(February 22, 2021 / JNS) We must always remember that where we are today is because of the people who came before us.
In my life, this is easy. As the youngest of four, I was always able to try more new activities at an earlier age because my sisters trailblazed the path. More importantly, my desire to learn and educate came from my sisters, too.
Growing up in Israel afforded my siblings and me unique experiences; we all served in leadership roles during our time in the Israel Defense Forces. After our service, all four of us were accepted into the Jewish Agency for Israel’s (JAFI) Summer Shlichim Program to volunteer at Jewish summer camps in North America. This experience introduced us to the concept of Israel education for the first time.
My oldest sister, Moran, pioneered this adventure in our family. After her summer at the Chicago Heller JCC, she spent a year volunteering at the Jewish community in Helsinki, Finland, and then three years as a JAFI Shlicha in Michigan. She directed the Habonim Dror youth movement in the U.S. Midwest and worked for the Israel and Overseas Department in the Metro Detroit Federation. Now she is the partnerships director at Machshava Tova, an Israeli nonprofit that aims to narrow social gaps by bringing more technology to underprivileged populations.
My own journey as an Israel educator included returning for a second year to my North American summer camp, and then working for Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) as the director of Jewish enrichment and education. It was in this role that I participated in the inaugural cohort of The iCenter’s Graduate Certificate In Israel Education at the George Washington University. I then earned my master’s degree through the program.
One of the program’s unique aspects, especially for an Israeli, is the Israel travel experience. In the summer of 2019, my cohort flew to Israel and spent a week of unforgettable adventures (and even a random meet-up with the musician Jon Bon Jovi in the hotel lobby), seeing my country through a new perspective, and, of course, visiting my family.
A year ago, Moran and I utilized our shared experiences gained from the Jewish educational world. At her son Yonatan’s bar mitzvah, we co-led a ceremony that blended ancient Jewish traditions and texts with more contemporary readings and practices. Moran added personal and modern interpretations to the celebration. We used one of The iCenter’s fundamental values of a “learner-centered approach” to education. The entire experience was designed with Yonatan’s involvement based around his greatest passion—surfing—and his bar mitzvah Torah portion Terumah, which covers the construction of the ancient Jewish Temple. We drew out lessons from the portion that paralleled what becoming an adult looks and feels like. Yonatan began to understand the biblical text because we helped make it meaningful and relevant to his experience at this specific stage of life.
Approaching Israel education through the learner’s experience opens more possibilities for educators. We are no longer just confined to dates in Israel’s history that we feel compelled to transmit. Instead, Israel education can occur through a cooking class, arts and/or cultural event or any other experience that enables people to build their own meaningful relationships with Israel.
Following my graduation from The iCenter’s program, my sister enrolled. Her cohort was the first to bring together Israeli and American students. She said, “The program gives me an opportunity to share my educational experience in the Jewish world, and brings my authentic point of view as an Israeli educator to the Israel education ecosystem.”
As an alumnus, experiencing the program through my sister’s eyes—and seeing where it already has evolved—reinforces both how complex and rewarding Israel education is. As educators, we need to always be learning, especially from those around us. Israel education, when done right, is about the people learning, not just the people teaching. In this approach, Israel is a cornerstone of identity development. While it may play a variety of roles in the different identities of young people, Israel should be a part of any Jewish education. Learners should be encouraged to engage with that aspect of their identity.
How do we encourage this? A deft approach and extensive knowledge base enable us to adapt to any learner’s interests and strengths, allowing individuals to create meaningful connections to Israel. My sister and I think about and experience Israel in different ways, just as our students do. Israel education—like the state, land and people—is an ever-changing learning opportunity that we, as educators, can design for anyone.
Moshe Lencer graduated from The iCenter’s Graduate Degree in Israel Education program at the George Washington University.
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