Reflections on Israel Engagement and Israel Education

By Rabbi Marc Rosenstein

In the traditional Jewish community, long before there was a Zionist movement or a state of Israel, the “connection to Israel” was built in to everyday life. The entire calendar of holidays, the words of the daily prayers, the everyday detail of the stories of the Bible and the laws of the Mishnah – all were permeated with Israel: its landscape, its climate, its agriculture, its geography. Even if a Jew lived in Australia, where Pesach comes in the fall, Pesach was for him/her a spring festival – for when we celebrate Pesach we experience vicariously the spring of Eretz Yisrael. Connectedness to Israel, in the traditional community, is simply an organic part of Jewish identity. That certainly helps to explain why Zionism became such a powerful movement: Zionism integrated this organic identity connection to Israel with messianic longing, modern nationalism, and secular humanism. Zionism offered us the opportunity to make our vicarious experience of Israel actual; to live out the messianic hope in real time and real space.

This success of Zionism has led to the crisis of Israel education. Now that Israel is a modern state, now that we have “returned to history” with all the unpleasantness and difficult dilemmas that that entails – and now that in our modernization we have lost much of the substrate of tradition in which our Israel connection was rooted – we are left trying to create a new connection to Israel, based on the assumption of the Zionist revolution: that Judaism is a nationality, not a religion. And so, we seek ways to make the modern state of Israel meaningful to our students. We try making it a topic in social studies, in history, in current events; we teach modern Israeli songs, weep for the suffering and death of Israelis in battle, in terror attacks, even in outer space. But in fact, most of our students and their families are not Zionists in any classical sense. They are American Jews affiliated with Jewish religious institutions. Israel is for them a symbol, an instrument, a geopolitical reality that often makes them uncomfortable.

Most of us are operating in a religious educational context, in supplementary schools operated by synagogues, in day schools affiliated with religious movements. Much of our work revolves around a religious definition of Jewish identity. We talk about peoplehood, but we teach Bible and prayer and holidays. The problem is that in the dilution of the traditional community, our teaching has come to focus mainly on just maintaining some minimum level of commitment to practice – and competence; on the way to this point, we have lost the consciousness of all of our religious observance being on some level a form of connection to Israel. There is Jewish text and Jewish observance – and then, on the television, there is Israel.

I believe that we must work to restore Israel to the center of Jewish identity. But I believe that “Israel studies,” “Israel curriculum,” etc. are not the way to go. Of course, in our teaching of Jewish history, sociology, personalities, value dilemmas, demography, etc., Israel must be included in appropriate proportions and with proper emphasis (and we have a long way to go in this area: recently I compared the number of books on the Holocaust in a day school library to the number of books on Israel; the ratio was about 6:1). However, I don’t believe that “Israel social studies” or even singing Israeli songs or corresponding with Israeli children represent a serious solution to the problem of “Israel connectedness.” Israel is not a discipline in the curriculum. It is a root value of the curriculum in the religious school, like God and Torah. The Bible is a book about Israel, as is the Mishnah. Many of our holidays lose much of their meaning if they are not understood as festivals relating to the cycle of the seasons of Eretz Yisrael. I believe we must work to restore the organic integration of Israel into every element of Jewish identity – of Jewish religious identity. It’s not Israel curricula that we need, but Bible and rabbinics and prayer and holiday curricula that are permeated with Israel.

How do we do this?

The first thing we need to do is help our teachers feel empowered to teach Israel throughout the curriculum. We need teachers who are comfortable in their knowledge of Israel ancient and modern, who know the map, know the seasons, know the language, know the landscape. We need teachers who can see in their mind’s eye Saul and Jonathan on the Gilboa, Elijah on the Carmel, Rabbi Judah Hanasi in Zippori, the Ramban in Acco, the settlers at Kinneret, the soldiers at the Western Wall. We need teachers with mastery of the texts that link us to the land, from the wanderings of the patriarchs to the laws of the sabbatical year to the warnings – and promises – of the prophets; from the agricultural technicalities of the Mishnah to the agricultural images of Rachel’s poetry. We need teachers who have struggled themselves with the religious and ideological issues of the meaning of the land and state of Israel for the individual Jew and for the Jewish people. We need teachers who have experienced both the land and the state “up close and personal.”

The preparation of teachers to engage in “Israel education” is not a simple process of pumping up their knowledge of the history of the modern state and of the Arab-Israel conflict, nor is it just to equip them with videos, games, and textbooks on life in Israel today, on heroes of the state, on Israel’s successes in high tech, etc. Maybe we need to do those things, but they are not even close to sufficient, and I believe that they are secondary to the kind of preparation implied in the preceding paragraph: we need to provide for them the opportunity to experience our texts in the context of their rootedness in the land – and to experience the land as reflected in and explained by our texts. Our goal is not just teachers who possess lots of knowledge about Israel, or even who model solidarity with Israel; our goal is teachers for whom Israel is a seamless part of their own Jewish identity, informing every aspect of their Jewishness and flowing naturally in everything they do as Jews and teach as Jewish teachers.

Parker Palmer:

If students and subjects accounted for all the complexities of teaching, our standard ways of coping would do: keep up with our fields as best we can, and learn enough techniques to stay ahead of the student psyche. But there is another reason for these complexities: we teach who we are.

Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one's inwardness, for better or worse. As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together. The entanglements I experience in the classroom are often no more or less than the convolutions of my inner life. Viewed from this angle, teaching holds a mirror to the soul. If I am willing to look in that mirror, and not run from what I see, I have a chance to gain self-knowledge - and knowing myself is as crucial to good teaching as knowing my students and my subject.

In fact, knowing my students and my subject depends heavily on self-knowledge. When I do not know myself, I cannot know who my students are. I will see them through a glass darkly, in the shadows of my unexamined life - and when I cannot see them clearly I cannot teach them well. When I do not know myself, I cannot know my subject - not at the deepest levels of embodied, personal meaning. I will know it only abstractly, from a distance, a congeries of concepts as far removed from the world as I am from personal truth.
So what we need to do is help teachers articulate their own relationship to Israel, to clarify its place in their Jewish identities, to bring out in the open the dilemmas with which they struggle (or which they suppress) with regard to Israel.