Voices from the Field
The following article was also featured in eJewish Philanthropy.
What comes to mind when you hear the words, “Israel education” – curriculum, crisis, complexity, ambivalence, or maybe – nothing?
Israel education is about Jewish identity.
Too often, Israel education is treated as a curriculum to be taught, a crisis to be managed, or a problem to be addressed. Too often, we conduct our communal conversation about Israel – rather than with Israel. Too often, we allow Israel education to create divisions between us.
Israel education does not belong to advocacy organizations, shlichim, or any individual or group in isolation. Israel is not something separate. Israel education belongs to all of us.
Israel is something that can bring us together rather than dividing us. But in order to get there, we have to change our communal conversation to reflect reality. Yes, some of our rabbis, educators, and young people struggle with Israel as part of their identities. But the far larger issue is that for the overwhelming majority of American Jews, including students, leaders and professionals, Israel is simply not on their agenda. They don’t relate to Israel as a living, breathing organism, or experience Israel as integral to the totality of Jewish identity.
I’ve been bothered by this for a long time. But here’s the good news: After working 30 years as an Israel educator, today I see a shifting landscape, and it gives me hope.
We are approaching a tipping point – a moment when philanthropists and communal professionals, activists and educators, understand that we all working toward the same thing: developing generations of young Jewish people passionate and committed to Israel and the Jewish people.
We are coming to see that a relationship with Israel is ultimately about identity and personal narrative. We are recognizing that Israel education and Jewish education go hand-in-hand, that Israel is not something discrete and separate from, but that it is inseparably woven into the fabric of Jewish life. We are realizing that encountering Israel means encountering Israelis, and we are making mifgashim central in our educational efforts.
We are coming to recognize that Israel education is not only something that happens before our kids go to college; rather, it is an active lifelong process, one that begins in early childhood and continues into the mature adult years, and involves parents, teachers, camp counselors, youth advisors, friends – the many individuals who touch our lives along the way.
And we are finally building a field of Israel education: creating deep and lasting relationships between North American Jewish children and the totality of Israel. We are building a field with a common language, certification programs, and rich networks of professionals. We are reclaiming the full range of ways to connect to Israel to include not just history and politics, but arts and culture, science, and yes, Hebrew. Also important, through Taglit, we have a generation of young people who have experienced Israel in the most authentic way.
Israelis also are coming to see that Israel is not simply the passive object in an instrumental relationship with the “Diaspora,” but a co-creator of the story of the Jewish people with Jews around the world. Israeli Jews have recognized that they learn as much in mifgashim as their non-Israeli peers. And with this realization, they – and we – have embarked on the road to a time when we won’t have mifgashim (encounters with the other) anymore, because we will simply be an integrated people.
We can see this future. It is on the way.
To reach it, we need to significantly expand the ranks of skilled and certified Israel educators to work in camps, supplementary schools, youth groups, and day schools. We need to invest in teen travel to Israel, since the earlier one goes to Israel, the deeper one’s attachment can be. We need to dramatically increase the number of Jewish young people who speak Modern Hebrew, because language shapes identity. We need to help them forge real relationships with Israelis and contemporary Israeli culture.
Israel education is a developmental process not verified by a specific fact learned, but monitored by life’s journey. At the same time, measurable starting and impact points can and should be evaluated. For example, Jewish bar and bat mitzvah children being able to articulate how Israel is an integral part of their personal Jewish story.
The good news is that today, there is expanding interest, commitment and leadership in the field of Israel education. It is a growing and diverse collective in which we at the iCenter are proud to play a central role. It is a new era. It is an exciting time.
Israel education has been Anne's personal and professional passion for three decades. As a pioneer in cross-cultural education and teen travel to Eastern Europe and Israel, Anne is the Founder and former Executive Director of Shorashim, a nationally-recognized Israel education organization. She is regarded as the seminal figure in making the mifgash a central component of Israel educational programs, and is the recipient of numerous grants and awards for her pioneering work in this field. Anne received her M.A from the Steinhardt School of Education at NYU, and is a graduate of the Senior Educator Program at the Melton Centre of Hebrew University. She served as Director of Education at Congregation Hakafa in Glencoe, Illinois and taught Hebrew at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, where she developed new methodologies of Hebrew language and culture instruction. Anne also has experience in the world of Jewish youth group and camp settings. Anne resides in Riverwoods, Illinois with her husband Barry and their three children.
Perhaps the first question should be: “Why is there no Presidents Day in the U.S.?” Despite popular convention, the holiday that we will celebrate in the U.S. this week is officially Washington’s Birthday. In 1968, Robert McClory, a congressman from Illinois, proposed a Bill, which would consolidate Lincoln’s Birthday and Washington’s birthday into one federal holiday. The Bill never passed, but advertisers and some state legislatures have pushed the name “Presidents Day” as both more representative of all of our great presidents, and somehow easier to sell cars and appliances.
So is George Washington getting cheated out of his due notoriety? - certainly not any more that Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president. To be fair, Washington’s Birthday, as a federal holiday, was mandated into law in 1880; 68 years before the establishment of the State of Israel and even 17 years before the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland (which Weizmann actually missed due to travel delays). Washington has had his time in the sun, and even a face on Mount Rushmore. Weizmann has no holiday and his bust sits in his memorial home in Rehovot, and another in the Truman Library in Independence, MO.
Perhaps this is because the presidency in Israel and the United States are markedly different positions. The U.S. president is often referred to as “the leader of the free world” and wields an enormous amount of executive power within the U.S. republic system of democracy. In Israel, the presidency has mainly ceremonial powers, and is even prohibited to comment on matters that divide the public. To quote a more recent U.S. President, the Israeli President is surely a “uniter not, and not a divider.”
