Israel Education in the 21st Century

Israel education matters today, it matters right now, it matters in the 21st century, and it should matter to all of us who care about Jewish education and the future relationship between the American Jewish community and the modern state of Israel. Why is this question so important to me as a Jewish educator? It is of the utmost importance because as we move away from the generation of the founders to a generation who knew not David Ben Gurion and the incredible victories he and other Israeli leaders achieved, Israel has become but one of the many players in world geo-politics and additionally, she is not necessarily viewed as having a place of importance in the lives of the next generation of Jewish young people. It is my opinion that Israel education should be formally seen as a field of education with its own stature and relevance. I make this very strong statement regarding modern Israel education because in my two-and-a-half decades as a synagogue educator in the reform movement, I have seen a major change in both the interest in learning about modern Israel, as well as in the connection my students and their families have with modern Israel. For the great majority of the families I work with, modern Israel is irrelevant in their lives as secular Americans who are Jewish in heritage and culture, but not in religion. They are fully accepted as Americans and feel they do not need Israel as part of their lives and as part of their Jewish identities. As a Jewish educator, I believe that if imparted in a way that can help my families reconnect with modern Israel, then travel to and engagement with Israel will increase. And therefore, the identity of secular American Jews will include a relationship with Israel.  I present my argument by starting with an historical overview of the development and view of Israel education in American Jewish education from the time of Abba Hillel Silver through to today.

Dr. Steven M. Cohen’s study titled Israel in the Jewish Identity of American Jews: A Study in Dualities and Contrasts published in 1991, can be seen as a foreshadowing into the relationship between American Jews and Israel today, i.e., the fact that we are growing apart from one another. Cohen wrote in 1991 that the historic commitment that the US and Israel had to one another may be starting to strain, and his solution was that Jewish educators need to find different ways to present Israel to their students with more sophisticated approaches. Cohen also pointed out that American Jews need to feel that it is acceptable to publicly dissent with Israel, and that until 1991 Israel had been sold to the American Jewish community as a homogenous whole and that educators have perpetuated this myth about Israel through our curricula. Cohen quoted a conservative educator living in Jerusalem in his study: “Today, while support for Israel is conceived of as an integral part of being Jewish, it stands somewhat apart from American Judaism. It is as if the influences of American life have exorcised the spiritual meaning of Zion and the political reality of Jerusalem. What remains is an urgent sense of obligation to support Israel, with only faint echoes from the tradition as to the reasons why.” (p. 6) Cohen poses the question “of whether American Jewish identification with Israel is in fact part of the core Jewish identity of American Jews.” (p. 7) My response to the question of whether or not Israel is part of the core of the Jewish identity of American Jews in 2019 is no. Israel is not part of the core identity of most American Jews, and therefore the situation must be addressed, and those who work in Jewish education are uniquely positioned to do this work and to make the necessary changes. Unfortunately, we have not yet reached the goal Cohen put forth to us as Jewish educators.

Following Cohen’s study in 1991, in 1992 Dr. David Mittleberg of the University of Haifa, published an article looking at the impact of Jewish education and the Israel experience on the identity of American Jewish youth. Mittleberg defines “Israel experience” as “a plethora of educational programs – formal and informal – that are based primarily in Israel. With the duration being from less than one moth to one year or more” (p. 206) The resulting data reflects that any visit to Israel, even only one, is correlated with higher Jewish religious practice and Jewish community affiliation. “All forms of Jewish education in the diaspora are only a basis for the development of the Jewish identity of the young adult. Second, interventions such as these need to be focused. Quality Israel experiences are shown to have a statistically significant and considerable positive impact on the various components of participants’ Jewish identity. This, of course, we know to be true in 2019, but the $100,000 question for Jewish educators is how to make this happen with shoe-string budgets and short sessions with many only having two hours a week with their students. In my opinion, the integration of Israel into all aspects of Jewish education and making Israel education a separate and recognized field is one of the first steps that needs to happen in order to make this vision a reality.

