Why Should Jewish Early Childhood Educators Go to Israel?


Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School

Lyndall Miller

Why should Jewish early childhood educators go to Israel? After all, those who work with young children are not likely to take their classes on a field trip to Israel. The Jewish Early Childhood Education Leadership Institute (JECELI) has explored this question both in theory and actuality.

It happened that JECELI contemplated holding a winter seminar either in North America or Israel. Initially, it seemed to make sense to hold the seminar here: there is certainly enough to discuss and consider in the field of Jewish education without adding Israel into the mix. So we considered venues closer to home; especially, those with innovative programs for us to observe. But, we kept coming back to what Israel means to Judaism, to Jews, and to Jewish education. Then, our sponsoring institutions—the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC)—provided good reasons for Israel being the perfect locale for the seminar. In an opinion piece in the Jewish Week, JTS Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen wrote that educators need to go there in order to love "the wonderful, bewildering, changing-by-the-day reality of Israel . . . and to learn how to transmit to others the knowledge and love they have acquired or deepened." Information from HUC about "The Israel Experience" told us that "In no other place on earth will you find the rich and complex diversity of Jewish ethnic and religious identities, music, worship, ritual, and spirituality." How could we resist? 

As we planned, we wondered what about a seminar held in Israel would be of most importance to early childhood educators? The answer came quickly: the complexity and richness of being in the place that is central to so many of Judaism's prayers, customs, and practices makes available to our programs and institutions new ways of teaching about Jewish life and practice. Inherent Israeli values and assumptions, such as trust in the competence of children and the infusion of opportunities for Jewish play, could inform our work. Israel, then, would no longer be embodied by a box with a flag on it and brochures about a plane ride and visit on Yom Ha'atzma'ut (Israel's Independence Day). Not just teaching about Israel, but teaching through the Israel experience became genuinely possible. The presence of Israel could be made explicit to parents, and become a recognized part of Jewish early childhood education programs and institutions in ways not previously explored. And so the Israel Seminar was born. 

To design a seminar for early childhood educators in Israel required that we be clear in our purpose and goals. After much thought and discussion, we defined our focus as concepts of Jewish life and practice, leadership, community building, cultural development, and early childhood education as encountered in various aspects of life in Israel. We knew that our outcome had to be intentional, not accidental. We would not be traveling to Israel as tourists, but as Jewish educational leaders, and needed to carefully articulate what our goals would be, as well as how we would achieve them. 

The Israel Seminar for JECELI, we agreed, would address four core questions:

  • What values and assumptions about these concepts emerge from this experience of Israel?
  • How does learning in Israel affect ideas and feelings about Judaism and Jewish peoplehood? Our own relationships with Israel?
  • How are values and assumptions expressed in early childhood education programs in Israel? What do they teach us about programs in North America?
  • What do we mean by "Israel education" in early childhood settings-in terms of children, families, and community members-in our own contexts?

Participants, we expected, would upon their return from the seminar show evidence of:

  • Anticipation-using texts and provocative questions to focus and/or support investigations
  • Investigation—observing, asking questions, uncovering underlying assumptions, and suspending judgment
  • Reflection—developing hypotheses and narratives based on investigations
  • Evaluation—reviewing and synthesizing new understandings in light of human growth and development, cultural contexts, and history
  • Documentation—expressing realizations using journals, photographs, videos, drawings, etc., that can be presented to others through a leadership role
  • Learning as a community—developing ways to advance the learning of each individual through mentoring and group work

Now JECELI Israel Seminar participants prepare in advance of a trip in order to give it context, and so that they can track their experiences and continue to explore them after they return. To accomplish this, we draw up realistic outcomes for each trip, that is, things we can reasonably expect from our participants, and which will keep them engaged in the future. 

Before the Israel Seminar, participants:

  • Review and discuss the current state of Israel education in their own programs
  • Read and reflect on assigned readings
  • Attend a seminar lead by an Israeli Jewish early childhood education consultant
  • Contribute their expectations of the seminar experience

During the Israel Seminar, participants:

  • Keep a journal focusing on core questions
  • Reflect on their experiences with the support of mentors
  • Begin to develop a presentation (with their mentor group) on Israel and Israel education in Jewish early childhood programs in North America, using the seminar's core question

 After the Israel Seminar, participants now:

  • Submit a written reflection based on their journal entries during the seminar
  • Review and discuss possibilities for Israel education in their own programs
  • Continue to work in mentor groups on presentations on Israel and Israel education, and share the presentation during the JECELI Summer Session

We know that learning requires engagement, discussion, reflection, conceptual reconstruction, and experimentation with new ideas. At JECELI, we now frame our Israel Seminar to allow for the discovery of new configurations of ideas from Israel, about Israel, and about Israel education. We don't demand that our participants come up with particular conclusions, just that they come up with their own.

As one participant of Cohort 1 noted after the 2013 JECELI Israel Seminar, "Our role as Jewish educators is to continually reflect on the past while we transform the future. We know that we must connect to our history in order to move forward with clear vision. Israel has reminded me that life is emotional, real, and imperfect."

Lyndall Miller, MEd, MAJEd, MSEd, is the director of the Jewish Early Childhood Education Leadership Institute, a collaborative effort between the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, in consultation with the Bank Street College of Education. JECELI is generously funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation.