My Year in Israel Becomes a Life in Israel: A WRJ YES Fund Story

March 28, 2023Julia Ullman

In August 2021, I arrived in Israel for my first year of rabbinical school, as a student in Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion’s (HUC-JIR) Year in Israel Program, with the intention of continuing to HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles campus afterwards. However, I felt early on that I would not want to leave Israel at the end of the year.

I had spent a significant amount of time in Israel, both during and after college, and had already started to build a network of friends and colleagues there. I was captivated by the passion of the Reform Movement in Israel; it felt even more meaningful to choose progressive values and Reform liturgy in a place where traditionalist values and customs tend to prevail. Though I was not heavily involved in Israel-related conversations on my college campus, I quietly advocated for Liberal Zionist principles, instilled in me at my childhood congregation, Temple Emanu El (Orange Village, OH), and felt that my voice could be even more powerful if I could vote and be a part of the Reform community in Israel.

All roads were leading toward making Aliyah, but I was unsure if I could continue my life here in Israel. Would I be able to build the career I envisioned? Would my Hebrew be strong enough to study and work in Israel?

During my “Year-in-Israel,” a mandatory program for all first-year rabbinical, cantorial, and other students at HUC-JIR. I began to study with the HUC-JIR Israeli Rabbinic Program one day each week. I tested the waters and almost immediately felt right at home. The community of students welcomed me with open arms, eager to support my developing language skills, and encouraging me to take the leap to stay. Meeting my partner, Guy, at a Reform Movement young adult Yom Kippur seminar also helped seal the deal. I proudly made Aliyah in June 2022, as my “Year-in-Israel” was coming to a close, and I applied to transfer permanently into the Israeli Rabbinic Program. I felt incredibly supported by the faculty, administrative team, and fellow students as I took this huge step.

I was initially attracted to the Israeli Rabbinic Program because most students start at a different stage of life, with many already having careers and families. Thanks to the support of organizations like the WRJ’s YES Fund, we can engage in this study without the stress of paying for tuition. The support of scholarships not only gives students peace of mind, but affords them additional flexibility around already full schedules.

Whenever my mind drifts during t’filah, I often leaf through the pages of the new Israeli Reform Siddur, Tfilat Haadam, and browse the various ‘blue font’ options which contain an assortment of Israeli poetry, alternative readings, and sometimes re-gendered liturgy. Similar to the ‘left side of the page’ options in Mishkan T’filah, these options reflect our diversity of ideologies and ways to pray within the Reform Movement. What amazes me every time is that many of the authors and creators are literally in the room with me and many of them have been supported through WRJ YES Fund grants! At HUC in Jerusalem, we are privileged to learn with teachers such as Rabbi Dalia Marx, Ph.D., Rabbi Tamar Duvdevani, Rabbi Alona Lisitsa, Ph.D., Rabbi Oded Mazor, Rabbi Naamah Kelman  (just to name a few) whose contributions to contemporary Reform liturgy and Jewish Feminism are monumental.

It's hard to put my finger on just one moment or reason that made me want to move to Israel. Maybe it’s the delicious fresh and diverse cuisine, the laid-back problem-solving culture, or the proximity to all sorts of nature within only an hour’s drive–but even more so, it’s the passionate Reform Movement leaders and teachers who inspire me to be a part of this community. I am so fortunate to continue my studies toward the rabbinate at HUC in Jerusalem and know that this would not have been possible without WRJ’s YES Fund.

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