Planting Seeds: A Response to James Hyman

by Anne Lanski

In a recent piece in eJewish Philanthropy, James Hyman observes: “Until a far greater number of American Jews understand and have experiences that reinforce a broader conception of Jewish identity, Israel programming will not fit into the self understanding of American Jews and the institutions of American Jewish life.”

At the iCenter, we couldn’t agree more.

What makes great Israel education? It has to be learner-centered. It has to be taught by passionate and knowledgeable educators engaged in their own Israel story and able to evoke it in their students. It has to be integrated with the rest of Jewish education. It has to bring together the people, land and state of Israel as a totality.

Great Israel education uses a thematic curriculum. It weaves Modern Hebrew into all areas. It uses Israeli arts and culture as an educational portal. It makes room for diverse narratives – contemporary, historic and religious. It enables learners to develop their own Israel story.

And most importantly, great Israel education involves real experience with Israel, and genuine mifgashim (encounters) with Israeli peers, in which genuine conversation and two-way learning takes place.

Over the past two years, the iCenter has developed the Aleph-Bet of Israel Education, a set of eleven practices and principles that animate all our work and set the standard for our communal conversation. They include everything mentioned above. Over the coming months, we aim to make the Aleph-Bet the touchstone for innovation in the field.

Where Hyman uses the metaphor of “a square peg in a round hole,” we prefer to think of Israel education in more organic terms. Israel education won’t succeed if it is conceived as merely a process of knowledge transmission, or treating Israel as a “value-add” in a mechanical process of identity-construction. Rather, excellent Israel education is about helping young Jews to tell their own story in dialogue with the enduring story of the people and land of Israel. It’s about enabling the story of Israel to live in all of us. It’s about cultivating a blooming garden where all the elements exist in a healthy interdependent relationship.

Creating that garden requires planting the seeds at an early age. That’s why the iCenter is working to make Israel a part of the story of North American Jews long before adulthood – not in an idealized sense, but in a real, lived way that taps into the wonder and passion of these formative years. We’re helping Jewish elementary and secondary educators to weave Israel seamlessly into a thematic curriculum. We’re developing educators who can teach from both the head and the heart. And we’re also supporting educators in settings beyond the classroom, including congregations, camps and youth groups, to integrate Israel more deeply into their experiences.

James Hyman is absolutely right when he says that the issue is not simply programming. It cannot be solved only by techniques and pedagogies. It’s about identity. As the great educational thinker Parker Palmer, who was the keynote speaker at the iCamp conference last August, writes in The Courage to Teach: “Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.” Great Israel education, like all great education, is about more than knowledge-transmission. It is about something far bigger and far richer: the development of a learner, and a community of learners, engaged in a great and eternal conversation.

Where we differ with Hyman is in our assessment of the future. Are the challenges real? Absolutely. But from where we stand, a healthier garden is beginning to take shape. A new generation of Israel educators is coming of age, a generation free of the ideological and institutional boarders of the past, eager to collaborate with one another. This is a generation grounded in not only content mastery, but developmental theory, technological innovation, and learner-centered approaches. They are expanding the range of what Israel can mean and where it can be engaged – not only as a formal subject in the classroom, but also in richer and deeper ways at camp, in early childhood, in supplementary schools, in youth groups.

We are also seeing the shoots of growth in great Israel education. These shoots will grow into a generation of Jews with a more organic, and more resilient, relationship with Israel.

Anne Lanski is the Executive Director of the iCenter.