Hakhsharah Chadashah (“New Preparation”): Israel Education, Visionary Philanthropy, and Funding the Future
By Yehuda Arenstein
History, Foresight, Education, and Philanthropy
Ever since Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s strategic relocation to Yavneh in 70 CE, and even as far back as Abraham, Am Yisrael has understood the existential importance of recognizing geopolitical realities and adjusting course as the times demand. In particular, those who lead our communities and sustain them financially have generally recognized the need to view events dispassionately, to heed the lessons of the past, and to act prudently and proactively with regard to future probabilities. Indeed, these attributes are in large part what enable their success, and we might even define leaders and philanthropists as “those who have been blessed with foresight.”
Nineteen hundred years after that decisive move to Yavneh, a very different kind of Jewish leader galvanized the modern era of social change and philanthropy with a clarion call to the establishment to “accept” that the “order is rapidly fading” and that the “times they are a-changing.” American Jewry responded to Bob Dylan’s call and indeed played a leading role in the changes that were to come. Today, the times are again changing, and once again American Jews are responding accordingly. Political instability, racial conflict, civil unrest, economic disruption, the COVID-19 pandemic, and other indications of large-scale unraveling have exacerbated anti-Semitism from all quarters and led to a worsening sense of insecurity and vulnerability in the Diaspora.
There is an increasingly palpable sense of anxiety within the American Jewish community across political and denominational lines, and we are seeing the beginnings of an exponential rise in aliyah – along with growing appeals for communal leaders to more squarely face the situation. (Notably, many of these appeals are coming not from those members of our community who are the most outwardly recognizable and thus often assumed to be the most vulnerable, but from a young, politically liberal, religiously diverse demographic that increasingly feels unmoored and undefended.) The times are changing, and the community is responding – and all of this calls for a corresponding shift in educational and philanthropic mindset.
Trends and Trajectories
According to Globes, the Israeli business daily, June 2020 saw aliyah files opened for “more than 3,000 people in North America, which compares with 480 in June 2019.” This is a 625% increase. The Jerusalem Post reported “double or triple the number of applications” “from the US every month from May through September compared to” 2019, and “dramatic” increases in real-estate purchases from the Diaspora. Reports from December show these trends continuing. American Jewry has begun catching up to the rest of the Diaspora, which has been emptying out for years and is now seeing the trend accelerate further, as the “Jewish Agency estimates that Israel will see an influx of a quarter of a million immigrants over the next five years.”
Although 2020 was certainly an unusual year, these statistics illustrate actual popular sentiment and events on the ground that reflect an outlook that has been developing for several years across the religious–political spectrum, and they indicate how things are likely to develop as conditions in the Diaspora continue to destabilize. Now is the time for foresight and a prudent, proactive approach; for pragmatism and probabilities, not idealism or ideologies. Our historical moment demands that we avoid the sunk-cost fallacy and consider how best to secure and invest our capital, both human and financial. The facts must be faced.
Examining American Jewry’s situation, Bari Weiss channels Jeremiah and the pre-Shoah Jabotinsky: “So let me make my purpose perfectly clear: I am here to ring the alarm.” We are not, however, dealing here with a lone voice in the wilderness – across the board, the alarm bells are ringing and the warning lights are flashing, and the “knocks on the door” elucidated by Rav Soloveitchik are growing ever more insistent. Meanwhile, the community’s own impromptu answer to what some have termed its “Israel question” or “Israel problem” is beginning to crystallize and come into sharper focus.
Reservations and Reforms
Even as we might increasingly “look to Zion,” however, many Diaspora Jews – whether secular, Haredi, or somewhere in between – have thoughtful, considered reservations about Israel based on religious, cultural, political, and other factors that are the basis of what we often refer to as “difficult conversations.” Our times certainly demand straight talk on difficult, uncomfortable, and even frightening matters – and an essential aspect of this is acknowledging that although American Jewry has grown accustomed to a life of near-limitless choice, this state of affairs is by definition a luxury, and far from the historical norm. Whatever one’s reservations about or sense of disconnectedness from Israel, no matter their basis, no matter how thoughtfully or deeply or sincerely they may be held, at the end of the day they are simply no match for what Jennifer Welsh describes as the “return of history.”
