Photo courtesy Matan

By Deborah Fineblum

For Shani Tauber, it all came together when her group left the house of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the religious Zionism pioneer known as “Rav Kook.”

“We were coming back through the streets of Jerusalem when all of a sudden it hit me: We are walking the land where everything we’ve been learning happened,” says Tauber. “And I realized it’s not theoretical here. You can feel how real it is.”

Tauber, who hails from New Jersey, is one of 15 women spending the year in Jerusalem in a new program that immerses educators in Jewish texts and history in the very land where the events transpired.

The seeds of the Eshkolot program were planted several years ago when Malke Bina, founder of the Jewish education organization Matan, was visiting the U.S. to meet with day school leaders for what she calls “brainstorming how to revolutionize Jewish education in the diaspora.”

The topic was a natural fit for Bina, who in 1988 opened Jerusalem-based Matan as one of the first schools offering women a challenging curriculum in Torah, Talmud and Jewish law. During nearly three decades, thousands of women have learned with Matan in Israel and around the world.

But when it came to inspiring Jewish educators from the diaspora, the challenge was how to give educators the skills needed to make this ancient wisdom come alive for students 6,000 miles away.

After assembling a faculty of scholars, Matan opened registration last year for Eshkolot (the Hebrew word describing the finest grapes). Fifteen educators were chosen to take part in the yearlong program. Bina calls the participants “the cream of the crop, with the commitment and passion needed to take their year spent here in the heart of the Jewish world back home to their classroom, their school and by extension the whole community.”

To provide more incentive, Eshkolot participants who commit to teaching at least two years in North America qualify for a scholarship and stipend to help cover the expenses of taking a year off and living in Israel for the program. They also have the option to earn a master’s degree from Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Last September, this pioneering group of Eshkolot scholars embarked on a rigorous schedule of coursework in Bible, with Talmud and Jewish law in the mix, along with an immersion in educational strategies designed to transmit the power of this material to their students back home in the diaspora.

It’s a process that Jonathan Sarna, the renowned professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, describes as “part of a movement toward reinvigorating the study of Tanakh (Torah, Prophets and Writings).”

“Jewish education in the diaspora suffers from a remoteness from our story, so this program exports some of its excitement to help transform Jewish education there,” says Sarna, who is currently spending the year in Jerusalem doing research at the Israel Institute of Advanced Studies. “It goes beyond knowing the words and the storyline to a deeper appreciation of why the Bible is so important to Jews, something you can truly feel when you’re learning it here.”

“There’s nothing like learning Torah in Israel,” says Eshkolot participant Miriam Borenstein. “You go on a tiyul (field trip) and see the place where [the prophet] Joshua led the Jews across the Jordan and you think, ‘We just learned about that in class.’ You see street signs with the names of rabbis we’re studying. You hear snatches of Hebrew in the stores. You’re immersed.”

Borenstein, 29, this week met with her supervisor, Chaya Batya Neugroschl, head of school at Central-Yeshiva University High School for Girls in New York, to review some of the teaching techniques Borenstein has gleaned from the program so far. “In our learning, we’re seeing how a multi-disciplinary approach mixes archaeology and the history of the land into the study of Bible and makes it come alive,” she says. “When you put it all in context it can broaden our students’ horizons to experience the bible as a living text of a living people.”

Having one of her teachers gone for a year is “a bit of a sacrifice, but we think of it as an excellent investment,” says Neugroschl. The program is particularly valuable for a teacher like Borenstein, who has been in the field for several years, “because she comes into it with a deep understanding of the challenges of the classroom…so she’s already thinking of how she can implement what she’s learning into her teaching and share it with the rest of the staff,” adds her supervisor.

This kind of program is a wise investment in the future, according to Erica Brown, who directs the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership and teaches at George Washington University’s School of Education and Human Development.

“Immersive learning in Israel in a high-level program gives teachers a much-needed injection of intellectual and spiritual depth and personal growth that enables them to be more informed and newly inspired,” says Brown.

“Most of all,” she says, “it gives teachers the opportunity to be out of the classroom so that they can return to it deeply re-engaged with Israel, with text study and with the profession generally. It helps people fall in love again with Jewish education.”

Bina says she tells Matan graduates “that it’s against Jewish law to keep the excitement to yourself,” and reports that she is “already seeing great growth” in the Eshkolot educators.

“You have to pass it on, to inspire and excite others….Each of these teachers will leave here ready to impact thousands of students in the course of their career and countless other educators they work with,” says Bina.

Shani Tauber explains that she will leave the program as a “hybrid” when it comes to the freshness of her knowledge about Israel and its culture.

“I was born into American culture and I understand the kids, but I’ll be freshly immersed in the learning and the land,” she says. “I think it’s going to be amazing.”