Showing posts with label Israel Education. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Israel Education. Show all posts

Monday, May 7, 2012

Tell Me about the Future of the Jews

File Under Peoplehood
This is a Jerusalem Post column and blog posting by Rabbi Daniel Gordis. He wrote it for Yom Ha'atzmaut and I nearly missed in the flurry of events and postings surrounding the week from Yom Hashoah, through Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut. Rabbi Gordis spoke at the gala for the Jewish High School of Connecticut in our sanctuary a month ago. I remember thinking that I have never read anything by him or heard him speak when I haven't found myslef thinking. A lot. This is no exception. Much of my focus at work has been about Jewish peoplehood in general and connecting to Israel in particular. This fits right in. Enjoy. 

Imagine it's January 1946. Imagine, too, that you are exactly who you are now: thoughtful, educated, worldly, rational. And then, someone says to you, "Tell me about the future of the Jews." .... The Jews have a future because the Jews have a state. There are moments when a People has earned a celebration.  Yom Ha'atzmaut is, without question, one of those moments. 

Imagine it's January 1946. Imagine, too, that you are exactly who you are now: thoughtful, educated, worldly, rational. And then, someone says to you, "Tell me about the future of the Jews."

So you survey the world in January 1946. It's a year after the liberation of Auschwitz, and just months since the war has ended. You cast your eyes toward Eastern Europe, which not much earlier had been the world's center of Jewish life, learning, literature and culture. Eastern European Jewry is gone.

Though we commonly say that Hitler annihilated one third of the world's Jews, that number is technically correct but misses the point. The number that really matters is that after Hitler, 90 percent of Eastern Europe's Jews had been murdered.  
Prior to the war, there had been some 3,200,000 Polish Jews. At the end of the war, merely 300,000 were left. By 1950, estimates are that 100,000 Jews remained in Poland. As far as Polish Jewry was concerned, Hitler had won.

Hitler won in Hungary, too, and throughout Eastern Europe. The great seat of Jewish life was simply no longer. There are a few Jews left there, of course, but many of those who did survive will for a long time be living under Soviet rule, which, if you'd had a crystal ball, you'd know was going to get infinitely worse long before it got any better. A future for the Jews? It did not look pretty.

You could look a bit westward. You might turn your attention to Salonika.  
Some 56,000 Jews had lived there before the war; 98% of them died. Westward still, you might consider France. But the story of Vichy France would bring you no solace.  
Europe, until only some 10 years earlier the center of the Jewish world, was an enormous, blood-soaked Jewish cemetery - only without markers to note the names of the millions who had been butchered.

So you might turn your attention across the Atlantic Ocean, to the United States.

But the American Jews you would have surveyed in 1946 were not the American Jews of today. Today, at AIPAC's annual Policy Conference, for example, thousands of American Jews (and many non- Jews, as well) ascend the steps of Capitol Hill to speak to their elected officials about Israel. They do so with a sense of absolute entitlement (in the best sense of the word), with no hesitation.

But between 1938 and 1945, how many Jews ascended those steps to demand that at least one bomb be dropped on the tracks to Auschwitz, or that American shores be opened to at least some of the thousands of Jews who had literally nowhere to go? During the worst years that the Jews had known in two millennia, virtually no Jews went to Capitol Hill or the White House. There was the famous Rabbis' March of October 1943, in which some 400 mostly Orthodox rabbis went to the White House (though FDR refused to meet with them), but that was about it.

In January 1946, American Jews did not interview for positions on Wall Street wearing a kippa, and did not seek jobs on Madison Avenue informing their prospective employers that they would not work on Shabbat. The self-confidence of American Jews that we now take so for granted was almost nowhere to be found back then. With European Jews going up smokestacks, American Jews mostly went about their business, fearful of rocking the boat of American hospitality. A future for the Jews?
There was, of course, one other place where there was a sizable Jewish population - Palestine. But in Palestine, too, the shores were sealed. Tens of thousands of British troops were stationed in Palestine, not only to "keep the peace," but to make sure that Jews did not immigrate and change the demographic balance of the country. The story of the Exodus is famous, perhaps, precisely because it ended reasonably well. Most Jews today can name not even one of the ships that sank, carrying their homeless Jews with them. In January 1946, the British weren't budging. A future for the Jews? In January 1946, there was little cause to believe in a rich Jewish future. You might have believed that a covenant promised some Jewish future, but it would have been hard to argue it was a bright one.

Now fast-forward 66 years, to 2012.

