Introduction

We leave the piece as it was originally written, with a note that some of the tools below are equally useful in our attempts to explain the unexplainable and connect to the unrelatable. Asking “Big Questions,” engaging in acts of Jewish Peoplehood, and using Jewish values and ritual as touch points for exploring the difficult and tragic issues that face Israel are as valuable today as they were yesterday morning.

These themes echoing, today we woke to comforting words from Rabbi Samuel Fraint of Moriah Congregation in Deerfield, Illinois, who remarked in an email to congregants, “Tonight, make sure you tell those closest to you and especially your children, that you love them. Make sure they hear you. As much as it is possible to do so, make sure they believe you. The certainty that we are loved is the one thing that can never be taken from us.”

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We find ourselves, yet again, in the midst of a great tragedy in Israel. Three boys - Eyal Yifrach, 19, Naftali Frenkel, 16, and Gilad Shaar, 16 - were kidnapped while hitchhiking home from their Yeshiva in Gush Etzion.

As educators, it challenges us - as we develop proactive, learner-centered, positive engagement with Israel - to ask ourselves: How do we deal with the Israel that is complex and, at times, tragic? How do we acknowledge the urgency of a situation and the need to provide our learners with answers, alongside our role as thoughtful, developmentally appropriate educators. We have some tools in our toolbox.

“Ask Big Questions” about Jewish Peoplehood and Responsibility

The Ask Big Questions (ABQ) initiative reminds us that there is a difference between big questions and hard questions. There are many hard questions surrounding the kidnapping of these three boys that will be difficult to answer (for ourselves and our learners) that require a great deal of background knowledge.

If instead, we focus on some of the “bigger” underlying human questions, we can invite our learners into a conversation in which they have an equal stake in participation and outcome.

For instance, if we follow ABQ’s guidelines on the difference between big questions and hard questions we might avoid questions like:

  • What is the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how does this event play a role in it? (Requires expertise in the area, rather than poses a question that everyone can answer)
  • What should Israel’s reaction to the kidnapping be? (Directed at an object rather than a subject)
  • Should Israel participate in prisoner exchanges which will inevitably lead to more kidnappings? (Closes space and leads people to feel like spectators)

Rather, we can ask big questions like the following, which anyone can answer:

  • For whom are we responsible? This event evokes a sense of solidarity, which is rooted in a sense of responsibility. That’s a complicated thing, and talking about it can be a powerful teaching moment about Israel and Jewish peoplehood.

  • When do you feel powerful? This could help surface some of the underlying questions for all Jews about the image of children made into victims, and the challenge of rescuing them. It also can help get at some particular issues for Jews outside of Israel, who may be asking what they personally can do in a situation like this.

  • When do you feel secure? An element of this story is the sense that security was violated. For educators and students alike, the question of security is a powerful and important one.

There are certainly many places where we can be having conversations around “hard questions.” We should be prepared to answer these questions. But if we want to educate our learners in ways they really need, and ensure that this moment is one that is both reflected upon and responded to appropriately and to best effect, Big Questions are a simple and powerful tool in our educators’ toolbox.

#bringbackourboys: Engaging in Acts of Jewish Peoplehood

The swiftness at which this event has become a viral internet phenomenon is truly remarkable. The hashtag #bringbackourboys has garnered enormous following throughout Facebook and Twitter. Besides ways in which we can participate in the virtual demonstration of Jewish peoplehood, this rally of hashtag politics brings up it’s own set of questions for discussion:

  • When do you take a stand? Another of the great “big questions” for which there is a conversation guide at the ABQ website. If you have determined that you are “responsible,” what motivates you to take a stand? In our Goodman Initiative for Modern Israel History, we have posed a similar question to campers from the historical context of volunteers in Israel’s War of Independence through a program entitled “When Would You Step in to Help.”

  • What does meaningful participation look like? The effect of this online campaign can be measured in media response. An event that was not widely covered in the international media, is making headlines due to the online rally. Look, for instance, at these two articles from NBC news and The Wire.

  • What is the meaning of the message in this forum? You could argue that social media trivializes a serious issue, as did writer Gal Beckerman in a recent tweet. Does sharing news of tragedy and rallying support for a serious issue belong alongside selfies, baby pics, and other ephemera of daily life? Does a hashtag signify a certain cultural context? 

  • How do we relate to other tragedies? Of course #bringbackourboys recalls the tragic episode of approximately 276 Nigerian school girls kidnapped by a terrorist group, which inspired rally around the hashtag #bringbackourgirls, which famously included a tweet by First Lady Michelle Obama. Is there fair parallel between these two tragedies? Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale Hebrew Institute and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah had a somewhat chance encounter that brought together both movements.

Particularly if we work with teens and young adults, social media is a part of the fabric of our learners’ lives. Asking questions and understanding how tragedy in Israel unfolds in this forum has enormous relevance.

Jewish Values Informing How We Talk About Tragedy and Our Response To It

The Halakhic instruction for pidyon shevuyim (פדיון שבויים,"redemption of captives") represents a set of Jewish values that are worthy of discussion in times like these. What would you sacrifice to repair the world? Pidyon shevuyim often involves sacrifice – giving up something precious in exchange for something else. This complicated guideline, which emphasizes both the value of human life and our limits in order to preserve the well-being of the greater good, can be a good starting point for discussion how we respond to this particular type of tragedy. 

Looking At Ritual and Prayer For Opportunities to Connect and Contextualize Tragedy

In the past week, a number of organizations have organized vigils and prayers around the kidnapping. A reflection of both Jewish people and values, ritual gives us the opportunity to both participate and contextualize the event.

Seek Israeli Voices

Through authentic engagement with Israelis, we can often learn more about how Israelis cope with tragedy, and the bounds and bridges of Jewish peoplehood.

  • Empower our shlichim (שליחים, "emissaries") to lead in moments of crisis; allow them to instruct us on how they would like to demonstrate solidarity and peoplehood
  • Provide a forum for them to share their own experience and stories
  • Allow the comfort of Jewish peoplehood to cement an understanding that good Israel education includes voices from Israel and around the world

While we have incredible tools to be able to deal with complex and tragic issues in Israel, if we are only looking to “explain” Israel during these difficult times, we're missing opportunities to create a comprehensive approach to Israel education. Yet, if we don't use the resources available in these difficult times, we're overlooking some of realities of Israeli life.