Reform Movement Takes Action to Prevent Detention of Its Rabbinical Students at Israel’s Border

The Reform Movement takes unprecedented precautionary measure after repeated instances of liberal Jewish visitors held for questioning by Israeli authorities

Passport control at Ben Gurion Airport
Eyal Toueg

In an unprecedented move, the Reform movement has begun furnishing its rabbinical students in Israel with letters to present to the authorities in case they are detained at a border. It was prompted by concerns over the growing number of liberal Jews stopped and interrogated at Israel’s borders because of their opposition to the government and its policies.

Speaking at an event in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, Rabbi Naamah Kelman, dean of the Jerusalem campus of the Hebrew Union College, said this was the first time since its establishment in 1970 that such a precautionary measures had to be taken.

She said the letters were being handed out to all students leaving Israel on break. The letters certified that the purpose of their stay in the country was to fulfill requirements toward their ordination.

All students at the Hebrew Union College, the main seminary for training rabbis in the Reform movement, are required to spend their first year of study in Jerusalem. This year, about 50 foreign students, most of them from the United States, are at the Israel campus.

“It was the first time I ever felt that before these students left Israel on break that I needed to equip them with letters so they wouldn’t be detained and interrogated when they got back about whom they met with, what they are doing here, what Palestinians they know, and have they ever taken part in a demonstration,” said Kelman at the event organized by Panim, an association of Israeli institutions active in Jewish renewal.

“I’ve never had to do anything like this before, and not only did we supply them with letters, but they’ve also received instructions that if anything happens at the border, they are to call us immediately and we’ll have a lawyer on their case.”

American and Israeli Reform rabbis pray at the Western Wall in 2016.
Sebastian Scheiner/AP

She cited the recent case of Julie Weinberg-Connors, an American who was planning to immigrate to Israel, who was detained at the border because of her affiliation with a left-wing Jewish organization that works with Palestinians.

Weinberg-Connors, who is studying at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, was ultimately allowed into the country.

In recent months, Israeli authorities have also detained journalist Peter Beinart, author Moriel Rothman-Zecher, and left-wing activists Simone Zimmerman and Abby Kirschbaum at the country’s borders.

“We have to be able to accept criticism, especially when it’s coming from those who want to be our partners in our future,” said American-born Kelman, the first female rabbi ever to be ordained in Israel.