search
Chaim Y. Botwinick

Educational Leadership Confronting Antisemitism and Anti-Israel Realities:

Israel Education, Engagement and Activism: A Leadership Imperative 

Over the past several years. there have been a proliferation of articles, papers, conferences, workshops, blogs and social media platforms in response to  the growing  anti-Israel movement and acts of antisemitism in the United States, including numerous communal proposals for responding to these daunting realities on the global level.. .

Although antisemitism and anti-Israel hatred  have existed throughout our history, it was not until the unprecedented  massacre of October 7th, a  horrendous and vile watershed moment for our Jewish world, did we see or experience in our lifetime  such an abhorrent  level of global Jew-hatred and anti-Israel venom unsurpassed since the Holocaust.

The events of October 7th, shocked our Jewish world to the core. It was an incomprehensible and unimaginable pivotal and defining moment in our lives which brought to the surface a firestorm and a tsunami of global  anti-Jewish racism and  hatred and an anti-Israel movement of historic proportion.

From a historical perspective, these realities  were always fomenting just below the surface of our society. They were metastasizing at a very rapid rate like a growing cancer just ready to consume the body. But today, we are actually witnessing and experiencing in real time, this growing, daunting, frightful and incomprehensible reality.

As we grapple with these domestic and  global threats, achienu kol b’nai yisrael are fighting a very difficult and fierce existential war on two fronts. All the while, our Jewish communities are experiencing increased violent acts of  antisemitism and anti-Israel demonstrations on university and college campuses, in our neighborhoods and communities and in our work places.

Bottom line, our Jewish community is in serious crisis, reminiscent of the horrors we as Jews experienced during the frightful and horrific Nazi pogroms of eastern Europe just prior to World War II.

When observing these events in the streets of America – whether they take place  on college campuses or in the streets of Manhattan. Brooklyn or Los Angeles, we are shocked and beyond dismayed  by the level of ignorance, misguided and misdirected anger, fueled by  propaganda, false historical assumptions and misinformation regarding the history of Israel  the middle east and the Jewish community.

One has only to listen to the chants of anti-Israel protesters and demonstrators  on college and university campuses in order to understand the growing level of ignorance, alternative facts and false assumptions as well as indoctrination propagated  by social media posts, the dark web  and the growing number of  woke-centric progressive left leaning university and college faculty. This  malignant phenomenon is even beginning  to slowly seep unabated into our public schools and other public spaces.

An Educational  Leadership Response

As we know, one of the most powerful, battle-tested and effective responses to this crisis is education. It is through education that a civilized society (I underscore civilized) can at least have a  fighting chance to help create an environment, culture or climate of moral clarity as it confronts this spreading cancer.

The education which I  refer to impacts concentrically our Jewish day schools, yeshivot , Jewish communal institutions, and community.  The more educated our children, teachers, faculty, parents are, the greater the probability that we as a Jewish community will be better positioned and prepared to effectively confront and respond to these growing threats of hatred and violence.

As a close colleague recently quipped – “its time for the Jewish community to circle the wagons”  My response was …. “its not about circling the wagons…its about having a sufficient number of strong wagons from which to circle”

For beginners, I sincerely believe that high quality Israel Education, Advocacy  and Activism are the three  most effective antidotes  at our disposal. They are the three critical challenges and opportunities  available to our Jewish day schools and yeshiva community and are the most powerful, protective and potent  strategic communal responses to these threats we face today.

Education

As I visit many of our Jewish day schools and yeshivot, coach their senior educational leadership  and faculty and  speak with more and more of their teachers, I have come to the sad and harsh realization that many of our bright, committed, dedicated and inspiring teachers, principals and new school heads are in dire need of serious and intensive training in  Israel education and  pedagogy; in addition to  knowledge regarding  Israel as teachable subject and content area as well as  familiarity with  new evolving teaching protocols for the effective teaching of history, current events and the centrality of Israel.

This instructional leadership vacuum is further exacerbated when teachers are called upon or expected to teach about the history of  Israel, about tzianut, the history of the middle-east; or  the centrality of Israel – especially in response to the need to develop, preserve and create stronger and more sustainable levels Jewish identity and understanding. . This is particularly the case in a post October 7th environment which demands knowledgeable teachers to help instruct, guide and lead our students and their families in a meaningful and sustainable manner.

Yes, our schools have performed relatively well when advocating support for Israel via pro-Israel posters and signage, participation at rallies and assemblies,  high school trips to Israel, Yom HaAtzmaut celebrations, Yom HaZikaron programming and other forms of experiential expression.  But unfortunately, many of these experiential initiatives are not always anchored or embedded in a serious or rigorous  curriculum ….nor do they represent or engender an educational direction or philosophy.  We also know that if these and other experiential  initiatives are not rooted or anchored in serious authentic historical, cultural, biblical or Talmudic  text, content and knowledge, they will fade fast.

