Rethinking Israel Education

A Review of Israel Education Matters by Lisa D. Grant and Ezra M. Kopelowitz (The Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education, Jerusalem, Israel, 2012 $20.00)

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Until recently, educating people in Jewish communities around the world about Israel was usually accomplished through presenting a series of pictures, posters, songs, and key words used to signify Israel Independence Day, Israel’s military victories, or its magnificent historical sites like the Western Wall. Not much thought was given either to creating an intellectual connection or engaging in an educational process that aimed at creating a Jewish polity around the world that was not only committed to Israel but also had an understanding of Israeli society and a familiarity with Israeli culture. Instead, there was a reliance on an automatic Jewish emotional connection to Israel. However, we have now come to understand that the ties felt by those during the decades of the second half of the 20th century do not exist for many Jews today.

Grant and Kopelowitz have conceptualized an exciting formal and informal education process that has not only been effective in educating Jews around the world about Israel but has also enabled those in the Diaspora and Israelis to form connections. Their approach is not based on simplistic emotional links stemming from the fear of anti-Semitism or the existential threats faced by Israel, but on a sophisticated three-pronged paradigm. The book clearly outlines, with examples, how communal institutions, such as day schools, community centers and camps, can rethink how they view Israel in their educational programs.

They argue against a shallow approach to including Israel in the programs of communal institutions and instead present a paradigm with three essential components: integration, complication and connection. Briefly, integration refers to making Israel part of the essence of the functions of the organization. Israel must be integral to the agency’s educational programs and not a superficial add-on. When content about Israel is superficially added to programs, it cannot have a serious impact on participants.

It is crucial that the organization’s leadership not only endorse the importance of Israel education but also ensure that it is part and parcel of all programming. This is accomplished by a core of professionals and volunteer leaders who share this commitment and who strive to ensure that a real connection with Israel is institutionalized in the agency’s operations. It is a process that must be nurtured over time, and there has to be vigilance in monitoring the progress of how Israel is integrated into the agency.

The second component of the paradigm is complicating how Israel is integrated into the agency’s programs. Israel is a multicultural country with a mix of people from 108 countries, so Israel programming must emphasize that societal mix. It also means that differences, conflicts, contradictions, and critical perspectives are discussed and debated within the context of the programs in schools and camps. It is essential that the programs not remain “superficial and relatively inconsequential” in the authors’ words. The depth of the connection is created by learning about the “real” Israel and not by the fantasy “Disneyland” approach promoted in the past.

The “people-to-people” program is the third component: it is the authentic connection that must be created by Israel educational programs. The success of the programs will be evident when Israelis and Jews around the world are connected in real ways. Bringing people together is a way of breaking down the myths that exist and providing the “glue” that will enable Jews around the world to both understand and feel connected to Israel while appreciating the complicated nature of the relationship and the issues that face each other’s communities.

Grant and Kopelowitz make a very important contribution to the concept of Jewish peoplehood by not limiting their discussion to the conceptualization of the paradigm; they also offer examples of successful programs in this area. In fact, their educational approach is based on their analysis of existing Israel education programs. Professional and volunteer leaders who are interested in putting into practice the concepts discussed in the book have examples that can be adapted to their communities.

The beauty of this book is that it can be used as a guide for developing an Israel educational component in a variety of settings. Schools, federations, community relations councils and camps can use this book to initiate a discussion on how Israel is presented within their organizations. Once this is accomplished and there is a decision to reformulate the agency’s approach to the connection to Israel, then the book’s examples can provide guidance on implementing those changes in a creative way.

Israel Education Matters is a wonderful addition to our efforts to strengthen Jewish peoplehood. It is a resource that Jewish organizations should use in their efforts to deepen their connection to Israel. It is also an effective tool for stimulating dialogue among agencies’ boards of directors and staff members. There is no question that those organizations that use this tool will in the future be able to share examples of their own successful Israel educational programs.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.

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