One, Two, Three: Increase Your Congregation’s Israel Engagement

by Hope Chernak

Last spring, I was privileged to participate, together with the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) camp staff, in an educators’ kallah in Israel, held in partnership with several Jewish summer camps and concurrently with the Jewish Agency’s shlichim training seminar. I was fortunate to sit with talented educators – both North Americans and Israelis – who now are serving in various roles at URJ camps across the continent. I was anxious to be part of the conversation about how best to bring Israel into our camps.

As a Jewish educator, I believe that Israel education is a vital element of Jewish identity. It has been my personal mantra throughout my own Jewish journey, and I apply it to all facets of my work as director of youth and informal education at Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City. I was invited to this kallah not only because of my personal and professional focus on Israel education, but also to see if this setting would work as a training ground for synagogue educators. I understood that as part of the “experiment,” I would be on my own when it came to translating conversations about Israel at camp into my work at the synagogue.

This task was actually quite simple! Learning about, connecting to, and developing relationships with Israel are important and universal goals for all Jewish educators, so it made sense, in fact, that I was there to participate and learn with this group. The community of educators at the kallah welcomed me warmly into their ranks.

Here are my three main take-aways:

Use music as a soundtrack for Israel’s history.

We can teach the history of Israel using music so it’s important to find multiple ways to incorporate Israeli music into our educational models. Israeli music isn’t just Hava Nagila (still one of my favorites!) or the tunes used for the ever-popular Israeli folk dancing. Rather, this music can be a way to engage students around different eras of Israel’s history. We also can weave it into American history to teach about the influences each country has had on the other.

What can synagogues do?

  • Include Israeli music in curricula by mapping out Israel’s history using music from various eras.
  • Partner with Israeli musicians from the community as you develop an Israel education curriculum.
  • Refrain from teaching Israeli music solely as part of traditional folk dancing. Incorporate other genres, (i.e., modern dance and rap) into your repertoire of teaching tools.
  • Use live streaming of Israeli radio stations’ music to introduce and share current Israeli music with students and congregants.

We are all role models on a complicated Jewish journey.

The Jewish identity journey is a struggle for all of us. During the kallah, we watched as the Israeli staff used a variety of resources and exercises to trigger a range of responses – from easy to emotionally difficult – about their own Jewish identity journeys.

As educators, it’s important that we understand our own journeys so that we can help others to unpack their stories. Use your story as a way to engage members of your community, inspiring them to discuss and explore their own path. For some, this journey includes a connection to Israel, and leveraging these connections can help you teach about Israel.

What can synagogues do?

  • Provide teachers and clergy with opportunities to share their Jewish journeys and connections to Israel as part of staff training.
  • Start a campaign or forum in which synagogue members can articulate why Judaism is important to them.
  • Invite congregants – including teens and younger students – to share their personal stories and connections to Israel during class time, as part of programming initiatives and in other relevant ways.

Israelis are excited to share Israel with you!

Among the kallah’s highlights for me was meeting the young and enthusiastic Israelis who are working as counselors and staff members in our camps this summer. It was a gift to participate in their conversations, and reminded me that Israelis have much to offer us as educators, especially when it comes to cultural differences and Jewish identity.

What can synagogues do?

  • Invite Israeli congregants to participate in your curriculum as guest speakers, teachers, etc.
  • Partner with other congregations to raise money to bring Israeli shlichim to your community.
  • Partner with a congregation in Israel to build an ongoing relationship that includes scholar-in-residence visits to your community from clergy, educators, young adults finishing the army and others.
  • Create a teen exchange program with an Israeli congregation.
  • Immediately after the summer season, host Israeli camp counselors and staff as guest educators.

Building and nurturing personal relationships and ongoing cultural exchange opportunities for Israelis and North Americans are the most effective ways to ensure lasting connections to Israel. Even if bringing Israelis to your congregation and visiting Israel present challenges, it is imperative that the community’s core values and strategies include a focus on Israel engagement. To the extent possible, it’s also important to make connection to Israel a financial value, with members and the congregation as a whole providing support to Israel and her people.

Hope Chernak, RJE, is Director of Youth and Informal Education at Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City, where she also serves as the staff liaison to the Israel Engagement Committee and oversees Israel programming. Hope is also the project manager for the Gateways and Tents program, the congregation’s partnership program with Congregation Ohel Avraham-Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa. You can follow the partnership on Twitter and watch their teen exchange documentary from this past year and their micro-documentary video.