The Shaliach’s Corner

Riding the Wave – A New Perspective on Israel Education

Since the moment I arrived in Jewish Detroit last fall, I have met hundreds of people. I can confidently say that more than 90% of the people I met, including educators, clergy, communal leaders and professionals, felt that the biggest challenge in the Jewish community is the engagement of teens and young adults — specifically in relation to Israel.  

In the last couple of weeks, after several years of relative quiet, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict struck us hard with the eruption of a heartbreaking wave of violence. During those days, I had an interesting observation – It seemed to me that while Israelis worried about their physical safety, American Jews were struggling with an attack on their Jewish identity in general and their relationship with Israel in particular. What was believed to be an unwavering connection that American Jews have to Israel, has now become something that can be questioned. The latest Pew study shows that 51% of 18-29 year old American Jews claim that they are “not too/not at all connected to Israel” and 27% state that “caring about Israel is not an important part of what it means to be Jewish for them” (compared to 8% of the 65+ cohort).

The only conclusion that I can make from this is that we have no choice but to change our paradigm regarding Israel education in order to create a viable and long-lasting connection between our youth and Israel. Parents, educators and clergy say very clearly that our kids don’t understand Israel, they don’t get what’s going on as they are exposed to problematic sources of information on social media. They are not equipped to deal with this type of discourse. 

This is not a new issue. The last wave of violence in Israel was in 2014. The ripples of that wave are still felt, but nonetheless, not much has changed. It seems that we have adopted an efficient strategy of dealing with it, doing a “duck dive” (a term used by surfers when they go under a wave in order to pass it). After doing a “duck dive” when waters become calm, we seek to stabilize the situation and continue with our status quo. The problem with this strategy is that eventually the waves come more often, or a wave can become so high, that the “duck dive” strategy just might not be enough anymore. What is needed is to change the strategy to what surfers actually aim to do when they see a wave – we need to ride it. We need to reform our Israel education in such a way that the change itself is part of the paradigm. It has to be progressive, up to date, relevant and meaningful for our kids. But why? My father used to say: “We didn’t come out so bad…”. My answer to him is that the world has changed so dramatically, but our education system hasn’t kept up.  

What’s holding us back with our current paradigm? A couple of weeks ago, I met with educators from our community, and I asked them, “What do you see as the barriers for Israel Education?”  Most answers were twofold; either they feel they don’t have the legitimacy to educate about Israel in a complex way, or they don’t feel they are capable of doing so.  

We have been teaching Israel education in a one-dimensional way, and we had a good reason to do so. We had a preconceived notion about the natural connection that American Jews have towards Israel, and we believed that having a positive emotional connection to Israel is the key. That is still true. The only difference today is that it is not the only key needed. People tend to think in categories — good or bad; critical thinking or positive thinking; fact or fiction; just or unjust; Zionism or anti-Zionism etc. But the art of life is about the shades of grey, the nuances, the ability to find yourself in multiple categories at the same time. One can be and feel very Zionist and practice optimism for the future of the Jewish state while implementing critical thinking over Israel’s policy. Another can have a strong commitment to a certain narrative about the Israel-Palestinian conflict while expressing empathy for the feelings and the narrative of the other. 

As educators, our mission is to create an environment and provide the tools for our young to find their voice and form their Identity in the mixture of categories.

Creating that environment means first and foremost that we need to be present. Older generations grew up in a world where they obtained their identity and understanding of the world from their parents. Younger generations today have a different experience — the world is a chaotic place for them. They are constantly connected to a stream of fragmented and, many times, twisted information about the world. They eventually develop their own identity based on these inputs. If we don’t talk to them about what they are hearing on the news and reading in their social media someone else will. And who knows who that is, and what is being said to them. We should not obscure the world as it is, that is not possible or even correct. We need to be a guide, a voice in their head that helps them to navigate, not through a dogmatic one-sided point of view, but by assisting them to see multiple points of view to investigate and judge for themselves.

Being present means we first need to be good listeners. It sounds like a cliche, but I am actually referring to the idea of having the ability to hear hard, weird or provocative language, and still be able to have a conversation. Teens try everything on us, that’s what they are supposed to do while they are forming their own identity. They may use terms that could personally hurt us as Israel loving educators. They might come to us and say they hear or think that Israel is an apartheid state. If we just blow them off, or just give them a list of reasons why that is not the case, we miss the point and the educational opportunity. If we say to them “that it is something we cannot talk about,” we neglect and hurt them and cause them to try to tackle these issues alone. We need to help them investigate their thoughts and emotions and guide them through the intensive forces that surround them. We need to have the courage to investigate this term together with them. It’s historical context, it’s emotional references, the actual fact on the ground, the discourse it is used in etc. — and eventually allow their own judgment to be heard. 

Creating the right climate is one key, the other is promoting the development of relevant tools such as: critical thinking, respect to diverse narratives, philosophical thinking, moral judgment, emotional intelligence and digital literacy (to navigate through information and media) and at the same time answer the ongoing question,  “Why do I love Israel?” Back in the day when my father was at school, it may have been enough to teach a correct answer to any given question, but today that will no longer suffice. If we want our youth to be able to manage their relationship with Israel in a positive and nuanced way, we need to teach them that Israel is more than cherry tomatoes and a Start Up Nation.

Giving room for different opinions and hard discussions is a fundamental element of education, and a core value in Judaism. Allowing teens and young adults to express their thoughts and emotions, as hard as they might be, doesn’t mean that we don’t love Israel. Quite the contrary, our confidence in our love for Israel allows us to hear, think and observe any question, thought or emotion that comes from them.  

We are facing an opportunity to change Israel education and help teens and young adults have a lifelong connection with Israel. We have to be bold and do it now. We cannot allow ourselves to forget the way we feel after these two hard weeks and hope our ‘duck dive’ skills will satisfy us until the next round of violence. 

It’s time to ride the wave.

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