Communal Approaches to Israel Education

Shirley Barish Israel Educators at Kibbutz Kfar Blum
Shirley Barish Israel Educators at Kibbutz Kfar Blum

By Lori Actor, Amnon Ophir and Ilan Vitemberg

Jewish educators across the country have experimented, wrestled, and explored Israel education in many ways. While some have successfully launched meaningful educational experiences, others struggle to teach a topic that is foreign to many of our teachers and also raises many contentious conversations in our communities.

In our three communities – Houston, Cleveland and San Francisco – we have taken a communal approach to bringing meaningful Israel education to learners in part-time settings. We recently had the opportunity to share these initiatives with each other through our participation in Shinui: The Network for Innovation in Part-Time Jewish Education. While our communities each offer different unique approaches to Israel education, we found that we had all experienced some success in this arena by focusing on it through a communal lens.

The Shirley Barish Israel Educators Institute (Houston)

In Houston, The Shirley Barish Israel Educators Institute was created through community collaboration. The Institute was designed to invest in teachers in part-time settings who would become deeply knowledgeable resources in their schools. Nine congregations sent two teachers each to participate in the Institute, which included a 12-day trip to Israel, bookended by five pre-trip sessions and monthly post-trip sessions. An additional teacher participated in the Institute as the “community educator” serves as an Israel educator to the other congregational schools who are not formally participating in the program. The Israel trip and professional development sessions increased participants’ knowledge in the area of Israel education as well as their pedagogic and technology skills. Perhaps most importantly, the participating teachers developed into a tight cohort of colleagues.

In addition to the professional development, the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston commissioned a dynamic Israel curriculum that utilizes technology to make Israel education relevant and engaging for 21st century learners. The educators participated in professional development sessions with Neil Lazarus, the creator of the curriculum and they continue to meet among themselves to share ideas and think creatively about best practices in Israel education.

Israel Education Initiative (San Francisco)

The Israel Education Initiative brings stakeholders from across the congregation into the conversation about Israel education, including clergy, education director, teachers, and parents. In the Bay Area, Israel can be a touchy subject. In many synagogues teachers and ed-directors find themselves “in the line of fire” being accused of taking a stand that does not corresponds to the one that the parents have. As a result, many synagogue schools felt an urgent need to create clear guidelines for themselves and for the teachers articulating clearly what is being taught, at what grade it is being taught, and how it corresponds with the school’s mission statement.

In San Francisco, a comprehensive, two-year process with congregations works to infuse Israel Education systemically into their educational programs. The process includes one-on-one consultation with an Israel Education expert, drafting of a mission statement for Israel Education in the school, articulating Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions, drafting a scaffolding for a scope-and-sequence curriculum, mapping and professional development for teachers. The Israel Education Initiative also helps each congregation identify, access to resources, and create curricula as needed.

Teen Engagement, Education, and Leadership (Cleveland)

The Jewish Education Center of Cleveland (JECC) developed a three-stage plan of Engagement, Education, and Leadership to support teens’ learning about Israel, working to reach both “connected” and “potentially connected” teens. At the core is the Shin-Shinim program with the goal to expose as many young Jews in Cleveland as possible to Israel. Since 2012, Cleveland has hosted three to four shin-shinim annually – recent high school graduates from Israel – who spend their gap year focused intensively on outreach to teens. Easily accessible programs and encounters about Israel with Shin Shinim are offered through a variety of settings and with diverse audiences, including youth groups, Israel culture clubs, informal social events, and coffee meetings. The Shin shinim are also in involved in more formal Israel education programs, such as israel.cleveland.next (icnext), a highly selective, intensive, Israel learning, advocacy, and travel experience; Hebrew tutoring at HS@akiva, the supplementary community high school; and working with supplementary schools to provide enrichment to Israel curriculum. Last, the Shin Shinim mentor teen leaders to provide Israel programming to their peers in a variety of youth settings.

As part of the effort to enrich the experiences of Cleveland’s teens (post-B’nai Mitzvah through 12th grade), the JECC brings three to four dynamic guest educators as weeklong “Scholars in Residence.” The scholars, each of whom brings a specific portfolio of expertise in Israel arts, culture, and advocacy, to our teen community, focus on a “train the trainers” approach with teens and educators, so that their initiatives continue even after they leave.

“The many Israel programs and learning opportunities offered throughout the year for teens in Cleveland focus on a shared communal theme, which changes each year. The themes offer unique ways to explore and relate to the narrative and culture of Israel, and focus the shin-shinim’s work. Previous themes have been family, teens, and water. For the coming year, the community will focus on the theme of food, which provides a vehicle for deeper exploration into important topics like ethnic cultures and agriculture.

Lori Actor is the Israel Engagement Center Director for the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston. Ilan Vitemberg is the Director of Educational Support Services for Jewish Learning Works in San Francisco. Amnon Ophir is Director of Israel Education for the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland. To learn more about these and other innovative models, visit www.shinui.org.