The Jewish People and The Land of Israel have always had an integral connection, a relationship that goes far beyond that of a people and their homeland—Israel is part of our identity. Throughout the generations, the connection to the Land of Israel and Jerusalem was expressed mainly through tefilla, Jewish literature, the study of Tanakh, and commemorating Jerusalem though rituals, practices, and customs. With the birth of modern Zionism and the founding of the State of Israel, the connection to The Land of Israel has evolved, opening a gateway for all Jews to take part in the development of the Land, visiting Israel, and even living in Israel. For the first time in two thousand years, the meaning that was drawn from the idea of Jerusalem and Israel can be something tangible.
Today, the struggles of establishing a homeland are over; Israel as a state has been established. The country is growing and thriving, and despite facing many ongoing challenges, a vibrant, contemporary Jewish society has been created. In parallel, Jewish communities and their young adults around the world are trying to form their identities and work out the role that Israel plays within that identity. Students are trying to reconcile how Israel informs their Jewish identity from a religious, cultural, and political perspective.
One of the main ways to create a strong connection to Israel is through the “Israel Experience”: formal and informal educational tours to Israel. As educators, we understand how transformative an Israel trip can be for students—the social aspect, the lack of sleep, being far from parents, the encounters with Israelis, and wandering the markets during free time, etc. all contribute to this. But most of all, we see opportunity in the educational moments at important sites that are tied to our history and culture. Tourists going to visit any site, anywhere, want to see, learn, and understand where they are. But here is where the Israel experience is different—students coming to Israel don’t just want to learn, they are also expecting to feel. Feel the connection to Jerusalem, to the nation, to that same story that they have heard over and over again and that has been the motivation that kept the flame burning for two thousand years. Students expect to have a meaningful trip, and hope to create their own meaningful connection to Israel.
How can we, as educators, ensure that the Israel trip lives up to those expectations? How can we create meaning that is not just connected to a given site, but to the individual that is visiting the site? And how can we account for the facts, dates, findings, and knowledge of the site while accounting for about forty students with different learning needs and backgrounds who may not all be interested or on the same page?
This challenge in my eyes, is the difference between guiding at a site and educating at a site. To educate at a site doesn’t mean having the students open up a notebook and take notes. Rather, it means that part of our trip preparation is to ask ourselves “What do what want our participants to leave this site with” or “Why is this site important for them?”
I would like to use the City of David as a practical case study of how to translate this into a replicable methodology.
The City of David is a National Park situated in the most ancient part of the city, or the Lower City of Jerusalem. While today it lies beyond the southern part of the Old City walls, it is promoted as “the place where it all began.” The archaeological findings span thousands of years of Jerusalem’s history, with key finds from both First and Second Temple Periods. A visit to the site typically includes walking through Hezekiah’s Tunnel, a channel which was quarried out to protect Jerusalem’s water source when the Assyrians besieged Jerusalem in 701 BCE.
Upon arrival at the City of David, the first thing that students usually want to do is take photos and post on social media. I use that, and ask them to put a caption starting with the words “Jerusalem to me is…” At this point most of their answers will be based off of their first interaction or previous expectations and knowledge. I ask the students to share, look at each other’s posts, and comment or like the ones which resonate with them. This opens their minds to the question of “what meaning does Jerusalem have to me?” and opens them up to seeing Jerusalem through the eyes of others. With this question of meaning fresh in our minds, we continue through the site.
Many characters and figures play a part and tell a story in the City of David, each giving unique meaning and value to Jerusalem. As we walk through the ancient city of Jerusalem using the texts of the Tanakh and the archaeology as our guides, we don’t just give over historical information, we use figures which have been selected based on who our students are, and we learn about Jerusalem through the eyes of these figures. If we use King David, the questions we ask are based on the text we can read together, the findings we see in front of us, and what we assume King David would or would not have done. The entire conversation is framed through the eyes of David and the time period he is living in, and only then through the students’ eyes today. The students will need to answer what Jerusalem would have meant to each character that we “meet”, based on what they just learned.
While walking through this site, students will meet and unfold the story of Jerusalem through the eyes of at least four characters from different time periods, realizing that in different generations Jerusalem had the same importance but often a very different meaning and value, just like it does for us today, and that every character encountered added not only their meaning but also their practices to the generations before them. Some saw Jerusalem as the place that connects the Jewish people to God and continuing the eternal promise, some saw it as a natural place in between the tribes to form the united monarchy, and others saw Jerusalem as the city of peace and justice, but watched it collapse. Some saw all the above and some saw bits of it, but all of them understood that Jerusalem has the potential, if we let it, to bring their Jewish values into actions. As we near the end of our visit, I urge the students to ask themselves, “What can Jerusalem mean to me?” or, “What would I like Jerusalem to mean to me?” and, “How do I translate that into a practical, tangible action?”
This is just one example. Perhaps, as educators planning this kind of trip, we need to ask how we zoom out—not just by selecting which sites to go to, but by considering what is our goal of going to each site and really focusing on that. How can we create meaning on an Israel trip? How do we use a site as a tool to creating meaning that will last beyond the trip and the physical context of being in Israel? We do that by not only giving them other people’s answers but giving them the questions; we show them what it meant to others and how they got there. We give them the setting and framework not only on the Israel trip, but tools for continuing the process when they get back home to fit it into their day-to-day lives. When we give students the space and the right tools to be independent thinkers who are connected to the past, they will find the words to write their own meaning even as they recognize that they don’t stand alone—they are part of a larger picture and they are the ones that will shape the next chapter of the story. If a student walks away understanding that David’s vision of Jerusalem included unification of the nation focusing on the commonality, advocating for it and dedicating his actions to it, they can use that and translate those lessons to ask when they should look for a unifying source instead of highlighting differences.
For over two thousand years, we gave Jerusalem meaning through ritual and customs, and the process still lives. Creating meaning from an Israel trip does not peak at the actual sites, or even on the trip. The Israel trip inspires our students to create their personal meaning and the connection that they are longing for and not just understand the meaning and process in a historical context. The challenge is not only to have them ask why this is relevant to them, but it is to look for the answer as a call to action. When we realize that meaning is created when looking at the past, learning from it, and embracing the present, we can start looking at what to do about it. The actions we take are the meaning we create.
Miriam Tekuzener is a Licensed Tour Educator and the Director of Israel Education at Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim. Miriam has a BA in the Land of Israel Studies & Experiential Education from BIU, and is finishing her MA in Jewish Education at Melton.