Wednesday, December 3, 2014

One Educator’s Response…
... on the Findings of the Pew Report and the Jewish Future

Several years ago, Joel Grishaver told me that he had been told that Nancy Parkes is the best Jewish educator in the country. I had to meet her. So I asked her to lunch. And she asked me to teach her teachers. And then we were in the Leadership Institute together. And traveled to Israel and learned together. I am not sure if she is the best - I have not actually studied her school, and I am not sure I am qualified to determine or declare who is the best. 

I will say that she is one of the smartest and most creative colleagues I have ever had the pleasure to learn and talk with, and we do not get together nearly enough. Like many of you I have been reading and attending meetings and thinking about the Pew report and the responses. Nancy went a step further today. She spoke up - from the perspective of a synagogue based supplementary school educator - and proposed a way forward.

After thirty seconds of "that's what I was thinking" and "I should have said that" nonsense, I decided to re-post her ideas that ran today on eJewishPhilanthropy (what? you don't get Dan Brown's daily email? Shame on you!) and hopefully expand the audience and the conversation. I suggest comments should be on eJP (Leave a Comment) or Jedlab (https://www.facebook.com/groups/jdsmedialab/ - look for a posting by Saul Kaiserman around 9:30 am EST on December 3. What you are not in JEDLAB? For shame! Fix that too!).

I agree with everything Nancy says and wish I said it first. More students come through our supplementary schools than any other part of the Jewish education eco-system. We must get it right. And when get students to couple their enrollment in our schools with Jewish camps, Israel programs and youth groups (to name just a few opportunities) we can really change the future. Read on!

Ira

One Educator’s Response….. on the Findings of the Pew Report and the Jewish Future

By Nancy Parkes
I have read the reports and the responses. I have attended meetings and have discussed the findings of the Pew report with many of my colleagues and with experts in the field, all whom I would define as people who care deeply about the future of Jewish life in America.

And, like many others, I am concerned about the Jewish future. But not in the way you may think.

It is clear from the findings of the Pew Report that we still have work to do in making Jewish learning and life meaningful, engaging, and relevant for American Jews. I don’t believe that anyone would deny that. My issue with the articles and proposal presented by Steven Cohen and Jack Wertheimer is that there is absolutely no mention of the value and importance of supplementary synagogue education.

It is interesting that despite the Pew Report demonstrating that supplementary education in the high school years is indeed effective, the proposal makes no mention of supporting these programs. It does, however, mention day schools, Jewish camps, youth groups and trips to Israel.
I don’t know of one Jewish educator, lay leader, or Rabbi that would dispute that day schools and informal educational experiences are powerful influences in the lives of our young people. I certainly believe that they are. One of the reasons why these experiences are so effective is that they do not occur in isolation. As noted by Cohen and Wertheimer, “These programs work synergistically with each other and also with formal schooling during the critical high-school years.”

As a Jewish educator and director in a supplementary synagogue school, I would never claim that supplementary education alone guarantees or leads to Jewish engagement as adults. Why then is this the way so many evaluate our programs?

Educators and directors in the synagogue setting have done much soul searching during the past decade. We were told that our system was “broken”; that children and parents were not finding the joy in Jewish learning in our settings; and even more importantly, we were told that the learning that was taking place was not leading to Jewish living.

We took all of this to heart- because we were concerned and because we care deeply about the future of Judaism.

How did many of us respond? We made changes - significant changes – in the structure and design of our schools. We advocated for Jewish camp and even brought the camp experience into our schools. We made youth groups an integral part of our educational programming blending the formal setting with this valuable informal Jewish experience. Many programs now take teens on trips to Israel, and more and more programs take learning out of the traditional classroom setting. Perhaps one of the most significant changes that has been made is the education and involvement of parents. We involve them because we know that if Judaism is not relevant and meaningful for them, they as the decision makers, will not only remove themselves from Jewish life, but their children, as well.

With more than 60% of our families enrolling their children in supplementary educational programs, we know that much is at stake in the kind of educational experiences we create for our learners. So, what kind of message are they receiving by the silence – and worse, the negativity – leaders in research and education send them by not supporting their decision with funding? That they are not worth the investment? That they have made the “wrong” decision? That they care less about their child’s Jewish education?

