Amid current tensions in Israel, both domestically and with neighbors, the job of an Israel educator has never been more difficult. How do we engage students in all aspects of Israel, while being true to ourselves?
While studying for my master’s degree in Jewish American studies at Haifa University, I wanted to grow my skills as an educator as well. I needed more practical tools that enabled me to connect with students in deeper ways. Haifa University is one of 14 universities in The iCenter’s Master’s Concentration in Israel Education, a program that helps educators become more knowledgeable and more skillful in their work.
Known as “iFellows,” program participants come from a range of workplace settings, and we engage students of all ages. Our common link is that we all view Israel education as a core component of our role as Jewish educators.
For me, ever since I can remember, Israel education has been a part of my life. As a child, I traveled the world, representing Israel abroad through my dance group. In the army, I was involved in education and worked a lot with lone soldiers from the Diaspora. On my first mission to Texas with the Jewish Agency, on my second mission to Canada with the Diaspora Ministry, in my work at NFTY (Reform Jewish Youth Movement) with Reform American youth, and with a job at the Israeli association that tries to educate the world about the country, I’ve come to understand the successes and pitfalls of Israel education.
The basic premise is that the student, not Israel, should be centered on the education experience. Once I, as an educator, understand who the student is, what their interests are and what their perspective is, then I can engage them in a personally meaningful Israel experience. This is especially true in my job today as an Israel Fellow at Duke University.
Being an iFellow completed what I think of as the “educator puzzle.” These are the many pieces I put together to craft a meaningful education experience. In the program I sharpened my senses, developed a language as an educator – which I now share with my fellow educators – and learned the tools that helped me to develop professionally and personally. Content and speakers covered everything from a comprehensive and interesting historical review, to practical tools and ideas for working as an Israel educator.
OUR SESSION on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem explored in depth the questions of the stigmas about them, what is special about them and what is complex about them. We juxtaposed similarities and differences between a holy city, a capital city, a non-stop city, a mixed city, a Jewish and democratic city. We also read different maps to understand their use as a learning resource, discussed the tension between a Jewish and democratic state, dove deep into the Declaration of Independence, and much more.
Importantly, as all effective professional development programs do, the Master’s Concentration gave me the space to ask difficult and challenging questions. In this case, the questions my peers asked were about Israel. We were allowed – encouraged even – to cast doubt about assumptions, to explore criticisms and other narratives, and we met people with similar experiences to ours, as well as people whose experiences were completely different.
My mentor in the program imparted to me the wisdom that every detail in an education experience matters. As educators, we engage the whole person, and we also bring our whole selves as educators to the experience.
Now, with Cafe Ivrit at Duke (conversational Hebrew classes for beginners at Duke University, Durham, NC), the speakers who come to campus, the classes I teach and my visits to Israel, I’m building a community of young people who care about Israel and want to learn more. With all of the students I engage, I share the Israeli narrative through stories of inspiration, human diversity, and of course, present-day challenges.
Beyond any specific tool and resource, I came to understand – and have had this reinforced by my job – the power that an effective educator has. When we’re connected with our students, we facilitate personal, “ah-ha” moments of curiosity. Israel education is embarking on challenging times. But Israel educators are also embarking on a great moment of opportunity to hone their skills and further develop the field so that meaningful Israel experiences are a larger part of Jewish education.
The writer is the Jewish Agency Israel Fellow at Duke University, and an iFellow in The iCenter’s Master’s Concentration in Israel Education program.