October 3, 2023
October 3, 2023

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Partnering for Israel Education

I have never been a news junkie. I do read newspapers and magazines; I try to include those that come from different perspectives. Now that news and social media are so driven by practical considerations—by political orientations, by ratings and by the limits of our attention span—I have become yet a more suspicious news reader. I try to gain more direct access to accurate information and responsible interpretation when I can. On some issues, I am successful; on others, I am not. I don’t have the time to pursue it on very many topics. But it is especially important for the issues that matter to me most. For teachers, unmediated (or less mediated) access to information is critical to their understanding and their craft.

I think about this tension often regarding Israel education. The future of the state of Israel is the most important issue for the Jewish people today, not only for the Jews who live in the state but for all of us the world over. That fact remains whether articulated during these turbulent months with more or less worry, with a heavier or more optimistic heart. I feel this to be the case on a personal and individual level. It may feel more urgent for Israel educators, who are responsible for ensuring that the next generation of Jewish leaders understands today’s Israel as well as possible, even from across the Atlantic. Merely teaching Zionist history no longer suffices: the century from 1895 to 1994, the wars, the political heroes and foes. We need to do all that we can to understand contemporary Israel and to transmit that understanding to our students. Doing so demands that teachers have opportunities to learn.

For three years, Machon Siach at SAR High School, honoring the memory of Belda Kaufman Lindenbaum, partnered with the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and former Representative Robert Wexler, its president. We provided Israel educators opportunities to learn directly from experts and to experience firsthand some of the complexities of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the Israel-U.S. relationship and the advances and changes in the region.

Last month, we continued this partnership through an in-person conference. Thirty heads of school, synagogue rabbis, institutional leaders, department heads and teachers gathered at Machon Siach to explore Religious Zionism in the context of the new government in Israel. We learned with experts and academics from Israel and the United States. The program sought to enlarge the circle of participants to increase impact while keeping the group small enough to promote intimate conversation and genuine deliberation of complex issues.

We heard political and civic leaders in Israel describe their perspectives on contemporary Religious Zionism and their vision for the future. The group explored the implications of these changes for the relationship between the United States and Israel as well as the relationship between Israel and World Jewry. Israeli presenters included Rav Amihai Eliyahu, Jerusalem affairs and heritage minister of Israel, and Dr. Ofer Zalzberg, director of the Middle East Program at the Herbert C. Kelman Institute. As educators, we found it particularly relevant to learn about the development of Religious Zionist identity of teens and young adults in Israel today based on data gathered by Rav Matanya Yadid of Mosaica and the director of the Safra Center. Rabbi Dr. Daniel Roth described what is currently happening in mixed cities in Israel such as Lod, Haifa and Akko. From the American perspective, we learned from Dr. Sara Yael Hirschhorn, author of “City on a Hilltop,” about the role of American Religious Zionism in the early development of the yishuvim in Yehuda and Shomron. And there is no one better than Robert Wexler from whom to learn about the evolving dynamics in the U.S.-Israel relationship.

I am proud of the event and grateful to the educators and area experts for dedicating precious time to such professional growth. Learning from the experience, I suggest that the framework for this event represents a model that extends beyond its own specific details. The model contains three components.

Jewish education professionals must have opportunities to learn from and with experts through mutually enriching and collaborative work. In the case of Israel education, this means that the educators are more than listeners and the area experts are more than presenters. Both must engage in the work of translating content for educational use. We often attend a conference, listen to a speaker and, if all goes well, gain knowledge from the experience. If we disagree with the speaker, we might say so or we might not. In this model, the speaker gives and the listener takes it in; knowledge moves in only one direction. The audience is passive; no time is provided for serious deliberation among the participants. In our model, the area expert brings specific content expertise and experience, and the educator brings understanding of students (whatever the age), the community, the social dynamics and the educational purpose. Together, the collaboration can deeply enrich teaching and learning for all involved.

Through their shared learning experience, teachers are able to deliberate about the learned content, about their students and about translating the content for the classroom. Teachers grow from the opportunity to share their thoughts out loud and try out ideas with other teachers. Many Israel educators do not have a context through which to discuss the complexities of teaching about the ever-changing circumstances in Israel. In the absence of such opportunities, they are left to wonder with no clear path for how to proceed. How should we teach about the proposed judicial reforms? What deeper cultural fissures do the protests and counter-protests reflect? Where are the boundaries of what is proper to share in the yeshiva high school classroom? What is the political climate among my students and their parents? How do I bear this responsibility alone? When teachers deliberate together, they can find validation for aspects of their own views, learn new ways to view the matter and collaboratively develop pedagogic strategies.

One important result of such learning and deliberation is the strengthening of personal relationships. Deep, substantive relationships between content experts and educators, as well as among the educators themselves, establish the context for continued learning and growth. Teaching can be a private or even lonely experience. Such relationships foster opportunities for ongoing content learning and educational deliberation. We are thus better equipped to tackle challenging topics in a rapidly changing world. Teaching becomes a stronger profession, and we become better teachers.

We are pursuing this three-part strategy, building relationships through collaborative learning and deliberation with experts, across a range of topics that extend beyond Israel education. But Israel education has primacy of place. We are expanding and developing this learning model for Israel educators in three distinct areas: the U.S.-Israel relationship, Israel and world Jewry and Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. When our teachers become insiders to the conversation, our students are the most important beneficiaries. Partnerships for teacher learning help make that happen.

Rabbi Harcsztark is the founding principal of SAR High School and dean of Machon Siach. He is the recipient of the 2017 Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.

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