I keep a running list of the negative comments I hear from lay leaders, clergy, and professionals in the Jewish world about supplementary education. Unfortunately, the list is long and continues to grow. Is it any wonder that less and less young people are going into the field of Jewish education, and why synagogue schools have difficultly finding educators and leaders for their schools? This kind of rhetoric perpetuates a self-filling cycle.

Supplementary schools matter – and they do make a positive difference in the lives of our families. Can they be better? Absolutely. But, they need support to do so.
Here is my proposal:
  • Stop the negative narrative. Leaders and clergy need to become vocal advocates for supplementary education, whether it is from the pulpit, in writing, or at conferences.
  • Be our partners. We need more leaders and clergy to truly be our partners in creating the educational excellence that we all want. If your synagogue school is not a place that you would send your own child, how can you work with your educational team to make it so?
  • Encourage people to consider Jewish education as a career. We need more Jewish educators – in all settings. We need to do a better job at reaching out to those who we believe could make a difference in the Jewish world of informal and formal Jewish education. We also need more scholarships dollars to help those who wish to become Jewish educators to realistically be able do so.
  • Provide mentorship and consulting for supplementary education directors. Change is hard, and it’s even harder when you are doing it on your own.
  • Collaboration. Jewish camps and youth groups “work.” So does supplementary education when it is combined with these informal experiences. More conferences should be held which bring leaders in these fields together to think about how they can truly collaborate to bring powerful experiential education to the supplementary school setting, while also encouraging our children and teens to attend camp and become active members in youth groups.
I am not an alarmist, but I do believe that supplementary schools matter and that the lack of support that they receive and the negative narrative that is perpetuated is indeed, in the words of Cohen and Wertheimer, “a condition that is dire enough to warrant the serious attention of anyone concerned about the Jewish future.”

Nancy Parkes is the Director of Congregational Learning at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, an egalitarian synagogue in White Plains, NY.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Addicted to Redemption:
A response to Har Nof

Nearly every Friday morning for the last six months I meet Rabbi Mark Borovitz of Beit T'shuvah (BTS) in Los Angeles for coffee. Right at 10:00 a.m. unless one of us is running behind. We catch up on the past week and and study Abraham Joshua Heschel's The Insecurity of Freedom. We have gotten most of the way through the first chapter in half a year of 30 minute conversations. We may be moving too fast. I look forward to our weekly coffee. He is usually at a Starbucks somewhere between his home and Beit T'shuvah, which is in or adjacent to Culver City. I am usually at my desk or kitchen table.

It is only 7:00 a.m. his time and he has already written his weekly d'var torah which will be in the Shabbat service bulletin at BTS which they call the shmatteh. He has also written his weekly blog post for the LA Jewish Journal. I have just arrived at work following the gym and picking up my Cafe Americano. He makes me feel like a slacker and he is a decade older!

I usually don't read his blog or d'var until after we talk.  This paste week it took until just now. I need to share. Mark, thank you for putting this into words and giving me a context. I am signing the pledge.

Chevrei?



Combating Hatred:
Honoring The Five Men Who Died in Jerusalem


By Rabbi Mark Borovitz

I am sitting in the lounge at the Los Angeles Airport, on my way to Florida with my wife to help her 102+ year-old mother, Molly, move into assisted living. I am thinking about Molly’s life and how she has survived on her own to this day. She says it is Bridge playing and a great sense of humor, as well as not getting angry with others, understanding that everyone has their way and that we can learn from each other. Juxtaposing this attitude with what happened in a Synagogue this week in Jerusalem is almost more than I can handle.

When we foster hatred in any way, we beget more hatred. When we practice a way of being that is based on personalities, it is doomed to cause destruction. Watching the way the world plays out it’s Anti-Semitism would be a great study, I must admit, if they were not out to get me. Listening to the way the “liberal” establishment has been co-opted by haters and killers is so very sad. Hearing students trash the name of Israel and Jews while saying nothing about real despots like the leaders of North Korea, Syria killing their own people, Iran, ISIS, the Chinese and Tibet, Sunnis and Shiites, the way that our “oil allies” treat their people, Russia and Ukraine, etc. All of these countries are not singled out, yet Israel is. I think that I have finally figured it out.