There is a silver lining here, however, in how the current crisis has prompted intensive reflection and extensive reinvention and how these efforts can pave the way for what will come after. Even as we scramble to respond to the evolving conditions of the pandemic, we engage in strategic planning for the future. Once the crisis is resolved (may it be speedily in our days), there will be a reckoning and a unique opportunity for effecting change where it is needed. Graduates of the Hakhsharah Chadashah (“New Preparation“) initiative proposed below would be uniquely positioned to play a role in this work.
A New Prospect for Education and Philanthropy
As we strategize about how to respond to the current situation and how to move forward into the future, our history can serve us well as a guide. In the early twentieth century, the Hakhsharah (“Preparation”) movement arose, establishing training centers that provided Diaspora youth with an understanding of what it means to have a national home and with the practical skills needed to support themselves in the Land of Israel while strengthening the community there by building the Yishuv and laying the foundations for the State. Its graduates succeeded. We know all too well what became of its opponents – and we can never again allow such a failure of foresight. We can see what is already happening. The time to respond is now.
In light of the macro-level geopolitical realities as well as the developing grassroots response, the time has come to get ahead of the curve and consider the potential of a new Hakhsharah initiative as one element in a coordinated educational-philanthropic-communal response. This Hakhsharah Chadashah (“New Preparation”) program would support developing new possibilities in Israel Education, along the lines of Aliyah Education – a paradigm shift from teaching about Israel to teaching in preparation for Israel. It bears repeating that this would be a pragmatic program – an existential program – not an ideological one. It would attend to realities and obstacles as much as to opportunities and possibilities and indeed, as an initiative emphasizing preparation, it would focus on these, its mission being to equip its graduates with the skills and tools necessary for building a successful life in Israel and contributing to the flourishing of the State, its citizens, and the Jewish People.
Hakhsharah Chadashah would, in other words, be a completely different enterprise than Israel advocacy, hasbara, and the approach to Israel Education that many students perceive as tendentious or even propagandistic. It would be founded on a dispassionate analysis of the facts in evidence and would seek to advance no particular partisan position. It takes no position on the validity of Jewish life outside of Israel (a subject of much debate at all points along the religious and political spectrums) – but rather, only on its long-term viability. It rests upon the fundamental and shared Jewish values of Ahavat Yisrael, Achdut Yisrael, and Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh BaZeh (love of our fellow Jews, Jewish unity, and the idea that all Jews are responsible for one another). It would be animated by continuity and political probabilities, not by loyalties or political preferences; its aim would be preparation, not persuasion. Education, after all, is properly concerned not with instilling political positions but with preparing students for the timeless aspects of life and for the world as it is in their particular generation.
Hakhsharah Chadashah would thus be practical, tangible, and applied. Alex Pomson and Jack Wertheimer observe in their “Hebrew for What?” report that “many schools do not make a case for why it is important to learn Hebrew.” Ofra Backenroth makes a parallel observation, noting that “teaching about Israel has been marked by a confusion of goals and purposes.” Many others have made the same points over the past several decades. Hakhsharah Chadashah would bring clarity to this prevailing cycle of pedagogical confusion by offering a clear, concrete, and compelling rationale and sense of purpose – mission and vision – for Hebrew and Israel education. It would ask not what role Israel can play in the consciousness of Diaspora Jews, but rather how and where Diaspora Jews can find their places and roles in Israel. This is the essential point.
The Behavioral Domain
Imagine a Yom HaAtzmaut program. The Israel Education objectives would be largely cognitive and affective: to impart information and foster a sense of connection. This is the basis of the “relationship” model around which the field has been coalescing in recent years. The Hakhsharah Chadashah objective would be to build on these and advance boldly into the behavioral domain, taking the relationship to the next level in response to current conditions and trends. It would guide students to find a place for themselves in the story, leveraging and channeling the young person’s innate hunger for meaning and purpose and even duty and challenge, his desire for adventure and accomplishment, her drive for building and growth. Students would be guided to consider what they might do: How might I want to spend Yom HaAtzmaut in Israel? How can I play a role in safeguarding Jewish sovereignty? Am I to be a passive recipient of this history or am I to play an active part in perpetuating it? Where do I fit in? How can I contribute? Where do I see myself in Israel’s ongoing story?