A brief written in 2013 by Dr. Lisa D. Grant, Daniel Maron and Rabbi Yehudit Werchow titled Israel Education for What? An Investigation of the Purposes and Possible Outcomes of Israel Education, has helped to inform my thinking on this topic. This brief focuses on four areas which relate to the state of Israel education in 2013:

  1. Reluctance/resistance to articulate a clear ideology of Israel education.
  2. Israel education – compartmentalized or Integrated
  3. Impact of new conceptions of self and identity
  4. Israel education in a broader context

The conclusion the author’s reached was that Israel education is highly dependent upon the educator who is imparting the education and/or whomever maintains control over the educational endeavor at any given time. I do agree with their assessment, and wonder if raising the level and intensity and importance of Israel education with Jewish educators would enable a sea change to be made in the field. They also point out that “there appears to be a great reluctance on the part of Jewish policy makers, funders, researchers, and educators to engage in thoughtful and systematic consideration of the range of possible aims, means, and outcomes of Israel education. For the most part, these various stakeholders hold to an assumption that Israel is important to Jewish life but are unwilling or unable to examine this assumption more closely in terms of their own ideological stance towards Jewish education, towards Jewish life, and towards Israel.” (p. 1) They continue by saying:

This reluctance (or resistance) appears to be rooted in some combination of: a) a visceral sense of commitment to Israel and/or fear of Jewish learners losing that sense of commitment; b) a self-limiting assumption that Jews living outside of Israel don’t have the right to even ask the question of Israel for what purpose; c) the inertia and relative ease of continuing existing practice; and d) an inability or unwillingness to devote sufficient time or resources for research that is necessary to better understand this complex field. Perhaps the most significant factor, however, is that addressing the question of purposes forces us to come to terms with the diversity of understandings and viewpoints that American Jewry holds towards Israel. At one time, Israel was a topic that gave expression to Jewish solidarity and consensus among American Jews. For many, this assumption no longer holds. As such, each educational community within the American Jewish community needs to both directly define and justify its own commitment to Israel, and to make sense of the diversity of approaches that American Jews hold towards Israel. This, in turn, raises difficult questions regarding the diversity of Jewish identity altogether. In other words, if we are so diverse, what makes us into a distinct people, or a religion? How can we interact with Jews with different approaches than our own (to Israel, Judaism or any other topic)? (p. 1)

The paragraph above sums up for me why, in 2019, we sit at a crossroads in Israel education. We have become ambivalent, and in a sense, lazy. Israel in the 21st century is complicated, and perhaps, if we were to really ask ourselves the questions that Grant, Marom and Werchow ask above, what would happen to us as an American Jewish community, or even as a community of Jews around the world? And have the issues surrounding Israel become so divisive that they have separated us as a people?

The iCenter for Israel Education describes a field as “a community of organizations and individuals: (1) working together towards a common goal, and 2) using a set of common approaches to achieving that goal.” In the report, Israel Education in Practice, The iCenter worked towards developing a definition for Israel education as a field in order to understand the community of American Jewish educators who are currently working towards the goal of improved Israel education. The conclusion of the main researchers, Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz and Dr. Minna Wolf, was that three things are needed to grow the emerging field of Israel education: (1) start with the personal; (2) connect the personal with the professional; and (3) building professional capacity. “Change initiatives need to connect the ‘masses’ of Jewish educators with a passion for Israel to the knowledge and skills required to integrate effective Israel educational work into their work as Jewish educators. The most committed should be nurtured and groomed as change agents and champions on behalf of the field.” (p. 3) Israel is complicated and messy, and as Jewish educators we know that. But if we follow the path of making Israel education its own field of study, then there will be no limits. And given the situation we are facing with the next generation of Jews and their parents and their lack of connection with Israel, we must boldly step forth and do the hard work that is necessary to find ways to connect them to modern Israel in order to keep the connection and relationship between our communities alive.

About the Author
Melissa S. Cohavi is a graduate of The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and has a Bachelor of Arts in Judaic Studies. She also has a Masters in Social Work from Yeshiva University Wurzweiler School of Social Work, a Master of Arts in Religious Education from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and a Certificate in Non Profit Management from SUNY Purchase. Melissa is a licensed social worker in the State of New York. Melissa is currently an Ed.D candidate at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Melissa has extensive experience in the field of Jewish and Israel education. She has written curriculum for all ages, from youth through high school, and has extensive youth work experience. Melissa lived in Israel for three years, where she completed her Masters in Social Work, and worked as a community social worker in the Neve Yonatan neighborhood of Ramla. Melissa has won a number of Jewish education awards, including The Rabbi Edward E. Klein Memorial Prize in Education and the Marilyn Scheffler Award for Excellence in Education, both from HUC-JIR. Melissa has presented at a number of conferences, including the National Association of Temple Educators, NewCAJE and Limmud Stockholm. Melissa is the Director of Jewish Identity Development at Congregation B'nai Yisrael in Armonk, New York.