The “liberal” establishment is angry that Israel didn’t stay down!! Israel stood up, grew up, became self-sufficient, etc. (certainly I am not saying they did everything right) and thus betrayed the “liberal” establishment. The “Poor Palestinians” will never betray the “liberal” establishment because their leaders will not let them become self-sufficient and their benefactors will not allow them to have any power for fear of a revolution. I guess that there is a deal in place that we didn’t realize.

How often does this happen? We go into something with a “deal” in place in our minds and not in the minds of our “partners.” We make up a story and if the other person/people don’t buy into the story or change it, we get angry and walk away. I have seen it in work situations, I have seen it in family situations, I have seen it in friendships, marriages, etc. I have participated and been an unwitting participant as well.

The murder of five men in a Synagogue is a great example of the hatred of people, God, and principle. The UCLA Student Union voting for Divestiture is a mockery of what College Campus Activism was in my day. We looked for ways to make peace, to heal old wounds, to fight for the rights of all people, not just one group over another. Where do we go from here? Being an optimist, like my mother-in-law, Molly Reiffin, I have an idea.

Let us all sign on to be Addicted to Redemption by: 1) using our minds, heats and souls to connect to Truth, 2) using our sense of humor to not take ourselves soooooo seriously, 3) reaching out to understand each other and see the similarities as well as celebrate our uniqueness, 4) owning our part in our successes and our “missing the mark,” 5) continuing to learn from what did not work and repair and improve our ways to wholeness and peace.

In these ways, I believe, we will honor the lives of the 5 men who died this week in Jerusalem; we will honor and redeem the lives of soldiers who have died in these past 13 years of terror. We will honor and redeem our souls and the souls of our countries. Join me and sign the pledge to be Addicted to Redemption.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Real Hannah Senesh

Joshua Weinberg is the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA). And he is awesome. Right now he is working to get people to take a pledge to vote in the upcoming elections for World Zionist Congress. It is really important that we participate and make our voices heard. Today he posted this on the RJ Blog and 10 Minutes of Torah. It is not about the elections, but about how Israel might fit in our Jewish identity. Enjoy!

The Real Hannah Senesh
By Josh Weinberg

It was 70 years ago this week, according to the Hebrew calendar, that a young Jewish girl named Hannah Senesh was executed by firing squad by the Hungarian-Nazi police force. She had been captured after parachuting into Europe with a group of Jewish paratroopers of the Haganah who were sent to rescue Jews from the Nazi war machine.

At the age of 23, Hannah Senesh became an epic and heroic figure largely due to the letters, poems, and diary entries she left behind, exposing to the world her deepest thoughts and feelings. Not long after her death, one poem that she had composed during a walk from her kibbutz, Sdot Yam, to the ancient Roman ruins of the port city of Caesarea (1 km to the north) became her most famous. Known to most as Eli, Eli, the poem Halikha LeKesariya (A Walk to Caesarea) was set to music by David Zehavi and proceeded to be prominently featured at virtually every memorial ceremony for the Holocaust and for Israel’s fallen – deliberately linking the two to forge a linear narrative in the young Israeli psyche.

While the classical Zionist narrative claimed Senesh as one of its own – total assimilation only to find redemption in her aliyah to the Land of Israel (Palestine at the time) – we now know that there is much more to her story than previously understood.

Just as the great Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl’s own upbringing (in the same city as Senesh) begs a deeper inquiry into the struggles of living a both Jewish and modern life, and that the Dreyfus trial was for him a tipping point rather than a great awakening, so too must we dig a bit deeper into Senesh’s own spiritual and evolving Jewish identity.

On September 18, 1936, a teenaged Hannah Senesh wrote:
I’m not quite clear just how I stand: synagogue, religion, the question of God. About the last and most difficult question I am the least disturbed. I believe in God – even if I can’t express just how. Actually I’m relatively clear on the subject of religion, too, because Judaism fits in best with my way of thinking. But the trouble with the synagogue is that I don’t find it at all important, and I don’t feel it to be a spiritual necessity; I can pray equally at home.
Later on November 2, 1940, she continued this sentiment by saying:
I was never able to pray in the usual manner, by rote, and even now neither can nor want to. But the dialogue man holds with his Creator…is what I, too, have found. I see the sincere, inner link, even if it comes through struggle within myself and through some doubt.
From reading her diary, we learn that her Jewish identity was much more complicated than often presented. Her struggle with belief, faith, prayer, and observance lead us to appreciate a deeper and more complex outlook on her life, challenging the classic Zionist narrative. Senesh reflected in her life on what many of us may be searching for today. Her worldview and outlook on Israel and Judaism is one that can resonate with those struggling to find the balance between our national, ethnic, and religious identities.

