Voices from the Field
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On October 16, 1973, as Jews all over gathered together to ask for redemption, the world changed. That evening, Egyptian and Syrian forces led surprise attacks on the Northern and Southern borders of Israel, beginning the war that would change the scope and perspective of Israeli society in ways that we are still feeling to this day.
The war, especially the nature of its unforeseen attacks, left a nation that so joyously celebrated a victory just six years earlier reeling, anxious, confused, and disappointed. While Israel was eventually victorious in the Yom Kippur War, somehow this victory felt different, pyrrhic.
Given the unfortunate circumstances that unfolded this past summer, it is safe to say that many of those same emotions have resurfaced. Once again, we find ourselves wondering if ‘victory’ can even be achieved, and what – if at all possible – it will look like.
As Israel educators, it is events like those of this past summer that make our work quite challenging. Too often, it seems, our sole role is to immediately be on the defensive, to affirm Israel’s basic right to exist safely and securely. Frankly, playing that role is exhausting – and what kind of solid education can be done on the defensive, anyway? It is time for us to realize that that form of ‘education’ must be avoided.
The big question, then, looms largely over every lesson taught: how do you teach about Israel in the constant specter of crisis? Truly, if anyone has the magic bullet answer to this question, please let me know.
The organization that comes closest thus far, however, is the iCenter. For the past year, I’ve had the distinct honor of learning with the iCenter, quite literally sitting around the table with absolute masters in the field of Israel Education and soaking in information. The iCenter approach is not agenda-based but for the understanding of the integral nature of Israel education within any and all Jewish learning. This may sound like a given: “Of course!” you may think, “all types of Jewish educational learning experiences should involve Israel.” Undoubtedly; however, what characterizes the iCenter philosophy is its appreciation for the need – and in many ways the imperative – to dig deeper, to find avenues of engagement previously unexplored, and to give voice those with a myriad of connections to Israel.
I mentioned the Yom Kippur War because, as a child of a veteran of this war, it is one of the key lenses through which I view, connect with, and relate to Israel. Israel after the war became a much different place than it was before, with more and varied voices coming into the forefront that spoke to the collective feeling of brutal loss and alienation. Through my work with the iCenter, and my final Capstone project in its Master’s Concentration in Israel Education, I was able to explore many of these varied voices and apply them to a wide range of educational opportunities: I’ve used some of the poetry from the post-‘73 era as tools for further reflection at important sites on Taglit-Birthright Israel visits, showing that the beauty of poetry is its ability to capture a moment in time while simultaneously being able to transcend it. I taught film from that era in classes at the synagogue at which I interned this summer. More important than the content of these lessons though, was the opportunity to expose students of all ages to lessons on Israel that focus far more on how Israeli society reacted to specific events and the outgrowth of Israeli culture from them than the details of the events themselves. These are some of the lessons of the iCenter: versatility, an appreciation for the multitude of voices, and an imperative to find – and teach – the deeper meaning.
As leaders within the Jewish community, we are tasked with plugging our students into the perpetual conversation between the generations of the past and the voices of today. This conversation is so richly informed by a deep, true, and curiously engaged relationship to Israel. Educators like me need the tools and resources to share all of that with students, whomever and wherever they may be.
Ari Naveh was in the recent cohort of the iCenter’s Master’s Concentration in Israel Education, which has certified 79 individuals from seven different institutions of higher education as Israel educators. He is in his final year of the rabbinic program at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.
Ariel Naveh graduated with a degree in Judaic Studies and English/Creative-Writing from SUNY Binghamton. Upon graduating, Ariel spent two years at the Jewish Campus Service Corps Fellow at the Hillel at Goucher College in Baltimore, MD. Ariel’s strong connection to Israel and Judaism stem from Jewish upbringing and Israeli father and family. Ariel is currently pursuing his rabbinic ordination at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati.
We asked several kindergarten kids what a Shofar sounds like. Here's the adorable response...
“…Israel…serves as glue holding [Jewish day] school communities together.”
This is a significant finding of a recent AVI CHAI-sponsored study, Hearts and Minds: Israel in North American Jewish Day Schools by Pomson, Wertheimer and Hacohen-Wolf. According to the study, while day schools and day school parents may differ on religious practices, all agree that a positive view of and connection with Israel is critical.
So what happens at times like the one we are in now, when it is not clear how to talk about Israel so that the glue stays nice and sticky? How do Jewish day schools engage in conversation and learning around Israel at frightening and precarious time such as this?
Jewish day schools are made up of multiple populations. When considering how to talk about Israel, day school leaders must take into account multiple constituencies: students, faculty and staff, parents and board members, to name a few. Each constituency brings different needs and concerns to the table. Below are some suggestions for how to teach and engage in conversation about Israel during this difficult and sad period focusing on three groups: faculty and staff, students and parents.
Faculty and staff:
Every time we take a plane ride we are told that in an emergency the adults are told to put on their oxygen masks firsts and only then should they see to those of the nearby children. This instruction is also true for talking about Israel at times like these. We cannot expect teachers to teach about ha-matzav if they have not had the chance to discuss and process what is happening for them (i.e. donning their own Israel oxygen mask). And, of course, each teacher and staff person brings his or her own story and relationship with Israel to the conversation, stories and relationships that are often deeply personal and emotional (particularly now).
