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Chaim Y. Botwinick

The Centrality of Israel: Challenging Realities and Opportunities

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Im eshkachech Yerushalayim, tishkach yemini..

The topic of Israel occupies a critically important dimension of our Jewish community’s  history, legacy and destiny.

Israel’s biblical, historical and communal significance and its indelible impact on our lives as Jews is undeniable; and, its welfare, viability, health and security as a country and as our true  homeland is paramount. To be sure, Israel is referenced throughout our tfillot (prayers), our Torah, and our codes of Jewish law, and it is deeply embedded in our people’s DNA and psyche. Israel is not only inextricably linked to our rich Jewish heritage and common destiny but serves as an integral part of our lives as our indisputable and undeniable birthright.

Today, there are educational institutions in our community – whether they be Jewish day schools or yeshivot – that promote, support and teach about Israel as an integral part of their mission, vision, curriculum and value proposition. Israel is deeply embedded in their hearts and soul. And, there are those institutions that paint around the edges and pay homage and respect to Israel, but do not make a highly visible or concerted effort or commitment  to make Israel central or core to their raison d’etre or curricula. And then, finally, there are those schools and institutions which remain visibility distant (by design) from the topic and are completely devoid of any possible link or relationship to Israel, as a state or as a nation, except within the context of  learning about Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel as referenced in the Torah.

As an educator who has toiled for close to 35 years in the Jewish day school, yeshiva and central agency communities, I have learned (mostly by trial and error), when to take a public position on this sensitive and highly contested subject or issue, To be sure, any rational, civilized discussion or debate regarding the manner in which our schools and communities could or should support or teach about Israel eventually devolves into a rabbit hole of monumental proportion…particularly for those schools and communal institutions and leaders who continuously  distance themselves from the topic of religious zionism or tzianut, and support for Israel.

It is not within  purview of this writer, to either suggest, or opine regarding these disparate approaches or institutional models; but rather to focus more directly and productively on our ability, capacity and desire to enhance and promote the Israel agenda in our schools, yeshivot, communal institutions and communities.

Over the past several decades, we have witnessed a significant shift in the manner in which our communities support, teach and promote Israel as our proud Jewish homeland. This paradigm shift is evidenced through a recent narrative and continuous distancing of  public support for Israel on college campuses, the plateauing of aliya to Israel by select populations, recent BDS boycotts of Israeli programs, products and activities as well as the “cancelling” of Israel by disparate groups with antisemitic undertones, agendas, intentions and innuendo.

More recently, we are sadly witnessing an additional new reality –   the  alienation of  America Jewish communal and philanthropic leadership  towards Israel as a result of the recent internal judicial reforms and corresponding domestic unrest ….all of which are having a most dramatic impact on the country. The fear, as expressed by many in the media and select Israeli politicians is that if current trends in Israel continue, Israel may eventually lose its rightful place and reputation  as a true and only transparent and credible democracy in the Middle East.

On a personal level, I feel that this concern is a bit of an overly ambitious stretch or over-reach; and that the country is now going through a natural, albeit very difficult and  painful  evolutionary period of growing pangs from a variety of political, sociological and religious perspectives.  On the one hand, this phenomenon  may represent a political backlash resulting from the anti-right (non-religious) prior government of Israel; on the other, there are those who claim that these issues and concerns were always fomenting and  festering just below the surface of Israeli society for past generations; These ideological, political and religious differences and disparities have now exploded with the realization of a government headed by Prime Minister Bibi Natanyahu and his Cabinet. Again, a natural but painful evolutionary cycle which was predicted to happen decades ago. To be sure, their were many rabbinic, political leaders and personalities  and academic scholars who over the years, in anticipation of  today’s crisis, begged for more peaceful dialogue, conversation and debate….but to no avail. The rallying cry for Achdut Bnai Yisrael fell on dead ears and was sadly eclipsed by political ambitions driven by an ideology of secularism and anti-religious sentiment.

As a result of these realities, Israeli society and diaspora Jewish communities are now paying a very high price for its arrogance, myopic political positioning and indifference – all of which are toxic and potentially very dangerous.

Remember, the majority of Israelis voted to elect the Natanyahu and members of his party.  The ruling majority now in power in the Knesset were democratically elected. The people got what they wanted. This was not a take-over, a coup or a revolution. It was a democratically driven process with transparency, integrity and fairness. I was indeed a referendum by the Israelis  that the status quo at that time was no longer acceptable.

