When it comes to Israel education, turn to the beit midrash 

I work with Jewish educators across North America in a wide range of settings. Since Oct. 7, I have repeatedly heard about how much more they have been asked to do for their students and their communities. They have been running almost daily briefings on current events in Israel, or leading “listening circles” for the community. They have led events on how to talk about Israel for teens, or about antisemitism and social media. Many have faced issues of families who disagree with each other, and with their community, about how Israel should be talked about, what should and should not be said, and when. 

These are not teachers who are trained specifically in Israel education, but during these months of crisis it has fallen on them to take the lead. 

In my work as director of experiential education at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, I help future and current educators hone their craft as teachers, working specifically on the integration of Jewish texts into experiential education. In the months since Oct. 7, we have been thinking about how Pardes can help prepare educators to not only integrate Jewish texts into their teaching but to also integrate Israel, since reality demands it. 

For over 50 years, we at Pardes have worked to center beit midrash learning — where we do deep, intensive Torah study — for all types of Jews. Our beit midrash is full of Jews from across the religious, cultural and political spectrum, and we are proud to be a home for everyone. In fact, we already have a model for what Israel education should look like, or at least its starting point — and that is the havruta learning we do in the beit midrash

For centuries, Jewish people have been studying and analyzing and arguing about our texts together, in partnership, in havruta. When you study Torah in havruta, you take turns listening to each other. You hear someone else’s opinion, and then you respond. You learn to see someone else’s perspective, which in turn helps you sharpen your own ideas. In havruta, you will disagree — and those disagreements will not only not break your partnership, but they will help enrich your understanding of Torah. 

Ilustration of havruta learning. Courtesy/Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies/eJP archives

True havruta learning — paired learning whose pedagogy and dispositions have been clearly modeled, workshopped and practiced — will lead us to a richer understanding not only of Torah but of each other as people; even, and perhaps especially, when there is disagreement, mahloket.

We do not shy away from mahloket in the beit midrash, and we should not shy away from mahloket when we talk about Israel. We do, however, need to learn how to do it productively and constructively. Sophisticated Israel education inevitably demands an exploration of complex issues and dueling narratives, and often generates heightened emotions. We cannot expect educators to engage productively with Israel-specific content without first teaching them the tools to handle challenging concepts and potentially confronting conversations, which they practice when learning in havruta

In other words, we believe that during this unprecedented historic moment, for the Jewish people to survive as a healthy, thriving people, we must learn how to effectively engage with each other in havruta — and do it before we are all inevitably confronted by mahloket. We must use the skills we practice and harness in the beit midrash, and bring them with us into our polarized world. For years, students with very different opinions have been able to learn together in the Pardes beit midrash; if they can develop the skills to learn Torah together, across their differences, they can learn to speak and teach about Israel across their differences. This is particularly important in Israel-based learning environments, where students experience Israel every day as they take the bus, walk down the streets, go to a local minyan or participate in the latest protest (after deciding which side they’re even on). 

To this end, Pardes is launching a new iteration of our Pardes Experiential Educators Program that includes a strong focus on learning how to appropriately, productively and constructively facilitate charged conversations in a charged world. The program is designed for people who want to be expert experiential educators, who want to make a difference in the field, working at places like Hillel, Moishe House, supplementary schools, summer camps and any number of places where Jewish education happens outside of the traditional classroom setting. Students in this program will learn in the beit midrash, becoming Jewish text and havruta practitioners, while also learning and practicing how to lead and facilitate experiential learning — and how to empower healthy discussion about Jewish texts and rituals, and about Israel.

Additionally, after seeing how critical the need has become, we are offering a special track for people who specifically want to specialize in Israel education: the new Pardes Israel Education Fellows. These fellows will learn everything above, but while they are receiving expert training they will also be tasked with designing Israel-related experiences for diverse audiences. 

In a world that feels like it’s growing more polarized by the day, we need leaders and educators who can navigate conversations that include a wide range of perspectives. The alternative is to silence the voices we disagree with, creating more and more micro communities and echo chambers. Now is the time for educators to be able to navigate the difficult, emotional terrain of our thorniest issue: Israel. We are here to help them develop the tools to do just that, and maintain our open beit midrash for everyone. 

Ilana Gleicher-Bloom is the director of experiential education at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.