I just read Rabbi Philip Graubart’s excellent eJP essay, “Their Birthright Problem, and Ours” on honesty and thoughtfulness in Jewish and Israel education. He writes about a recent experience leading an Israel trip for his students in which complex questions arose about the Israeli-Arab conflict. Rabbi Graubart gets it right. “Honesty, coupled with deep, reflective thought” is not only the way we should approach Jewish and Israeli education, but also what we should model to those we are educating. It demonstrates integrity and fearlessness in tackling tough questions. When our participants see us grappling with multiple truths, they trust that the knowledge we impart and the values we frame are coming from a place of deep empathy.
I’ve had the same experience that Rabbi Graubart relates in his essay. One winter, standing on top of Mt. Arbel above the Kinneret, our Birthright Israel guide gave me a curious sidelong glance before launching into a complex story about the place of Arab citizens in Israeli society. After we got back to the bus he said, “You know, Jason, I was really nervous when I started talking, that’s why I looked at you funny. I didn’t think you would like what I said and would interrupt me to stop.” Yet what he said, I thought, covered the multiple perspectives, different narratives, and contemporary nuances that the discussion required. He was honest and thoughtful. Later, several participants told me that they really respected him sharing viewpoints that they realized he probably didn’t agree with.
I use Jewish education as a frame to begin giving my Birthright Israel participants the knowledge they need to more deeply consider the moral questions they encounter.
I’d like to think, though, that I go beyond honesty and reflection in my role as a Jewish educator. I use Jewish education as a frame to begin giving my Birthright Israel participants the knowledge they need to more deeply consider the moral questions they encounter. Rabbi Graubart calls Birthright’s approach indoctrinating and I get what he’s trying to say, but it’s an unfortunate word choice. “Indoctrinates” is a word that suggests the Birthright education model is ultimately reduced to a political or religious connotation in which the participants come to accept ideas uncritically. Instead, my frame, which uses the “honesty and thoughtfulness” approach, allows a wide space for my participants to think about what they are encountering, and to absorb (as much as possible in ten short days!) all the different viewpoints and experiences precisely so that they don’t think I have enforced a singular answer.
It’s certainly hard to always get right. Rabbi Graubart talks about the “bargain” in this discourse: agreeing “to listen to an opinion we dislike, because that’s how we learn.” I think hard about the implicit bargain that comes with being an educator to twentysomethings on a Birthright Israel trip. Agreeing “to listen to an opinion we dislike” is essential. And I would add that we should all assume good faith. Sometimes I tell my participants, “I, as a Jewish educator, will do my best to address your questions honestly and comprehensively, knowing that our time together is limited, that I don’t necessarily have the right answers, and that I can’t always represent all possible voices. But I’ll try. And I would like you, my participants, to acknowledge that I’m doing my best, assume good faith on my part, and from this bargain we can have conversations.”
I reach for elu v’elu, “both this and that”, the idea that all before me is complex: my participants and their backgrounds, the narrative of Jewish history, the wrestling with moral challenges in contemporary Israel and its many perspectives. With empathy, honesty, thoughtfulness, and a frame that emphasizes the pursuit of knowledge, we can instill our passion for Israel and the Jewish People into the next generation.