Once the government of Israel  is able to actually articulate its position and direction regarding these proposed judicial reforms, I truly and sincerely believe (and hope)  that a compromise regarding  these reforms in Israel will take hold; and that communal shalom bayit will prevail.

The gross analogy I am positing is likened to that of a toddler who gives off  negative attitude and vibes and  begins to  throw violent  tantrums when things are growing awry.  Here too, our brothers and sisters must get this pent-up feeling out of their systems before they can even have a chance at engaging in any respectful or civilized discussion or understanding, let alone, compromise.

Having said that, in the interim, the daunting unrest, physical violence in the streets of Tel Aviv and  growing sinat chinam is tearing apart the heart and very soul of the country, both in Israel and in diaspora Jewish communities. To this end, I ask the question, where is our leadership? Why is there a lack of public, respectful and civilized dialogue and discussion? Why is asking or demanding compromise a far off reality? And finally, what will it take to have everyone take a deep cleansing  breath and move forward with civil dialogue leading to  respectful compromise. Who in fact is the adult in the room? As we know, in the absence of real solutions, the word and concept of Achdut rings hollow. It requires substance and direction…But, above all, it requires visionary leadership and direction which our communities can accept, embrace and hopefully, eventually celebrate..

Friends, all of these realities, are further exacerbated by Israel’s ever increasing security need and concerns. With Hamas and Islamic Jihad  in southern Israel and Hezbollah to the north, the country now faces an ever increasing existential threat from Iran. This is  a monumental challenge and a harsh reality of epic  proportion; and a growing danger which Israel,  America and the entire free world now face together.

When viewing all of these challenges in their totality, many of us nevertheless remain confident, steadfast and secure in our conviction that Israel will not only survive, but will flourish and grow in ways never before imaginable. This reality is deeply rooted in our belief that Israel is our undeniable holy and sacred birthright and the land of our forefathers – Avraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is a land imbued with kedusha (holiness); and the “land of milk and honey”which HaShem promised to us, as an am kadosh and as an ohr laGoyim.

The Torah of Israel, the Land of Israel and the Nation or People of Israel comprise the rich three dimensional mosaic of what Israel represents.The Torah -broadly interpreted as the cognitive and emotive dimensions of Jewish education, – the Land of Israel  is the birthplace of Judaism and the homeland of the Jewish people are the pillars of Judaic civilization. Both are absolutely essential to the existence of our Jewish People  (Am Yisrael) and each occupy a very special and cherished place in our hearts.

So with all of the differences of opinion regarding the role and importance of Israel, its relevance to our lives and to the viability and security of our Jewish people, what should be the role and responsibility of our schools, institutions and communities in promoting and teaching about the centrality of Israel to their students and communities? Where should we place the emphasis? How do we ensure high quality engagement and how do we ensure Israel’s religious, cultural and historic primacy, viability and integrity.

The teaching about Israel, and advocating for its growth or as many refer to it as “Israel education”, and its significant impact on our Jewish people and community and our common destiny is no small task. We must ensure a proper balance that is authentic, real, sensitive  and rooted in historical context, reality, and in the Torah

Centrality 

As we know, the  summer break  provides our schools with opportunities to prepare for the fall semester and to review appropriate educational programs, objectives and curricular material. This also holds true regarding Israel curricula as well as the identification of effective and meaningful venues, texts and materials for student and teacher discussion, teaching, learning, dialogue, debate and reflection.

The summer is also the period of time when many of our day schools begin to plan their middle school and  high school class trips to Israel for the coming year; the beginning of the season when representatives from Israeli institutions and seminaries gear up for their student recruitment campaigns and, visits to the states; and, it is a time when high school  guidance counselors, students and their parents are faced with the exciting challenge of selecting an appropriate post high environment  for their children – whether it be a seminary, rabbinic school,  university or just several months of learning and travel prior to making final post-high school plans or decisions.

In addition to the development, identification and dissemination of teachable moments and activities, Jewish school leaders and faculty  need to take a far more serious and comprehensive  look at the myriad of  ways in which they teach about Israel.

