Voices from the Field
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (2011) is not a book about education, but it is a compelling instructive work about how we make decisions. He posits two co-existent systems of thought within every person: one that is fast, intuitive and emotional and a second that is slow, deliberative and rational. In the current highly-charged atmosphere that suffuses any conversation about Israel, it is all too easy to get sucked into thinking fast, in a word ‘tweeting’, which not only limits the number of characters, it also engages emotion at the expense of reason.
Everyone is partial, in both senses of the word. We are all biased and we only see part of the truth. In the intuitive frenzy of fast thinking, it is incumbent on those of us who purport to be teachers to slow down, to be the non-anxious presence in the room, and to engage in deliberative, rational analysis. As always, this is an imperfect process because we are limited human beings. Nevertheless, we should not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.
“In war, truth is the first casualty” (Aeschylus). Once again truth has died. The State of Israel is at war with Hamas. No one knows the whole truth. No one is objective. Nevertheless, we owe it to ourselves and to our students to teach our story, to tell our truth and to create a safe space for others to do the same, even when, and perhaps especially when the truths conflict. A war of words is better than a war of swords and their contemporary lethal counterparts. It is precisely when no one knows answers that teachers have a responsibility to raise questions. It is precisely when people have a tendency to tell others what to think and do that teachers have a responsibility to tell stories and listen to the stories of others.
In Jewish time, we are now in the Three Weeks that are bracketed by the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, three weeks punctuated by tragedies, elegies, and painfully this year, eulogies. We are in a valley as a people, and we are instructed how to behave when we are in a valley, (Psalm 23) to walk through it, not to run around it or to dwell in it, not to deny it but rather to defy it by moving resolutely through it. As teachers, when we face the challenging task of engaging our students, our campers, our children, and our colleagues, we should be guided by the following strategies:
- Make it personal. Humanizing the casualties is critical. Real people have made the ultimate sacrifice. Tell a few of their life stories.
Yesterday, July 29th on ynet there is a picture/story of a final hug between a soldier who was killed and the love of his life. They hugged for half an hour and the photographer was captivated by the story it told. A few days later the same photographer was assigned to the soldier’s funeral. When the girlfriend learned of the coincidence, she asked the photographer to send her the hugging picture. It was the last hug and now a lasting memory.
I remember reading the obituaries of the people murdered on 9/11 so that they would not be statistics. I find myself doing the same thing with every Israeli soldier killed in the Gaza War. As painful as it may be, it would be worse to desensitize myself by mistaking numbers for people.
- Make it personal. There are heroic individuals and institutions that are helping surviving relatives and supporting businesses that have suffered enormous losses.
- Get news from multiple sources, not only those with which you agree and reinforce your opinions.
- Timing is practically everything. Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is a time for every purpose under heaven. There is a time for debate. There is a time for dialogue. There is a time for war, and there is a time for peace.
What time is it now? I believe it is time to think slow, refrain from reacting instantaneously to every picture, every article, and every story and instead to examine the arc of our history. We are at an ugly moment, a nadir in Israeli and Jewish time, once again fighting a war Israel did not want, once again witnessing anti-Semitism in European countries, once again being held to an ethical standard that on one hand should make us proud and on the other make us scared. We have been here before. Despite the refrain “never again”, we revisit this time and place again and again. We have tried powerlessness, and that strategy is no longer an option. It remains to be seen how it is possible to be powerful and ethical at the same time. This balance has yet to be mastered by any people, and now the state and people of Israel are once again in its pursuit. Think slow and we may succeed, not only on the battlefield, but also at home.
Please find our regularly updating page of educational resources for Operation Protective Edge
Jan Katzew serves as Director of Service Learning at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati. Prior to his move to Cincinnati, Jan served as a lead specialist at the Union for Reform Judaism, where his primary focus was Jewish learning. Jan is a rabbi and he earned his doctorate at Hebrew University in Jewish Thought and Education. His relationship to Israel is more personal than professional and more emotional than intellectual. Nevertheless, he has a deep and longstanding commitment to Israel engagement for Jews at all ages, stages, and settings.
