For area Jews, study in Holy Land brings text to life

Many Americans find that Jewish history and Judaism resonate more powerfully when they study them in the Holy Land.

Jehon Grist, co-director of Lehrhaus Judaica in Berkeley and a Jew-by-choice, says participating in archaeological digs in Israel was one of the things that brought him to Judaism.

His first experience was in 1972, when he was a U.C. Berkeley student. The dig was at Gezer, 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem.

"The ways of Israel both modern and ancient, they began to move into my soul," Grist remembers.

Raised in Los Angeles as a fundamentalist Christian, Grist was familiar with Jewish Scripture.

"I had all these images of Israel in my head before I even went. From a Christian perspective, [being there] made me realize that Christianity is a very young child indeed. The whole goal of my life is to trace beginnings. In tracing the roots of my faith back to Israel, I found my home."

As a Christian student at Hebrew University six years later, Grist was moved by Jewish life.

"Jewish people are very closely linked to things that count. You really feel bound by history, tradition and hope. These are not the binds that wound but the binds that protect and nurture. There is an underlying belief that we have common cause and common faith."

Grist says he may not always agree with the current Israeli government, but he still feels a passion and devotion to the land.

"For me, Israel at 50 allows us to realize that we're building a new chapter in the experience of the land of the Bible. How did the Israelites feel about Moses 50 years after he brought them through the sea of reeds? We tend to feel bad about the first 50 years just because we don't feel so good about the 50th year and I think that's a shame."

Rabbi Amy Eilberg, a Peninsula-based spiritual counselor in private practice, says she can still smell the air in the Jerusalem apartment where she lived more than 20 years ago.

"That was the year that I decided to pursue rabbinic studies," she says.

Eilberg spent most of her 20s studying in Israel, first as a Jewish studies student at Brandeis University and then as a rabbinical student at the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary. For her, talking about Hebrew texts in Hebrew deepened the experience.

"There was a congruence of studying ancient Jewish texts and talking about them in Hebrew," she says. "There's a certain distance when one talks about Hebrew texts in English."

Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann, associate dean for religious life at Stanford University, also found studying in Hebrew a vibrant experience.

"Studying Hebrew texts in a country whose language was Hebrew, the sense of a reborn language was very tangible. The same language that was in the text, we were also using to go grocery shopping."

As a student at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem more than 20 years ago, she found that Jewish studies became more alive in the Jewish state.

"Part of our study was to travel around Israel. Places that we were exploring through Bible were alive and there and real."

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan of San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El has studied in Israel many times, including as a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College in 1985. Being in Israel, he says, enriched his understanding of the psalms.

"So much of our beautiful poetic text, psalms and the Torah itself, comes from the land. When you're hiking, walking in the valley and you see the mountains which appear to be so far away, you feel exposed. The line from Psalm 121, `I lift my eyes. Where will my help come from?' makes sense. There's this feeling of being open and fragile. My help comes from Adonai who made heaven and earth."

Wolf-Prusan is not as moved by Israel's 50-year milestone as he is by the country's daily existence. "I'm not so intrigued with numbers. Every day that Israel exists is an anniversary."

Rabbi and mohel Chanan Feld was ordained in Israel 13 years ago, in a village called Kfar Chabad, a religious village sequestered from newspapers and television.

For Feld, a Lubavitcher Chassid now living in Berkeley, studying in Israel was a way of heeding Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), which says to exile yourself to a place of Torah.

"If you were truly into the learning, there were no distractions. You were in the Holy Land. You could learn to your heart's content," Feld says of the experience in Kfar Chabad.

Studying Judaism in a religious community enhanced the meaning of the mitzvot for him.

"All the ideas you're learning about are being practiced, being put into reality. If you learn about the mitzvot and then you see people doing the mitzvot, it makes a lot more sense. It's easier to learn about something you see being lived."

Studying in Israel, he says, not only enriched the texts but his own sense of connection to Judaism.

"To go to the Kotel [Western Wall] and daven, or walk around Yerushalayim or Safed, you felt like being a Jew was in the air. The most natural place for a Jew to be will always be Israel."