22, 2010 at 5:53 pm #

      Hopefully, with time, their alumni will be more geographically dispersed, rather than so heavy on Massachusetts.

      I’ve heard that some students choose HC over other rabbinical schools BECAUSE it’s in Massachusetts and they’re already settled there.

      • David A.M. Wilensky April 23, 2010 at 10:24 am #

        I’ve not heard that at all, but I’m curious to hear more if you have any sources on that.

        On the contrary, I got the sense that going to HC isn’t a decision one makes lightly. They program has a specific point of view and a offers a skill set that most liberal rabbis don’t seek

    • David A.M. Wilensky April 23, 2010 at 10:21 am #

      I’m not taking away the quorum idea. Rather, I’m adding a second meaning. If one says that they are “going to a minyan,” we can understand from them that they have gone to a prayer group, without making assumptions about how many people will be there. If one says, “I got there late and it turned out that I made the minyan” or “We didn’t have a minyan today at minyan” (tee hee) we can understand that they mean minyan in the numerical sense.


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