By Rabbi Shaul Feldman
Great thinkers have often pondered:
Can one really change a world view that is deeply rooted in one’s heart?
When someone has seen the world through a certain lens for so long, is it feasible to alter that vision?
My experience on the recent Generation Now Fellowship Israel Seminar convinced me the answer is yes. I hope my recounting of this experience will give you pause to think about these important questions. I believe there are also important lessons to be extracted from this experience that can benefit the world of education.
First, in order to better understand my experience, I’d like to share a bit of my background. I’m an Israeli who was born to American immigrants to Israel. For the first half of my life, I barely had any connection with the world of American Judaism. Then, in 1996, I volunteered for a year of shlichut in Memphis, Tennessee. From that moment, American Judaism has become an integral part of my life. I currently reside in Israel, in a community of mostly new Olim, and commute to the United States over half of the year in my role as Executive Director of Bnei Akiva of the US and Canada.
So, you might be wondering: what could a native born-Israeli like me still have to learn about Israel?
King David, who reigned in Jerusalem, taught “From all my teachers I have learned.” The sage, Ben Zoma, in Pirkei Avot, expanded on this concept: “Who is wise? One who learns from all.” With this message echoing in my mind, I joined the Generation Now Fellowship’s eight-day journey to Israel with twenty incredible teen educators, representing the full array of the American Jewish world. I was the lone Israeli in the group.
The first part of the trip was nothing short of inspiring, even to someone who lives much of his life in Israel. We encountered the “Start Up Nation” at its best, a true “light unto the nations.” Through site visits to places like Tikkun Olam Makers at Mechon Reut, we witnessed how Israeli innovation and technology helps ease burdens for people with physical challenges all around the world. At BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social Change’s Secular Yeshiva, we learned about – and experienced – a Jewish renewal taking hold in Israel which offers Torah learning as a source of Jewish values for all, not solely the religious. Who would not want to join such a nation?
Next, we began to focus on the complexity of minority rights in Israel, what one might say was the “elephant in the room.” We participated in face-to-face meetings with East Jerusalem and West Bank Palestinians and heard from Israeli experts on the topics of border security and Israel’s geopolitical reality. In this context, core Jewish values of equality and helping the less fortunate were tested by the reality of modern life in Israel. Soon thereafter, we spent a day and a half with Israeli experiential educators – our professional counterparts – exploring the place of Jerusalem in the hearts, minds, and souls of our youth (and ourselves) and the challenges of Jewish peoplehood today. After these experiences (and, of course, more), just about the only thing that I am certain of is the extent to which there is always more to learn about this awe-inspiring and often vexing project of our people.
I also took away from this experience a number of critical messages for the world of education:
- It is never too late to start learning from all.
- Good education can – and at times should – be unsettling.
- One must learn directly from/with those with opposing views and try to see if you can actually understand their viewpoints.
- As an educator, give youth a full picture. Don’t hide the issues that are uncomfortable and challenging from our teens.
- Strive for personal encounters, without borders that separate us from “the other.”
- Learn to truly love humans. After all, they are the designs of the Creator.
At the conclusion of the journey, I remarked to the group that I believed we had just tasted a little bit of the Days of Redemption. It was remarkable to me how Jews coming from such different vantage points could feel such a deep connection with/appreciation for each other while vehemently disagreeing on so many issues that we had explored as a community of learners. I believe that it is incumbent upon us to try to create more and more opportunities like the Generation Now Fellowship where critical dialogue and (sometimes fraught) conversation among a group of committed educators/community leaders can take place.
For more information about the Generation Now Fellowship, please visit https://www.jewishedproject.org/generation-now-fellowship or contact Fellowship Director, Andrea Hendler, at [email protected].
Rabbi Shaul Feldman is Executive Director of Bnei Akiva of the US and Canada.