For many Israelis, the discovery that she was not definitively secular, and that she struggled deeply with personal religiosity, may come as a shock. But it is also a welcome call to say that it’s okay to question, to have a grey area, and that there are many ways to be religious. Our Reform movement in Israel is ready right now to engage such seekers; to offer meaning to those for whom the polarizing dichotomy between “secular” and “religious” no longer answers their needs. Based on Senesh’s example, this struggle has been occupying the minds of Zionists and young people for many decades.

While many of Senesh’s writings were published and now feature prominently in Israeli and Diaspora ceremonies and liturgy, one amazing discovery came to light only two years ago. Sixty-eight years after it was written, the poem Hora L’Bat Golah (Hora to a Daughter of the Exile) was discovered in a drawer. Senesh wrote the poem in 1943 while she was being trained for her mission to parachute behind enemy lines.
Hora to a Daughter of the Exile (Translation by Elie Leshem)

A hora, roaring, tempestuous, blazes around me
With the mystery of rhythm, gladdening and forging,
It tugs at my body and heart
The foot marches, the back quivers, the song is ignited, a searing chorus
Dance and song, a wordless prayer,
Hail to the future, hail to creation

But then a figure flutters before my eyes
My arm has escaped my friends’ embrace
My heart spurns the tempestuous singing,
Far and near it consumes me whole

Blue eyes Such a bewildered glance
A sad silence and a stubborn mouth
The stillness grows in me I remain standing
Alone, in a crowd of a hundred, her and I
Click here to listen to the song composed for this poem.

On this 70th anniversary of her death, communities across Israel and throughout our Israeli Reform movement will be marking her life and contributions. I encourage our North American movement’s congregations to do the same. Let’s dedicate time to highlight the person she was and the legacy and challenges she left for all of us.

This Shabbat, sing Eli, Eli not in a somber, mournful tenor, but in a celebratory and upbeat tone, since this is a prayer offering thanks and praise for life’s natural wonders that should never cease. On the 70th anniversary of this important hero, let us re-examine her life, her hashkafa (outlook and personal philosophy), and her contribution to Jewish life.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Hacking Hanukkah to Design the Jewish Future



This return to the blog has turned into a sharing of other people's wisdom rather than my own. That is probably the best assurance that it is actually wisdom! Today is no exception. Charlie Schwartz first came to my attention when he and Russel Neiss developed Media Midrash and later Pocket Torah. Now he is at Brandeis. I love the Design Lab approach they are using there.

I have been reading and touting Fast Company Magazine since it was first published. Fast Company has made design - as a concept and discipline - a hallmark of the way a "fast company" works. It is the only periodical I read cover to cover and I almost always find something that is applicable to my work as a Jewish educator. Check out what Charlie has done now.

And as for the invention, remember kids, don't try this at home!

Ira

This was originally posted in eJewishPhilanthropy.


By Rabbi Charlie Schwartz

The epiphany came half way through the session. My design team, a rag-tag group of Jewish high school students, had already identified the centrality of food in creating powerful experiences with family and friends. Then, during a frenzied brainstorm, a jaunty ninth grader shouted, “Wait – there are no good Hanukkah drinks!”

Thus, after several iterations, the Flaming Hanukkah Milkshake was born: sixteen ounces of milk-chocolate deliciousness with a ribbon of strawberry jelly running throughout, served in a double-paned glass with ignited olive oil floating between the layers, and a nine pronged sparkler put in for good measure.

This design experience was part of a series of Hanukkah Hackathons run by the Brandeis Design Lab – a joint project of The Union for Reform Judaism, Combined Jewish Philanthropies and Brandeis|HSP. These sessions instruct teens in the methodology of Design Thinking and provide them with the tools to innovate Jewish life and practice. At first glance, the idea of a Hanukkah Hackathon seems kitschy, a mash-up of old words with new jargon. But the idea of hacking Hanukkah – that is, repurposing and/or refining it in ways not previously imagined – has ancient origins.

After all, Hanukkah is rooted in celebrating the Maccabees’ fight for military and cultural supremacy. The rabbis of the Talmud “hacked” this original purpose, transforming the holiday into a celebration of God’s power, symbolized by the miracle of the oil.

