What Does It Mean to Be An Israel Educator? The Kesher Hadash JTS Israel Program

Feb. 01, 2013

Source: eJewish Philanthropy

The Jewish Theological Seminary’s Davidson School of Education runs a full semester-in-Israel program called Kesher Hadash (“New Connection”), which is generously funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation. Kesher Hadash takes ten emerging Jewish educators every year and provides them with a rich, immersive and compelling educational experience in Israel that gives them the tools to graduate from Davidson as Israel educators ready to take on the diverse challenges of the field.

Kesher Hadash is built on two core ideas:

  • Commitment through Complexity: Engagement with Israel should include all of Israel’s rich and multifaceted diversity, including aspects that are frustrating, difficult, and challenging. Seeing Israel through its beguiling and intricate complexities will ultimately lead to a deeper and fuller relationship with it.
  • Immersive Encounters: Whenever possible, Israel engagement should include extended and deep encounters with Israeli peers. The development of relationships with Israeli peers leads to a richer understanding of Israeli society than can be formed in any formal class.

The program itself is a curricular manifestation of these ideas. A full-time academic program, bearing the same number of credits as a regular semester at JTS, it includes innovative partnerships with Israeli institutions, such as the David Yellin Teacher Education College, where Davidson Kesher Hadash students take part in extended experiential mifgashim with David Yellin students, working in small mixed American-Israeli groups on questions of identity, education, and Israeli society. In addition, the program is highly experiential, and students are immersed in numerous aspects of Israeli life, culture and society.

The Kesher Hadash outcomes are formulated as follows:

• Israel and Jewish identity: Students will be able to…

o Express multi-layered understandings of Israel’s relationship to their American Jewish identities;
o Construct narratives of Zionism or Israel engagement that are appropriate for contemporary American Jewish culture;

• Jewish identity and Israelis: Students will be able to…

o Discuss the various tensions between tradition and modernity that manifest themselves in Israeli society;
o Engage Israeli peers in conversation about common questions of identity and education.

• Knowledge and understanding of Israeli history, culture, politics and society: Students will be able to…

o Demonstrate knowledge of Israeli history and contemporary Israeli society and politics; Demonstrate familiarity with aspects of contemporary Israeli culture and art.
o Discuss various complexities regarding the questions of Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians, both those in the West Bank and Gaza and those who are citizens of Israel.

• Israel Education: Students will be able to…

o Prepare educational activities and curricula that engage with the complex reality of contemporary Israeli society;
o Justify an approach to Israel education that takes account of Israel’s frustrations and challenges as well as its inspiring qualities;
o Express a coherent personal narrative for their Israel education work within the American Jewish community.

• Connections with Israelis: Students will be able to…

o Articulate a Jewish educational rationale for engagement with Israelis of diverse backgrounds;
o Identify areas of their Jewish self-understanding that are changed, challenged, or enriched by Israel and Israelis;
o Articulate the cultural, religious and philosophical complexities, challenges and promises of developing relationships between American Jews and Israelis.

• Modern Hebrew: Students will be able to…

o Show significant gains in their Hebrew language abilities and confidence in speaking Hebrew.
o Engage in conversations of significance in Hebrew with Israelis.

Read the entire article at eJewish Philanthropy.

At the conclusion of the second cohort of Kesher Hadash, the authors reflect on their students’ responses to this approach

For some students, this approach to Israel is liberating. They feel as if a breath of fresh air has been cast into their relationship with Israel, and that they have now been given the freedom and the imprimatur to find their own voice, to craft their own relationship with Israel, and to be authentic and honest in that relationship. They revel in this new approach. As one student wrote: “I arrived [in Israel] unsure that my voice in matters concerning Israel mattered or even existed… Looking back now, towards the end of this adventure, I still have uncertainties and confusions, but I now have the ability to address them; I have now found my voice.”

However, for other students (and in our experience so far, it is a small but not insignificant minority of around 20% of the students each year) Kesher Hadash is deeply disturbing. While they enter the program stating that they are aware of Israel’s difficult social, religious and political issues, they quickly undergo the difficult transition from cognitive, arm’s length awareness to face-to-face, “in-your-face”, engagement. Previously-held assumptions and rationales for commitment to Israel are unraveled. These assumptions and rationales, despite the ubiquity and accessibility of news about Israel from dozens of different perspectives, are still deeply rooted in a heroic-mythic narrative of Israel, and they exist not only in the student’s individual relationship with Israel, but often in that of their family and community too; so it’s not just a private journey that students embark on – they have the voices of their family and friends in their heads too.
As educators, it’s hard to take students through this unraveling. We cause them heartache and heartbreak (and often they explicitly use romantic metaphors like “loss of love” to describe their new feelings about Israel).

We try to support students during this unraveling, but we don’t let our students shy away from it….

For the students who feel unraveled, our role as educators is to remind ourselves of the importance of subject matter authenticity, faith in second naïveté, and the need for ongoing educational translation. Meanwhile, we take heart in the majority of our students, whose reveling in complexity is a sight to behold. As one of them put it:
“Whether you come to change your beliefs or hold them ever firmer, it will be because of conversation, not indoctrination.”

See more at eJewish Philanthropy.

Updated: Sep. 01, 2013