Receiving stories and wrestling with pedagogic tensions post-Oct. 7

Brené Brown teaches in Atlas of the Heart that stories are sacred. As receivers of stories, we must treat those stories with respect and care, we should be curious and affirming and we have to believe people when they tell us how they experienced something. As Jews, it is in our DNA to tenderly and mindfully carry stories forward, to retell them with dignity and awe and to impart the lessons found in them. 

In the wake of Oct. 7, Jewish educators in North America immediately went into action mode, contemplating how they would address the horrors in their schools and education programs in the coming days. When Shabbat ended that very day, members of the Association of Reform Jewish Educators (ARJE) gathered online to offer support and guidance to each other, and the conversations continued in the weeks that followed. It became clear that Oct. 7 was a watershed moment for Jews around the world. At the same time that Jewish educators were supporting their communities through rising incidents of antisemitism, contemplating how to design and navigate conversations about the Israel-Hamas war and caring for family and friends in Israel, they were also thinking about the impact this time in our history was having on our aims for Jewish and Israel education.  

It was at this moment, and with all of these concerns in mind, that the Reform Educators Mission to Israel was envisioned.  

A partnership between the ARJE and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion School of Education Alumni Association, with support from The Jewish Education Project and the Jim Joseph Foundation, the mission brought 30 Reform educational leaders to Israel for five days. The purpose of the mission was, as our Israeli tour guide Zvi Levran summarized, “to hear, to hug and to help.” We set out to meet and dialogue with Israeli educators and students in a variety of settings: the Yad B’Yad school in Jerusalem; the egalitarian Tali Bayit v’Gan elementary school; a pop-up school at Kibbutz Galed in the Megiddo region for children who have been evacuated from their homes in northern Israel. We studied and prayed with leaders and rabbis in the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism and at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, and met with Mohammad Darawshe, director of strategy at Givat Haviva: The Center for Shared Society. We heard testimonies and stories from survivors of the attack on Kibbutz Nahal Oz and from family members of those who still remain hostage in Gaza. We also each had time to meet up with family and friends, as well as former shinshinim and shlichim (emissaries) from our communities and summer camps. 

We approached each of these conversations and exchanges with empathy and curiosity, care and concern, and an eye toward identifying messages to bring home to our communities and lessons to learn about Jewish education. We strove to be fully present. We held each other as we grappled with our own beliefs about the complexities of the situation and deliberated about the implications for our respective Jewish educational endeavors. 

Among the lessons learned is the observation that, in the words of Jeremy Leigh, coordinator of the Richard J. Scheuer Israel Seminar at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem, “We cannot tikkun olam this.” Jewish education cannot only be about joy and the successes of making this world a better place. Along with the moments of pride, we have to teach about the warts and ongoing challenges Israel faces as a Jewish and democratic state. There has to be room for both pessimism and optimism, for honest and hard conversations about Jewish values and Jewish responsibilities.

Another impactful insight is that North American Jewish educators and Israeli educators are currently facing many of the same pedagogic dilemmas. How and when do we talk about the war with our learners? How and when do we talk about rising global antisemitism with our learners? What are our responsibilities and practices for supporting learners through traumatic experiences – or the fear of becoming a victim of a traumatic experience – such as a terrorist attack or gun violence from a random mass shooting?  As educators, we can be of support to each other, we can learn together and from each other’s experiences.  

Finally, we learned that, perhaps more than ever, people are feeling a sense of shared connection and Jewish peoplehood. While we Jews in North America are concerned about our Israeli counterparts as they live through this war, they are concerned about us as we confront increasing and evermore pervasive anti-Jewish hate. 

Now, upon our return, we are doing our best to be responsible stewards, holding the stories we received. Each participant on the mission made a commitment to turn their experiences in Israel into opportunities for teaching and learning in their educational settings. In the immediate days upon our return, we created learning experiences for parents, families, and children, making use of new music, art and poetry created in the last 170-plus days. We preached sermons and wrote letters to our congregational communities. We shared and explored pedagogic dilemmas with our faculties and teachers, bringing the voices and experiences of the Israeli educators we met into those conversations. 

And we continue to hold and grapple with the hard pedagogic challenges that are pressing on us today. How do we create spaces for our learners to wrestle with their beliefs and with Jewish values that are in tension with each other? How do we, as educators, teach about these challenging issues while also wrestling with our own beliefs about them? What will it take to bridge divides across our various communities and foster meaningful relationships for these conversations? It is imperative that we address these and other questions. As we stand at this watershed moment in Jewish time, it feels like the future of our global Jewish community depends upon it and will become even more resilient because of it.

Rabbi Laura Novak Winer is director of the Master of Educational Leadership program at the HUC-JIR Rhea Hirsch School of Education in Los Angeles.