Israel education

JFNA pilot trip exposes Jewish educators to debate gripping Israel

Participants say the program allowed them to delve deep into the current turmoil in Israel, come away with better understanding of the situation

Having just returned from a five-day jaunt through Israel led by Jewish Federations of North America designed for educators who work with Jewish teens and millennials, Jewish educator Elyssa Hurwitz said she feels “reenergized.” 

“What role does Israel play in our communities? How are we supporting the young adults we work with all over the world in having any kind of relationship with Israel in all of its facets? I’ve been thinking about these questions for a while but they have fallen on the back burner,” Hurwitz, who coordinates Jewish programming at Moishe House in New York City, told eJewishPhilanthropy.  

“This trip reenergized me to be thinking about Israel and the role Israel plays in the lives of the young Jewish adult population I work with,” she continued. “I don’t want to say it’s at the forefront of what we are doing, but it’s [in my mind] as something we need to put a lot of effort into considering.” 

The initiative, called Israel Intensive for Engagement Professionals, brought 33 Jewish professionals who work with teens and young adults from around North America to Israel last month. It was the first trip of its kind, a joint venture together with UJA-Federation of New York, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies and the One8 Foundation.

Bev Shimansky Ades, chief campus and culture officer at Hillel Ontario, told eJP that her desire to participate in the trip was sparked by a survey of 500 Jewish students in Ontario she helped conduct last fall that found an overwhelming majority (75%) said they were connected to Israel.

“As we return to campus this fall, there hasn’t been a more important time in recent memory to find meaningful ways to engage Jews in the diaspora to Israel. Now is the time to lean in and have difficult but important conversations and find ways to stand united with the people of Israel,” Shimansky Ades said. 

Held amid ongoing turmoil in Israel surrounding the government’s plans to overhaul the judicial system, the program didn’t shy away from discussing controversial topics, even while participants shared differing views. Hurwitz said a highlight was meeting with Israelis at the heart of the debate, including members of Knesset from both the coalition and opposition as well as protest movement leaders. 

“It was wild,” Hurwitz said of the Knesset meeting. “It was a broad range of perspectives and I couldn’t tell you the last time I spent time in a room with someone who was on [the] opposite end [of the debate] as the person I was about to spend the next 30 minutes of my life with.” 

“If this had been any old trip to Israel, I don’t think you would have felt a difference there, but because of the people we talked to and the focus on learning and tough conversations and critical thinking about the reforms, it [added] to the experience,” Hurwitz, who lived in Israel from 2019-2021, added. 

“Participants had different ways of thinking about Israel depending on their organization,” she continued. “If you’re an organization that’s Zionist, that’s coming from a different place than an organization that doesn’t formally have a stance. I don’t know that there were debates but there were tough questions. Some [participants] had a ton of knowledge and were very invested. Other folks literally didn’t know what was happening and were just there to learn.”   

Hurwitz said it was a welcome change to travel with fellow Jewish educators. “It’s tough to be a Jew but it’s really tough to be a Jewish professional because we are expected to know so much on so many different topics. We don’t live in Israel right now and the U.S. and Canada have their own crazy political stuff happening. So we’re expected to not only know what’s happening in our home country but also in Israel. That’s a big ask of anyone.” 

Shimansky Ades, who has been working with the Hillel movement for 16 years, the last seven of which have been at Hillel Ontario, said the trip felt “very historic.” 

“We had the opportunity to really delve into the issues and meet the leaders on all sides of the reform,” she continued. ”

According to Shira Hutt, executive vice president of JFNA, the trip was designed to give participants deeper context to issues being debated in Israel and to equip them with tools to bring complex topics back to the teens, college students and young adults they teach. 

“JFNA has been [active in the] issue of judicial reform since the start of the debate,” Hutt told eJP. “We’ve done so with a commitment towards education, making sure we are educated and our communities are educated in order to foster dialogue.” In March, JFNA organized a fly-in to Israel for 30 federation leaders to express their concerns over aspects of the reforms and to urge immediate compromise being brokered by Israeli President Isaac Herzog. 

“So when the opportunity came up to apply those principles to this particular trip, we were excited about the opportunity,” Hutt said. “We also used this trip to learn about what it’s like to bring a cohort of [Jewish educators] together.”

“This trip came up because of the moment that we are in,” Hutt told eJP, adding that the program was organized in about six weeks. “We reached out to a number of federations and national partners like BBYO and OneTable and identified professionals that were working on a local level to do the work I mentioned.”

Hurwitz expressed hope that JFNA will run a second part to the program. “Not only what do things look like in the two or three months post-trip, but also what are practical tools we can move forward with and what does support look like for us in our organizations after having this awesome trip,” she said.