One, Two, Three: Increase Your Congregation’s Israel Engagement

by Hope Chernak

Last spring, I was privileged to participate, together with the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) camp staff, in an educators’ kallah in Israel, held in partnership with several Jewish summer camps and concurrently with the Jewish Agency’s shlichim training seminar. I was fortunate to sit with talented educators – both North Americans and Israelis – who now are serving in various roles at URJ camps across the continent. I was anxious to be part of the conversation about how best to bring Israel into our camps.

As a Jewish educator, I believe that Israel education is a vital element of Jewish identity. It has been my personal mantra throughout my own Jewish journey, and I apply it to all facets of my work as director of youth and informal education at Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City. I was invited to this kallah not only because of my personal and professional focus on Israel education, but also to see if this setting would work as a training ground for synagogue educators. I understood that as part of the “experiment,” I would be on my own when it came to translating conversations about Israel at camp into my work at the synagogue.

This task was actually quite simple! Learning about, connecting to, and developing relationships with Israel are important and universal goals for all Jewish educators, so it made sense, in fact, that I was there to participate and learn with this group. The community of educators at the kallah welcomed me warmly into their ranks.

Here are my three main take-aways:

Use music as a soundtrack for Israel’s history.

We can teach the history of Israel using music so it’s important to find multiple ways to incorporate Israeli music into our educational models. Israeli music isn’t just Hava Nagila (still one of my favorites!) or the tunes used for the ever-popular Israeli folk dancing. Rather, this music can be a way to engage students around different eras of Israel’s history. We also can weave it into American history to teach about the influences each country has had on the other.

What can synagogues do?

  • Include Israeli music in curricula by mapping out Israel’s history using music from various eras.
  • Partner with Israeli musicians from the community as you develop an Israel education curriculum.
  • Refrain from teaching Israeli music solely as part of traditional folk dancing. Incorporate other genres, (i.e., modern dance and rap) into your repertoire of teaching tools.
  • Use live streaming of Israeli radio stations’ music to introduce and share current Israeli music with students and congregants.

We are all role models on a complicated Jewish journey.

The Jewish identity journey is a struggle for all of us. During the kallah, we watched as the Israeli staff used a variety of resources and exercises to trigger a range of responses – from easy to emotionally difficult – about their own Jewish identity journeys.

As educators, it’s important that we understand our own journeys so that we can help others to unpack their stories. Use your story as a way to engage members of your community, inspiring them to discuss and explore their own path. For some, this journey includes a connection to Israel, and leveraging these connections can help you teach about Israel.

What can synagogues do?

  • Provide teachers and clergy with opportunities to share their Jewish journeys and connections to Israel as part of staff training.
  • Start a campaign or forum in which synagogue members can articulate why Judaism is important to them.
  • Invite congregants – including teens and younger students – to share their personal stories and connections to Israel during class time, as part of programming initiatives and in other relevant ways.

Israelis are excited to share Israel with you!

Among the kallah’s highlights for me was meeting the young and enthusiastic Israelis who are working as counselors and staff members in our camps this summer. It was a gift to participate in their conversations, and reminded me that Israelis have much to offer us as educators, especially when it comes to cultural differences and Jewish identity.

What can synagogues do?

  • Invite Israeli congregants to participate in your curriculum as guest speakers, teachers, etc.
  • Partner with other congregations to raise money to bring Israeli shlichim to your community.
  • Partner with a congregation in Israel to build an ongoing relationship that includes scholar-in-residence visits to your community from clergy, educators, young adults finishing the army and others.
  • Create a teen exchange program with an Israeli congregation.
  • Immediately after the summer season, host Israeli camp counselors and staff as guest educators.

Building and nurturing personal relationships and ongoing cultural exchange opportunities for Israelis and North Americans are the most effective ways to ensure lasting connections to Israel. Even if bringing Israelis to your congregation and visiting Israel present challenges, it is imperative that the community’s core values and strategies include a focus on Israel engagement. To the extent possible, it’s also important to make connection to Israel a financial value, with members and the congregation as a whole providing support to Israel and her people.