Fast forward to modern times, and Hanukkah is “hacked” again, this time as a tool for integration, providing Jews with a light-focused holiday around the time of the winter solstice on par with Christmas (with presents to match of course). The idea of “hacking Hanukkah” has been part of the Jewish world for a very long time.

This is the goal of the Hackathons: to teach Jewish teens a new approach to listening to each other, to themselves, and to Jewish tradition, and to engage these teens in the age-old process of building, transforming, and hacking Jewish life.

Arielle W., a Hanukkah Hacker who developed a way to share and celebrate everyday miracles, summed up the power of Design Thinking: “Our design team came to the conclusion that we need a way to focus on our journeys and recognize the miracles around us while tuning out the negativity and the haters. This statement didn’t come out of the blue; it came from interviewing members of our team, discovering the memories Hanukkah brought to us, and delving deeper into the meaning of Judaism. It was an intricate process designed to find the root of what we’re really looking for.”

This Spring, the Brandeis Design Lab will use the powerful approach of Design Thinking to give teens the skills to build solutions for real challenges facing the Jewish community. If you are in the Boston area and are interested in taking part in an upcoming Hackathon, or if you would like to learn more about the fellowship or how Design Thinking can change the Jewish world, please be in touch.

In the meantime, I’ll be sipping my flaming milkshake, keeping warm through the soft light of the oil and the knowledge that the Jewish future is in good creative hands.

**Brandeis|HSP cannot be held responsible for injuries or property damage sustained while attempting the Flaming Hanukkah Milkshake.**

Rabbi Charlie Schwartz is the senior Jewish educator and Director of the BIMA and Genesis summer programs at Brandeis|HSP. Charlie can be reached at cschwartz@brandeis.edu. For more information about the Brandeis Design Lab visit: brandeis.edu/highschool/designlab

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

You Can Do Miracles. Believe?
Sure. But pick up the phone!

I worked a summer in a telephone boiler room. We would cold call business owners in some town and try to sell them on sponsoring public service announcements about safe driving, drug or alcohol abuse prevention or other topics on a local radio station. In teaching us how to get through to the business owner, the veterans told us to be persistent and friendly. One maintained he could get to the office of the President of the United States. We never heard him speak to the Oval Office, but I did manage to reach the owner of Dean's Ice Cream, which is now owned by Unilever and sold him an add on WCEV - Chicago's Ethnic Voice. I learned that anyone can talk to anyone.

Ken Gordon is the Senior Social Media Manager and Content Strategist at PEJE. He is also a founder of JEDLAB and my hero. He knew this lesson on his own and applied it. We all should. (I did last spring and ended up having coffee with - can you believe he took my call? - Ken Gordon!

This post was both on the PEJE blog and eJewish Philanthropy

Ira

You Can Vanquish the Jewish Communal Professional Inferiority Complex. With Email. Yes, Email.

by Ken Gordon
email

On September 25th, Frank Moss, the author of The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices, successful entrepreneur, and the former director of the MIT Media Lab, participated in a live Jewish-ed event in suburban Boston. Moss, an expert in creating cultures of innovation, offered up some terrific lessons about work, school, and life – and we were thrilled that he schlepped out to Newton.

At one point, an attendee came over and asked, sotto voce, “How did you get him to do this?”

“I wrote him an email,” I said.

Her immediate response was a look that said You can just write to someone like Frank Moss?

That expression of worried wonder reminded me of something I often in my work with Jewish educators: The Jewish communal professional inferiority complex.

Let’s be honest: We Jewish professionals don’t esteem ourselves enough. Why? It could be that some non-communal people think that we – no matter how necessary we are to the Jewish ecosystem – simply couldn’t make it in the real world. Lacking the chutzpah or brains to duke it out in the grownup marketplace, we instead stay in the professional shtetl, earning minor money and engaging in the less-than-essential “Jewish” tasks of the world. I fear we sometimes believe that ourselves.

And so we wouldn’t dare dream of writing to an important entrepreneur/author/academic such as Moss.

Which is sad and wrong.

