To Everything There Is a Season: The Metamorphosis of Israel Education

by Lisa Eisen and Chip Edelsberg

Something significant is happening in the way young Jews learn about and connect to Israel. From camps to day schools, youth groups to Israel trips and supplementary education, rather than simply being taught about Israel, young people are being encouraged to form a relationship with Israel by engaging with the state, land and people in a variety of formal and informal settings.

Indeed, today’s field of Israel education is embracing innovative approaches to experiential learning and emerging from its nascent stage with the possibility of becoming a fundamental element of Jewish education and Jewish identity formation. But to really ensure that our future generations are deeply knowledgeable about and engaged with Israel, we need an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to prioritizing Israel Education, especially at the pre-collegiate level.

Among the key players leading the way is the iCenter, which serves as a catalyst, convener, trainer and think-tank for Israel education in a broad array of settings. Last year, The iCenter released a study, Mapping the Landscape: The Emerging Field of Israel Education, that identified key elements necessary for this growing field to flourish: a shared language, shared standards of practice, highly trained educators, inspiring educational resources and educational leadership committed to the enterprise, among other capacity-building measures.

Beyond these core principles, Mapping the Landscape set lofty goals to achieve by 2020:

  1. Every B’nai Mitzvah student in North America will be able to articulate how Israel is a part of his/her Jewish story;
  2. 20,000 Jewish teens will travel to Israel each year, approximately double the current number;
  3. Mifgash, or personal interaction, becomes normative for Israeli and North American youth;
  4. 1,000 skilled, certified and employed Israel educators will be working in the field;
  5. Twice as many Jewish 18 year olds will demonstrate a basic proficiency in Modern Hebrew as in 2012; and
  6. Every Jewish educator will be able to articulate how Israel is part of her/his Jewish story.

These goals will only be realized if we invest deeply in the continued development of Israel education organizations at the national level, as well as the growth of Israel education programs at the community level. Such a multilevel approach can build the intensifiers that research shows to be game changers, such as establishing Israel educator staff positions; helping institutions embrace Israel education as part of their mission; creating diverse entry points to Israel, such as the arts, Hebrew and technology; and facilitating Israel travel experiences for teens.

With additional investment from both the Jim Joseph and Schusterman Family foundations over the next three years, The iCenter will be at the forefront of this work. Working together with a growing network of local, national and international partners and supporters, the iCenter aims, among other things, to:

  • Work directly with local communities to train front-line educators and help them build capacity across institutions and settings;
  • Develop the iAcademy, an online learning platform using the best in available technology to build a global community of educators at all levels learning with and from one another;
  • Build on its successful M.A. concentration program in Israel education to include a training and certification program for experiential Israel education. Together these two initiatives are expected to yield half of the 1,000 Israel educators the field needs; and
  • Ensure its Goodman Camping Initiative – a partnership with the Foundation for Jewish Camp – will reach thousands of camp staff and children by weaving Israel education into independent Jewish summer camps.

The combination of these efforts, together with other exciting initiatives emerging across the country, will forge a vibrant field of Israel education capable of achieving the lofty vision laid out in the Mapping the Landscape report.

Today, our community has a ripe opportunity and, we believe, a responsibility to prioritize the formative pre-collegiate years as the ideal time to provide young people with a rich base of knowledge and insight into Israel. In doing so, we can help to build strong Jewish identities in our young people and spark their interest in and connection to modern Israel. We can ensure they arrive on college campuses primed to learn about and discuss Israel in more sophisticated, nuanced and complex ways. And, ultimately, we can help to foster a new generation of Jewish leaders with a real and enduring commitment to Israel as a centerpiece of the collective Jewish experience.

For everything there is a season: the season for a 21st century Israel education linked to a rich Jewish identity is upon us. It is now up to us to sow – and then to reap the fruits.

Lisa Eisen is the National Director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, part of the Schusterman Philanthropic Network.

Charles “Chip” Edelsberg, Ph.D. is Executive Director of the Jim Joseph Foundation, which seeks to foster compelling, effective Jewish learning experiences for young Jews in the United States.