Reflecting on Israel during the High Holidays

By Abby Pitkowsky

In a recent email, a friend and colleague of mine in Jewish education described this time of year as the “Super Bowl for the Jews.” Indeed, the collective energy the professionals in our field expend preparing our students, parents, families, and faculty for the Jewish New Year (not to mention the new school year in general) may rival that of a pro football team in early February.

Just as professional athletes train intensely before crucial games and competitions, our tradition has the same practice: we don’t plunge into important times without meticulous preparation – our spiritual warm-ups. One step in this routine is Heshbon HaNefesh, literally, an accounting of the soul. This process allows us to take an honest look inward and acknowledge where we have fallen short this year: assessing what we’ve done without shame or guilt and recognizing how we can improve moving forward. The Jewish Education Project has taken an inward look as well. We’ve concluded that one step forward is embracing the belief that learning about Israel, with all its complexities, is essential for all Jews.

We are proud and excited to share that we will be giving Israel a more prominent spot in all areas of our work. In the spirit of our current holiday preparation, I propose a hybrid exercise for our colleagues in the field, an Israel Education Heshbon HaNefesh. I offer a few suggestions to face the challenge of improving our practices this coming year.

  1. Different Sources. Many of us use the same book or website for our material on Israel. This limits the information we have and restricts the perspectives that we share with our students. Take a look at sketches from HaYehudim Ba’im (The Jews are Coming), a popular, satirical Israeli TV show that spoofs key moments in Jewish and Israeli history with both irreverence and accuracy. These short clips can expose your students to a different angle on stories about kibbutz life, the welcoming of Jews from Arab lands to Israel in the 1950s,  or the founding of Petach Tikvah, one of the first Jewish settlements outside of Jerusalem. You will gain points with your students by sharing hysterical, highly entertaining video clips, open their eyes to new understandings, and connect them culturally with their peers in Israel (many of whom recite clips of the show from memory).
  1. Encourage Questions. One of the core traits of traditional Jewish learning is questioning. This is why we have chosen the name Qushiyot, “probing questions,” for our year-long Israel Education Fellowship for Jewish educators in the greater New York City area. Encouraging students to ask deeper questions about Israel will enhance their learning about, understanding of, and connection to Israel. Avoiding difficult questions is not only dishonest, it’s also educationally unsound.
  1. Difficult Issues. Israel Education should not be reactive to newspaper headlines and social media. It should proactively address difficult and controversial longstanding issues: Is egalitarian Jewish practice truly accepted in Israel as in North America? Why do the Jewish People not agree upon the borders of the Jewish State? Does the IDF respond to the outside world’s questions about their ethics and morals? This is the way we can accomplish the goal of cultivating a mature and robust relationship among our teens towards Israel.

Just as the ongoing process of Heshbon HaNefesh requires our honesty and commitment, so too our approach to Israel Education should involve our constant efforts to assess and improve it.

Abby Pitkowsky is Director of Westchester Region and Israel Education for The Jewish Education Project.

This article is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Education Project

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