We should contact whomever we wish. Period. Moreover, I believe we should be audacious in our choices of correspondents – and not just to spite those people who look down on our professional choices. The parameters of our conversations shouldn’t be set by the layout of our cubicles. Instead, let’s choose to engage great thinkers, great doers, and in the process make our communities, and ourselves, greater. We can do so, easily, via email, Twitter, or any of our ubiquitous online communications. You just need to ask. Such conversations can be responsible for great leaps in professional development; in bringing great speakers, programs, and ideas to our networks; in making our work environments more engaging and fun.

You’d be amazed, for instance, at how effective a tool email is, when you give yourself permission to use it the right way. As a journalist, I’ve found that smart people, even world-famous ones, are often happy to respond when they receive an email written with sufficient care and maturity. Email can put you in direct contact with all kinds of important and influential people who, in all other eras, would be insulated from you by thick doors, loyal assistants, annoying layers of bureaucracy, the U.S. Postal Service, social convention, wealth, snobbery, hierarchical thinking, various old boys’ clubs, and a variety of other impediments.

Email can leap over all of them at the touch of the Send button.

Of course, it’s not as simple as pushing Send. The correspondence of which I speak requires quite a bit on your part. For instance:

  1. Diligence. You may have to dig to find the necessary email address. But the great thing about writers and experts: they either have their own websites – with easy-to-find contact information – or they work at a university or some other org, and these typically set up emails as firstname.lastname@nameoforg.org
    orfirstinitiallastna@nameoforg.org. Start by engaging in the requisite Google work.
  2. Understanding. You must demonstrate that you get what your expert really is all about. It’s a terrific idea to show, by quotation, that you’ve read his books, and that you can intelligently talk about them. Don’t just quote chapter two, page 63: Ask a smart, detailed question about the passage in question, based on your professional experience. Most writers spend a great deal of time typing away by themselves. It can be enormously gratifying for them to meet someone who has paid real attention to their work. We’re not talking about a fan letter but about making a real connection. No fawning.
  3. Equanimity. The busy person you’re addressing has the option of not answering you immediately, or at all. You cannot demand a response; you can only put yourself in the position to receive one. Don’t get impatient. Don’t follow up with a hurt email – Why didn’t you get back to me immediately? – or hurt second, third, or fourth emails, for that matter.
  4. Professionalism. Proofread your stuff until you can proof no more. Make sure you’ve got your facts correct. You are the unknown quantity in this equation. If you want to person at the other end of your correspondence to respond positively, you must show that you’re a pro. One way to do so: produce clean copy.
  5. Patience. When you’re first getting to know someone via email, what you want to do is create an exchange. You’re not there to do business. Maybe somewhere down the line you will want to, say, bring this person to speak at your org – but it would be a mistake to lead with that (unless you already have budget approval and aren’t really interested in improving your mind, organization, or professional standing).
  6. Restraint. Write when there’s a legitimate reason to write. If your VIP is interviewed by the Forward and her responses provoke you to write, go for it. If, however, you are bored and watching Parks and Recreation, don’t suddenly write to your professional pen pal and ask, “What’s up?”

Strategically written communications can go a long way to making your professional vision into a reality. If you want to write to Frank Moss, write to Frank Moss. Don’t wait for an invitation. Start the dialogue right away. Right now.

A version of this post appeared on the PEJE Blog.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Unintended Consequences of the Success of Birthright

So this is a response in the comments section on eJewish Philanthropy to Robbie Gringras's recent post, "8 Cities, 11 Flights, 4 Questions." They and I felt it deserved wider attention. I think it is very well stated.

By Andi Meiseles

Robbie, your excellent piece prompts me to share with you and this forum something that has been troubling me professionally and personally for several years: the unintended consequences of the success of Birthright.

This is not a “knock” against Birthright, but the articulation of a concern I’ve long held and which, as your article points out, we are now seeing realized. Birthright has done a wonderful job of engaging young Jews who might never have visited Israel or shown any interest in their Jewish heritage. There are serious educators and professionals involved in the endeavor, many of whom I know personally and respect deeply. It is a great first experience and has spurred many participants to return to Israel or to become more involved in Jewish life. However, a 10-day trip should not be the accepted standard in our community for engagement with Israel.

If anything, my issue is with a community which has allowed Birthright to become its default “Israel experience.” The success of Birthright has come at the expense of programs which offer a longer experience and cultivate a deeper relationship with Israel. In so doing it has affected the profile of much of the leadership cadre of the American Jewish community. What was once a rite of passage, the summer “teen” tour, has been diminished to a fraction of what it was, thereby reducing its role as a feeder to longer term programs. Numbers of Jewish students in university semester (much less year) programs have dropped dramatically in the last decade. Fewer and fewer young Jews are spending significant periods of time in Israel, which means that fewer young, Jewish professionals have had the opportunity to build a deep knowledge base about Israel and Israelis. Once upon a time, it was hard to find a leader in the Jewish communal or educational world who had not spent a year or semester in Israel. As you note, this is not the case today. This void is most apparent in times of crisis for Israel, as you witnessed on your “grand tour.”

Although I’ve had a long career in Jewish and Israel education, both in the US and in Israel, I became aware of this shift and its potential impact on the community from sources outside of it. When I began my current position (as the North American representative for international academic affairs for Ben-Gurion University of the Negev) I learned of the reach of Birthright from directors of study abroad at universities across the continent. These seasoned and savvy professionals in international education (largely non-Jews, by the way) know their work, their field and the trends. It is from them that I learned that “…this program called Birthright, which is free…” was drawing students away from long-term study in Israel. They noted the sharp decline in numbers to Israel since its inception and pointed out to me that the main issue was not necessarily security. While these professionals have seen many cycles of security-related highs and lows over the years, they also tend to view Israel as one of the safest places to study due to the outstanding security protocols that the country has in place. Rather, they attribute the decline in numbers to the “been there, done that” effect.

As my staff and I sit at study abroad fairs at universities and colleges, we experience the same scenario time and time again: An excited and enthusiastic student will approach us and the following dialogue will ensue: Student: “I LOVE Israel! I just did Birthright. ” University Rep: “Wonderful! I’m so glad you had such a great time. How about coming back and spending more time, really getting to know the country?” Student: “Been there, done that.” Literally. In those words. They can check Israel off on their list and are now off to Spain, or Kenya or Laos or any number of other exotic study abroad destinations. They have “done” Israel.

I worried about this phenomenon before this summer in Gaza, and I worry more now. With limited exposure to Israel, without the time to really understand the layers and complications that you have so beautifully articulated, and which take time to sort out (actually, it is impossible to sort them all out; it takes time just to identify and wrestle with these layers) students and, as you more importantly point out, dedicated Jewish communal professionals do not have the vocabulary, the personal experience, or the knowledge to grapple with all of this at a time when their voices are desperately needed on campuses.

However, it is not only about grappling; as you note, conflict is not attractive. It is about the fact that most young Jews are missing out on the rich and beautiful experience of truly knowing Israel and her people. Real relationships take time to develop. An investment of time reaps tremendous rewards, as any graduate of a gap year or other long term program in Israel can tell you. It’s not only about what we need for them to know, it’s about what we don’t want them to miss knowing and experiencing.

Do we want our next generation to have a “been there, done that” relationship with Israel? Can we afford for them to have a relationship that is a mile wide but an inch deep? I think not.

I look to our community for thoughts, collaborations, solutions and suggestions.

Andi Meiseles is the North American representative for international academic affairs at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Welcome Back:
8 Cities, 11 Flights, 4 Questions

So like most of you, I have spent most of the last two months preparing for a new school year, holy days and getting all of those things rolling. Not much time for blogging. I look at my calendar and realize things will not really slow down until June. Cheshvan began a few days ago. No festivals. So no more excuses. I will begin with some cross-posts and then share some thoughts of my own. I hope you will do the same!

This first cross-post comes from Robbie Gringras, who works at Makom. He is also a fabulous educator and an entertainer! It was posted on eJP yesterday.

Ira



8 Cities, 11 Flights, 4 Questions

Posted on October 26, 2014 Written by eJP Leave a Comment

By Robbie Gringras

I have recently returned from an 8 city, 11 flight, 2 weeks’ tour of campuses in North America – with 4 questions.

