Teaching an Accessible Israel


Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School   

Dana Levinson

Israel education is all about access points.

Gone are the days of one-dimensional, uninspirational, perpetually flatlining Israel curricula. Israel education, much like the deserts of Ben-Gurion's visions, has blossomed into a subject that has life—it challenges, inspires, and creates real and meaningful learning that demands participation. Israel education is about connections: connecting the learner and the State, the people, the culture, the idiosyncrasies, and the stories.  

My semester in The Davidson School's Kesher Hadash program as a graduate student of Jewish education emphasized the importance of access points. For many students of Israel education in other programs, the curriculum and experiences can be limiting, providing answers without encouraging questioning. Kesher Hadash delivered a variety of educational and spiritual opportunities that allowed me to grapple with incredibly important issues in contemporary Israeli society; engage with the diverse populations in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and beyond; and articulate my own inspirations and challenges in relation to Israel. 

With each new opportunity, a new access point opened. As a teaching assistant at the Yachad School in Modi'in, I had the unique opportunity to encounter Israeli teenagers and gain an insider's perspective on culture, politics, family, and even language. I picked up new Israeli slang, was told which TV shows to watch, and began to understand the complicated nature of an Israel that is home to numerous different religious affiliations. For many of the students, Friday-night rituals with family defined who they were religiously: those that said kiddush and motzi preceding a meal together identified as masorti (traditional), and those who just ate dinner together and then went out, chiloni (secular). It was absolutely fascinating, both as an educator and as someone who grapples with her own comprehension of what it means to be "religious," to understand how the students' interpretation of ritual was representative of where they stood on the religious spectrum. It is rare that one can access one of Israel's most pressing issues in such an organic and profound way.

At David Yellin College, we explored issues of identity and nationality in a course on diversity in a classroom that included US, Israeli, Palestinian, and Armenian students. In what could have been an utter disaster—a tinderbox for emotional and political convictions—I was immersed in one of the most profound experiences of my life. Informal dinners provided an honest yet respectful forum for challenging conversations that allowed us to get to know each other and take a genuine interest in each other's lives. My own preconceived notions of my Palestinian classmates—which I admit were rife with suspicion—softened each time we met. I formed a particular bond with Maha, an outspoken spitfire much like myself, full of opinions but interested in what others had to say. We spoke about trivial things: men who were attractive, music, favorite foods. Yet we also spoke of more important topics—why she decided to wear a hijab, why I decided to become kosher, why she fears Israeli soldiers, and why I sometimes got nervous on buses when someone I perceived to be suspicious got on. These conversations were not always easy, nor did they result in our total understanding of each other's positions. Yet they opened doors that would have remained closed, and created an intimate space in which trust was the defining factor that allowed real and meaningful dialogues to transpire. 

Currently I teach an online Israel course for high school students who will soon embark on a summer trip to Israel. I can say confidently that my experience with The Davidson School's Kesher Hadash program not only prepared me to teach Israel in a way that is both exciting and innovative, but to engage with the material in a three-dimensional manner. I try to offer different access points to my students, and encourage them to engage with Israel curriculum in a way that goes beyond the textbooks. Although our class is online and has some limitations because of that medium, it is my hope that I can transmit the integral parts of Kesher Hadash through my own curriculum. Our students are going to be virtual pen pals with Israeli teenagers from the Masorti youth group Noam. They will have opportunities throughout the course to speak about a variety of subjects, and hopefully meet in person when my students arrive in Israel. My experience interacting directly with teenagers in Israel proved to be incredibly valuable, and I hope the same goes for my students.

Israel education, like any other subject, has to hold meaning for students in order for it to be perceived as important. The age-old narrative of "it's Israel, it's our homeland, it's important" can no longer be the sole means for engaging students with a connection to the State of Israel. Students will only find Israel meaningful if they feel that the way in which it's taught speaks to them. Our goal, as both educators and Jews, should be to identify and explore different access points within Israel education. We should ask our students what excites, challenges, worries, and inspires them, and use these as the impetus to create better, more engaging educational opportunities.  

Dana Levinson received her master's degree in Jewish Experiential Education from the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary in 2012. In recognition of her work in developing the Ramah365 mobile app, she was named a winner of the 2012 Jewish Futures Competition, along with fellow JTS alum Rabbi Ami Hersh (RS '12, DS '13), also an author in Gleanings, Issue 2: Spring 2014. Dana is the assistant director of Reshet Ramah: Alumni and Community Engagement.