Where do we find ourselves today? Jewish life in Europe, while facing renewed anti-Semitism in some places, is coming back to life. Berlin is one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in the world. There are Jewish cultural festivals in Poland (though staged largely by non-Jews, since there are few Jews left). In Budapest and Prague, Jewish museums, kosher restaurants and synagogues abound. Soviet Jews are largely out, and those who remain have synagogues, schools, camps and community centers. And across the ocean, the success and vibrancy of American Jewish life is legendary.

There was no way to expect any of this in 1946, no reason to even imagine it.

How did it happen? The simple but often overlooked truth is that what has made this difference for Jews world over is the State of Israel.  
It was Israel's victory in 1967 that injected energy into Soviet Jewry and led them to rattle their cage, demanding their freedom.  Post-1967, the world saw the Jews as people who would shape their own destiny.  Unlike the Tibetans (or Chechnyans or Basques, to name just a few), Jews were no longer tiptoeing around the world, waiting to see what the world had in store for them.

The re-creation of the Jewish state has changed not only how the world sees the Jews, but how the Jews see themselves.  The days of "We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we appeared to them" (Num. 13:33) are gone, and the reason is the State of Israel.

We are a people sometimes over-inclined to indulge in hand-wringing (and at others, unwilling to do the hand-wringing we ought to). And we face our challenges. Iran is worrisome, Egyptian peace is tenuous. Hila Bezaleli's tragic death was a metaphor for the lack of accountability that plagues this country.  The behavior of Lt.-Col. Shalom Eisner, as well as the reactions to what he did, is also deeply unsettling.

But let us remember this, nevertheless: it is far too easy to lose sight of what we have accomplished. Sixty-six years ago, no sane, level-headed person could have imagined that we would have what we have. A language brought back to life, and bookstores filled with hundreds of linear feet of books in a language that just a century ago almost no one spoke. More people studying Torah now than there were in Europe at its height. An economic engine that is the envy of many supposedly more established countries. A democracy fashioned by immigrants, most of whom had never lived in a functioning democracy. Cutting-edge health care. An army that keeps us so safe, we go days on end without even thinking about our enemies.
That's worth remembering in the midst of the attacks on us, from the international community as well as from Jews.  
There's much to repair, and too often, we fail to meet the standards we've set for ourselves. All true, and they demand our continued attention, but at the same time, we dare not lose sight of what we've built. To borrow the phrase from Virginia Slims, "we've come a long way, baby."

The Jews have a future because the Jews have a state.  
There are moments when a People has earned a celebration. Yom Ha'atzmaut is, without question, one of those moments.  

The original Jerusalem Post
column can be found here:

Comments and reactions can be posted here:

Monday, February 20, 2012

Mifgash Means Encounter, Part 1

Six months ago, some of us thought holding a day long conference with the Fellows and Mentors of the Leadership Institute and a group of Israel public school principals was not a good idea. We are bringing people thousands of miles for a mere 9 days of traveling and learning in the land. How could we devote more than 10% of that time in classrooms? We were certain there would be a revolt.

Still, the plans progressed. Evie Rotstein - our fearless leader - along with Roberta Bell-Kligler and David Mittelberg and the rest of their staff at Oranim framed the conference around the idea of Jewish Peoplehood.  Mittelberg described the idea of Jewish Peoplehood as emerging from a dialogic discourse. It describes both process and content. He invited the combined American/Israeli group of educators to explore and model what Jewish People can emerge to be. 

Doctor David Mittelberg
He cited two studies (NJPS 2000 and Avi Chai/Guttman 2012) that indicate that both American and Israeli Jews have between an 80 - 93% sense of connection to the Jewish people. So what is the problem with that? Why a conference and a whole department of Jewish Peoplehood at Oranim? Mittelberg says that both Israeli and Diaspora Jewries are partial and incomplete. Neither can do it on their own. Both communities see imparting a sense of connectedness to our children as real challenge.

In Israel, he said, being Jewish is a matter of fact. In the United States, it is a matter of choice. The problem is both in variety of degree and in type. In Israel being Jewish is taken for granted. In the U.S. being Jewish cannot be taken for granted. And being born Jewish in either place is no guarantee anymore that you will stay Jewish. He suggested that only in our mifgash (encounter) with each other can we make up for each of our deficiencies.

He said quite a bit more, and I refer you to the resources at the bottom of this posting for more detail. It was an amazing mifgash. So much so that this is coming in three posts, as I sit at Ben Gurion waiting to go home a week later. I was skeptical about having this conference. It was the highlight of an amazing trip with a wonderful group of educators. Evie, I was wrong. You, Roberta and David were right. Now we need to have more of these mifgashim between American and Israeli educators or it will just have been a great day. It needs to be the beginning of a long and truly essential conversation.