The study of Israel, Israel programming, engagement and advocacy in our schools must no loner be viewed or treated as an educational appendage, but rather as a core subject, central to the school’s curriculum.

There are select day school leaders who would disagree vehemently with my ascertain and  assessment…especially those that purport  to represent Jewish day schools and yeshivot that  promote  Israel through  what they deem as deep curricular commitment and engagement.. But, when the teaching of Israel is not deeply embedded or anchored in the school’s curriculum, mission or value proposition, Israel education and advocacy becomes seasonal and episodic at best.

Many of our students are college bound and/or will  eventually enter an  unsheltered  harsh world of reality and the workforce. We must now ask ourselves, the most difficult and hard question — are our students truly prepared to take on the new and evolving  challenges or realities of  mounting misinformation, aggressive anti-Israel campaigning  and anti-Israel bashing and rhetoric. And will they truly be prepared with critically important pro Israel information so desperately needed to confront and combat those who spew and spread false propaganda and misinformation?

On thing is certain, we are  currently losing the propaganda war against the left leaning anti-Israel and antisemitic  protesters who are well organized and financed. We are in desperate need of young knowledgeable, committed student advocates, activists  and ambassadors   who. are inspired by their Jewish communal lay and professional  leaders and who have been provided a solid foundation of knowledge and education  in order to help them thrive and grow.

Several months ago, I visited a relatively large  Jewish day school whose mission statement (on their web-page) clearly stated  that  the school is “deeply dedicated and committed to the teaching and support of Eretz Yisrael, Medinat Yisrael  and Am Ysrael “.

The statement  which included breathtaking photos of Israel and an array of  Israeli flags   was beautifully written and clearly suggested a deep  level of commitment, and serious thought. It also included many impressive lists  of  web-based source material , articles, essays and stories about Israel, the history of Israel as well as articles relating to Israel engagement and advocacy.

As impressive as these lists and source materials  are, in reality, they are static and  lack application and inspiration for the average high school student.

As I  engaged small  groups of  high school teenagers in a conversation regarding their understanding and views about the centrality and importance  of Israel and/or the relevance of Israel to their lives,  I was beyond surprised .

Many of these, smart, intelligent and well mannered students were totally unfamiliar with the history of Israel from a modern, biblical or political perspective; and most were unable to describe or  articulate  the role of Israel in our lives,  the manner in which  today’s current events  are effecting our Jewish homeland and the global Jewish community. .Many of the students, and others  I interviewed, expressed very little concern for Israel’s long tern security or stability and were only tangentially knowledgeable about the current matzav in Israel. More shocking….they were unable to clearly articulate the reasons why Israel is central or even relevant to their lives or to the future of our Jewish community.

Keep in mind that these are the very students who in several years will be exposed to the most well financed  marketing and propaganda now permeated our society –  threatening the very culture and identity of our Jewish community.

Although many of these students participated in recent class, school and summer trips to Israel, the post trip reports and feedback  upon returning home focused more on the enjoyable hikes, food, shopping and just being away from home (many for the first time) while  having fun traveling with peers.

Yes, they indeed had knowledgeable tour guides’ in Israel,  and yes, their school did  offer brief  pre-trip and post educational Israel debriefing sessions . But as we know, unless the school is totally committed to offering a continued seamless, and sustainable program of Israel education, engagement and activism, the long term impact of these experiences will be limited at best.

.I am not suggesting that these students develop a burning unswerving passion for Israel overnight. But when I observe that these are the very students who represent  the future generation of our community’s leaders, I need to step back and take a hard look at what and how our schools are teaching about Israel and the relationship between support for Israel and Jewish identity.

There are many sociologist,  psychologists, educators and academics who will opine that these student responses are natural and are due in part to an entire generation of students who are privileged, coddled and shielded from the harsh realities of  antisemitic or anti-Israel sentiment and events. For these students, Israel is just a holy historical  place to visit not a , birthright, homeland or a country rich in Jewish history, identity, destiny  culture or biblical significance.

This reality is supported by a wide variety of  recent studies and research which strongly suggests that Israel no longer occupies a critically important aspect of our students’ Jewish identity and therefore is being treated and viewed as an important county, but not necessarily central to their lives.

A Leadership Response:

If one is in agreement that our schools can be doing a far more effective job, in light of these realities, how should our schools reclaim and recapture  their roles and responsibility in these critical areas.

It is essential that the leaders of these schools must make a concerted effort to place Israel education, engagement and advocacy at the top of its educational agenda and it must become core to the school’s program and curriculum.