For example, several of the questions and challenges facing our schools are:…… should the teaching of Israel be a self contained course or should it be an elective, with the teaching of historical facts, events, geopolitical trends and core facts about Israel?  Or, should the topic of Israel be integrated into Biblical and Talmudic text study? How do schools create a culture which supports the critical importance of Israel; and does Israel speak to all students and faculty as an integral part of the school’s “hidden curriculum”.

All of  these options are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they do represent a variety  and range of  potential approaches to teaching about Israel in our schools.

As we broaden the challenge, it is essential that our communities  in the Jewish diaspora begin to address, front and center, the effective teaching, promotion and support of Israel from an educational, sociological, religious and political perspective.

Several strategic and tactical suggestion for consideration may include:

  • the creation of an international commission on Jewish unity and achdut which would serve as a respectful forum for debate, discourse and understanding;
  • the establishment of a joint Israel-diaspora teacher exchange program for all full-time  teachers and educators employed by Jewish day schools, yeshivot and camps;
  • the provision of subsidies to help defray the cost of professional development opportunities for teachers and educators who are tasked with teaching our  students and young adults about Israel in their respective institutions;
  • the design of pre and post Israel trip educational experiences and programs which are rich in serious content and substance; and the design of Israel trip follow-up programs and engagement activities;
  • the creation and coordination of a lay leadership “summit”  which compliments  missions and trips to Israel by the organized Jewish community (read federations and the Jewish agency); critical topics may include challeges relating to  achdut bnai yisrael, civil discourse, geo-poltical realities, ambassadorship training for the support of Israel; and the impact of media  (to name a few);
  • developing carefully crafted talking points for Jewish communal lay and professional leadership,  clearly articulating the“case for Israel’
  • the convening of  a global teen and/or college student leadership summit on Israel
  • the establishment of a college/university Student Israel Ambassadors program;
  • the creation of more community-based travel opportunities for adults to Israel with creative and knowledgeable  scholars, teachers and educators;
  • special grants and subsidies to support the design, development and beta testing of new innovative Israel based curricula;
  • developing a closer working relationship and partnership  between diaspora Jewish communities and the Israel Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, Ministry of Education and Culture.
  • establishing a blue ribbon  Israel Judicial Roundtable  (IJR) which would invite Jewish communal leadership to the table in order to explore those areas of judicial reform which require intensive review, debate and eventual compromise. As envisioned, this forum would serve as an intermediate body between the recommendations issued by the Knesset and the initial readings or ratification of the actual judicial  reforms.
  • the establishment of Israel Education Think Tanks  which would attract the best and brightest academicians, philanthropists, business leaders, rabbinic leadership and Jewish scholars and educators in order to grapple with the wide array of complex challenges facing Israel’s cultural divide and its impact on diaspora Jewish communities. These Think Tanks would result in a series of Action Plans for local and regional consideration.

End Note:

At the end of the day, our community must determine the strategic and tactical responses which we require in order to face the challenges relating  Israel and diaspora Jewish communities. This is our challenge ….. requiring our solutions. Plain and simple.

We only have one Torah , one Land, and one State. Irrespective of which of these three legs on the Jewish identity stool  resonates the most with us, one thing is clear, Israel is and will continue to be our birthright; the place of our forefathers and the place which HaShem gave to our people and as transmitted through our mesorah.

The above suggestions, strategies and tactics  are just a small drop in the bucket of very complex, difficult  and arduous  ideas and realities. If only one or two of these considerations were to be realized and successfully actualized – dayenu – we would be moving mountains.

This evening,  our Jewish communities will be observing Rosh Chodesh Av – the beginning of the “nine days” of mourning which culminates with Tisha B’Av.

The lessons and horrors of  Tisha B’Av, including the destruction of our Batei Midrash  (holy temples) in Yerushalayim  should serve as a harsh  reminder – religious and secular – of what happens when we as a people engage in sinat chinam; when we lose respect for one another; and, when we show complete disregard  and disdain for the opinions, needs and hopes of our Jewish brothers and sisters.

It is my profound  hope and prayer that as we approach  the solemn period of  Tisha B’Av that we will be blessed with the strength, foresight, fortitude and wisdom to rise to the occasion and show each other the levels of respect, love, civility and unity which HaShem expects from all of us – irrespective of our diverse perspectives, standards or opinions

Being created b’tzelem elokin, (in the image of GD), not only strongly suggests this expectation, mandate  and direction……..but demands it.

Together, we can do this!

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