Israel Education for the 21st Century: A Game Plan


Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School

Rabbi Ami Hersh

A few years ago, I had the chance to do something that I always wanted to do. I was blessed with the opportunity to take part in a time-honored and "holy" tradition at one of the last true shrines in the world. I sat in Fenway Park for the game on Opening Day, the day that marks the beginning of everything new and fresh. Ticket in hand and bundled for the cold, rainy spring day, I headed to the ballpark I have admired since childhood. Just about every person there was sporting crisp new Red Sox regalia. As the gates opened, thousands of people representing all ages and walks of life rushed into the stadium to take in the fragrance of the grass and see the beauty of the freshly painted stadium. The ballpark, though, with all its grace and charm, is old. Its cramped quarters, inadequate bathroom facilities, quirky dimensions, and obstructed vantage points make viewing a ballgame there a unique experience. None of this stops sellout crowds from watching the games at Fenway night after night. As I settled into my seat, there was nothing to do but smile broadly as I looked out at the imposing Green Monster in front of my face . . . I was home.

Medinat (the State of) Israel and Fenway Park are both much loved and respected, though their imperfections can often stand out like a sore thumb. Just as in a relationship with an old friend, despite difficulties and annoyances, you keep returning out of loyalty, having accepted the blemishes. While this may be universally accepted for Fenway Park, this once ironclad recognition is no longer felt around the Jewish world when it comes to Israel. The world, and the monolithic relationship we once knew with Israel, has changed. This article will present a three-pronged approach to Israel education that speaks to our current realities. The approaches are neither appropriate nor reasonable to teach in isolation but, when combined, speak to what could, and perhaps should, become the future of Israel education. Israel education, as I understand it, must:

1. Encourage a love and respect of Israel deep inside our souls—As the Israeli band Reva L'Sheva reminds us in their song Ahavat Yisrael Baneshma (Love of Israel in Your Soul), we must impart to our students a pure and unending love affair with Israel. If we don't convey this, our students will not become engaged with pro-Israel causes on their college campuses or get involved in the multitude of Israel organizations as they enter adulthood. When we don't ensure Ahavat Yisrael Baneshama, the message found in Hatikvah takes on an entirely different and negative connotation: "As long as in the heart within a Jewish soul still yearns, and onward toward the end of the east an eye still gazes toward Zion, our hope is not yet lost." Israel education must always contain a piece of pure, unapologetic love. 

2. Grapple with complexities and challenges—We must present an Israel that respects the various sides of the issues and wants very much to find a way for everyone to come together in peace and harmony. The Kotel and the Dome of the Rock are very important, holy, and special places. The people who share space with these ancient relics, though, are the daily living and breathing manifestation of this city. Human life continues, and I believe that we must be proud of the diversity in our homeland. When we don't present complexities, we aren't true to reality, and provide a disservice to our students.

3. Create authentic opportunities for engagement with real people and places as students shape their own relationship with Israel—Programs like Encounter allow students to put faces to the newspaper stories and absorb many perspectives. These personal interactions allow students to formulate their own understanding of Israel. We must work hard to not subscribe to a specific outcome or perspective, but to allow our students' minds to spin, engage, and formulate on their own. If successful, we will leave our students with a hearty appetite and a true passion for future engagement with the people, places, and Land of Israel. 

When we visit Fenway Park, we learn to deal with the lack of space, the crowded hallways, and the obstructed views of the field. We nevertheless still pay top dollar for the tickets, and keep returning to the greatest ballpark in the world with smiles on our faces and a love for the game. I would suggest that it is just that way with Israel. In order for this relationship to thrive, high-quality Israel education for the 21st century must ensure a sense of Ahavat Yisrael while continuing to allow students to grapple with the many facets of a real Israel. Armed with a portion of the Zionist dream and a portion of the nuanced reality, we must finally help our students become stakeholders in their own relationship with Medinat Israel.

Rabbi Ami Hersh is assistant director of Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, New York, and program director of the National Ramah Commission. He also serves as the family life coordinator at the Orangetown Jewish Center in Orangeburg, New York. He received his rabbinic ordination at The Jewish Theological Seminary in 2012, and earned an MA in Jewish Education with a concentration in Experiential Education from the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS in 2013. Ami previously taught at the Solomon Schechter School of Greater Hartford in West Hartford, Connecticut. He was named a winner of the 2012 Jewish Futures competition along with Dana Levinson, one of the other authors in Gleanings, Issue 2: Spring 2014.