Staying Connected to Israel

Israel Studies courses provide a way to engage with Israel as other opportunities are on hold

Photo courtesy: Israel Institute.

By Dr. Ariel Roth

The list of things that we used to take for granted in pre-COVID times grows ever longer. While no loss is as devastating as the actual illnesses and deaths caused by the virus around our world, the things that we have lost in the social fabric of our lives are also acutely painful.

Understandably, when we first hit the “emergency stop” button on society, our attention was immediately drawn to concerns like the security of our paychecks, the wellbeing of our children out of school, and the isolation we felt in not being able to see our parents and other older people in our lives lest we endanger their health by our very proximity. Now, as we have come to internalize that a return to the prior patterns of our lives is still a long way off and to adjust accordingly, we are grieving other losses.

One major loss that has become evident in the Jewish community is our ability to continue fostering connections to Israel in many of our normal and long-established ways. The thousands of family trips to Israel that American Jews take each year – for b’nai mitzvahs, to see Israeli relatives, or simply for vacation – did not and will not happen in the foreseeable future. Institutionally, the pain is even greater. The amazing array of programs that our community has devised over decades to create opportunities for people to visit and engage with Israel are frozen. There are no upcoming Birthright trips with their thousands of participants in buses crisscrossing Israel; no camp in Israel as the culminating experience of years spent in URJ, Ramah, Habonim Dror, or other national camping networks; no student delegations from itrek making their way to Israel to learn about everything from business to public policy. The newlyweds hoping to enjoy a meaningful and community-building Honeymoon Israel experience are stuck at home. Even our ability to foster connections between Israeli and American young people on American soil is impaired. With camps and campuses closed, the wonderful shlichim (emissaries) who normally arrive at American Jewish camps and Hillel houses to share educational content and build bridges of lifetime love to Israel are grounded on the other side of the ocean. And the list goes on.

In all this sadness, though, there are some spots of light. One such spot is that Israel-focused courses being offered at universities continue to serve as a resource for sustained learning and engagement with Israel.

My organization, the Israel Institute, and others with whom we partner or who offer similar programs like the Murray Galinson-San Diego Israel Initiative and the Israel Studies program of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago, are making sure that the higher ed courses they have helped create at American campuses are finding ways to survive and even thrive.

Each year, the Israel Institute works with dozens of colleges and universities the United States (and around world) to help them create rigorous, for-credit courses about Israel. In a normal semester, Israel Institute-supported instructors, who range from veteran Israeli professors visiting the U.S. for a sabbatical year to energetic new PhDs on multi-year teaching fellowships, have added value not only in teaching high-caliber content about Israel in the classroom, but also by participating broadly in campus and community life. Yet, even as in-person courses have shut down at campuses worldwide, we are proud that every single one of the more than fifty classes that the Institute had operating this spring successfully migrated online. These courses are enrolling many hundreds of university students, providing an avenue for ongoing and sustained engagement with Israel at this chaotic time.

What colleges and universities plan to do next fall remains extremely unpredictable at this point. Will schools open in person? Will they be online? Will they try some combination of the two? We simply do not know yet. What we do know, however, is that whether in person or online, Israel-focused courses will remain a part of the curriculum next year. Students who are already interested in Israel will have the chance to learn about Israel, they will have a way to remain engaged. Students who have yet to discover Israel’s diversity and complexity will have classes to choose from in sociology, political science, history, literature, cultural studies, and other topics to help them discover how fascinating a place Israel is.

Of course, courses about Israel are a complement, rather than a substitute, for the kind of immersive Israel experiences that we have lost access to for the moment. That said, I feel immensely grateful that, through the generous support of our donors, we are able to keep this important strand of connection open when so many others are (temporarily) severed.

Though we are currently in the omer and my mind should be on Shavuot, my thoughts keep coming back to Hanukkah. While not a miracle, right now Israel Studies courses feel like that little jug of oil… the one we need to count on to keep the flame lit, to keep a path open to engage with and learn about Israel until all the other wonderful and indispensable ways that our community has developed to build relationships with Israel can be fully restored. May it be soon.

Dr. Ariel Roth is the Executive Director of the Israel Institute.