Israel Education: A Rationale and a Strategy

by Rabbi Jan Katzew

“Today’s field of Israel education is embracing innovative approaches to experiential learning and emerging from its nascent stage to the possibility of becoming a fundamental element of Jewish education and Jewish identity formation.” This claim by Lisa Eisen and Chip Edelsberg, like Israel education itself, is passionate and subjective. They are not dispassionate, objective observers of Israel, and neither am I. I am invested in growing a field in which a thousand proverbial flowers bloom, living flowers that see into the reality of Israel and into the as of yet unrealized possibilities of Israel.

Speaking personally, I cannot imagine my Jewish self without Israel as a vital organ. Speaking professionally, I am convinced that the field of Israel education will grow when those of us who are in positions of Jewish educational leadership concern ourselves more with people that will exceed us than merely people that will succeed us.

Why should Jews everywhere learn, teach and care about Israel and Israelis? Why should Hebrew be a second language for every Jew who does not live in Israel? Why should every Jew have an encounter, a first-hand intimate experience, a lifelong dialogue with the land, the state, the people and the God of Israel? Ma nishtana? These are educational and existential questions for the Jewish people. They are more than intellectual. They are ethical. They are spiritual. They are psychological. They are existential. They are personal. They are timely and they are timeless. They are also hopeful, and that is in and of itself a powerful message.

We need more teachers of Torah who in the spirit of Caleb and Joshua, acknowledge the obstacles and the challenges and remain determined and upbeat, because we have a literally incredible story to tell, and we are not close to its conclusion. We need more educational leaders who are inspiring because they are inspired by the possibility of a dialogue that transcends geography and history.

I dream that every Jew will feel as though we all have mishpacha in Israel, Israelis who we know and love whether or not we are biologically related. We will have created a field of Israel education when Jewish educators identify as Israel educators, because an integral element of a Jewish identity is a thick, nuanced connection to Israel. Israel education will be a reality rather than an aspiration when teachers and students agree that Jewish history is actually my-story, and to push the metaphor further, when ‘Jewish history’ not only rhymes with, but also resonates with’ Jewish mystery’, that it is irreducible to facts and dates and events, but that it is alive and dynamic and intimate.

Last week’s first piece in this series, by the iCenter’s Anne Lanski, shared a similar vision as well. To achieve this, our educational strategies should include:

  • Creating a community that bridges the academy, the school, the shul, the camp, and the home
  • Developing experiential learning opportunities designed to help participants discover the value of Israel integrated into a Jewish identity
  • Trusting the process of mifgash to create personal and social connections between Israelis and visitors to Israel
  • Modeling and promoting meaningful, if not soulful dialogue that includes yet transcends the political domain
  • Investing in Hebrew learning for anyone who is interested in gaining fluency not only as an instrument of communication but as an intrinsic element of Jewish cultural and spiritual identity
  • Developing excellent, innovative curricular resources that facilitate individualized as well as cohort learning opportunities
  • Being mindful that as a people we have surmounted far greater obstacles than ignorance, indifference and inertia
  • Celebrating the seminal accomplishments of Israel education to date, chief among them Taglit-Birthright, that has demonstrated the timelessness of the aphorism “Im Tirtzu”

Israel education adds one more variable to the multivariable calculus of Jewish learning and living. Solving such an equation involves isolating one variable, in this case, Israel education, and insisting on its value to the entire system. A Jewish education is incomplete without Israel education. We have solved much more difficult equations in our memory. We can do this. Aleynu. I believe we should. After all, education involves translating “is” to “ought,” combining what is possible and what is desirable.

Rabbi Jan Katzew, PhD, serves as the Director of Service-Learning at HUC-JIR Cincinnati.