Resources on Peoplehood:
Convergent and Divergent Dimensions of Jewish Peoplehood - David Mittelberg (pdf)
Jewish Peoplehood Education: Framing the Field - Shlomi Ravid & Varda Rafaeli
Towards Jewish Peoplehood - David Mittelberg (pdf)
Jewish Educational Leadership - A Guide to Jewish Peoplehood
ewish Peoplehood

Crossposted to Leadership Insitute: The Blog!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Culinary Queens of Yerucham put Sallah Shabbati to bed!

Topol as Sallah Shabbati
Many of us of a certain age (50ish and older) were shown the Israeli movie Sallah Shbbati - in youth group, or in religious school, or - as in my case - on a rainy day at camp, cooped up in a M*A*S*H style tent we called the Beit Am. It was a black and white, and was made in 1964. It was for a long time the most successful film in Israeli history. It starred two actors who were then unknown outside of Israel, Gila Almagor and Topol - before he starred as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof or as Hans Zarkov in Flash Gordon.
Danny Yarhi, writing in iMDB describes the film:
A Yemenite Jewish family that was flown to Israel during "Operation Magic Carpet" - a clandestine operation that flew 49,000 Yemenite Jews to Israel the year after the state was formed - is forced to move to a government settlement camp. The patriarch of the family tries to make money and get better housing, in a country that can barely provide for its own and is in the midst absorbing hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Humor, sensitivity, politics and music highlight this capsule of history.
It was an hysterically funny comedy. Seeing it years later with a much deeper knowledge of Israeli history, that comedy turns out to be an incredibly biting dark satire and social commentary on Israeli society in the 50's. It brings out the best and worst of Israel - the wondrous rescue of nearly forgotten Jews and the far less than ideal treatment of non-Ashkenazi Jews by the European born or descended elites of Israel.

I recall one scene where Sallah is given a job planting trees by the Jewish National Fund. An official plants a sign next to the saplings with the name of a couple from the Diaspora. As a driver brings them up to the forest, the official tells them that thanks to their generosity, this was "their" forest. As soon as they left, the official took down the sign and replaced it with one with another name, just as another official drove up with another donor from abroad. Sallah accuses the official of dishonesty. When the next donors come to see "their" forest, Sallah starts plucking the new trees out of the ground!

As a member of the Leadership Institute, I had the pleasure for the second time to visit with one of the Culinary Queens of Yerucham. It was created by Atid Bamidbar (The Future is in the Desert) to "create opportunities for local women with no or low incomes, from diverse ethnic groups in town, to host visiting groups from Israel and abroad in their homes for an enriching multicultural culinary and human experience. The encounter gives visitors a great meal, warm hospitality, and insight into the lives of local residents and Jewish ethnic traditions; it provides the hostesses with added income, a boost to self-esteem and a widening of horizons."

It was all of that and more.

Mazal and her husband Jojo were wonderful and 20 of us had a wonderful meal. And the best part was Jojo's storytelling. He was animated, expressive and funny. He told of coming from Tunisia at the age of five with his parents. They wanted to go to Jerusalem. They were loaded on a truck at the port and driven through the night. They were told they were in Jerusalem and dumped in the desert. He has been in Yerucham ever since. He also told the story of their courtship. Rather than explain it, here are three videos!


Part I

Mazal and the other Queens have taken the dark satire of Sallah Shabbati and set it aside. They are part of several projects from Atid Bamidbar and other agencies like Nativ that are changing the face of Yerucham and other development towns in the Negev. Sallah seemed to have little hope. Not so any more.

And think about how the culinary queens are one of many projects that is helping this community that has spent so long in the economic trough climb out. And make it a point to visit them for lunch! It is worth it!

Part II 

  Part III

Crossposted to Leadership Institute: The Blog!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Teaching Israel, Warts and All

Peter Eckstein
Friend and colleague Peter Eckstein posted this in the Jewish Educational Change Network before new year's. I think it tells an important story. I invite your thoughts on how we can do a better job bringing Israel to our students and our students to Israel.

I have the good fortune to be working with a nationally based group of educators and teens associated with the iCenter’s MZ Teen Israel Internship. The purpose of this program is to follow up on teens’ Israel summer experiences, through a framework consisting of a series of yearlong educational and social activities. The young people meet with mentors and educators to collaborate on Israel oriented projects, and to study. As “the teacher”, I meet with a small group of high school students, usually in a coffee shop, and together we learn about the reality of modern Israel. We’ve focused on how being a Jew in America relates to being a Jew in Israel. We have explored the diversity that makes up Israeli society, comparing it to the multi-faceted nature of North American Judaism. We’ve thought about Israel being characterized by the people, not just the stones or the conflict. In the future, we will be discussing the role of religion in Israel, as well as the dynamic that exists between Israeli Jews and Arabs. We are trying to make real connections with the Jewish State, drawing from the teens’ experiences in the context of a more in-depth exploration of Israeli society. All of these elements are meant to get these teens to think seriously about how Israel relates to their lives, and how they can educate their peers about the real Israel, by getting past the headlines and beyond the myths.

