by Alex Sinclair
Ever wondered what tikkun olam looks like? Take a look at the picture above. It doesn’t look like much at first, does it? A bunch of young people sitting in a classroom talking to each other. Hardly earth-shattering.
But take a closer look at the two small groups in the photo (one in the foreground, one in the background; there are three other such groups in the same room, out of shot). Each group contains four people: two American Jews, one Israeli Jew, and one Israeli Arab or Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem.
Stop for a minute and read that last sentence again. American Jews, Israeli Jews, and Israeli Arabs, all talking with each other? I don’t know of many – any – other contexts in which that happens.
What’s even more exciting is what they’re talking about. They’re discussing Jewish identity, Israeli identity, Palestinian identity, the issues of Jerusalem, their relationship to each other, and how to educate towards diversity in their respective contexts.
These discussions take place in a course entitled “Diversity and Variety in Israeli Society,” which Kesher Hadash students take at the David Yellin Academic College of Education in Jerusalem. Kesher Hadash, the Semester-in-Israel program of the Davidson School of Education of the Jewish Theological Seminary, prepares a select cadre of Jewish educators to transform the field of Israel education by developing a sophisticated love of Israel that is nurtured through immersion in and deep understanding of the complexities and nuances of Israeli life, culture, politics and society. The Diversity course is one part of the program, which also includes academic classes on Israeli history and sociology and contemporary Israel education, seminars on Israeli arts and culture and their place in Israel education, field trips that explore the most interesting religious and cultural developments in Israeli society, a movie-making workshop at the Maaleh School of Television, Film and the Arts, and extended semester-long mifgashim (encounters) with Israeli students – in this case, from David Yellin College, and another series of mifgashim with students from Hebrew University Hillel (the latter is with Jewish students only, and revolves around questions of Jewish peoplehood).
In the Diversity course, students explore the narratives and identities which each brings to the forum. They meet guest lecturers who work in Israeli society in education and community activism, and they watch and discuss movies that raise complex issues. How does or should Israel as a Jewish state relate to its non-Jewish minorities? In what ways are American Jews, Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs part of the same story? How do we all connect to this place? What is our vision for its future? These and many other questions form the subject for the class, which is co-facilitated by two faculty members: Ruth Bar-Sinai, who is Jewish, and Amin Khalef, who is Arab.
It’s intense, powerful, not always easy, but ultimately, inspiring. Here’s a brief vignette to give you a taste of what goes on:
In the conversations last week, the terms chiloni (secular) and dati (religious) came up, and one of the Arab students, a 22-year-old Palestinian woman who grew up and still lives in the Muslim quarter of the Old City, raised her hand to interrupt the discussion: “You’ll have to explain what those terms mean,” she said. “I’ve never heard them before – I don’t know what you’re talking about.” A Davidson student gave a 2 minute introduction to the varieties of Judaism as she saw them, talking about Charedi, chiloni, dati, Conservative and Reform. A Jewish Israeli student stepped in: “No,” he said. “We [Israelis] don’t have all that other stuff. We just have charedi, chiloni and dati.”
So much is going on in that brief exchange. A Palestinian who grew up in the Old City has never heard of the terms chiloni and dati?! Incredible. A Jewish Israeli hears an American Jew explain Judaism to a non-Jew in terms that are foreign to him? Fascinating. And this is only one brief vignette. I could share others, like an exchange in which Jewish students, both American and Israeli, quiz two of the Arabs women about why one wears a hijab and the other doesn’t; or about moments of tension when competing and contradictory historical narratives come to the fore; or about the different kinds of music that the students share with each other.
For our Davidson Kesher Hadash students, these kinds of conversations are an amazing window into the fascinating, beguiling, sometimes frustrating, but always compelling, questions of contemporary Israel. And maybe – just maybe – it’s a little bit of tikkun olam at the same time.
Dr Alex Sinclair is the Director of Programs in Israel Education at JTS. He has published numerous articles on Israel education, and his recent book, “Loving the Real Israel: An educational agenda for Liberal Zionism”, was a finalist in the 2013 National Jewish Book Award.
Kesher Hadash prepares a select cadre of Jewish educators to transform the field of Israel education by developing a sophisticated love of Israel that is nurtured through immersion in and deep understanding of the complexities and nuances of Israeli life, culture, politics and society. Kesher Hadash is generously funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation.