What Does Israel Mean to You? Two Educators Share Their Vision of Israel Education

In honor of Israel’s Independence Day, we’ve asked Aliza Goodman and Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson, two members of the 2017 cohort of Pomegranate Prize recipients, to share with us their perspectives on Israel education.

What does Israel mean to you, and why do you do the work you do?

Aliza Goodman: Many years ago, after my paternal grandmother passed away, while cleaning out her closets, we discovered stuffed in the back corner a rolled-up paper with my grandparents’ names on it. It was from Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael (JNF), given to them for “meritorious service” and dated January 1948 – several months before the establishment of the state of Israel. For me, that certificate demonstrates just how intertwined my own family’s story is with the story of the founding of the state of Israel. I also like to joke that I was born to work in Israel education since my birthday is on November 29th (the date of vote on the UN Partition Plan in 1947).

I was also fortunate growing up to have the opportunity to deepen my personal relationship with Israel and Israelis through many summers spent visiting my grandparents in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson: I also have deep family roots in Israel–my grandmother was born there, and my grandfather arrived as a teenage Holocaust survivor–but they moved the family to the US when my mother was seven. My love for Israel starts with the three summers my family spent on a kibbutz in the Arava when I was a kid, which were reinforced by a semester I spent there after college.

On some level, Israel for me will always be red mountains, piercingly blue sky, and the green grass coaxed from the sand. But in terms of the work I do, I can draw a direct line from the summer of 1999, when the Bronfman Fellowship educators had the courage to teach us about the differences between life in East and West Jerusalem.

Is there a key text that guides your thinking and work on Israel?

LMN: Morris Panitz, who will be ordained this month at the American Jewish University, taught me the midrash from Bereshit Rabbah 56:10 about God’s dilemma for naming Jerusalem. Two righteous men, Shem and Abraham, had given it different names, Shalem and Yireh. To choose only one name would be to denigrate the other tzaddik! Therefore, God combined the names and called it Yeru-Shalem, or Yerushalayim.

This text expresses my deeply held belief that we Jews have ancient roots and a powerful claim on the Land of Israel–and that there is another people, the Palestinians, who also have strong roots and claim. In this midrash, God holds up an example for me of how to try and navigate the situation.

AG: Israel education to me is—at its core—about helping young Jews develop deep, meaningful, and enduring relationships with Israel and Israelis, discovering how the stories of Israel intertwine with their own personal stories. I often turn to the poem “Tourists” by Yehuda Amichai, one of Israel’s poet laureates. For me, this poem really highlights a person-centered approach to Israel education—that Israel education isn’t just knowing about the sites and historical events that have shaped Israel, but developing relationships with the people who make up society: “Redemption will come only if their guide tells them, you see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

What is your goal when “doing” Israel education?

AG: I believe that everywhere that Jewish education happens, Israel can and should be present. We need to infuse Israel into the learning experiences of young people, so that they begin to develop meaningful relationships with Israel and Israelis from a young age in a way that can be integrated into their everyday lives. How individual educators, organizations, and institutions do this varies based on their own values and beliefs.

Much of my work at The iCenter involves consultations with the leadership of educational organizations to explore the place of Israel within their missions and visions, and developing an educational framework that allows for educators to bring their own personal connections to Israel into their work while also providing them a set of guidelines that is aligned with the overall goals and values of the organization.

LMN: I see where you’re coming from; I work in one of those organizations with a specific set of values and beliefs. At T’ruah, we’re quite up-front about our goals: I want people to have–or to be strengthened in–a progressive Zionist approach. That is, to care about Israel, to want Israel to be the best Jewish and democratic version of itself that it can be, to live up to its founding values. It’s inevitable that students will learn about Israel’s challenging political history, and I’d rather they get that from someone like me, who cares deeply about Israel, than from someone who is overtly hostile.

AG: It seems like we both ultimately believe that education is about helping to shape young minds, to provide them with the tools and skills necessary to navigate through complexities. In my experience, this often means that learners come away with more questions than answers and hopefully a desire to keep learning!

LMN: Agreed. I’m ok with “It’s complicated” being someone’s answer about Israel, as long as it’s an answer that draws them forward into deeper engagement and exploration. The risk is that “It’s complicated” can become an excuse we use for disengaging, which doesn’t serve either of our purposes.

Aliza Goodman is the Director of Professional Development at The iCenter, the North American hub and catalyst for shaping and strengthening the field of Israel education. She currently leads the design and implementation of The iCenter’s professional development initiatives for Jewish educators. Visit theicenter.org for more.

Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson is Director of Rabbinic Training at T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, which mobilizes a network of 2,000 rabbis and cantors–along with their communities–to protect and advance human rights in North America, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territories. Visit truah.org for more.

Suggestions for Further Reading:

From Aliza:

The Aleph Bet of Israel Education (iCenter)

A Philosophy of Israel Education: A Relational Approach (free for download via this link)

Israel Story (podcast)

A Tale of Love and Darkness By Amos Oz

A Pigeon and A Boy by Meir Shalev

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem: A Novel by Sarit Yishai-Levi

From Lev:

The Makom Israel Blog

Lords of the Land, by Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar


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