Responding to rapidly unfolding events as educators requires tending both to our students and to ourselves. In this short essay, Rabbi Josh Feigelson, founder and director of Hillel's Ask Big Questions initiative, outlines three important questions to consider--for our own minds and hearts, and for those of our students. Resposted from Huffington Post
The Overwhelming Sea of Information
Maybe you've experienced this, too: In the last few weeks, with teens abducted and murdered, a retaliation murder, rockets flying, bombs dropping, and a ground war raging in Israel and Gaza, I have felt awash in information. My Facebook feed, my Twitter feed, my email inbox, dozens--dozens!--of online newspapers, blogs and magazines, all dripping out pieces of information, stories, images, and videos.
We live in the Too-Much-Information Age, when it seems like the more information we have, the less we can find or develop informed opinion, context and knowledge.
Between the military situation, the political situation, the media coverage, and the lives of my friends and family, I find it hard to be quiet enough to deal with my personal situation. To ask myself: How do I feel about all of this? How do I understand what I choose to read and what I don't? For whom do I feel more sympathy and empathy? And for whom less? And why?
It's overwhelming. It makes me feel as though it's impossible to know what's really going on, or to make informed judgments. It leads me to be skeptical of everything I read or see because everyone is telling their "story" from their own point of view. And it makes it really hard to be quiet long enough to let myself feel the complex emotions that all of this noise creates.
So: What can we do?
Step 1: Stop
So take a minute and prepare. Go ahead--turn it off. I'll still be here when you come back.
Ready? Okay--now, read the rest.
Step 2: Three Good Questions
The novelist Ursula LeGuin wrote, "There are no right answers to wrong questions." Responsible education, responsible leadership, and frankly responsible personhood, begins with taking the time to carefully consider the questions we're asking.
To begin to make some order of the chaotic mixture of information, opinion, and emotion, I suggest there are three main types of questions to consider:
- 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?)
Separating questions this way can help us disentangle the web, and help us stay afloat, and even find a course, in the sea.
Clarifying Questions: What do we know? Or, What do we think we know?
This may be the hardest question of all. The truth is very few of us have a clear sense of the totality of the facts of this war, or of any situation. There are simply too many people--too many places, too many actions, too much information--for any of us to know what is happening with certainty. We know that people are suffering and being injured, physically and emotionally. We know that people are dying. But beyond these certainties, it's hard for any of us to feel firm in our knowledge of facts.
So we have to treat our information as provisional, not certain. We need to separate that which is clearly opinion, propaganda, or sensationalism, from good, reliable information. Wherever possible, we should be looking for information from multiple sources that strives to be objective, data-driven, and empirical, without first coming to conclusions.
Finding that kind of information is hard, especially when we know that all information takes shape against the backdrop of a narrative colored by subjective lenses. So we have to do our best, and we have to operate with the knowledge that the information we have is probably incomplete, and should be subject to alteration or refutation.
Interpretive Questions: What stories do we tell about what we think we know?
Each piece of information we take in contributes to the story we tell about reality. A lot of the time, that process flows in the opposite direction--we process information in a way that confirms the story we are already telling. (We can't even agree if it's a "war" [as the foreign media call it], an "operation" [Israeli media], or an "invasion" [much Arab media]. These word choices themselves are a key element of storytelling.) So we have to be aware of the stories we tell about the information we consume.
It doesn't mean we stop telling stories, but it does mean we're aware of the dynamic taking place, and that we have to be open to modifying, coloring, and reshaping our story. Just as we must take a provisional approach to our acquisition of knowledge, we need a provisional approach to our interpretive questions. In other words, we need to regard the conclusions we draw and the interpretations we make with a grain of salt. We have to maintain an awareness that our knowledge interacts with our story, and to remember that this is true of other people as well.
Finally, this means that we can and should try to listen to other people's stories--to understand how they view the same information we do and why they may look at things differently from us. Again, that doesn't mean giving up on our own narrative; but it does mean being open to listening.
Reflective Questions: How do we feel--about our knowledge, our stories, the world and ourselves?
The first two questions are ones I think many of us are aware of and probably think and talk about a lot. This last question is one that I think we need to spend more time on. With the givens that a.) We don't know everything, and b.) Our knowledge is framed in a story we tell, we can ask c.) How do we feel about it? How do we feel about what we think we know? How do we feel about the story? How do we feel about the world we inhabit, and about ourselves as its inhabitants?
