What Does It Mean to Be An Israel Educator?

What does it mean to be an Israel Educator?
The Davidson School of JTS’s Israel Education Program

by Alex Sinclair and Ofra Backenroth

These are exciting times for those interested in Israel education. New initiatives abound, and increased attention is being paid to the training and credentialing of Israel educators. Indeed, as Lisa Eisen and Chip Edelsberg noted in their recent essay on eJewishPhilanthropy, the iCenter’s report Mapping the Landscape sets the goal that by 2020, there will be 1,000 skilled, certified and employed Israel educators working in the field.

What does it mean, though, to be a skilled Israel educator? What skills, knowledge, professional habits, and conceptual understandings does an emerging Jewish educator need to acquire in order to excel at being an “Israel educator”?

For the past nine years, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Davidson School of Education has been engaged with these questions. Since 2003, the Davidson first year curriculum has included a professional development experience in Israel of at least ten days in length, in which students are confronted with some of the core questions around Israel education. This focus on Israel education was expanded two years ago into a full semester-in-Israel program called Kesher Hadash (“New Connection”), which is generously funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation. Kesher Hadash takes ten emerging Jewish educators every year and provides them with a rich, immersive and compelling educational experience in Israel that gives them the tools to graduate from Davidson as Israel educators ready to take on the diverse challenges of the field.

Kesher Hadash is built on two core ideas:

  1. Commitment through Complexity: Engagement with Israel should include all of Israel’s rich and multifaceted diversity, including aspects that are frustrating, difficult, and challenging. Seeing Israel through its beguiling and intricate complexities will ultimately lead to a deeper and fuller relationship with it.
  2. Immersive Encounters: Whenever possible, Israel engagement should include extended and deep encounters with Israeli peers. The development of relationships with Israeli peers leads to a richer understanding of Israeli society than can be formed in any formal class.

The program itself is a curricular manifestation of these ideas. A full-time academic program, bearing the same number of credits as a regular semester at JTS, it includes innovative partnerships with Israeli institutions, such as the David Yellin Teacher Education College, where Davidson Kesher Hadash students take part in extended experiential mifgashim with David Yellin students, working in small mixed American-Israeli groups on questions of identity, education, and Israeli society. In addition, the program is highly experiential, and students are immersed in numerous aspects of Israeli life, culture and society.

As we built the program’s vision, we consulted with dozens of professionals in the field and developed a set of educational outcomes that, taken together, provide a powerful and compelling answer to the question we asked earlier: what does an Israel educator need to know and be able to do? These outcomes are as follows:

Israel and Jewish identity: Students will be able to…

  • Express multi-layered understandings of Israel’s relationship to their American Jewish identities;
  • Construct narratives of Zionism or Israel engagement that are appropriate for contemporary American Jewish culture;

Jewish identity and Israelis: Students will be able to…

  • Discuss the various tensions between tradition and modernity that manifest themselves in Israeli society;
  • Engage Israeli peers in conversation about common questions of identity and education.

Knowledge and understanding of Israeli history, culture, politics and society: Students will be able to…

  • Demonstrate knowledge of Israeli history and contemporary Israeli society and politics; Demonstrate familiarity with aspects of contemporary Israeli culture and art.
  • Discuss various complexities regarding the questions of Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians, both those in the West Bank and Gaza and those who are citizens of Israel.

Israel Education: Students will be able to…

  • Prepare educational activities and curricula that engage with the complex reality of contemporary Israeli society;
  • Justify an approach to Israel education that takes account of Israel’s frustrations and challenges as well as its inspiring qualities;
  • Express a coherent personal narrative for their Israel education work within the American Jewish community.

Connections with Israelis: Students will be able to…

  • Articulate a Jewish educational rationale for engagement with Israelis of diverse backgrounds;
  • Identify areas of their Jewish self-understanding that are changed, challenged, or enriched by Israel and Israelis;
  • Articulate the cultural, religious and philosophical complexities, challenges and promises of developing relationships between American Jews and Israelis.

Modern Hebrew: Students will be able to…

  • Show significant gains in their Hebrew language abilities and confidence in speaking Hebrew.
  • Engage in conversations of significance in Hebrew with Israelis.

The second cohort of Kesher Hadash began just a few weeks ago, and they are already immersed in gaining proficiency towards these outcomes. We hope to expand the program in the years ahead, collaborating with other stakeholders in the field, and offering this kind of long- term, immersive Israel education training to more and more emerging Jewish educators. The result will be an ever-expanding cohort of Israel educators with the skills, knowledge, and conceptual lenses they need in order to succeed and flourish.

Dr Alex Sinclair is the Director of Programs in Israel Education at JTS. He has published numerous articles on Israel education, and his forthcoming book is entitled Loving Israel in a Time of Complexity: An educational agenda for Liberal Zionism.

Dr Ofra Backenroth is the Associate Dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at JTS. Backenroth and Sinclair are jointly responsible for the leadership and direction of Kesher Hadash.