I was one of the Jewish Agency’s Makom team running full-day workshops on “Gaza, Israel, and the Jews” for the staff of thirty Hillels. Our aim was to empower Hillel and campus leaders to frame constructive conversations about the Gaza Conflict by identifying pertinent questions (rather than institutional answers), and by defining a successful conversation as one that leads to a second conversation…

As always happens in a workshop that is a combination of frontal teaching and dialogical interaction, the entire tour was as illuminating for me as one hopes it was for the participants. Apart from learning that DC taxi drivers are the most interesting in the world, and that United Airlines are not always to be trusted with your luggage, I have been left with a few thoughts to ponder:

1. The conflict attracts institutional attention and repels most students
Incredibly generous donors were able to fund Makom to run a workshop on Gaza for 30 campuses. This amount of money and size of project normally takes months if not years to put together. It was agreed upon in a matter of minutes. This is because Israeli military conflicts, and the conflict perceived on campuses, will always be regarded as an emergency issue. It was an honor and a pleasure to be engaging with Hillel staff and student leadership throughout North America, but at the same time there was a feeling of disconnect. As we learned from most (not all) campuses, the vast majority of Jewish students that Hillels might come into contact with are not interested in the Israel-Palestine conflict. In fact the chances are that the best way to repel a Jewish student is to begin a conversation about the conflict.
This might well be because the discourse within the Jewish community about the conflict is so polarized and thin, and that a richer discourse might be more attractive, but the paradoxical concern remains. The more we invest only in the Conflict, the more we risk reducing the number of students voluntarily engaged in Israel.
2. Politics is a toxic word that cannot be extracted from the Israel mix
“Politics” would seem to be a dirty word on most campuses. Whether this is due to the vitriol of the Israeli-Jewish discourse or the polarized US political culture in general, “politics” tends to imply immorality, bloody-mindedness, futility, and never-ending conflict.

Yet Israel without politics – in the broadest sense, not just the Israel-Arab conflict – is difficult to conceive. Politics – ongoing social negotiation about collective power – is at the heart of the Zionist revolution. Everything about Israel – the buildings, the people, the culture, the landscapes – has politics in its circulation.

So when we are told that Jewish students are hoping to avoid “the politics” in their relationship with Israel, and when Hillel professionals aspire to go “beyond the politics”, we at Makom like to believe that the problem is with the connotations of the word, and not due to a desire to strip Israel of what makes Israel real. We choose to hear that a rejection of politics in Israel engagement is an expression of the thirst for the fascinating vibrant multi-vocal Israel that lives beyond the suffocating binaries of good guys vs bad guys.
3. Can Israel be grasped American-style?
There is something about contemporary Israel that will always be somewhat intense, slightly rough-and-ready. Even the most constructive of discussions in Israel can sound like arguments. Which leads to an open question: Can this abrasive energy ever fit with the mainstream North American Jewish student? If we choose to address Israel in ways that are less abrasive, more comfortable, or more culturally acceptable for North American students, do we risk missing the point?

Can we deeply engage with Israel in a non-Israeli way?

While Israelis can be accused by North Americans of being rude, and North Americans assumed fake by Israelis, the situation is richer – and more challenging. We would suggest that in the classic Talmudic conflict between Truth and Peace, Israelis tend to favor Truth at the expense of a quieter life, while North Americans tend to favor Peace even if it means cutting early to snatch a consensus. Neither of these approaches are right or wrong – values conflicts rarely are – but they do beg the question whether holding on to one’s traditional communication values prevent one from appreciating alternative communication values?

In short, can you reach a deep connection with Israel without learning about it “Israeli-style”? Perhaps the style is just as if not more important than the information? As the British author Martin Amis insisted: “I would argue that style is morality: morality detailed, configured, intensified.”
4. Israel demands, and cannot always receive, time
The workshops we offered were time-consuming for hard-working and committed campus staff. We knew that one cannot move past clich├ęs and beyond “the same old thing” without investing serious time exploring a different approach. In our assessment, it is unrealistic and even unfair to expect someone who has perhaps visited Israel twice at most – once on Birthright and once staffing Birthright – to be able to transform a concerned conversation about Gaza into a constructive discussion about Israel in Jewish life, without some form of intensive training. A snatched half-day will rarely be enough.

But who has that amount of time to invest in any one topic of campus work? Can we expect or even demand such a commitment?

Time will tell…!


We at Makom, the Israel Education Lab of the Jewish Agency for Israel, tackle the challenges of style, politics, the conflict, and Israel’s place in Jewish life with relish. Our 5 day training seminar, providing sophisticated yet accessible solutions for Israel educators and para-educators throughout the world, is ready to go. In my next piece I shall sketch out the backbone to this approach, nicknamed 4HQ – the Four Hatikvah Questions.

Robbie Gringras is Creative Director at Makom.

ShareThis