Perspectives on Jewish Education: Teaching Israel from B to Y – An Incomplete Guide for the Jewish Educator

by: David Breakstone

Dr. David Breakstone has been engaged in the field of teaching Israel for more than 30 years. He currently serves as the head of the Department for Zionist Activities of the World Zionist Organization, where he is also represents the worldwide Masorti (Conservative) Movement on the Zionist Executive.

As we celebrate 60 years of Jewish statehood and marvel at the transformation of the country over the past six decades, it is important that those of us involved in Israel education take advantage of the opportunity not only to rejoice, but also to reflect.

  • Has the field evolved over the years in keeping with the dramatic developments in Israeli society, the radical changes in the realities of the Jewish world, and the evolving dynamics of Israel-Diaspora relations?
  • Have we succeeded in articulating a philosophy of teaching Israel that does justice to the subject matter?
  • Are the tools we have created adequate to the task at hand?
  • Are we even able to express what our goals and objectives are in teaching Israel?

As I begin contemplating these questions myself, Pesah is only a few weeks behind us. After a brief moment of exulting in our freedom, we hesitantly embark on an arduous journey to some faraway Promised Land that only a couple of us will actually complete. More than once we have second thoughts about the wisdom and practicality of what it is that we have set out to do, Are we ready for the responsibilities that come with the privileges of sovereignty?

Surely if each of us accompanied our forebears as they left Egypt, and stood with them at Mt. Sinai as the shofar sounded, then we most certainly also attended the First Zionist Congress at which Herzl founded the Jewish State, and were present 50 years later when David Ben Gurion declared its independence. Still, the question begs asking: “What are the real meanings for us today of the Land of Israel and the State of Israel, the longings for which have been so fundamental to our tradition and the evolution of our collective consciousness?”

We may not be ready to grapple with the question on our own, but sooner or later those sitting in our classrooms will force us to.

  • The wise child asks: Why did our sages assert that the mitzvah of settling the Land of Israel is equal in merit to all the rest of the commandments combined?
  • The rebellious child asks: Why do we proclaim “Next Year in Jerusalem” when we never really intend to get up and go there?
  • The simple child asks: How is it possible to fashion a state that is both Jewish and democratic?
  • As to the child unable to enquire, well, we are uncertain as to the lesson we wish to impart.

How many of those teaching Israel today are adequately prepared to stand before these four students? Can we help them find answers to their questions when we are still fumbling for them ourselves? There have been a number of efforts over the years to develop an approach to Israel education that would offer some guidance in this regard. The most recent, and probably the most comprehensive, is Makom, whose aim is “to create the compelling content needed to build the field of Israel engagement for our times.” It is an undertaking of the Jewish Agency’s Department for Jewish Zionist Education, whose mission is “to intensify the unique and multi-dimensional significance of Israel in connecting the next generation to its heritage, people and homeland.” While I readily identify with these goals, I also note that they refer to process rather than substance. As those connected to this initiative and others go about building a curriculum that will give expression to their objectives, I want to urge that they embrace two topics that heretofore have been sorely missing from the lexicon of teaching Israel: Aliyah and Zionism.

Regarding the first, I am not proposing that the objective need be bringing all of our students to Israel to live. I am suggesting, however, that the subject be taught in our schools in such a way that not moving to Israel also become a decision that our young people must consciously make, rather than taking it for granted – much as is the case regarding the observance of other mitzvot such as lighting Shabbat candles, maintaining kashrut, or marrying within the faith. While aliyah may be a four-letter word in Hebrew, it isn’t in English, and it shouldn’t be treated that way. But it is now part of a vocabulary uttered only in undertones or with apologies. Instead, aliyah should be presented unabashedly as the highest expression of Zionist fulfillment. It allows for the most direct involvement in the exhilarating task of Jewish state building. It signifies a shift in our engagement with Jewish values from the realm of theoretical discourse into the practice of shaping a Jewish society. It means binding one’s destiny to the destiny of the Jewish people in a more profound way than is possible anywhere else. Aliyah is not only a great challenge facing the Jewish people; it is also potentially the greatest source of fulfillment for the individual Jew. As to those who would dismiss these phrases as mere cliché, I can only express my regrets that they will never experience the deep satisfaction that comes with internalizing their power to transform.

As for Zionism, it is not – and has never been – only about providing a safe haven for Jews in need; it is also the dream of creating a model state. While Zionist visionaries have certainly disagreed regarding what that state should look like, they were also bound by a passion for forging a hevrat mofet, a society that would exemplify the very best that the Jewish civilization has to offer. This narrative, what I refer to as “positive Zionism,” is all but ignored in the practice of teaching Israel. Instead, the Diaspora community is fixated on “crisis Zionism,” focusing on the negative factors which necessitated the emergence of a Jewish nationalist movement: rescuing Jews in distress, combating antisemitism, and countering anti-Zionist and anti-Israel propaganda. While present circumstances require that all of these measures continue, our students will have been swindled if they are not taught that from its inception, Zionism not only offered a solution to the Jewish problem but also a vision for Jewish life, rooted no less in Biblical tradition than Zionist ideology, that involves creating a society characterized by the fundamental tenets of prophetic Judaism: tzedek tzedek tirdof, rodef shalom, and tikkun olam – pursuing justice, seeking peace, and repairing the world. “Never again,” and the need for a safe refuge are not phrases that resonate for members of a generation that identifies the Six Day War as “the beginning of the occupation.” But an invitation to help shape a model society, and a Jewish one at that, is something that should energize them. Herzl recognized this a century ago. “A community must have an ideal,” he wrote, “for it is that which drives us… The ideal is for the community what bread and water are for the individual. And our Zionism, which led us hither and which will lead us still further to yet unknown heights, is but such an ideal, an infinite endless ideal.”

These concepts do not appear in the popular manuals for teaching about the Jewish state that I am familiar with. They all begin with “B” for Birthright and end with “Y” for Yerushalayim shel Zahav. I certainly wouldn’t change those entries, but on Israel’s 60th birthday, I believe the time has come to produce a guide that is more complete, one that goes all the way from A to Z. Aliyah and Zionism must be given their rightful places in the discipline of Israel education. Only then will we be able to stand with integrity before all of our students – the wise, the rebellious, the simple, and the one unable to enquire.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Lookstein Center