Learning as healing

“There are those who mistakenly think that world peace can only come when there is a unity of opinions and dispositions. Therefore, when scholars and students of Torah disagree, and develop multiple approaches and methods, they think they are causing strife and opposing shalom. In truth it is not so, because true shalom is impossible without appreciating the value of pluralism intrinsic in shalom. The various pieces of peace come from a variety of approaches and methods that make it clear how much each one has a place and a value that complements one another.”                                    

Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, Olat Re’iah, vol.1

Jewish education, and consequently Israel education, is a conversation with people in the room and with people on the page. Amos Oz claimed that Jews are connected by textlines, and for three intensive days at an iCenter experience during the first week of January, students and faculty were connected by an enduring, sometimes endearing, conversation. This conversation was with each other and with diverse and divergent voices about the places of Israel in Jewish learning and living. 

The iFellows master’s concentration in Israel education, made possible with generous support from the Marcus Foundation, convenes students across a broad spectrum of graduate institutions training Jewish communal leaders in education, nonprofit management, rabbinical studies and allied fields. Beginning in 2011, bringing together participants across institutions and denominations was a paradigm shift both for Jewish and Israel education. In the words of Franz Rosenzweig, “From the periphery back to the center; from the outside in.” The program has and continues to cultivate a generation of dynamic Jewish professionals working across a multitude of settings and communities.

A couple of years into the program, The iCenter grew to realize that the success of iFellows and of Israel education is also highly dependent on the relationship between North Americans and Israelis, inspiring the essential decision to invite senior shlichim (emissaries) and graduate students from Haifa University’s Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies to participate alongside North American students. Over the years, iFellows has created a critical community of inspired and informed educators, a renewed commitment to Israel education within Jewish institutions, and an understanding of the need for Israel education at every age and stage in life. Now more than ever, we are leaning on the strength of this community to help chart a path forward in Israel education and to support educators and communities in this crucial moment.

In the lead-up to our January gathering, our goal was to create a kehillah lomedet, a learning community in which the participants could be as fully present, as vulnerable and as resilient as possible. We invited thinkers as diverse as Rav Kook, Franz Rosenzweig and Ruth Calderon, and texts as timeless as Torah and as timely as the Times of Israel. It was unclear if it was plausible for students from Israel to join the seminar in person, but in the end all but one (who is currently in miluim, military reserve duty) were able to attend. The impact of the Israeli students on the overall experience, sessions and learnings was invaluable; and the presence of the one individual who could not make it was felt through his ideas and inspiring words.

The true impact of our learning community will only become known when the participants reengage with the people they serve and lead, where they learn, teach and live, but one aspect of our experience was immediately and palpably manifest: Learning can be healing. We arrived at the iFellows seminar feeling maybe like you are feeling, in multiple stages of brokenness, and there was an overwhelming impression that we left feeling more whole — and, perhaps, a little more holy. Lo tov heyot ha’adam levado, it is not good for a human to be alone (Genesis 2:18). We were not alone. We were with people who could disagree agreeably. We could cry and laugh, grieve and enjoy, without apology and with acceptance. 

Communal leader and experiential educator Brett Lubarsky said the seminar gave participants “the space and permission to breathe, connect with colleagues and mentors, process my personal feelings, and consider opportunities to incorporate new learnings and perspectives into my work.” For Jennifer Saber, educator project manager of World ORT, “it was the first time since Oct. 7 that I felt I was in a safe space with like-minded people to face our new normal of this changing world. The unique opportunity to sit side by side with Israelis and North Americans and hear diverse yet united narratives in one conversation was invaluable. I feel well equipped with the knowledge, pedagogy, and energy to reenter my work setting feeling like I can navigate this challenging landscape with my students at this time.”

“Coming straight from [a] hurting Israel, the seminar was a spiritual oasis, giving a truly amazing chance to share and to sharpen our minds together,” said Leebat Weiss of Haifa University. “I’m going back with much needed comfort and somehow more energy for days to come.” 

We need to co-create as many opportunities as possible for our people to learn, to teach and to translate learning into living.

Rabbi Dr. Jan Katzew serves as a senior consultant to The iCenter. Rachel See is program director of the iFellows master’s concentration in Israel Education at The iCenter.