Several proposals for consideration may include:

  • increased intensive and extensive pre-service and in-service teacher and leadership training;
  • the identification and application of high quality Israel related curricula;
  • the integration of Israel education  into the schools history, chumash, taNach, and Talmud curriculum;
  • the creation of high school Israel leadership and student ambassadorship programs;
  • special student, subsidies and financial incentives which would provide all students with tuition free support to visit and study in Israel;
  • the creation of an Israel Education Leadership Program for Jewish day school and yeshiva heads of school, principals and department heads focus on new and innovative teaching modalities and approaches;
  • teacher and Rebbe exchange programs with Israeli educational institutions;
  • incentivizing the establishment of student Israel advocacy groups, responsible for coordinating rallies, letter writing campaigns and other non violent advocacy  and activist efforts in support of Israel;
  • the establishment of a We Stand with Israel forum or student round table where students can gather together on a regular basis to learn about and to reflect upon the current matzav in Israel;
  • the establishment of an I Am Proud to be Jewish  student campaign which aims to expose and educate high school students regarding the resurgence of antisemitism and ways in which to respond to this growing threat;
  • the daily recitation of Tehillim (Psalms) and the offering of  reflective diverei torah emphasizing the importance of achdut  bais yisrael and its relationship to  the ongoing support of Israel;
  • in-depth workshops, seminars and programs which promote, support and teach about the centrality of Israel;
  • the creation of an Israel Education Orientation Seminar for non Jewish faculty who are unfamiliar with the history of Israel and its relevance to the Jewish community;
  • daily news updates and inspiring  stories regarding current events in Israel;
  • Am Ysrael Chai Shabbatonim and student Retreats where students spend an entire Shabbat  learning and reflecting about Israel from a historical, cultural, religious and political perspective;
  • inviting guests speakers and motivational lecturers and personalities to talk with students about the current state of antisemitism  and ways in which students and faculty can respond to this growing concern;
  • the offering of Divrei Chizuk from Rabbinic personalities focusing upon importance and centrality of Israel;
  • the creation of a parent education and Israel advocacy  program which would heighten the consciousness and awareness of parents regarding the role of their children in proactively responding to the current situation in Israel; and encouraging parental volunteerism ( such as sending materials and supplies to the IDF, cakes and sweets for chayalim and other essential goods and products);
  • the creation of a  Jewish day school and yeshiva School Leadership Forum for heads of school, principals and department heads in order to brainstorm and plan school-based Israel education, advocacy and activism;
  • the creation of curricular standards, benchmarks  and requirements which focus upon the quality and impact of  Israel programming on the school’s mission, vision, curricular goals, and value proposition;

Several Additional Thoughts:

The number of creative, meaningful  and impactful  programs and educational  approaches, and methods for our students in regard to this challenge are limitless. They are in fact only limited by the limitations of  our talents and imagination. But first and foremost we must confront this challenge heads on. As educational leadership we must be steadfast and relentless in our  passion, mission, vision   and commitment to ensuring that our students of today are well prepared for their future of tomorrow.

As a Jewish community, we are currently  at a very pivotal moment in our history. We are at an existential  crossroads which demands our focus, attention and commitment as never before in recent memory.

The great Rabbi of Kotzker is quoted as saying that  we must jump into the fire (figuratively) in order to save Jewish lives and to protect our communities.  There are no compromises, no shortcuts and no time to squander.

As  Jewish day school and yeshiva leaders we must do everything in our power to create the right educational conditions, culture and learning environments for our students,  To be sure,  if we are not part of the solution we will become  part of the problem.

Education, quality chinuch and the mesorah must be an imperative.  We cannot afford to faultier or miss this opportunity, at any expense. Our students are our future. They are in fact  the guarantors of  our community’s tomorrow.

I end with two great quotes from Eli Wiesel

“action is the only remedy to indifference”

“the opposite of love is not hate, its indifference”

May HaShem bless acheinu kol bnai yisrael  with the ability and wisdom to help guide our students through times of uncertainty and through the maze of pending darkness toward light; may he keep our chayalim and chayalot safe and healthy; may be bring home our hostages in good health; may he console the mourners of Zion and Yerushalayim; and may he grant a  true and lasting victory over our enemies.

Am Yisrael Chai !

About the Author
Dr. Chaim Botwinick is a senior executive coach and an organizational consultant . He served as president and CEO of the central agency for Jewish education in Baltimore and in Miami; in addition to head of school and principal for several Jewish day schools and yeshivot. He has published and lectured extensively on topics relating to education, resource development, strategic planing and leadership development. Dr. Botwinick is Author of “Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness”, Brown Books, 2011
Related Topics
Related Posts