It is an odd thing, inheriting the job of a predecessor. You take on the occupational tasks of an individual you may or may or may not know. You do things differently than your predecessor, but you do some of the same activities from day to day. And you come to know your predecessor only in ghostly, passing ways: you can imagine them making the same phone call, or sitting in the same chair, or giving similar council on the exact same issue. But you never really know. You never really know them. You never know how they would do something; whether, in a similar position, they would choose to do things the same or differently than you.
I don’t really know my predecessor, Rabbi Harry Sinoff, at all. His reputation was of being mild-mannered and calm, well-spoken, and extremely intelligent. Before I took the job as director of Upper Division Judaic Studies, I only visited Denver Jewish Day School once, in May of 2011. I saw Harry teach a Talmud class, andmet with him for a day. And then he was off to Houston, and I sat in his chair and had to confront the same challenges and handle some of the same questions he did, each day after.
I do know Harry extremely well in one very odd way: through HIP. HIP, the Hebrew Immersion Program at Denver JDS, is totally unique in the world of Jewish education. No other Jewish day school in North America does a trip to Israel for five weeks to work solely on Hebrew. No other day school goes to the Negev, a region that not only serves as Denver’s ‘sister city’, but also is the epicenter of Prime Minister David Ben Gurion’s vision that the Jews must “make the desert bloom”.
Rabbi Sinoff created HIP, and I am forever grateful. In creating the program as he did, he made some bold choices; they speak to a man of great vision. Harry intentionally chose the town of Midreshet Ben Gurion as the base for HIP. He picked it precisely because it was in the middle of nowhere, with very little to do, and very few Americans. He picked it because our kids would be forced to speak Hebrew.
Midreshet Ben Gurion is sleepy little town of around 1,200 people in the Ramat HaNegev region. It has a boarding school, the entrance to an Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) hiking trail, a research institute, an army base, a pizza joint, and a mini-market. It has one lightly-attended shul (synagogue). It’s not a place where you need to worry much about our kids breaking curfew: there’s nothing to do, and nowhere to go. Whenever I arrive, the quiet opening notes of John William’s score to Star Wars play in my head. You know the part: where Luke Skywalker looks out over a blazing duel sunset over a barren desert, and a mournful french horn plays a song dripping with loneliness and desolation. Yeah, that’s pretty much what ‘the midrasha’ looks like. Replace the Jawas with Ibex, though.
The decision to frame the trip as he did is a challenge to the conventional nature of the American relationship with Israel. That conventional view is that you can know a country by visiting its important historical sites. Get on a bus, go to the Kotel (Western Wall), see the Galilee, float in the Dead Sea, eat in the shuk (open air market). Rinse, repeat. This is the model of IST. It is the model of most day schools. It is the model of the Taglit-birthright Israelt.
Harry decided to challenge convention. HIP is not about seeing the sights. True, we go to most of those places mentioned. But HIP is not meant to be ‘the school’s trip to Israel’ – it’s meant to be a launchpad for a life-long relationship to Israel. It does two things: first, it builds a student’s Hebrew to the point that they can be part of the experiment that is the Jewish state; to be part of Israel, and not just to be seeing Israel as an outsider looking in. Second, it creates relationships between American and Israeli students, so that Jewishkids from Denver are forever linked to a community of Israelis who will always be like family to them. HIP is not just about visiting Israel. It’s about creating a life-long relationship with Israel. HIP forces students to know Israel and understand it on a much deeper level. Other schools experience a sort-of short course in Israel 101. HIP is an advanced Master Class in knowing Israel.
For all that, I, and every ‘graduate’ of HIP, owe Rabbi Sinoff a debt of thanks. I do my best to keep improving and growing the HIP program. But I see myself mostly as a faithful steward of an extremely successful program, and a program so bold and disruptive that I marvel at the vision and bravery it took to decide to do it that way.
I hope that HIP, which is in its 10th year this year, will go on for many more years, creating Denver Jewish students with an exceptional closeness with the land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob for many years to come. Those that have gone on HIP are better for the experience. I hope they know that they owe much of that experience to a soft-spoken rabbi named Harry Sinoff.