Those feelings will often be complicated, contradictory, and intense. Too often we don't give ourselves the space to feel those feelings, acknowledge them, hold them, and share them. (For the educators reading: this applies equally to us as educators who have our own complex emotions, as David Bryfman notes, and to our students.) We need to give ourselves the time and space to check in with our own emotions, to identify and name what we're feeling. We need spaces among and for ourselves to reflect on those feelings (and for the educators again: we need to create those spaces for the students we serve).
On an individual level, that means giving ourselves the permission to be quiet for a while, to hear the still small voice. That can involve disengaging from social media for a bit, taking time to meditate or pray, having a conversation with a close friend, or whatever else you do to check in with yourself.
On a group or communal level, the recipe for those spaces involves some simple ingredients: commitment to confidentiality, non-judgment, speaking in the first-person, openness to sharing and listening. And asking the right question: not, "What do you think is going on?" Or, "What do you think about what's going on?" But, "How do you feel about what's going on?" Note the first two versions focus on cognitive dimensions (what do you think) while the third focuses on the emotional or affective (how do you feel). These are small but powerful word-choices--and they make an enormous difference.
Understand others, understand yourself
The questions I've laid out here are rooted in some time-tested practices of personal and group reflection, like Quaker clearness committees, Jewish musar, and American pragmatism, many of which developed in response to the sense among people generations ago that the modern world--even then--was overwhelming in information. Things have only gotten faster, more immediate, and more complicated since.
If we are to make sense of the world for ourselves, and if we are to share it with others--both of which, it seems to me, we have no choice but to do--then we need to have clear minds and open hearts. In a time like the one we're living in now, that can seem really hard. But these moments of great challenge are also moments of great opportunity--moments of learning, about ourselves and others.
As Big Bird reminds my young son in the morning, "Asking questions is a good way to find things out." Learning begins with asking questions, and good learning begins with asking good questions. If we want to learn, if we want to better understand others and ourselves, if we want to build a world of greater empathy and eventual peace, we need to formulate our questions with care, and listen attentively to the people who answer them.
Please find our regularly updating page of educational resources for Operation Protective Edge
Josh is the founder educational director of Ask Big Questions, an initiative of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, that trains students to facilitate reflective community conversation about questions that matter to all of us. From 2005-2011, Josh served as the Campus Rabbi at Northwestern University Hillel. A 1998 graduate of Yale University with a B.A. in Music, Josh thought he was going to be an orchestra conductor (and was, in college) until he spent a year at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem and fell in love with Torah study. He was ordained by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in 2005. He is a PhD candidate in Religious Studies at Northwestern University, focusing on the place of history and memory in the work of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg.
Each camp in the Goodman Camping Initiative for Modern Israel History is encouraged to find the best ways to embed opportunities to learn about Israel into their environment, and to add new elements each summer. This individualized approach leads to creative, inspirational approaches to Israel education that complement, rather than compete with, local camp culture and customs.
At Camp Avoda, a highlight last summer was a focus on the map of Israel. A popular climbing wall was adorned with the map, and campers learned about the country’s geography as they completed climbing challenges. Given that Avoda adopted Israeli names for all of its sports teams, campers were seen studying the climbing wall to learn where “their” cities were located
Moving into this summer, Avoda expanded its focus to include the Land of Israel. Campers helped plant a garden with Israeli vegetables and herbs (tomatoes, cucumbers and lots more!)
While everyone is looking forward to the giant Israeli salad that will be created soon, there’s much more to the unit: In order to teach about Israeli innovation, Avoda is setting up a drip irrigation system for the garden along with informational signs that tell the story of drip irrigation's Israeli origins. Each crop is labeled in English and Hebrew and campers share all gardening responsibilities.
“The Goodman Initiative has been a fun, innovative way for Avoda to highlight Israel and insert new elements of Israel, its mores, people, and culture into daily living,” said Avoda Director Ken Shifman. “With the 50 foot map of Israel on our Rock Wall, our oldest campers’ shwarma and falafel leadership dinner, our Israeli garden, Israeli bunk flags, and Israeli league team names, Israel has become part of the fabric of our day to day living – without the campers even realizing the education that they are a part of.”
What new approaches to engaging with Israel have you introduced into your educational setting this season? Share with us your ideas and best practices!
Carl Schrag is a journalist and educator whose passion for Israel infuses everything he does. A former Editor of The Jerusalem Post, Carl currently serves as Program Director of Write On for Israel, a competitive Israel education and advocacy training program for high schools students in Chicago.