Another Lens Through Which to Look at Israel Education

“We are the Same,” say Jewish and Arab youth. Photo courtesy U.S. Embassy in Israel.

By Melissa Cohavi, LMSW, MARE, RJE

Israel education can be challenging to present to both young people and adults in the supplemental-congregational setting. Politics, the conflict, and all of the traditional ways into teaching about Israel are so loaded, and if the learner doesn’t have some background in this area, and/or doesn’t come to the conversation with an open mind, then teaching the information, and trying to build the relationship piece, about Israel is virtually impossible. Added to this, if the Palestinian viewpoint and challenges are not presented, then as Israel educators we are not viewed as knowledgeable or authentic.

I have been lucky enough to have spent the past four years focusing on Israel education as an important part of my personal professional development and through my learning with The iCenter for Israel Education (in their George Washington University Israel Education Certificate Program). I have discovered a pathway to connecting my congregation to Israel, and it may work for yours as well.

After spending eight days in Israel in July with The iCenter I came to the realization that the focus of Israel education must be through the lens of social action and tikkun olam. I came to this realization as the result of meeting some special people, and I want to introduce you to some of them. These individuals are working on the ground to make their communities better places to live, and yes, these people are disappointed in their government, but it doesn’t stop them from trying to make Israel a place where they want to live. Noor Awad, a Palestinian from Bethlehem (through the organization Roots/Shorashim) said, “We have to be both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel to make this work.” Meaning, that neither people is leaving the land, and we need to find a way to live together in peace. In Lod we met Hilda Alqlawi and Faten al-Zenaty. Both of these women are working on the ground to make Lod, and relations between Arab-Israelis and Jewish-Israelis better in their own city, which they hope will then spread outward. Hilda is a Bedouin Arab who was beaten by her husband in the early years of their marriage. She finally got up the strength to fight back and talk about her needs and wants, and today she has completed her BA, has a daughter in Law School, and works at the Arab-Jewish community center with Arab women trying to empower them to make their own lives better. Faten is the Executive Director of the Arab-Jewish Community Center and has good relations with, and runs programs for, all residents of Lod. These are just a few examples of the inspiring people we met and who are working to make Israel a place that where everyone is accepted and welcomed. We also met Jewish Israelis working in partnership with their Arab neighbors to make Israel the country it can be without conflict.

I may sound a bit naive, but I am not. I know the realities of life in Israel. I also know that change needs to happen and that the connection between American Jews and Israeli Jews has never been further apart. American Jews wonder what their place is in Israel, and why they should feel connected at all. I believe that through teaching about these incredible people (and many others), we can show our young people and our adult learners that we do have something in common in that we are all trying to make our world, and our own individual communities, better places to live, sometimes in spite of, and because of, the governments we have to live with.

Melissa S. Cohavi is the Director of Jewish Identity Development at Congregation B’nai Yisrael in Armonk, New York. She has an MSW from Yeshiva University and a Masters in Religious Education from HUC-JIR. Melissa is in the sixth cohort of JTS’ Executive Doctoral program and was in the first cohort of The iCenter’s Graduate Certificate in Israel Education at George Washington University.