Powerful Israel Education Begins with Ourselves

Longing for Chagall by Elena Kotliarker (Kiryat Ono, Israel) via Fine Art America.

By Liora Alban

I view the world through an artistic lens. Looking around in my daily life, I seek beautiful elements that others may overlook. I notice unique details in people’s outfits, in art pieces, or in architecture. I pause at splashes of color that enliven seemingly ordinary surroundings. When the iCenter for Israel Education provided me with the opportunity to learn about Israel through a research topic of my choice, I chose to do so through art. As I interacted with the many ways in which Israeli society fosters creative expression on Jewish themes, I ultimately also learned unanticipated lesson about effective Israel education.

The first exhibition I visited during my research trip was, To Go: New Designs for Jewish Ritual Objects, on display at the Israel Museum. For this exhibit, designers and artists from around the world were challenged to create portable sets of Jewish ritual objects that accompany specific Jewish holidays or lifecycle events. According to the Israel Museum website, the sets in this exhibit, “reflect a desire to enhance the religious experience while also valuing holiness, beauty, and ingenuity.” This exhibition blends the Jewish artistic tradition with the demanding realities of our time. Because of technology and our global economy, people today travel more often than ever before and may feel pressure to fill all moments of their cramped schedules. The sets in this exhibit respond to this reality, allowing for the performance of ritual anywhere that a busy person might find themselves.

I especially appreciated a piece by Israeli artist Vered Kaminski titled, “Wedding Kit.” It includes a chuppah made of thin brass pieces that are placed together to look like tree trunks and a canopy of branches. The trees symbolize the Garden of Eden that a new couple builds together after they have left the Eden of their parents’ homes. The piece also includes a portable wedding kit with symbolic items necessary for the completion of a Jewish wedding ceremony.

I met with Israeli Jewelry designer, Tamar Paley, to speak with her about her recent project, A Fringe of Her Own. Paley reconstructs and redesigns ritual objects to reflect feminine concerns and needs. The project explores the relatively recent acceptance of female Jewish ritual observance and combines this with the longstanding Jewish tradition of donning specific pieces during ritual or prayer. Her designs reimagine these objects and use fresh shapes and materials including silver, Lucite, handwoven textiles, gold foil, printed parchment, and thread.

My encounters with contemporary Israeli sculpture, fashion, street art, and music during the week of my research trip taught me that the best way to foster an appreciation for Israel is for educators to begin with their personal passions. From there, they may convey excitement to their students about the ways in which these passions manifest in Israel. On the final night of my trip, I headed to the Maskit Showroom to squeeze a bit of research before flying home the following morning. Examining the gorgeous evening gown with embroidery inspired by the atarot on tallitot, I reflected on how the tallit, a ritual object originating in the Torah, has found new life in contemporary Israeli fashion. I freshly appreciated the meaning of Israel as a Jewish State. In Israel, all aspects of everyday life, including fashion, draw from the wellspring of our Jewish tradition.

Educative conversations around Israel need not be political or related to religious practice. There is much more to Israel than politics or religion. I learned this lesson through the arts but the same could be said of a variety of different interests and intellectual arenas. As Vavi Toran writes in The Aleph Bet of Israel Education 2nd Edition, “Today’s Israel is a vibrant kaleidoscope of sights, sounds, tastes, ideas, people, and cultures. Often when teaching Israel we focus on facts and events, ignoring the dynamic and intense life that is lived.” As I traversed Israel in search of its art, I tasted some of that intensity though a lens that I find particularly captivating. Months later, I am now teaching a teen elective on contemporary Israeli art at a synagogue in Los Angeles. Together, my students and I are exploring contemporary Israeli street art, fashion, and music. The goal is for us to consider what it means for these mediums to be contemporary, Jewish, and Israeli all at once.

Powerful Israel education begins when Israel educators have the confidence to seek out the special intricacies of Israel that they find most meaningful and exciting. When Israel educators begin with themselves, they help their students understand and value Israel’s complexities. A myriad of avenues exist that all lead to the genuine and lifelong appreciation of Israeli culture and society.

Liora Alban is a rabbinic and education student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. She also serves as the rabbinic intern at Leo Baeck Temple.