The specifics of a particular Hakhsharah Chadashah program would depend on the specifics of its community and its institutional setting. Curricula would necessarily differ by age group and between schools, camps, youth groups, synagogue programs, supplemental and after-school programs, the wide array of Israel programs, and other educational frameworks. All of these possibilities would fit together under the same tent, however, through their shared focus on practical matters essential to truly understanding the country, determining one‘s place and role, and building a life there.
Pedagogy and Philanthropy
As an integral part of this applied / behavioral emphasis, Hakhsharah Chadashah programs would take a truly student-centered approach. Their defining pedagogical feature could be a specialized version of a tool that is becoming widely adopted in educational systems around the world: Individualized Learning Plans are “a long-term and comprehensive approach to education and career planning; they span multiple grade levels and courses and are personalized to each student [and] encourage purposeful, effective planning and preparation.” We can adapt this approach, centering Hakhsharah Chadashah around the development of an Individualized Israel Learning Plan (IILP) for each student. An IILP would weave “in Israel” throughout all the aspects and components of a standard ILP, tailoring its focus toward building a life in Israel and, particularly for older students, incorporating an inquiry-driven approach:
Where would I want to live in Israel? Why? What do I want to accomplish in my first year, two years, five years in Israel? What do I want to study, and where? What are my professional objectives and how do they fit into the Israeli economy and job market? What do I want to do in the army or for my national service? Who are the top ten people I want to seek out and meet with, and with what objectives in mind? What aspects of Israel am I driven to explore in more depth? What questions do I have about life in Israel, and how can I go about answering them? What are my reservations about Israel, and what are some strategies I can use to mitigate them? What obstacles do I face and how can I overcome them? What opportunities do I see and how might I capitalize on them? Who are the leaders in my areas of interest? What are some institutions, organizations, and companies that might be of personal and/or professional interest? What are some areas of Hebrew vocabulary to which I should give particular attention, according to my interests and aspirations? What are the sites and communities that I most want to visit and explore? What books should I read in order to prepare? What are some issues particular to my own situation (spiritual, family, dietary, medical, academic, professional, etc.) that I need to investigate? What are the issues and policy questions in which I am most interested, what are my positions on them, what more do I need to learn, and how can I do so? Where do I see myself on the Israeli religious spectrum? Which political party might I want to join? What do I know about how the government, political, and electoral systems function, and what do I need to learn? Which “camp” or “sector” do I envision myself as part of? How do I want to spend my leisure time? What do I need to do or learn or be in order to feel at home in Israel? What role do I want to play and what contributions can I make? What would I want my life in Israel to look like, and what do I need to do in order to actualize that vision?
In support of this pedagogical shift, a philanthropic one is needed as well, in which communal funding pivots to begin addressing this emergent need and serving this growing constituency. Philanthropy is investment, and wise investing accounts for current trends, probable trajectories, and the potential for returns. Hakhsharah Chadashah is a wise investment that will produce solid long-term returns for all of its stakeholders. We would do well to give it its due diligence.
Courage and Continuity
As we look to the future and its challenges and opportunities, we can look to our past for precedent and encouragement. As Michael Lawrence recently observed, our leaders and philanthropists “preserve the extraordinary values […] of our ancestors.” Our generation is the latest in a long chain that includes the graduates of the original Hakhsharah movement along with other nineteenth- and twentieth-century pioneers to the Land of Israel, Ezra and the epochal aliyah that he led from Babylon 2,500 years ago, our ancestors who departed Egypt (most notably, Joshua and Caleb), and of course Abraham and Sarah, our ultimate role models.
Each of these precedents was accompanied by its counterpart – those who chose not to participate and who as a result are overwhelmingly lost to history. Today, it is our turn for choosing. Today, it is our turn to perpetuate our heritage, to “be strong and courageous” in the face of difficulties and reservations, and to meet the imperative of the times – to invest prudently and act decisively to secure the future of Am Yisrael. We merely need to set our minds to it, and we will prove more than capable of overcoming the challenges with which we are confronted. As Caleb said, “We can surely do it!”
Diaspora leaders and philanthropists are ever on the lookout for the innovative, strategic, truly transformative education-engagement-continuity initiative – our “holy grail” (l’havdil). Hakhsharah Chadashah is just such an initiative, and it presents our generation with an opportunity for truly visionary philanthropy and leadership.
Yehuda Arenstein is the founder of Inquiry: Israel, a leadership-focused post-secondary institute that synthesizes a Torani shana bet beit midrash and a core-curriculum first-year-of-college program. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.