This is all about education, not advocacy. Back in September, I attended an inaugural conference that kicked off this program. It was attended by almost 40 teens and about a dozen educators. In conversations I had with teens and my colleagues, I was struck by how important it was to the teens to have the “right answers” to defend Israel. Many of them had difficulty understanding the difference between knowing about Israel - being educated about the land and the people; and defending it against its detractors. As we educators in the program develop the curriculum, we struggle with how the tensions that exist in Israel can in fact be tools to foster deeper engagement with Israel and the Zionist enterprise.

In the past week, as we collaborated on developing future sessions for the teens, we have been working on how to teach the significance of the recent “price-tag” attacks that have occurred in Israel and in The Territories. Can the phenomenon of the “Hilltop Youth” provide a nuanced view of the intersection between the role of politics and religion in the life of The State? How can the extremes reflected by current events help us gain a better understanding of what Israel is all about, and what its promise and potential can be? I am not talking about whitewashing a situation. I am talking about understanding it so that it can become a tool for engagement.

In my mind, at least, the political, cultural, economic and ethnic tensions that characterize life in Israel are a mere reflection of Jewish history, both in Israel and in Exile. We have always been one people, but with many voices. This idea of Jewish diversity can be used as a tool to help our young people understand that being Israel is all about struggle. We should provide the tools to our teens, to empower them to joyfully enter into the fray that is the Jewish conversation about Israel. When we teach Israel, we mustn’t ignore the warts.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How Do We Talk About Israel in Our Schools?

I am currently in Tel Aviv at the final meeting of the Jim Joseph Foundation Fellows at the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora at Bar Ilan University. Stuart Zweiter is the director of the Lookstein Center and coincidentally (to our being here) posted this observation to the Lookjed listServ (an e-mailed forum for Jewish Educators facilitated by Shalom Burger, director of the JJF Fellowship) on December 7. I think he asks some vital questions that I hope you will join me in discussing in the coming weeks. The original posting is archived here. You can reply there or here. I will copy comments here to the Lookjed list. If you would like to subscribe to Lookjed - and I recommend that you do, go to the on-line form at

This past Friday night Natan Scharansky told a few of us sitting  around the Shabbat table with him that he had found in his travels to  North American college campuses that Jewish students were uninformed  as well as scared to speak up for Israel, scared that if they were to  actively defend or speak positively about Israel it would impact  negatively on their academic career as well as their future professional career.

This morning in a discussion I had with the head of a major Jewish Foundation I was told that during a visit she recently had at a very  large Jewish high school, she found the students preparing for an  internal school debate on the topic, Israel: Is it an apartheid state? In an informal discussion she had with several students at the same  school, she was told by them that they love Israelis but do not like Israel.   

This evening I read a piece in the JTA concerning the vote taking  place this week at Princeton University on whether to ask the  university's dining services to provide an alternative brand of  hummus. Why? Because the current brand being offered is Sabra, which  is half-owned by The Strauss Group, which has publicly supported the  IDF and provides care packages and sports equipment to Israeli  soldiers.   

We all know of many similar examples. I am mentioning these because  they all occurred in just the past few days.   

This post is not an invitation to debate political issues related to  Israel. Rather, we are very interested in learning how Jewish high  schools and junior high schools of all stripes are educating their  students regarding Israel. It seems particularly important during this  period in which there is increasing de-legitimization of Israel. How  much time do schools invest in this critical issue that all of their  graduates will face on college campuses? Is it dealt with in a serious and systematic way through formal and informal educational  programs? Where does it fit into your school program? 

What does your  school do? We are hoping that through the Lookjed list the Center can  raise consciousness of and attentiveness to this issue and that the  thousands of subscribers to the Lookjed list can learn about the  different efforts and programs that are being implemented in schools.   

This question, of course, touches on how we prioritize what is  included in our school programs and how schools allocate and divide up  the time that is available. That itself is an important question for  reflection and deliberation by school principals and teachers. All  schools make choices regarding what is in and what is out? Where does  this issue fit in?   

Stuart Zweiter  
Director, the Lookstein Center