Hope Chernak, RJE, is Director of Youth and Informal Education at Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City, where she also serves as the staff liaison to the Israel Engagement Committee and oversees Israel programming. Hope is also the project manager for the Gateways and Tents program, the congregation’s partnership program with Congregation Ohel Avraham-Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa. You can follow the partnership on Twitter and watch their teen exchange documentary from this past year and their micro-documentary video.

Print Friendly
Pin It
Send to Kindle


  1. Ilan says

    In regard to “Israelis are excited to share Israel with you!”: I would suggest that the relationship be conceived of as more of a two-way street. A teen exchange program should only be the tip of the iceberg. Why can’t clergy or knowledgeable lay leaders/congregants be sent as scholars-in-residence to Israel? Why can’t congregations send their own youth/young adult members to Israel to serve as madrichim in Israeli camps/kaytanot? Why can’t Jewish day school teachers from the community who are in Israel on sabbatical (e.g. learning at Pardes, Hartman, Hebrew U, etc.) be brought in to teach Jewish studies in local Israeli schools? Imagine not only the very significant influence that these visiting Diaspora Jews could have on the Israeli Jews with whom they would work, but also, the very significant influence which the Israeli Jews would have on the visiting Diaspora Jews. Then, imagine the ripple effect which these Diaspora Jews would have amongst the rest of their congregations/communities on their return to the Diaspora.

    If a lack of Hebrew is the answer to all of these questions (which I don’t think it is – frameworks can be created here for visiting English-speaking educators) then this brings up another issue – how is it even possible that Hebrew literacy is not included as part of a plan for Israel engagement?

  2. Lesley Litman says

    As I read your thoughtful piece, I found at least three threads that you began to develop that I would like to push even further: use of music, relationship building and Jewish journeys.

    First, your insights about the use of music are right on – music is a unique language that is simultaneously universal and culturally specific. I suggest you expand music to more generally include arts and culture. Visual arts, film, TV shows, music and more are all powerful vehicles for engaging learners with Israel.

    The second thread you weave through your piece has to do with building relationships, something which figures prominently in your congregational to-do list at the end of your piece. My own child’s experience at camp, living day in and day out with an Israeli counselor and wearing an army t-shirt he gave him for most of the next year affirms your stance. As I read your piece, the challenge that came to mind is in the actual building of relationships between Israelis and North Americans (I agree with Ilan that it is a two way street). This is a complicated process that takes time – speakers and scholars in residence may provide interesting and important intellectual experiences but I am not convinced that relationships are built through programs of that nature. Creating teen exchange programs that will include the building of relationships among the teens, especially in the congregational setting is quite challenging (I am not sure congregations are even the right venue for Israelis – schools might be more appropriate), demanding time and support that congregations often lack. Perhaps a helpful step would be to seek out successful teen exchange programs (I believe some do exist) and learn from their experience and maybe even to share some personnel among congregations who can support this kind of work.

    Finally, and perhaps the greatest challenge, is the personal Jewish journey element that you describe. Many teachers in congregational schools (and parents) feel such ambivalence about Israel and its role in their Jewish journeys. Unpacking this, making room for exploration and their own building of relationships with Israel and Israelis is necessary if congregational educators (I include teachers here) are to engage in this kind of relationship-building work with teens or pre-teens. Perhaps shlichim, in addition to working with the children, can spend some real time building relationships with teachers and other educators in congregations.

