Moving beyond ‘Flags and Falafel’

By Abby Pitkowsky

“Don’t do it!” “You’re crazy – it’s professional madness!” “Have you lost your mind?” These were the comments a friend of mine, a congregational rabbi, received from his colleagues when he shared his planned topic for his Kol Nidre sermon. It’s not hard to guess that this rabbi’s selected topic of focus was Israel. Whether you consider these reactions sad, logical or exaggerated, one fact is clear; speaking and teaching about Israel is complicated and the approaches clergy and educators have used in the past need a serious transformation.

It’s especially timely at this point in the Jewish calendar to pause and reflect on our behavior and practices and assess (with or without chest beating) how we can improve moving forward. When educators teach solely towards unconditional love and connection and restrict our teaching of Israel to celebrations on a very shallow and surface level­, “flags and falafel,” institutions are doing a disservice to learners. When teachers connect students only to Israel’s start-up nation accomplishments or focus solely defending Israel on high school and college campuses with canned talking points, students are being cheated. When the teaching of Israel’s complexities is delayed until “they’re really ready,” children are denied the opportunity to engage in meaningful exploration about their place in the Jewish State, and the critical thinking component that accompanies that thought process as well.

Difficult questions have always been a key element of solid Jewish learning. It’s how hevruta-pair style learning takes place in the beit midrash. It stimulates inquisitiveness and curiosity; and it’s also the name – Qushiyot – of the Jewish Education Project’s 12-month Israel education fellowship for educators in congregational and other part time settings eager to embrace the complexity of Israel in their teaching. Learners have difficult and challenging questions about Israel as well. They’re confronted with topics and issues related to Israel that present legitimate questions from multiple angles; from social media, classmates, friends and even their parents and members of their own congregation. It’s simply too late to wait until college or final year of high school to confront Israel’s heady topics. Confronting Israel’s complexity is a difficult task but avoiding it has harsh consequences; we neglect our role as Jewish educators to educate about the Jewish state.

A lot of hand wringing has taken place about Jewish youth distancing themselves from Israel. Jewish educators need to recognize that strengthening competence about teaching Israel and complex topics are key catalysts to students’ continual engagement with Israel. When Israel faces a struggle, unpack it with students as they continue to love and engage. Educational experiences that include complexities are usually the ones that learners find most meaningful and compelling. Last summer, the Qushiyot fellows visited with residents of a Jewish settlement and a neighboring Palestinian village within one afternoon during their 8-day Israel workshop. The questions answered and left unanswered at this visit motivated Qushiyot fellows to include complexities in their own teaching.

This growing awareness is not limited to educational sites. This year’s JFNA General Assembly will be in Israel and is offering a fresh and frank look at the differences between how Jews in America perceive their relationship with Israel and how Jews in Israel perceive their relationship with Jewish communities outside of Israel. Closer to home, The Jewish Education Project has assembled, together with the iCenter, a day of learning with some of the best minds and practitioners in Israel education to confront complexities head on (“Israel@70 Connections and Complexities,” October 11th at UJA Fed NY 130 E 59th St; registration is still open).

Learners and community members appreciate when educators directly address uncomfortable topics. Remember my congregational rabbi friend, who was told speaking about Israel in his Kol Nidre sermon was “professional madness? His sermon was a hit! Jewish educators have a big responsibility to educate about the Jewish state and its central role in the lives of students. Let’s equip Jewish educators to embrace the complexity which our students confront so they receive the Jewish education they deserve.

Abby Pitkowsky is Director of Israel Education for The Jewish Education Project. Register for The Jewish Education Project’s Israel@70 Day of Learning: Connections and Complexities on October 11 in New York City.