Why Jewish Educators Must Go to Israel Now

The days and weeks following October 7th were some of the most difficult in the lives of Jewish educators. Those of us who had spent the past three years adapting our programs for Zoom learning, hybrid learning, pandemic learning, and any other effects of COVID-19 were now faced with the need to adjust once again, to provide both comfort and information to our learners and their families. We fielded countless calls about antisemitism in schools, planned programs, and lessons to reflect the ever-changing reality in Israel, and gave space to students to mourn and ask questions.

Many Jewish educators watched as missions were put together, for congregational rabbis, federation executives, and lay leaders. Even as we were being told how critical our work was to ensure the Jewish future, most missions were not geared towards educators. We heard stories about what was happening on the ground and were asked to translate that into meaningful learning experiences for our students, but very few educators had been able to see for ourselves.

That is why I, and so many of my fellow educators, embarked on a mission to Israel with The Jewish Education Project and UJA-Federation. We spent 3.5 days on the ground walking through destroyed communities in the Gaza Envelope, meeting with survivors living in hotels, honoring the dead at Har Herzel, meeting with the family of a hostage in Hostage Square, and connecting with the Bedouin community at an Iftar. In a very short time, we were able to see a slice of what is happening on the ground, hear from a diverse group of Israelis, and start to have conversations about how we might bring this picture of Israel back to our students.

I am incredibly grateful that I got to be in Israel and see firsthand what Israelis are living with day in and day out. On the one hand, I want to share all of it with my students, because they are connected to what they hear on the news, and they have many questions about what things are like in Israel right now. On the other hand, so much of what we saw was deep pain and trauma, and we have to be careful, especially with younger students, about what images and stories we share.

Two moments stood out to me as stories that both represent what is happening in Israel and that our students will connect with based on their own experiences. On our third day in Israel, we went to one of the hotels that is housing evacuees from some of the kibbutzim in the south. The woman who gave our tour spoke with us about all that the community went through to create as much normalcy for the children as possible, including setting up preschools in hotel rooms. When you walk in there, nothing looks normal. Hotel beds and dresses sit out on the porch to make room for books and toys and when you open the closet, it is full of snacks and other storage items that tell you this room is being used by young children. We visited a group of children going about their day in Purim costumes; same as our students in New York.

These are kids who are used to running free in a kibbutz, who are now confined to a hotel, and are making the best of the situation along with their teachers. By explaining these stories to our students and showing them the pictures, they will see and feel what we saw and felt – that life in Israel is continuing but that beneath the surface there is so much that is not as it should be.

The second moment was a graffiti tour we did in Tel Aviv of the street art that popped up since October 7th. From depictions of the victims to renderings of Inbal Liberman, who saved her whole kibbutz, to a birthday drawing of Kfir Bibas, we saw the full range of emotions and reactions on display through this artwork. Through the expert guidance of our guide Maya Yehezkel, we all saw the ways in which this art could serve as a window into Israeli life for our students. This will allow us to show, not tell, our students what we saw, and draw them into the experience.

Many of our students, and their families, will not go to Israel in the near future and many of them will not have the chance that I did, to see the aftermath of October 7th with their own eyes. This trip helped me continue to try to answer the questions of how Israel education should change, and how to connect students to a reality that feels simultaneously close and far away. This will continue to be the project of educators, and this first-hand experience is an important tool in starting to answer those questions.

Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal is Director of Youth & Family Education at Central Synagogue in Manhattan. She traveled on one of 13 “Mishlachot Areyvut” Israel trips organized by The Jewish Education Project in partnership with The iCenter. 

About the Author
Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal is Director of Youth & Family Education at Central Synagogue in Manhattan. She traveled on one of 13 “Mishlachot Areyvut” Israel trips organized by The Jewish Education Project in partnership with The iCenter.
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