Educators experiencing ‘second coming-of-age’ in Israel

In Short

Jewish educators report “finding themselves” — again — on post-Oct. 7 Israel trips.

For many Jewish educators and other Jewish communal professionals, the job has always been personal. Stories abound of rabbis, community leaders and teachers who were inspired to choose these professions after a life-changing trip to Israel in their youth.

Now, post-Oct. 7, several of them say it’s happening all over again.

In a field where professional role and personal identity are deeply fused — where Jewish educators teach who they are and are what they teach — a deeply rooted sense of Jewish self is vital in the desire to continue doing the work. And yet, the past eight months have seen a seismic shakeup. Many Jews, including those with deeply held beliefs and long, decorated careers in Jewish communal service, feel as though they have lost their bearings or sense of what’s what in the Jewish world.

A memorial site for the victims of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on the Nova musical festival in Reim, Israel. Courtesy/Alex Pomson

Enter: the Israel trip.

Since Oct. 7, tens of thousands of people have visited Israel: to bear witness, volunteer and lend support, and to try to make sense of what Israelis are experiencing. As many of these visitors say, it is better to see Israel for themselves than to rely on the commentary of media outlets, the pieties of agenda-driven public agencies or the incomplete anecdotes of friends and acquaintances.

Our team at Rosov Consulting, a firm established to provide high-quality research, evaluation and insights to Jewish organizations, has accompanied dozens of these visitors, specifically Jewish educators on missions and short learning experiences in the country. Working with educational and community-serving organizations, we have also surveyed and interviewed hundreds of others following their return home. Through this work, we have been privileged to observe how these visitors have found a new vantage point on their Jewish selves and what it means to be Jewish.

Most of the Jewish professionals, rabbis, community leaders and educators our team has accompanied recently are well-acquainted with Israeli history, society and culture. Some may even have close family and friends living in Israel and serving in the IDF. However, many express a sense of arriving in a “new Israel,” one they are encountering for the first time. It is as if they have stepped through a doorway to a different reality, an unfamiliar or uncanny version of Israel, and they must use every moment in the country to puzzle out what it means or to give expression to their connection and concern.

What these individuals gain from these experiences is intensely personal and — at least while they are in the country — often inchoate. They struggle to find words or explanatory frameworks that help make sense of both terrible losses and the remarkable strength people display in adversity. Their responses are often idiosyncratic, tied up with their own personal histories in Israel; and yet amidst the diversity of reactions, and as much as people are struggling for words, we notice a widely shared outcome whose significance can be appreciated by widening the interpretative lens. An old-new narrative is taking shape. The visitors are “finding themselves” in Israel once again.

Over the last 15 years, our team has studied and often evaluated Israel experience programs for both younger and somewhat older visitors. We have often found among program participants a widespread realization that being Jewish in Israel is different than being Jewish elsewhere in the world. This awareness was prompted by experiencing in Israel the ubiquity of Hebrew; the distinct rhythms of Israel’s Jewish calendar; the norms shaped by a majority-Jewish society; expressions of Jewish military power; and, for some, the spiritual intensity they find in some parts of the country. Programs sought to bridge these perceptions of difference by means of mifgashim, facilitated opportunities that brought visitors and Israelis together to help them uncover what they shared.

In a notable shift, we have noticed that now, without need for special facilitation, the most common conclusion reached by Jewish visitors to Israel has been how much Israelis and Diaspora Jews have in common. Their lives, they have found, are similarly fragile. They share an existential Jewish condition.

As we write this piece, there is much talk about Israel being alone, waging a war for which there seem to be ever fewer supporters. While this can be debated, we know that in the context of these trips Israelis and those who visit Israel have discovered each other, and they have been surprised and reassured by how much they share. A visiting educator expressed this reaction in an end of program exercise asking participants to share a major insight from their visit: “The gap between Israel and the Diaspora is in volume [i.e., scale], not substance. We face similar problems – wrestling with the universal and the particular, searching for shared values, lack of trust in government, responses to hate – but in different ‘volumes’ due to our circumstances.”

Such ideas depart from classical strands of Zionist thought that celebrated the creation of a new and different Jew in Israel and negated the value of Jewish life in the Diaspora. Those ideas fell out of fashion long ago, and even more so now. Oct. 7 and the reverberating effects around the world have fostered a sense of shared fate and shared destiny. For many visitors, this sense was either awakened or intensified, not dimmed, by what they found in Israel.

Over the past six months, the itineraries for these visits have solidified around a set of themes. Almost all trips include opportunities to visit the places where some of the most horrific events of Oct. 7 took place, and to hear from individuals who survived or responded to the events of that day. However, these itineraries are not solely fixated on the events of one dreadful day; they reflect how, for many Israelis, Oct. 7 is an ongoing event, with evacuees still displaced from their homes, and much of society still mobilized as part of the war effort. Visitors hear from and often stay in the same hotels as evacuees; meet with the family members of those still held captive in Gaza; visit Kikar Chatufim (Hostages Square) or other sites at the center of the campaign for the hostages’ release; hear from the relatives of soldiers who have fallen in battle against Hamas; and visit the many impressive organizations and individuals leading the civic response in Israel — often getting a chance to volunteer. Sometimes, groups also meet with musicians, artists or intellectuals who are giving evolving expression to the emotions and ideas unleashed by these events. Rarely do educator groups meet with politicians or professional spokespeople.

This is a lot to squeeze into a three-day or even a seven-day visit. But when you are on a mission (literally), downtime can wait. For sure, some visitors are emotionally fraught at the start and emotionally spent at the end. Many arrive acutely uncertain. As one participant expressed it, he did not know if he would be engaged in bikkur cholim (visiting the sick) or nichum aveilim (comforting mourners; both acts involve an implied imbalance, with a visitor entering a space, perhaps unaffected, supporting another person who has been directly affected.

Instead, by the end of their brief time in Israel, these visitors talk about their experiences in more mutual or symbiotic terms, as “being in solidarity,” and “taking action.” Before they came to Israel, they reported feeling distant, unsure, or even paralyzed in the face of rising antisemitism in their communities. Going home, something has been unblocked. At a minimum, they saw how having become witnesses, they could start to tell the story of what they had seen. More profoundly, they have recalibrated their sense of Jewish self in relation to a new set of parameters.

The educators we accompanied who work on university campuses or who live in smaller Jewish communities have felt these emotions most acutely. Before they traveled, they had felt isolated or abandoned by presumed allies, finding their views and values to be marginal when thousands were marching in opposition to Israel. They came to Israel to express solidarity and support. They returned home having found community and company — having come to the realization that Israelis and Diaspora Jews share an existential Jewish condition, a common sense of living together in an often-hostile world.

Many of the participants we talked with or surveyed are still figuring out what these experiences mean for their work as Jewish educators and as Jewish community professionals. Regardless, knowing that educators come away from these visits to Israel with a reaffirmed sense of their place in the global Jewish collective is, at least, a promising start. With a new sense of their own bearings and their responsibilities, they can begin to help others find a way through this challenging moment.

Yaakov Malomet is a project lead and Alex Pomson is a principal and managing director at Rosov Consulting.