What does a Positive Relationship with Israel Mean?

By Jeff Blumental and Rabbi Karen Thomashow

“As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together.” (Parker Palmer). As educators, we are driven by questions – some of which we cannot easily answer. Whether a teacher in a classroom, a youth engagement professional, a parent or a rabbi, we all play a role in the education of our children and how we think about these questions and our ability to achieve Palmer’s “authentic self” plays out in our support and development of our youth.

Two years ago, as an initiative of the Cincinnati Jewish Teen Collective, a new cohort for Strategic Israel Engagement Development (SIED) formed to answer one of these ultimate questions: what does the future of Israel engagement and education look like in Cincinnati? This new cohort consists of thirteen senior professionals and educators, representing nine different educational institutions and four denominations – from a seminary to a university to synagogues to a day school. Committing countless hours, our cohort met monthly from January 2018 through August 2019, working on a phenomenally exciting and potentially groundbreaking development of our community’s approach to Israel education and engagement. As one of the ten communities in North America who are a part of the Teen Funder Collaborative, we were able to lead this conversation thanks to our close work and meaningful alignment with the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati. The Foundation’s work over the past 20 years to establish Israel travel and experiences as a key opportunity for our teens made it possible for us to reflect on our experience and pursue this with initial communal buy in.   

Four months ago, we met with the leadership at the Jewish Foundation to discuss the most recent progress of our work. As we met to check in on the upcoming launch of the third phase of our endeavor, one of its directors asked us directly: “Is not one of our goals for Israel education that our teens, for example, foster a positive relationship with Israel?” He raised this question, undoubtedly, as a direct response to our own dancing around the word “positive.”

Interestingly, in the Teen Funder Collaborative, one of the newly identified outcomes for Jewish teens and tweens is that “Jewish teens develop a positive relationship to the land, people and State of Israel.” It may not come as a surprise to you that no word has driven more questions and discussion in Cincinnati, and more broadly, than “positive.” 

In the context of Israel education, the questions around the word “positive” can be difficult to answer because of their seemingly political nature. Or, they can be difficult to answer because the word “positive” itself requires some further understanding.

Here is one way to come to an understanding of what “positive” means: Positive, as an adjective, is defined as consisting in or characterized by the presence or possession of features or qualities rather than their absence. Alternatively, it can be defined as constructive, optimistic, or confident. Additionally, if we look at the Hebrew, there are arguably two ways in which to say positive – chiuvi and dargat hapashut. Both are instructive when we consider their etymology. First, chiuvi derives from chiuv, which means “to be obligated by.” As Am Yisrael (the people of Israel), we are indeed obligated to have an ongoing relationship with Israel. In this way, “a positive” relationship similarly means “an existing” relationship. Second, dargat hapashut literally means “a degree of simplicity.” With this explanation, we understand “positive” to mean “more than zero,” such as we might think of positive when we encounter this term in the realm of science or mathematics. One of our great goals, indeed, is to spark, facilitate, and expect some engagement with Israel. 

To return to the question, “Is one of our goals for Israel education that our teens, foster a positive relationship with Israel?” For us, the answer wasn’t initially obvious. To understand why, we must describe the evolution of our community’s approach to Israel education and engagement. Six months ago, the SIED Cohort, after a year of thoughtful study that included multiple seminars and a life-changing eleven-day trip to Israel, proposed to our community’s institutional stakeholders (schools, congregations, youth groups, camps and community centers) a list of six guiding principles to inform our work on the ground. Two months ago, our community adopted these principles in a moving ceremony. One of the principles reads: “A healthy environment for Israel engagement contains space for diverse and divergent social, cultural, and political narratives, and is especially essential for productive engagement beyond our community.” If we hold true to our principle, would it not be the case that some of our teens might have a challenging relationship to Israel?

To answer this question, we go back to the text. “Positive” is immediately followed by “relationship.” We looked at what it means to feel positively about one’s own relationship – not the content thereof necessarily, but the existence of a relationship in the first place and a sense of confidence in that relationship.

In one of our recent high school classes, a student expressed her concern about sharing her ambivalence about Israel in a Jewish context. She challenged us to recognize that her ability to express her Jewish self was compromised. How could she participate fully if she isn’t given the tools to feel confident, safe and supported to develop her own relationship to Israel? As educators, we honor her ambivalence, are learning about Israel with her and her peers, and as a result see that she has a relationship with Israel – that is what we mean by positive.  

Moreover, another principle reads: “The Cincinnati Jewish community is committed to developing lifelong personal relationships with Am Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael, Medinat Yisrael, and Torat Yisrael – the Jewish people, the land of Israel, the State of Israel, and the Torah of Israel.” Taken together, these principles express our belief that the young person who struggles with his or her or their relationship to Israel may become the young adult who continues to struggle with elements of their relationship to Israel – but whose relationship is nuanced and sophisticated enough that they find comfort in their views and might routinely visit and even engage in a leadership program and eventually teach about Israel to children. Would that be indicative of a “positive” relationship with Israel? We think so – but we came to this conclusion only after giving much thought to this concept of having a positive relationship.

We share this story and the evolution of our principles because we know that nearly every community is looking for “answers” around Israel education and engagement. The answers and the “right” steps to take may be different everywhere you look. As we enter the third phase of our endeavor toward renewed and reinvigorated Israel education in Cincinnati, our next step is to establish a cadre of coaches who will guide our teens toward their authentic Israel engagement. 

So yes, we unabashedly want our children to develop their positive relationship to Israel. We now have a lot of work ahead of us to make this objective a reality. After all, as educators, we believe it is our obligation to do so.  

Jeff Blumental is Director of the Cincinnati Jewish Teen Collective. Rabbi Karen Thomashow serves as an Associate Rabbi at Isaac M. Wise Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The Cincinnati Jewish Teen Collective is funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation and Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati in partnership with the Mayerson JCC. With gratitude to The iCenter, which has been our partner in the important work of the SIED Cohort.