Voices from the Field
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.
This week has brought great sorrow and angst as Operation Tzuk Eitan (Protective Edge) expands to include ground forces in an effort to end Hamas’ ability to fire rockets and carry out attacks on Israeli civilians. Government officials braced the Israeli public for casualties in what they knew would be a difficult operation. Indeed, our worst fears turned to reality as, the IDF suffered its first casualties this past weekend.
Amidst the tragedy and sorrow there are several stories that have emerged that are sadly emblematic of an Israel that we try to teach every day. Each of these follow themes that we use in our classrooms and in our camps in a way that is disconnected from conflict and tragedy. Today, however they are very connected.
The Many Faces of Israel
Understanding Israel’s diversity, both within its Jewish population and its Muslim, Druze, and Christian citizens, is an important part of knowing the Israel of today. A program called the Israel Lens - adapted from the Jewish Lens program, is a stunning example of how we teach students to explore the diversity of Israel and understand both its challenges and triumphs. Through this lesson, we attempt to individualize the collective and humanize the sometimes difficult project of pluralism.
This week, Ghassan Alian, the first Druze to serve as commander of the Golani Brigade of the IDF was wounded in action and treated for injuries to his face and eyes at Soroka Hospital in Beersheva. That night, thirteen of his soldiers had been killed, and he immediately requested to rejoin his troops in Gaza, which he did upon his release three days later.
But not before paying respect and tribute to the family of one of his soldiers.
Gabriel Ben-Nahim was also wounded on that day and treated at Soroka hospital. His parents, living in France, heard the news and were on the next plane to Israel. Hearing this, Alian made his way to the Ben-Nahim Family:
Reporter Judy Maltz, Haaretz, described the encounter:
Suddenly, a great hush falls over the room, as the crowd breaks up to make way for a special wheelchair-bound visitor, himself dressed in Soroka hospital pajamas. Col. Alian, the Golani brigade commander who was seriously injured in fighting Saturday night, makes his way toward the intensive care unit, accompanied by a contingent of military personnel.
A bandage over one eye and bruises all over his face and head, Alian announces that he’s come to see how his soldiers are doing. Before making his way through the swinging door, though, he wheels himself in the direction of a mother sitting on a bench, who holds back tears as she takes his hand.
She and the rest of her family, from the north of Israel, have been sitting here since Sunday afternoon waiting for word on her son, she reports, who has meanwhile undergone surgery to reset his jaw.
Alian… is then wheeled in the direction the Ben-Nahims. “Yes, I remember giving your son his beret at the ceremony,” he tells Gabriel’s father, Robert.
Acharei, After Me
Much as Col. Alian reminds us of the duty of a commander to his soldiers, we have used the Israeli Army value “Acaharei” as way to bring to light for our learners the unique moral code of the IDF. In the Goodman Initiative for Modern Israel History, the program, “Acaharai, What Kind of Leader am I?” is intended to have campers weigh the moral code which instructs commanders to lead their troops in battle (rather than command from afar), against their own understanding of leadership in their own lives.
Every good lesson needs a counterpoint, and MK Dov Lippman (Yesh Atid) provides us with a stark example in a blog post from the TImes of Israel. In an act of kindness, Lipman brought soldiers on the border ice cream which had been donated by a community in Silver Springs, MD. He remarked about how the young men, serving the country so bravely, were also our children, a point made poignant by their reaction to cold ice cream on a hot day. He also remarked on the actions of one of the commanders:
There was another moment which demonstrated a second dimension to why our soldiers are so special. As I approached some tanks and offered the commander ice cream, he said “first give to my soldiers.” In the Israeli army, commanders usually go first withe call “acharai” – “follow me.” But here, he did not want to go first. The man in charge who could sit back and enjoy some ice cream while his soldiers are preparing their tanks instructed me to first give his soldiers. That is the way it works in the Israel Defense Forces. The commander’s job is to take care of his soldiers – by leading them into battle, and by making sure there is enough ice cream for them before he takes. And in turn, the soldiers see this model of leadership and learn what it means to bear responsibility and to lead.
We will add this story to our “Acharai” program to both enrich our learners’ understanding of the role of a commander in the IDF, but also to help address the larger question of “What does good leadership look like?” When does leading look like following? What other big questions about Judiasm and about Israel can we re-examine with the tragic stories that are emerging this week.
All of Israel is Responsible for Each Other
As part of perhaps the most tragic story we have heard to date, we know that lone soldiers (hayalim bodedim) -- volunteers from outside of Israel, have been among those killed in the early phase of the ground operation in Gaza. Their death strikes a unique blow to our conscience, as we evaluate our own personal answers to the questions of “When would we step in to help? and For whom are we responsible?
For several years, we have use a resource from Toldot Yisrael: a mini-documentary entitled “The Volunteers: Answering the Call of History.” The piece documents the stories of various volunteers from around the world to Israel’s War of Independence. The stories are evocative of the questions above and are stark in the portrayal of “everyday” Jews, who put their lives on hold to help Israel in a time of need.
Sean Carmeli, who was raised by Israeli parents in South Padre Island, TX, chose to return to Israel for school and to perform his military duty. Like his comrades Ghassan Alian and Gabriel Ben-Nahim, he became a soldier in the elite Golani Brigade.
Carmeli, however, was killed in that Saturday night ambush and was laid to rest on Monday in Haifa’s Neve David cemetery. Carmeli was a passionate fan of the Maccabi Haifa Soccer team, and realizing this, the football club made the following appeal on their facebook page:
This is a request from us to Maccabi Haifa fans and this is your chance to make a big difference. Sean Carmeli, killed last night, was a lone soldier and we don't want his funeral to be unattended. The funeral is tonight at the military cemetery in Neve David in Haifa at 9 pm. Let's give respect to hero who died so that we could live. It's the least we can do for him and for our people. (see original Hebrew post below)
An estimated 12 - 20,000 people showed up to his funeral.
A similar story can be told about Max Steinberg, whose parents made their first trip to Israel to bury their son. At Har Herzl, 30,000 mourners showed up to pay respect.
Carmeli’s and Steinberg's heroism, Macabi Haifa’s call to action, and the response of Israelis remind us of the expression Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh (All of Israel is responsible for each other). Seen as a call for unity and a way to heed a particular Jewish mission, in these stories, we can explore with our students, both the extent of our own willingness to take that responsibility, and the different ways in which that responsibility can be manifest.
Finding moments in the tragic events of today is difficult, and it’s tempting to be drawn into silence as we grieve and lament. Yet this tragedy can help us reframe some of the themes that are familiar tools to us as educators and convenient lenses for our students to gain a deeper and richer insight into Israel.
Online Resources in this Post
- Haaretz Article about Ghassan Alian and Gabriel Ben-Nahim
- Times of Israel article about Alian's appointment as commnander of the Golani Brigade
- Blog Post in the Times of Israel by Dov Lippman
- Times of Israel article about lone soldiers
iCenter Resources in this Post
- Acharei: What Kind of Leader and I, from the Goodman Iniatiative Database
- Toldot Yisrael's Volunteers: Answering the Call of History
- When Would You Step into Help, from the Goodman Iniatiative Database
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.