Jun 1, 2011

Re-imagining Israel Education

Toward the end of May, I spent about four days at a conference of sorts as a member of the 2011 iCenter Fellows. What is the iCenter?
The iCenter serves as a national address and advocate for high-quality and meaningful Israel education. The iCenter is dedicated to developing and enhancing the field of pre-collegiate Israel education in North America, in both formal and informal settings. By building upon existing strengths in the field, the iCenter supports the work of Israel educators; identifies compelling educational resources and initiatives; and fosters the creation of a cadre of lay and professional champions of Israel education.
What are the Fellows? Basically we're 19 people who are going to take on the world of Israel Education and completely blow it up in an awesome way. With our powers combined, we're going to make Israel Education what it should be: meaningful, long-lasting, passion-inducing, and fun. But for more specifics:
In a new partnership, six American academic institutions have teamed up to offer their graduate students a Master's Concentration Program in Israel Education. Students study a common curriculum, gather together for eight colloquium days, receive individual mentoring, and create their own learning experience in Israel.
The schools represented in our cohort include New York University (that's me!), Azrieli Graduate School at YU, Davidson School at JTS, Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis, HUC, and Spertus (in Chicago). We spent a Sunday-Thursday presenting on our views of Israel education, what makes good Israel education, listening to the "Jewish Jordan" Tamir Goodman speak, among other informative aspects of the colloquium.

The most interesting thing to me was hearing from a group of six high schoolers with varying levels of observance but all with membership at Reform synagogues/Hebrew schools. One of the students had never heard of Birthright, another came from a Muslim-Jewish background. And all of them responded to my question about the importance of Hebrew language in identification with Israel as extremely important and disappointingly lacking. My takeaway from the colloquium? We're doing our young people a huge disservice by not emphasizing the importance of Hebrew language in Jewish identity formation. My suspicions were confirmed by the high schoolers as well as my cohort from the six institutions.

Another thing I found absolutely fascinating was a text study we did with the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel from 1948. (In Hebrew, it's called a megillah!) We focused on the following passage:
WE APPEAL to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel in the tasks of immigration and upbuilding and to stand by them in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream -- the redemption of Israel.  
אנו קוראים אל העם היהודי בכל התפוצות להתלכד סביב הישוב בעליה ובבנין ולעמוד לימינו במערכה הגדולה על הגשמת שאיפת הדורות לגאולת ישראל.
The reason we focused on this passage? We spent a lot of time asking WHY Israel, why should we in the Diaspora care, and why should we convince our kids that we care. So on our last day, we looked at this passage. Why? A few things.

This passage uses the word "them" to refer to those who are physically in the land, while appealing to the Jews of the Diaspora to help this them, those who choose to live in the land, with immigration and upbuilding (infrastructure, basically) and to stand by "them" in their struggles to realize the redemption of Israel. Many people often ask whether Jews have a right to exist outside the land, as it was David Ben-Gurion's dream for all Jews to live in Israel. But this very passage in the declaration of the state validates the existence of those outside the land. However, it also obligates Diaspora Jews. It basically says, if you're not going to join us, you better stand behind us.

Of course, this is merely regarding medinat Yisrael (state of Israel), and we spent a lot of time during the colloquium analyzing the differences between Am, Medinat, and Eretz Yisrael (people, state, and land, respectively). Likewise, we discussed how we would prioritize the following three phrases (hat tip to my awesome roommate Allie, who is studying to become a rabbi at HUC, for this activity):
  • A State for Jews
  • A State for All People
  • A Jewish State
How would you rank them? And do you view a difference between the people, state, and land of Israel? Or are the three the same? Should they be the same?

Do you think your kids are getting a quality Israel education? Is Hebrew important to you or your kids as it pertains to Israel identification?


thejewishteen said...

Hi,this comment will be kind of lengthy, so bear with me :)
To answer the ordering of phrases question
1. A Jewish State-meaning governed with laws awarding to the Torah. No exceptions.

2. A State for Jews-I think is important, but if its run secular its not ideal because otherwise its just another place to live. The only advantage is there are only Jews in the country, something you can find in most areas of North America anyway.

3.A State for All People-I do not think this is the problem of the Jewish people and don't know why it is on the list.

Chaviva, what do you mean by Israel identification? Do you mean identifying as an Israeli? Becauez I'm pretty sure the millions of kids learning Spanish or French don't identify as Hispanic or French.

Which is why I personally do not think knowing Hebrew is a must for Jewish kids or adults. Yes, for many Jews knowing how to speak Hebrew is something we all sought for, but really, lots of people go to Israel, know no Hebrew and manage fine. Plus people usually want to learn Hebrew to understand the prayers, one problem with that is Modern Hebrew and Biblical Hebrew(the language prayers are in) are very different.

Well I don't have any kids, but I am a kid, and I can tell you, kids are getting PLENTY of education about Israel. I repeat PLENTY. Possibly all this attention on learning about Israel could be refocused to learning about Mitzvahs, Shabboss, and Kashurut.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

That's the thing -- most Jews in the U.S. who are learning biblical/liturgical Hebrew are not Orthodox. And most of them, from my own informal research, don't care so much about learning the prayers as they do being able to communicate with Jews in Israel when they go on trips there or other Jews around the world. We don't communicate verbally in liturgical Hebrew, we communicate with other Jews in Moscow or France or Australia or Brazil in Modern Hebrew.

I'm going to do a follow-up post on this with some actual scientific and sociological research on why Modern Hebrew is key to forming and maintaining Jewish identity.

I feel you on the mitzvot and Shabbos and kashrut, but the bulk of Jews in the Diaspora aren't religious, so emphasizing it doesn't help. You have to find an entrance that works and you have to go from there.

I view Modern Hebrew as a gateway drug :)

Anonymous said...

The Curmudgeonly Israeli Giyoret says:

1) a State for the Jews
2) a Jewish State
3) a state for all people

"I view Modern Hebrew as a gateway drug :)"

Say WHA'?

Modern Hebrew s the language of העם היושב בציון, as well as far more useful in unlocking the texts than, say, English or Yiddish. It has been poined out to me that a native Israeli with no relgious background can become a serious student in FAR less time than a comparable native English speaker.

I learned Latin, German, and a bit of Russian,but none of them were as frustrating or as satisfying in acquisition than Hebrew (although Latin was close). It was a difficult "kinyan" (halachic term for legal aquisition), but it's mine, and I consider that one of the most significant achievements of my life.

It took me years to get over the frisson of envy that overcame me whenever I met people who had imbibed Hebrew, either with their mother's milk, or with their nursery-school graham crackers.

thejewishteen said...

Good point about how Jews all over the world can communicate with each other using modern hebrew.

You say how most Jews in the diaspora aren't religious, which is exactly why we must emphasize mitzvahs, shabbos, and kashurt. This is something I think Zionists have figured, youth movements are the best way to teach kids things.

Take it from me, I was in a youth movement, they are all about Israel this and Israel is amazing. So in comparison to Modern Hebrew as a gateway drug, I think Modern Israel is a gateway drug because once I start talking about Israel/debating I just can't stop.

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