Crossing Boundaries

A reflection on receiving the 2018 Haas/Koshland Memorial Award

I recently took part in a day of learning hosted in Berkeley by visiting rabbis from Svara, a queer yeshiva, which I described to my friends (pretty accurately) as a day of “lesbian Talmud camp.” From across the hall, over the crowded heads of study-partners leaning over their open pages of gamara, one of the students shared an insight with the whole group. In an excited voice, she pointed out that the root of the word עברים ‘Ivrim, Hebrews, is the same as that of עבירה ‘aveirah, transgression. For her, the possible etymological connection was proof that the Hebrew people are not only meant to be a wandering people but a transgressive people, crossing boundaries, breaking taboos, and transcending limits in thought and culture as much as in space and time. This captured nicely the radical feminist narrative of the queer yeshiva and in fact the progressive ethos of my whole upbringing.

I grew up in the Bay Area Jewish community, unique in that its colorful diversity is almost completely bound by the entwined ideologies of progressivism and pluralism. Though my teachers have ranged from secular to orthodox, they all imparted this basic spirit.

I could barely make out who was speaking from across the hall, but the suggestion that the Jewish people are meant to break barriers struck a deep chord. The most fulfilling learning in my life has happened when I’ve crossed borders. While studying Arabic and Hebrew at UC Berkeley, I led the Middle East track of the Olive Tree Initiative, an educational program that brings diverse delegations of students to regions of conflict around the world. With the program, I crossed back and forth between Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan each summer, meeting with politicians, negotiators, academics and activists representing nearly every position on the Israeli-Arab conflict. I also traveled to Lebanon to learn about its history and politics. This coming year I hope to cross these borders on my own, using my study of Hebrew and Arabic to engage with a whole range of communities in Israel on a deeper and more personal level.

First, I hope to cross the growing American/Israeli and traditional/progressive divides within the Jewish world and immerse myself in the life, learning, and discussions of one of the most rigorous yeshivot in the West Bank. Then, my course is set to cross over the borders between Jewish Israelis and their Arab neighbors: meeting Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, Jordanians and Egyptians of as many political, theological, and cultural perspectives as I can find. I will volunteer in afterschool programs, intern in legal offices, and intensively continue my study of languages and philosophy throughout the year.

The Haas and Koshland families, to my inexpressible honor and gratitude, are enabling me to realize this dream.

With the Berkeley sunshine filling the room of queer Jews eager to reinterpret Torah in the light of their progressive values, I heard again that inner-voice of rebuke and forceful directive telling me it’s time to go. I know I will continue to carry the “transgressive” interpretations I’ve learned with me. In a sense they are pushing me down this path. But if I am to truly cross the boundaries of my own ideology and question the limits of my upbringing and education, then perhaps it is exactly such a progressive worldview, one that could link ‘Ivrim and ‘aveirah, Hebrews and transgression, from which I must depart! I don’t know quite what I’ll find or how I’ll be shaped by the Palestinian, Arab, and more traditional Jewish communities I will live and study with, but I trust in the voice urging me on this “leave-taking” and thank the Haas and Koshland families for believing in me in turn.

Each year students apply for the annual Haas/Koshland Memorial Award. The grant, which is given by the descendants of Walter A. Haas, Sr. and Daniel E. Koshland, Sr., funds a year of personal exploration and development in Israel. 

Nathan Wexler is the recipient of 2018 Haas/Koshland Memorial Award, which was established in 1982 in memory and honor of Walter A. Haas, Sr. and Daniel E. Koshland, Sr. In their life-long generosity, these men helped shape the structure of our Jewish community. Their keen interest in quality education and young people made them well-known and well-respected in the Bay Area and throughout the world. A great deal of their time, diligence and generosity was directed toward the intellectual, medical and social betterment of the community. Their legacy lives on in the motivation and talent embodied by candidates for the Award. "There are no strings attached to the award,” says Frances Geballe, Koshland's daughter and former chair of the Haas/Koshland Committee. “We simply want to create a program that is of value to students, their universities and Israel – all of which were important to Daniel Koshland and Walter Haas."

Categories: Awards, Israel, Community


June 01, 2018


Nathan Wexler