    Thanks for starting this very important conversation…

  3. says

    I tend to agree with Ilan on this one. To quote Yoram Hazony,
    “American Jews have to learn Hebrew.
    Now, I can feel the umbrage. There go those Israelis again, making demands instead of just being grateful
    But is the suggestion that the study of Hebrew become a central priority in the American Jewish educational agenda really so outlandish? People used to learn languages all the time, even without having a compelling reason to do so. Growing up in American public schools, I studied French for six years. By 12th grade I’d read Molière, Camus, Voltaire and Ionesco in the original. (It was a good public school.) Later in life I was able to revive my French in a couple of months of a weekly conversation class, and after a number of brief visits to Paris I was getting by, or at least making a noble effort. The point is not to brag about my French but to point out that such an education gave me something much deeper than just lingual training. It gave me an incredible amount of insight, appreciation, respect and fondness for French culture, French thinking, French joie de vivre — a modicum of cross-civilizational understanding that was probably the point all along.
    Would anyone in a million years think it reasonable to “love” France without learning French? Can you imagine how silly it would be to have French “federations” in American public life, a vast organizational apparatus aimed at helping France in its struggles, sending money to French institutions, sitting around the table talking about French politics — all of it without bothering to learn the language?
    There are no good reasons that today, all self-respecting American Jews shouldn’t gain a working knowledge of Hebrew. But there are at least two overwhelming reasons that they should. Leon Wieseltier covered one of them last year, in a jaw-dropping essay called “Language, Identity, and the Scandal of American Jewry.” American Jews, Wieseltier says, have inhumanely and un-Jewishly cut themselves off from the vast oceans of their own biblical and rabbinic past because they don’t bother to relate to Hebrew the way that Western countries until recently related to Greek and Latin — as a basic building block of cultural literacy. “The assumption of American Jewry that it can do without a Jewish language,” he writes, “is an arrogance without precedent in Jewish history. And this illiteracy, I suggest, will leave American Judaism and American Jewishness forever crippled and scandalously thin…. Without Hebrew, the Jewish tradition will not disappear entirely in America, but most of it will certainly disappear.”

    Read more:

  4. Michael Soberman says

    You raise some interesting and important points in your article. I would like to add a few comments under the topic of Jewish journeys and pose a question. I agree the use of an educator’s Jewish journey is an important tool to have, however, I am not sure it is always complicated or a struggle. Educators should be comfortable with their Jewish journey, how it impacts their Jewish identity and how they teach. When using your Jewish journey as a teaching tool, you run the risk of the message becoming too teacher focused instead of learner centered. The question I would like to pose is, ‘what are some effective ways other educators have used their own Jewish journey to encourage their students, campers, participants or colleagues to use their own Jewish journey in their Jewish identity development?’

  5. Shira Koch Epstein says

    Great to see Hope’s piece while here in Jerusalem and so many thoughtful responses.

    I agree with a number of points in the article, and especially in the comments, and want to push it one step further.

    I agree with those commenters who noted that relationship with Israel can’t be one where Israel is a producer and American Jewry is a consumer; real peer-to-peer relationships are essential. And, even dor those who come “on vacation” they are hard to enable. For instance, yesterday I met one of my 18 year old students who is here for a month studying in Ulpan. Her parents are coming to visit, and they are touring–but without Israeli friends it is hard to really fully connect in a lasting way with the real experiences of Israelis, and their values, issues and concerns.Another congregant family is here on vacation, and was looking for any way to meet Israeli peers, people in their 50’s with teen children. And the other day a waitress told me about her one trip to NYC–a pilgrimmage to see wrestlemania. They met no Americans and certainly no American Jews. We preach peoplehood but it is hard for the people to meet much less have meaningful engagements unless enrolled in a formal program, which mostly exist for teenagers. Here are a few ideas to serve others than teens:

    -Create opportunities for American and Israeli families to have shared experieces TOGETHER and build relationships both in Israel and the US, or even on Jewish service trips together to a third place.
    -Create financial and other incentives to get American and Israeli families together, perhaps in Israel and in America there (why are 18-26 year olds the ones who get all the $? Others would go if there were financial help…)
    -Create a viable home and community swap system like home share and make it more normative for an American and Israeli family to swap homes for a week in July or August and create expectations that they can “meet the neighbors” etc.
    -push for Hebrew as a language option in public and private schools and finance te creation of materials and support for those curricula
    -create family camp and/or Jewish children’s camp options in Israel for Americans with Israeli and American campers and a strong Hebrew component. Bring half the staff from the US and have follow ups throughout the year. Subsidize flights and camp to make it on par with camp in the US.

    Thanks for starting this conversation, Hope!