Yet oddly, these two men, who became the first presidents of their new countries, share some striking similarities. For one, each is better known for what is was they did before their presidency than what they did during it. Weizmann died only three years after assuming the presidency (in his second term in office), but he is widely credited with establishing the diplomatic relationships that made recognition of the State of Israel possible. Weizmann, a British citizen and noted scientist, was a tireless diplomat, who negotiated support for the Balfour Declaration, initiated the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement to establish relationships between Arabs and Jews in the region, and met with President Harry Truman to ensure the recognition of the State of Israel by the United States. Washington, was a clear presidential favorite in the election of 1789 due to his role as a General in the American Revolution. To this day, most Americans know more about his military role (and his cherry tree incident), than his presidential activities.
Both Washington and Weizmann were near-unanimous choices for the first presidency based on their perceived impartiality and diplomatic skills. Neither Washington nor Weizmann ran for president as part of a political party (in both cases, the only presidential candidates from either country to do so since). Weizmann’s only contestant was Joseph Klausner, a Revisionist Zionist and ally of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, deemed by most to be too polarizing for the position. The Knesset elected Weizmann president by a vote of 83-12 (15 no votes and 1 invalid vote). The runner-up to Washington’s election was John Adams who was not on the ballot as a challenger, but rather as a nominee for Vice President (in that election, the Vice President was determined by the second highest vote-getter).
Even their methods of election were very similar. Neither Weitzman nor Washington was elected directly by the population of their countries. In Israel, to this day as per the Basic Law: The President of the State (passed in 1964), the president is elected by simple majority of the Knesset and in the U.S. the president is still chosen by the Electoral College. In Washington’s day, there was no popular election to support the Electoral College’s choice for President; rather state legislatures determined how their votes would be cast. Every state supported Washington except New York, which was deadlocked and supported no candidacy.
Maybe in another 50 years, Weizmann will have his own day in Israel, but for now his place is in the streets. There is hardly a city or town in Israel that doesn’t have a Weizmann Street or Boulevard, where he is memorialized (and intersected) along with other great political and Zionist leaders. Until relatively recently, following the significant leadership and tragic murder of Prime Minister Yithak Rabin, Israel has chosen to remember its leaders through streets, squares, and bridges, rather than in time.
Adam Stewart has been involved with Israel education and teen travel experiences for fifteen years and is the Director of the Goodman Camping Initiative. Adam has taught at the Newberry Library Center for Public Programs and Loyola University Chicago, has lectured on topics in Jewish history and culture, and has served as an educational consultant to a variety of Jewish organizations.
At the iCenter we speak of personal narrative as being a powerful force in shaping our relationships with Israel. Three years ago I started a project overlapping 8 narratives, and today is has come to define my own personal understanding of Israel and Jewish identity.
I grew up in a secular home in Chicago. My understanding of “Zionism” was what I was able to look up on the Internet. Tucked deep beneath layers upon layers of Hebrew textbooks, Holocaust movies and trope, I knew there was a personal and profound relationship between Judaism and Israel. And in an effort to develop one of my own, in 2009 I took my camera and headed to Tel Aviv.
I worked at a documentary production company located on Allenby Street. And in this time I also wanted to create a film of my own. I wanted to document a unique story that was different from others coming out of Israel. I wanted to capture a moment in time in Israel’s continual development. But, most importantly, I still hadn’t quite understood the importance of Israel to global Jewish identity, and, as a young North American Jew, I wanted to understand where I fit in.
It started with a conversation. I met a Russian named Artem who was my age and making something called aliyah. I had never heard of this word before, and in our conversation he told me about the difficulties of being a young Jew living in Russia, but also the struggles he was experiencing trying to get his teudat zehut because of his nationality. A few weeks later, I met a 23-year-old Haredi from London who already made aliyah, but had just finished the army and was now struggling to find a job to support his wife and newborn girl. And then, at a nearby café a few weeks later, I met a young French girl who didn’t quite feel at home in France, but also wasn’t ready to move to Israel. She was sitting on the aliyah fence.
These stories were appearing everywhere, and each person added a unique layer that – when told together – offered a much bigger picture about the growth and importance of Israel.
So over the course of 10 months I found 8 young Jews from 6 continents who were all making or thinking about making aliyah to Tel Aviv: Russia, England, France, Colombia, Australia, Denmark, South Africa, and the US. I shot over 65 hours worth of interview and B-roll, and over the course of the past three years, this footage has been edited down to an 80-minnute educational film called From The Diaspora.
I was naïve - I had no idea about the Jewish culture and communities that existed outside of the United States, and I had no idea about the external and internal struggles other young Jews were experiencing. Aliyah acts as the perfect narrative spine because it’s a decision. And a big one. A decision that forces one to dig deep within themselves to discover the meaning of Judaism and Israel within their (and now our) lives.
On February 6th, From The Diaspora premiered at Theater Wit in Chicago, and now it’s ready to be seen and discussed at venues across North America: synagogues, camps, schools, teen tours, etc. It’s designed to act as a launching pad for discussion. It lays out the pieces in hopes that each viewer can find at least one that they can walk away with. I learned so much in my journey making this film, and I hope to ignite a spark in others like me to explore their own personal connection and understanding of Israel.
For more about From The Diaspora, including where you can get a copy of the film, please visit www.fromthediaspora.com.
Scott’s passion for Jewish media and education brought him to Israel for a year after graduating from college. He worked at a film & TV production company in Tel Aviv, where he developed a number of educational documentaries about global Jewish life. In this time Scott also shot and directed his own educational feature about 8 young Jews from 6 continents of the world and their stories of aliyah. This project lead him to become a Chicago PresenTense Fellow in 2012. Scott graduated from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign with a BS in Journalism and Film, and since his return from Israel has continued work in video production and Jewish storytelling in the Chicagoland community.