Photo by Georges Biard, via Wikimedia Commons

By David Bryfman

As Jewish educators we thrive on moments when popular culture and Jewish practice intersect. These moments provide us with launching pads to start any number of conversations with an inbuilt resonance for our youth – if the topic is good enough for our pop cultural icons to interact with it, then certainly I can engage in that conversation. As difficult as some of these conversations might be, we cannot and should not avoid them.

In her recent decision not to attend the Genesis Prize award ceremony, Natalie Portman has gifted Jewish educators another opportunity to engage in critical conversations with our youth.

This is not an article about whether the Israeli born Oscar winner has done the right thing or the wrong thing. It is not an Op-Ed about Bibi Netanyahu, Gaza, BDS, or refugees. This is an articulation of good Israel education, as described by my mentor and colleague, Barry Chazan, whereby the subject of Israel education is not Israel, but rather the learners who grapple with trying to find a meaningful role for Israel in their lives.

Furthermore, it is an article about good Jewish education, which is an article about good education. Educators continually strive to find intersections of content and relevance, so that learners can make personal meaning of the subject matter. Popular culture provides us such opportunities for relevance, and even inspiration, on a regular basis.

If our subject of concern is truly the learners that we educate, then as Jewish educators it is not our role to agree or disagree with Portman. Rather than being a case study of something to either condemn or applaud, our role is one to bring the material to our learners so that they can decide how they view a given topic – no matter how complicated it might be.

And now three helpful tips to those of you committed to this type of practice:

  1. Always be committed to good education practices
    I predict that you will have naysayers in your community, from both the left and right who will tell you that Portman is a hero or a traitor. Explain to these people that your role is not to be an advocate for Israel or Portman. Your role is to ensure that the learners you have been blessed to educate are able to reach their own conclusions that will help them be the best version of themselves, and not what someone else expects them to be.
  1. Good education is always dependent on context
    Your students are not blank slates. They come to you with history, family, and prior learning. In John Dewey language learning is a product of both continuity, that all experiences influence one’s future, and interaction, whereby the situation of the present will always influence one’s experience. For educators, acknowledge and respect the totality of your learners’ paths if you intend to have an impact on their present and future.
  1. Good education is almost always about growth (and transformation)
    For some education might be about preservation. Teach them what they ought to know so they can be just like us. But good education should always be about growth, and often be about transformation. The student who leaves your class/shiur/activity should not be the same person that entered. One of the best tools educators have at their disposal to allow such growth and transformation to occur is a commitment to challenging our learners to think and act differently in this world. Presenting conflict has always been a positive tool in the repertoire of good educators.

For Jewish educators, Natalie Portman is no black swan to be avoided. She provides us with a great opportunity for many discussions about love and darkness that Jewish educators ought to be having with their students – not just about Israel, but for many of the questions, tensions, and conflicts that being Jewish in the world today raises for them.

David Bryfman is the Chief Innovation Officer at The Jewish Education Project. David completed his Ph.D. in Education and Jewish Studies at NYU focusing on Jewish adolescent identity development and experiential Jewish education.