Israel Isn’t the Problem – We are.

[eJP note: As Lisa Eisen and Chip Edelsberg wrote in To Everything There Is a Season: The Metamorphosis of Israel Education, “today’s field of Israel education is embracing innovative approaches to experiential learning and emerging from its nascent stage with the possibility of becoming a fundamental element of Jewish education and Jewish identity formation.”

To advance the conversation, and to set the stage for the Spring release of the study, “Israel Education in Practice”, eJP brings you the first in a series of articles from the field.]

by Anne Lanski

What comes to mind when you hear the words, “Israel education” – curriculum, crisis, complexity, ambivalence, or maybe – nothing?

Israel education is about Jewish identity.

Too often, Israel education is treated as a curriculum to be taught, a crisis to be managed, or a problem to be addressed. Too often, we conduct our communal conversation about Israel – rather than with Israel. Too often, we allow Israel education to create divisions between us.

Israel education does not belong to advocacy organizations, shlichim, or any individual or group in isolation. Israel is not something separate. Israel education belongs to all of us.

Israel is something that can bring us together rather than dividing us. But in order to get there, we have to change our communal conversation to reflect reality. Yes, some of our rabbis, educators, and young people struggle with Israel as part of their identities. But the far larger issue is that for the overwhelming majority of American Jews, including students, leaders and professionals, Israel is simply not on their agenda. They don’t relate to Israel as a living, breathing organism, or experience Israel as integral to the totality of Jewish identity.

I’ve been bothered by this for a long time. But here’s the good news: After working 30 years as an Israel educator, today I see a shifting landscape, and it gives me hope.

We are approaching a tipping point – a moment when philanthropists and communal professionals, activists and educators, understand that we all working toward the same thing: developing generations of young Jewish people passionate and committed to Israel and the Jewish people.

We are coming to see that a relationship with Israel is ultimately about identity and personal narrative. We are recognizing that Israel education and Jewish education go hand-in-hand, that Israel is not something discrete and separate from, but that it is inseparably woven into the fabric of Jewish life. We are realizing that encountering Israel means encountering Israelis, and we are making mifgashim central in our educational efforts.

We are coming to recognize that Israel education is not only something that happens before our kids go to college; rather, it is an active lifelong process, one that begins in early childhood and continues into the mature adult years, and involves parents, teachers, camp counselors, youth advisors, friends – the many individuals who touch our lives along the way.

And we are finally building a field of Israel education: creating deep and lasting relationships between North American Jewish children and the totality of Israel. We are building a field with a common language, certification programs, and rich networks of professionals. We are reclaiming the full range of ways to connect to Israel to include not just history and politics, but arts and culture, science, and yes, Hebrew. Also important, through Taglit, we have a generation of young people who have experienced Israel in the most authentic way.

Israelis also are coming to see that Israel is not simply the passive object in an instrumental relationship with the “Diaspora,” but a co-creator of the story of the Jewish people with Jews around the world. Israeli Jews have recognized that they learn as much in mifgashim as their non-Israeli peers. And with this realization, they – and we – have embarked on the road to a time when we won’t have mifgashim (encounters with the other) anymore, because we will simply be an integrated people.

We can see this future. It is on the way.

To reach it, we need to significantly expand the ranks of skilled and certified Israel educators to work in camps, supplementary schools, youth groups, and day schools. We need to invest in teen travel to Israel, since the earlier one goes to Israel, the deeper one’s attachment can be. We need to dramatically increase the number of Jewish young people who speak Modern Hebrew, because language shapes identity. We need to help them forge real relationships with Israelis and contemporary Israeli culture.

Israel education is a developmental process not verified by a specific fact learned, but monitored by life’s journey. At the same time, measurable starting and impact points can and should be evaluated. For example, Jewish bar and bat mitzvah children being able to articulate how Israel is an integral part of their personal Jewish story.

The good news is that today, there is expanding interest, commitment and leadership in the field of Israel education. It is a growing and diverse collective in which we at the iCenter are proud to play a central role. It is a new era. It is an exciting time.

Anne Lanski is the Executive Director of the iCenter.