“Like a Distant Cousin”: Bi-Cultural Negotiation as Key Perspective in Understanding the Evolving Relationship of Future Reform Rabbis with Israel and the Jewish People

Mar. 07, 2015

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 81, Issue 1, pages 35-63


This research explores the impact of a year studying in Israel on Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) rabbinical students’ emotional connection toward and knowledge about the State of Israel and the Jewish People. We want to better understand the students’ beliefs, ideas, and behaviors that emerge from their experience including “ideological dilemmas” that they confront and negotiate.


The study is based on a series of three interviews conducted with 10 students at the start and end of their year in Israel, and again in their third or fourth year of school. Findings are presented along a continuum of belonging and connection and suggest that understanding how these future rabbis relate to Israel and the Jewish People is strongly tied to how they negotiate their American and Jewish identities and to their different perceptions of Judaism: as a religion or as a civilization.



The HUC-JIR Year in Israel expects that students will both learn about and also develop “meaningful relationships with Israel.” Our findings suggest that this process of relationship building is not a given for many of these students, yet the institutional leadership perceives it as crucial for their future as religious leaders of the North American Jewish community. Our findings also conform to the understanding that the basis for collective identification is emotional (Nisan, 2010), and that both cognitive and emotional reactions come into play in the process of making meaning.


Students employing different bicultural negotiation strategies had different ways of dealing with Israel and the plurality within the Jewish world: Students in the Visiting group see Israel as one component of Jewish heritage and reject the concept of Jewish Peoplehood as an inexorable tie. Both those in the Bridging and Struggling groups see Peoplehood as central to Jewish civilization and Israel as a center for the Jewish people. The difference between the Bridging and Struggling strategies is in the ways they deal with the plurality of the Jewish People. While the Struggling group sees it as a threat to the future unity, those in the Bridging strategy perceive it in pluralistic way as a positive force. We suggest that the process of experiential learning is the vehicle through which students constantly deal with their dissonances and how they prioritize their actions as student rabbis. Paying attention to students’ dissonances in regard to their identification with the Jewish collective is a key element in helping them to acquire strategies for more intentional ideology and growth.


The centrality of Israel to HUC-JIR’s mission calls for more explicit attention to the relationships of Israel to Jewish Peoplehood and the place of both in the vision for American Reform Jewish life. Lived ideology of Judaism as a religion or lived ideology of Judaism as a civilization may create different ways of “meaningful engagement” and can give a language for dealing with challenges of developing and sustaining a relationship between North American Jewry and Israel.


While this study focuses on students studying at one particular institution, we believe that our findings may be of interest to any American Jewish institution that sends its students to Israel for a lengthy period of study. Thus, we close with a brief discussion of implications for educational programming that have surfaced through these findings. They are framed both specifically for HUC-JIR and for general consideration by other Jewish educational institutions with similar commitments and concerns about their students’ relationship to and engagement with Israel and the Jewish People.

Updated: Mar. 18, 2015