David Bryfman, in his recent article, Educators are real people too (July 18, 2004), underscores the importance of educators recognizing that they need time to process the personal impact of what is happening and to understand their own responses before going into the classroom. He poses some questions that might frame a conversation for faculty and staff:
- When was the first time in your life that you thought about the situation in the Israel?
- How do you keep informed about the situation in Israel in a way that advances your thinking?
- What are some of your life experiences that have challenged the way you think and feel about the situation in Israel?
- When you contemplate the situation in Israel today, how do you feel and what do you think?
Bryfman cautions us to ensure that clear ground-rules are in place in order to create a safe environment in which participants can express their thoughts, concerns and feelings. This conversation might end with faculty dividing into smaller groups to discuss ways to engage their students in learning and talking about Israel and the current situation. (I purposely separated “Israel” and “the current situation” because it may not always be appropriate to discuss ha-matzav, particularly with very young children). If the situation in Israel continues, these conversations may need to be of a more ongoing nature, perhaps shorter or in the form of a check-in.
As is true with faculty and staff, we know that students are not a monolithic group. In considering how to bring the current crisis in Israel to students we must think carefully about the specific students with whom we work. Like any tricky topic, we must take into account developmental needs, what students know or don’t know and, most importantly, their questions (which are most likely quite different from our questions as adults).
Again, two recent posts can be most instructive when considering engaging students in conversation and learning about the crisis.
Natalie Blitt in her article Talking to your children about the situation (July 30, 2014) suggests a number of guidelines that are true for all ages but pertain especially for younger children:
- Listen closely for what is worrying them, don’t overlay adult fears and concerns onto theirs
- Be precise in providing as much information about what is really happening while controlling what they see and hear (don’t over-share)
- Be a model of caring and action, to figure out how they can support Israelis, whether they be friends, families or strangers. Action is empowering and can help mitigate fear and worry.
- Reassure them that the people they may know are unharmed and nothing will happen here in North America.
And I would add one more: focus on the wonderful and normal aspects of Israel that continue to exist, even during difficult times.
Israel: Not a time for zealotry or shyness with children written by Cyd Weissman (July 28, 2014) reinforces Blitt’s suggestions and provides additional tips for working with older students. She encourages educators not to shy away from the more difficult ethical questions raised while at the same time not trying to provide pat answers to these questions. Older students also need an opportunity to closely examine in a well-guided fashion what they are seeing in the media and to distinguish fact from opinion or, in some cases, to understand that we don’t have all the facts and so must suspend judgment for the time being.
Josh Feigelson (July 29, 2014) provides a framework of inquiry for both study and conversation among older students (and adults, for that matter):
- Clarifying Questions (i.e., What do we know? What do we think we know?)
- Interpretive Questions (i.e., What is the meaning of what we know? What story do we tell about what we know?)
- Reflective Questions: (e.g., How do we feel--about our knowledge, our stories, the world, and ourselves?)
I have pointed to the main ideas highlighted in each of the three articles mentioned here. Each of them is chock-full of additional insights and suggestions for engaging with students about the current situation and can be accessed at The iCenter website.
Parents are both teachers and students. They are often the recipients of the most complicated and heartfelt questions from their children and, at the same time, are trying to process their own fears and responses to the situation.
We suggest several avenues to support parents during this time:
- Share this and the articles and resources mentioned here on a continual basis. The school is a trusted partner in raising their children and resources coming from the school will also most likely be considered particularly trustworthy and valuable. At the same time, keeping the communication steady means sending out articles or information in small doses so as not to overwhelm.
- Communicate what is happening in class: This is a particularly important time for faculty and administration to be transparent and consistent in letting parents know both the questions their children are asking and how these questions are being addressed. This will enable parents to mirror the language used in school (this does not imply that parents will always agree with what is happening, but at least the nomenclature, concepts and information can be consistent).
- Provide multiple forums for parents to process their feelings and ask questions. This does not necessarily demand that you bring in experts. Rather, using Feigelson’s questioning framework, provide a safe space for parents to clarify, learn and figure out how to engage with their children around this difficult topic. The forums might happen at drop-off time for 45-60 minutes (with coffee, of course) or in an evening. The idea is that multiple opportunities be provided.
In closing, messages of hope and a love of Israel should undergird all we do. In addition to the important articles mentioned above, the iCenter website is filled with links to uplifting music and stories that remind us of Israel’s extraordinary resilience and creativity and of how blessed we are to have a vibrant Jewish state in our time.
Lesley Litman is the Coordinator of the Executive M.A. Program in Jewish Education at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and works with the Experiment in Congregational Education as the coordinator of its Boston-based initiative. She also consults to The iCenter in the area of curriculum design and professional development in Israel education. Lesley served as the Director of Congregational Learning at Temple Israel in Boston. Prior to her work at Temple Israel, she was the Regional Educator for the URJ and the URJ’s national specialist in Hebrew and Day School education and served on the staff of Jewish Day Schools for the 21st Century, a project of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education. Lesley was a founding member of Kibbutz Yahel in the Arava where she was the first treasurer and headed up the kibbutz’s search for an industrial project. She is a doctoral candidate in Jewish education at the Jewish Theological Seminary.