Now Is The Time: An Opportunity for Deeper Israel Education

How do you teach about Israel in the constant specter of crisis?

By Ari Naveh

On October 16, 1973, as Jews all over gathered together to ask for redemption, the world changed. That evening, Egyptian and Syrian forces led surprise attacks on the Northern and Southern borders of Israel, beginning the war that would change the scope and perspective of Israeli society in ways that we are still feeling to this day. The war, especially the nature of its unforeseen attacks, left a nation that so joyously celebrated a victory just six years earlier reeling, anxious, confused, and disappointed. While Israel was eventually victorious in the Yom Kippur War, somehow this victory felt different, pyrrhic.

Given the unfortunate circumstances that unfolded this past summer, it is safe to say that many of those same emotions have resurfaced. Once again, we find ourselves wondering if ‘victory’ can even be achieved, and what – if at all possible – it will look like.

As Israel educators, it is events like those of this past summer that make our work quite challenging. Too often, it seems, our sole role is to immediately be on the defensive, to affirm Israel’s basic right to exist safely and securely. Frankly, playing that role is exhausting – and what kind of solid education can be done on the defensive, anyway? It is time for us to realize that that form of ‘education’ must be avoided.

The big question, then, looms largely over every lesson taught: how do you teach about Israel in the constant specter of crisis? Truly, if anyone has the magic bullet answer to this question, please let me know.

The organization that comes closest thus far, however, is the iCenter. For the past year, I’ve had the distinct honor of learning with the iCenter, quite literally sitting around the table with absolute masters in the field of Israel Education and soaking in information. The iCenter approach is not agenda-based but for the understanding of the integral nature of Israel education within any and all Jewish learning. This may sound like a given: “Of course!” you may think, “all types of Jewish educational learning experiences should involve Israel.” Undoubtedly; however, what characterizes the iCenter philosophy is its appreciation for the need – and in many ways the imperative – to dig deeper, to find avenues of engagement previously unexplored, and to give voice those with a myriad of connections to Israel.

I mentioned the Yom Kippur War because, as a child of a veteran of this war, it is one of the key lenses through which I view, connect with, and relate to Israel. Israel after the war became a much different place than it was before, with more and varied voices coming into the forefront that spoke to the collective feeling of brutal loss and alienation. Through my work with the iCenter, and my final Capstone project in its Master’s Concentration in Israel Education, I was able to explore many of these varied voices and apply them to a wide range of educational opportunities: I’ve used some of the poetry from the post-‘73 era as tools for further reflection at important sites on Taglit-Birthright Israel visits, showing that the beauty of poetry is its ability to capture a moment in time while simultaneously being able to transcend it. I taught film from that era in classes at the synagogue at which I interned this summer. More important than the content of these lessons though, was the opportunity to expose students of all ages to lessons on Israel that focus far more on how Israeli society reacted to specific events and the outgrowth of Israeli culture from them than the details of the events themselves. These are some of the lessons of the iCenter: versatility, an appreciation for the multitude of voices, and an imperative to find – and teach – the deeper meaning.

As leaders within the Jewish community, we are tasked with plugging our students into the perpetual conversation between the generations of the past and the voices of today. This conversation is so richly informed by a deep, true, and curiously engaged relationship to Israel. Educators like me need the tools and resources to share all of that with students, whomever and wherever they may be.

Ari Naveh was in the recent cohort of the iCenter’s Master’s Concentration in Israel Education, which has certified 79 individuals from seven different institutions of higher education as Israel educators. He is in his final year of the rabbinic program at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.