Today’s world is very much about personalization and customization. Mattresses, automobiles and worldviews that speak to “my” tastes, desires, interests, schedule and way of thinking and living are the vantage point from which we approach the world. Some people regard this as narcissistic; others see it as an era of the search for “my” meaning and “my” community — an era of identity of assent rather than descent.
This new way of thinking and living is instructive for Israel education (indeed for all education). Up to now, the focus of Israel education has been very much on what is good for Israel, for the Jews, and for continuity. These are well-meaning orientations, but they miss the point.
In truth, Israel is not the subject of Israel education — rather it is the one learning about Israel. The content of Israel education is not Israel — but rather the relationship with Israel. The aim of Israel education is not Israel but rather finding a meaningful role for Israel in our lives.
What does this mean? By viewing learners as the true subjects, Jewish educators help students build deep, meaningful, and personal connections to the land, to the people, and to the State of Israel. This approach is profoundly different than Israel education of the past century, but it is very much in sync with 21st-century life.
The aim of contemporary Jewish education and life is neither Jewish continuity nor Israel defense, but rather about enabling a meaningful synergy between Israel, being Jewish and being human. Israel is important because it is connected to being Jewish, and being Jewish is important because it is about making us truly human. Whether through direct interactions with Israelis, connecting to Israel through a love of music, or experiencing a singular moment with an Israeli poem or short story, excellent Israel education is about the person and the personal.
We develop this personal relationship by “talking with” texts, people, and events in the lives of Israel and Jews throughout the ages and today; these are the pathways to the personal approach. We do not need textbooks, summaries, or instructional units — we need to engage our young with great historical Israel texts that “talk” and enable them to “meet” contemporary Israelis who write, talk, laugh and cry.
More than ever, and in greater numbers than ever, Jewish educators are offering Israel experiences rooted in these core-guiding principles. Many Jewish educators today are skilled practitioners and deft storytellers. They no longer merely “teach a subject” or “furnish empty rooms of the mind.” Rather they are gardeners who enable the young to meet and talk with the Jewish past, present and future.
The iCenter, the hub of Israel education in North America, constitutes a 21st-century address for such an approach. It invests deeply in professional development opportunities for educators across all kinds of learning environments — on Birthright Israel buses, at Jewish camps, in day and congregational schools, and elsewhere. Its aim is to both initiate and then further develop the relationship between a person and Israel. When done effectively, this relationship will be ongoing and meaningful. It will evolve as the person evolves and matures. One’s relationship with Israel may look entirely different at age 50 than it did at 15. But the relationship is there nonetheless because it originated with the person.
An obvious question in all of this is the “how.” How are these relationships between learners and Israel facilitated? The truth is, while it is a lot easier to sit students behind desks and talk at them, true education is about facilitating a conversation between the learner and Jacob, Hosea, Herzl and Yitzchak Rabin. It is not about reading books about Israel; it is about talking with them in their various venues as if we were sitting in a coffee shop on Emek Refaim Street in Jerusalem. It requires an educational language and framework that offer educators different approaches to facilitate these critical relationships.
We are learning more about excellent Israel education every day. It involves a new vision, a new conception of content and innovative educators with passion, knowledge and the courage to educate. Undoubtedly, we need more investment in a broad range of professional development opportunities for Jewish educators, rabbis, and communal professionals who see Israel education in a new light. With this principled approach, educators will facilitate lifelong relationships between learners and Israel. Through this vision we will enable a new generation to shape lifelong relationships with the value, the place and the people called Israel.
Barry Chazan is professor emeritus of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, professor of education at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning and Leadership, founding education director of Taglit-Birthright Israel and author of the forthcoming book, “A Philosophy of Israel Education: a Relational Approach” (Palgrave Macmillan.) He also serves as a consultant to the iCenter.