What Is Israel Education, and What Is Its Purpose?

Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School 

Ofra Arieli Backenroth

Where is Israel education situated within the field of Jewish education? How do we "do" it? How do we train educators to be Israel educators? And how is Israel education practiced in different settings? These are important questions that have inspired many discussions, conferences, articles, and books. Numerous organizations in Israel and other countries have been created with the explicit mission of teaching the Jewish people to respect, love, nurture, support, and care for the State of Israel and all that it represents. 

The current issue of Gleanings explores these questions and features a wide variety of articles: some take a theoretical perspective, while others describe practitioners in action and bring us voices from the field.

Dr. Alex Sinclair, director of Israel Education Programs and adjunct assistant professor at The Davidson School, offers a taxonomy of the complexities of life in Israel, a term that has become a buzzword in Israel education. What exactly do educators mean when they say that one needs to consider these complexities? What kind of responses do educators try to elicit from their learners? Dr. Sinclair, a veteran of Israel education, is the author of the recently published book Loving the Real Israel: An Education Agenda for Liberal Zionism, which underscores the fact that the buzzword is fraught with a variety of meanings. Sinclair scans the field of Jewish education, and finds that each organization has its own understanding of the term complexity. Each understanding of complexity presents different sets of relationships with Israel, and each has its own implications for educational practice, ranging from ambivalence to advocacy. Ultimately, our understanding of Israel education calls for participants to be actively engaged with the issues and to voice their opinions about the complexities of Israeli society.

Steve Israel, an Israel educator, and Scott Copeland, the director of the Institute for Tour Educators at Taglit–Birthright Israel, which sends Jewish young adults to Israel, offer their insights into the training of tour guides and educators. Both of them touch on the idea that there is a difference between tour educators and tour guides. Mr. Israel presents us with a Deweyan question: what are we teaching, the site or the student? This distinction separates the tour guide from the tour educator. While the tour guide is an expert in teaching about a site, the tour educator is involved with the learner and his or her needs and expectations from the tour. Copeland takes us inside the conversations that go into training tour guides for Birthright. The tour guide training institute is based on the hypothesis that Birthright trips are not conventional tours of Israel, and so they must train educators who want to instill a sense of mission and strengthen the Jewish identity of the participants. The institute seeks to translate site knowledge into educational knowledge that can transform the lives of participants.

A group of practitioners teaching and leading different educational organizations such as training institutes, camps, campus Hillel organizations, and day schools brings another perspective to the challenges and questions that direct their conversations about Israel education. Lyndall Miller, the director of the Jewish Early Childhood Education Leadership Institute (JECELI), presents her ideas about how to prepare early childhood educators for a professional development trip to Israel.

Rabbi Ami Hersh, assistant director of Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, seeks to instill loving relationships between his campers and Israel. Hersh's approach helps campers develop the courage to grapple with Israel's challenges as they explore authentic opportunities for engagement with Israel and Israelis. Andrea LeVine, a Davidson School alum (DS '12) and senior programmer and community organizer for Hillel at Tulane University, writes of her desire to see an active connection between her students and Israel as a way to connect unengaged Jews to Judaism and the State of Israel. LeVine explores the ways in which encounters with Israel can serve as the bridge to discovering and augmenting Jewish identity, as LeVine herself did on a Birthright trip. Both Hersh and LeVine investigate and describe a crucial element in Israel education—how to create authentic experiences for engagement with real people and instill love, while still exploring the nuances of Israel. 

Davidson School alum Dana Levinson (DS '12), who is assistant director of Reshet Ramah: Alumni and Community Engagement, and MA student Samantha Vinokor present us with examples of authentic immersive experiences with Israel that they describe as profound and life-changing. These powerful experiences took place when Levinson and Vinokor spent time in Israel as participants in The Davidson School's Kesher Hadash (New Connections) semester-in-Israel program. Levinson strives to make Israel accessible to her online learners and bring her own experience of Kesher Hadash to them. Conversations with Palestinians on the campus of David Yellin College and Encounter trips to Bethlehem and East Jerusalem opened a window onto different relationships with Jewish and Arab Israelis and Palestinians. Both Levinson and Vinokor came away from their experiences with a stronger love of Israel, and claim that Zionists don't need to be afraid of hearing "the other side." Vinokor and Levinson felt that, by the end of the program, they each had a greater understanding of the challenges facing educators who teach about Israel.

The Jewish day school trip to Israel has the potential to deeply enhance the quality of Israel education for both students and educators wherever they study. Day school educators Tzivia Garfinkel and Rabbi Harry Pell discuss their trips for eighth-grade and high school students in an interview with Dr. Zachary Lasker, director of Education Projects for the Melton Research Center for Jewish Education and The Davidson School, and describe how they build opportunities into their schools' trips for initiatives that seek to foster healthy side-by-side living and coexistence among different groups present in Israel. Both educators feel that it is important to ground students in the reality of Israeli life so that the students can deal with challenges if they go on to the world of secular high schools or universities. Both try to deal with the backdrop of seeing Israel as a utopia and deepen students' relationship and engagement with Israel during the trips as an addition to the many other ways that Israel is incorporated into day school curriculum.

We hope that reading this issue of Gleanings will empower you to ask your own questions about Israel, look at it with a fresh eye, and, ultimately, develop a more sophisticated relationship with and love of Israel. As Israel educators, it is useful to think about the challenge of reconciling the goal of instilling respect and love for Israel with the equally important goal of teaching an authentic Israeli reality.

Dr. Ofra Arieli Backenroth is associate dean and adjunct assistant professor of Jewish Education at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary. She received an EdD in Jewish Education from The Davidson School with her dissertation The Blossom School: A Portrait of an Arts‐Based Jewish Day School.