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Dear Sinai Temple Friends –

It is a beautiful night in Jerusalem. I’ve had my last dinner in Jerusalem. I’m heading back to the hotel where friends and I will take a taxi back to Israel’s brand new, ultra-modern airport.

I’m going home to Massachusetts – although I’m going home with very special baggage.

I’m traveling to Massachusetts with new knowledge, new friendships, and new feelings about Israel and Judaism.

I’ve been in Israel now for about two weeks. I’ve been privileged to spend the time in Jerusalem studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute. As most people call it, “Hartman” is a unique place in Israel. Hartman was founded by David Hartman, an Orthodox rabbi born in Brooklyn, who moved to Israel some 20 years ago. At the time, he had a dream. Rabbi Hartman wanted to go beyond labels and found an institution that would teach Judaism to all Jews anywhere. In particular, he wanted to show secular Israelis how Judaism could mean something to theme in their modern, everyday lives. He even wanted to do that for Jews beyond Israel. Regardless of “labels” such as Orthodox or Reform, he wanted to bring Jews together as Jews to learn and deepen their connection to Jewish texts and Jewish living.

The result of Hartman’s dream has been the organization named after his father, the Shalom Hartman Institute. It functions as a think tank for Israel all year round, while every July for two weeks the Hartman opens its doors to American rabbis for an intensive two week seminar.

This is where I have been learning during the opening weeks of July 2005, and I can only say that the intellectual and spiritual explorations at the Institute have been the most interesting and fascinating learning I have experienced in as long as I can remember.

“Hartman” was fabulous.

This year’s theme for all the courses during the two week seminar was “Religion, Morality, and Violence.” The lectures and texts all had to do with the role of religion in cultivating morality while sometimes leading to violence. Among many topics, we discussed martyrdom, the idea of just and unjust wars, the role of ethics in Jewish tradition, and the meaning of holiness when it comes to our relationship to the land of Israel.

But telling you what our topics were only begins to suggest what really happened in Hartman. Far more important than the syllabus for any day was the teacher(s) of the day. And this is where Hartman shone. Hard as it is to believe, every teacher was bursting with energy and insights galore.

In addition, our style of learning was something I had never fully experienced. It was called “chevruta.” “Chevruta” comes from the Hebrew root – CHAVER – meaning friend. Chevruta is the term used to describe learning in small groups of 2 or 3 students. For Hartman, that meant that every morning we began our day in “chevruta.” The teacher of the day would distribute several pages of Hebrew texts on the topic. We would be given some basic questions and then we would take 2 hours in our small groups to read and try to digest the materials. Following that intimate and intense process, the teacher would then make his/her presentations. In other words, we studied the raw materials and then listened as the teacher molded the material into the lesson of the day.

It was quite amazing.

I’ve probably never learned so much in a single period of my life.

More than that, all the living and learning happened in Jerusalem where the sky was crystal blue clear every day. The sun shone every day. (The humidity was low.) I watched the sliver of a new moon grow every night next to the stars.

I saw an Israeli movie. I attended a concert of the Jerusalem Philharmonic Orchestra. I ate in Israeli restaurants. I observed Shabbat in Jerusalem. I polished my Hebrew. I watched Israelis of all kinds going about their daily routines as Jews in a Jewish land speaking the Jewish language. I heard countless discussions about disengagement from the Gaza Strip.

In the weeks ahead (including Torah Study tomorrow – Saturday, July 16 at 9 a.m.), I look forward to sharing what I have learned at Hartman.

In the weeks ahead, I also look forward to concretizing plans for a Sinai Temple trip to Israel next June/July. (I was even careful to keep a good list of my favorite bakery and ice cream places plus jewelry stores for those of us returning to Jerusalem next year.)

My best wishes to all of you for a warm and fulfilling summer.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Mark Shapiro

My special thanks go to Harold Grinspoon for underwriting the cost of this beautiful experience through a special fund established in memory of his father.

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