By Rebekkah Gold
As an experiential Jewish educator with core beliefs in a constructivist education, I search for ways to help my learners develop a deep, meaningful connection to Israel. Like many educators, I have grown to understand that this is easier said than done, and that the path of Israel education is fraught with challenges. However, these challenges can be overcome if educators are able to adopt principles that put the focus on the learner, the curriculum, and diverse narratives of Israel – three of the iCenter’s 12 principles of the Aleph Bet of Israel Education – 2nd Edition that have helped me professionally and in fact make teaching methodology relatable and achievable in any educational environment.
The principles espoused within the Aleph Bet of Israel Education collectively constitute a framework of experiential learning alongside values for meaningful education – applicable to educators of all backgrounds. As the Assistant Director of Youth and Family Engagement at Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle, NY, I spend much of my time working with middle and high school students as they navigate their personal identity development at a very transitional time in their lives. Already, I have incorporated certain Aleph Bet principles into my educational approach with my learners, utilizing techniques of experiential education in my everyday interactions.
I experimented with these techniques specifically while creating and implementing an Israel curriculum with seventh graders at Beth El Synagogue, crossing over diverse narratives and multiple landscapes of Israel; the focus was on people, history, land, technology, innovation, and more; all topics that the learners in this class specifically asked to better understand. The multiple entry points I provided in learning about these topics and assessing the growth of the learners in this environment further created a space of interest, engagement, and dialogue for my learners. I hope my experiences in this regard are helpful to other practitioners and researchers in the fields of Jewish education and Israel education.
Meeting Learners Where They Are
As David Bryfman of The Jewish Education Project discusses in the chapter, “A Learner-Centered Approach,” one of the main focuses of our teaching should be our learner; this makes our approach to education holistic and allows us to meet our learners where they need to be met. In these experiential educational settings, Bryfman talks about “a learner becom[ing] an active agent in the learning process” (p. 31). When tying these principles of a learner-centered environment to Israel education, he notes that the reason this information is relevant to Israel education is because of the way “it is meaningful and relevant to the lives of the individual learners” (p. 32). Although of course the content is important, if it is not relevant and meaningful to our learners or put forth to them in an experiential, tangible way, then it may not be successful Israel education.
When working with my seventh grade students at Beth El, I not only made sure to be open with them about what topics we were going to cover in order to give them a say in our content, but included differentiated learning opportunities in each part of the curriculum. Differentiation allowed for each of the learners to find a place in the curriculum that felt comfortable, yet challenging and interesting at the same time. Keeping learners at the forefront of our thoughts helps educators recognize the importance of every individual. Moreover, keeping learners connected to an Israel education that is grounded in educational techniques used in general education settings helps concretize the field of Israel education in the field.
In addition to a learner-centered education, Rabbi Jan Katzew, Ph.D., of HUC-JIR explains how we can bring education to life for our learners and our educators through a thematic curriculum instead of a chronological one. Katzew discusses the breadth and depth to an Israel education environment that focuses on both the needs of the learner and the intentions of the educator with the learners. With these thoughts in mind, themes of the land, the people, the history, and personal connections with Israel can help create a space where learners and educators are able to explore Israel together.
When I began thinking about the curriculum for my seventh grade class, I wanted to make sure there were clear touch points in multiple landscapes of Israel education in order to begin to heighten the learners’ interest in a variety of areas within Israel. Spending significant chunks of time on the biblical land of Israel, modern Israel, the people of modern Israel, immigration, and innovation gave the learners exposure to the breadth and depth of Israel. Depending on our learners, the thematic curriculum can have a more significant impact than a timeline on how our learners internalize their educational experiences. This is especially true if educators have the space to create and explore their curriculum in a way that is meaningful to them as well.
The above ideals tie seamlessly into the importance of diverse narratives within Israel education, which are presented in such a coherent way through the iCenter that complex conversations genuinely seem achievable. Dr. Barry Chazan states in his chapter “Diverse Narratives” that we have three tasks as educators when it comes to expressing the diverse narratives of Israel education: 1) to help our youth feel fluent in the major narratives that are accepted as Jewish history, 2) to recognize that “openness to diverse narrations and narrators” is relevant when it comes to our Jewish values, as is teaching, learning, and debating l’shem shamayim, for the sake of Heaven, and 3) to help our youth feel fluent enough in their own narratives and beliefs that they can become the narrators themselves and find their own voice to express their own thoughts and opinions (p. 91). Creating a truly safe space for experiential education, where diverse learners can find their own way to learn, discuss, question, and grow in a supportive environment is critical. In these spaces, learners and educators are engaged together in order to find some live, mutual understandings of the land of Israel, modern Israel, complexities of Israel, and what a personal relationship with Israel can look like today.
I regularly think about the way we can make Israel alive for our learners, no matter how far in proximity they may be from Israel itself. Through my experience with Israel education in my seventh grade classroom, the times in which many opinions and stories were shared led to the most critical and important conversations in our class setting. These conversations allowed for the learners to learn about a multitude of perspectives on certain subjects pertaining to Israel, listen to one another, and find a way for their personal voice to be heard.
Through these experiences, I also realize that I too am allowed to have an evolving view of Israel, alongside an openness to teach diverse narratives of Israel education to diverse learners. By modeling that we, as educators, are continuing to learn and grow in our relationships with Israel, we help our learners feel similar freedom as we cultivate these experiences with them.
Israel Education is Demanding
Dr. Lee S. Shulman of Stanford University states in the Aleph Bet Postlude:
…learning does not occur in a vacuum. Israel education makes substantial demands on teachers and their pedagogical skill. Because the goals of Israel education are so multi-dimensional, teachers must be competent to teach for the understanding of subtle and challenging ideas. They must also be engaging role models and masters if the emotional and personal aspects of Israel education are to be addressed successfully (p. 129).
At such a critical time in Israel’s life and in the life of Diaspora Jews, educators have the capacity to facilitate the creation of meaningful relationships with many facets of Judaism. Israel is one facet of Judaism that can be alive in a variety of environments for every individual learner; individualizing our Israel education programs can only further enhance the way in which knowledge and understanding of diverse narratives can strengthen the constructive conversations we have, despite our disagreements. Finding a way to build these environments and make them age-appropriate in our educational settings, as I have tried to do at Beth El Synagogue, can really be done through openness and collaboration with others in the educational environment.
The Aleph Bet of Israel Education – 2nd edition provides tools for successful, experiential education to be conveyed in our Jewish communities today. Without this framework, we as Jewish educators living in the Diaspora would be further from dialogue and from finding open and personal understandings of Israel. Instead, I continuously find ways to further build our community at Beth El Synagogue Center and our conversations surrounding Israel by expanding our communal knowledge and basing those ideals in these principles of Israel education. These principles relate to all good education, no matter the subject, and are modeled through Israel education in a very specific, necessary, and legitimate manner that promotes meaningful dialogue and relationships in our communities. I hope that my experiences at Beth El and utilization of the iCenter and Israel education network help show what productive Israel education looks like in the Diaspora, and reflects the vast potential of the field in the years to come.
Rebekkah Gold is the Assistant Director of Youth and Family Engagement at Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle, NY. She was a member of Cohort 4 of the iCenter’s iFellows Master’s Concentration in Israel Education and received her Master’s degree in Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Cohort 5 of the iFellows Master’s Concentration in Israel Education concluded at the end of May.