Israel’s Shifting Focus

By Rabbi Lee Buckman

An important shift is taking place in the Israeli Government’s priorities. While national security will always be a concern, Israel is now trying to tackle an equally complex challenge: ensuring the vitality of Jewish communities in the Diaspora.

As Minister of Diaspora Affairs and Minister of Education Naftali Bennett told a group of 160 leading Diaspora Jewish day school leaders representing over 30 countries at the First Global Jewish Education Summit this week, “we’re good when it comes to national security. What we’d really like to know is how we can help you strengthen Jewish identity and Jewish education in the Diaspora. Together, we must transmit not just a sense of shared history but a sense of a shared destiny, a mission.”

President Reuven Rivlin powerfully stated the rationale behind Israel’s new agenda when he welcomed these educators at his residential garden: “There will be no Jewish people without good and strong Jewish education. Education is the precondition of a healthy society that learns from the past, applies those lessons to the present, and draws conclusions for the future.”

The purpose of the Summit was to establish a global network of educators and Israeli leaders to tackle collaboratively a range of issues including the shortage of qualified Jewish Studies and Hebrew teachers in the Diaspora, a weakening connection between students and Israel, and a lack of alignment among teachers, parents, and students vis-a-vis the goals of Jewish education. With the power of the masses, it became evident that a challenge in Los Angeles may be addressed by the insights of educators in Mexico City. An innovative program in Montevideo may bring fresh excitement to a school in Prague. A shortage of resources in Germany may be remedied with the resources provided by Israeli institutions and organizations such as the Museum of the Jewish People, the National Library, or the Center for Educational Technology.

Some of the highlights of the conference included a presentation by Alex Pomson, Managing Director  at Rosov Consulting. His research demonstrates that positive engagement with Israel is cultivated through activities that connect students to k’lal yisrael and not vice versa. “Students’ connection to Israel grows from their relationship to the Jewish people. Nurturing connections between students and Jews around the world contributes to their connection to Israel. Put differently, the road toward engagement with Israel runs through students’ relationships to other Jewish collectives, wherever they are found.”

Daniel Gordis, Senior Vice President at Shalem College, argued that the history of the Israel is typically told in one of two ways: either as a series of wars and conflicts (1948, 1967, 1973) or as a story of mythological, idealized Zionist figures. Neither approach resonates with today’s students. Rather, educators need to impress upon students the difference the existence of a Jewish State makes for Jews today: the end of Jewish homelessness and powerlessness, and the rebirth of Hebrew language, culture, and thought.

Micha Goodman, a researcher at the Shalom Hartman Institute, presented a vision for the State of Israel. “The birth of the State of Israel was a universal solution (nationalism) to a particularistic problem (anti-Semitism and statelessness). What Israel needs to show today is that it advances particular solutions (Jewish solutions) to universal problems such as loneliness, distractedness, the absence of meaning, and a lack of a sense of belonging.”

Dvir Kahane, Director General of the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, summarized the main message of the Summit. He affirmed that the responsibility of a vibrant Jewish Diaspora does not fall solely on the shoulders of Jews who live in the Diaspora. “The quality of Jewish life in the Diaspora is Israel’s responsibility too. This is a partnership.” Indeed, it is now a global partnership where stakeholders from Hong Kong to Helsinki to Haifa are ready to roll up their sleeves and work together to strengthen k’lal yisrael in all parts of the world.

Rabbi Lee Buckman is the former Head of School of TanenbaumCHAT in Toronto and recently made aliyah and lives and works in Jerusalem. He served as moderator on behalf of the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs for the First Global Summit in Jewish Education which took place in Jerusalem from July 8-12, 2018.

Cross-posted from eJewishPhilanthropy.com

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