Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Opening the Door Wider

The theme of rebuilding connections to Israel has been making Jewish headlines this past week.  The newly released Jewish Agency strategic plan (Securing the Future: Forging a Jewish Agency for Israel and the Jewish People) sets out a blueprint that would lead to forging new links between Israel and the next generation, thereby ensuring the continued centrality of Israel and Zionism in 21st century Judaism. The new focus will be the younger generation, Jews between the ages of 13 and 35.  The tool will be creating more programs that will entice this age group to step through the door and come to Israel to study, to play, to visit, and maybe, ultimately to live.

What the Jewish Agency is planning makes perfect sense. It is not news that the best way to connect anyone to Israel is by taking them there. However, there is one glitch.  Yes we need to focus on those born in the last 3 decades.  But I think we are forgetting that there is a whole other group of people who may never have been to Israel, and have considerable influence on whether teens will go or not.  I’m talking about their parents.  Without their buy-in, their kids won’t be on that El Al flight to Ben Gurion airport.

According to Jack Wertheimer (The Truth About American Jews and Israel), only 35% of American Jews have visited Israel.  The 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Study estimated this number to be 41% of all Jews, and less then 30% of those between the ages of 18 and 54 (today’s 28 to 64 year olds).  We can’t just focus on teens.  We need to reach out to their parents, the folks who will sign the permission slip.  These are the people who came of age in the ‘80s, who grew up with Israel’s image being tarnished by the 1982 Lebanon war, the first Intifada and Gulf War #1.  This is a generation that never went to Israel because of the perceived violence and danger.  They haven’t had a chance to experience Israel first-hand.  They have raised their kids to see Israel as being somewhat important, but are unable to share their own personal impressions. These are the parents of the kids who now attend congregational schools and confirmation programs and who tell me “It’s too dangerous to send my kid to Israel.” These are the folks we need to send there.  If they go, their children are more likely to follow.

A flight to Israel during summer (when kids are on vacation) costs over $1000.00 a person. For a family of 4 we’re probably talking over $6000 for everything. I think the time has come to make it easier to get to Israel.  We seem to be moving in the right direction with college students and young adults.  We’re about to work on getting more teens there.  I propose that we create programs that focus on families who have never been to Israel:  sort of like Birthright, but for parents and their school-aged children.

I know it’s a lot of money and this idea is fraught with logistical impossibilities, but I believe that parents are the best teachers, and if they fall in love with Israel, this will influence how they raise their children.  Maybe I’m being impractical and unrealistic, however I am an old-time Zionist who still believes in what Herzl said:  Im Tirzu Eyn Zo Agadah:  If you will it, it is no dream. The door is open. We just need to try to entice more folks to step through.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Teva-JNF seminar: pt 4 - The Jewish Edge Effect

Changing frames of reference.  That’s really the best way to describe this past week’s Teva Seminar on Jewish Environmental Education. Old ideas were presented in new packaging, and new concepts were introduced in the context of tradition (albeit in new garb, as well). These are examples of what I call the “Jewish Edge Effect”.

A few days ago I wrote about the scientific concept of “the edge effect”: the phenomenon of increased biodiversity in areas where different habitats meet. We can observe the Jewish edge effect when different Jewish perspectives converge and create new approaches to both tradition and modernity, challenging and modifying conventional wisdom.  That’s what happened here, specifically in terms of the JNF and Israel.

The presentations and programs from the Jewish National Fund were geared to present Israel in a benign, green fashion, sidelining the political elephant in the room.  I think to a great extent they succeeded:  The educators who participated in those sessions came away with ideas of how to present the Jewish State in positive ways that are accessible to all, and especially speak to young people – those who, according to research and experience, are the least engaged when it comes to Israel. 

This is where the Jewish edge effect comes in. At the Teva seminar, all participants learned that “nature has no boundaries” (Noam Dolgin) and that preserving the ecological balance in the region can be the key leading to less hostilities and even (dare I say it?) peace.   But this was just one small piece.  Sessions on climate change, Shabbat as an example for sustainable living, and rabbinic perspectives on consumption created a mindset for all participants to open up to other possibilities.  The “Topsy-Turvy” bus that sat by the lake in the parking lot across from the dining hall was, I think, the most salient example of how things can be seen differently.  This had a significant impact on how those Jewish educators from “main stream” institutions who participated in the JNF programming will approach teaching about Israel in the future.

If we present Israel as a place where nature happens, a place where the inhabitants cope with sharing scarce resources, could this possibly effect how our students look at Israel in the future; not as a venue of conflict, but as a land that needs to be worked and protected (Genesis 2:15)? A changing frame of reference regarding Eretz Yisrael, focusing on the context of The Land that is shared by all, might create a new spark of caring for those who don’t remember ’67, but do remember Gaza and the flotilla.  

I’m not so naïve as to believe that JNF’s mission has changed:  its raison d’être is classic Zionist: to create a majority Jewish presence on the Land.  However maybe if the sentiments of future supporters of JNF and Israel are not just motivated by demographic and nationalist concerns, but rather by caring for the Land and its promise, we may find a renewed interest in Israel and Zionism, which might then have a real influence on Israel itself.

The Jewish edge effect describes a framework for the promise of an evolving Judaism.  One that draws from different cultural, technological and intellectual habitats that converge and from which can spring forth a flourishing Jewish tomorrow.  

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Teva-JNF seminar:pt.3

I was on an upside-down bus today.  Actually it’s called the “Topsy-turvy bus”.  Here it is:


Originally a work of art by the late artist Tom Kennedy, this unique mode of transportation has now become a tool for education: teaching new paradigms in the way we look at our relationship with the planet.  The bus runs on vegetable oil and has recently completed a cross-country trip, the goal of which was to deliver green education to all and sundry. For more information you can go to the Jewish Climate Change Campaign Tour blog.

Rachel, one of the drivers in the recent journey described the teaching method behind the bus madness as “taking folks by surprise.” Getting people’s attention is way to get them to be more receptive to a new message and way of seeing reality.  I think we have  a lot to learn from this when it comes to teaching about Israel.

One of the sessions I attended today was offered by the Jewish National Fund and focused on the “GoNeutral Project”. Its purpose is to create a connection between Israel and planting trees as a means of controlling carbon emissions.  It’s a clever idea, and makes it easy to care about an Israel where the politics are irrelevant.  It’s effective because most of us associate the JNF with the blue boxes and the issue of land ownership.  This reaches us because it frames the whole issue in the surprising context of Israel's role in reducing the threat of greenhouse gases. A good beginning towards getting us to change how we look at the Jewish State. More work needs to follow, but at least we are starting to make the first baby steps.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Teva-JNF seminar:pt.2

I learned a new concept today: “The Edge effect”. This is a term used in environmental sciences that describes the phenomenon of increased biodiversity in areas where different habitats meet. This means that in areas where a forest and a meadow touch each other, you’ll find greater varieties of species coexisting. The introduction of new and seemingly disparate elements into a system expands it. Nili Simhai, Director of the Teva Seminar on Jewish Environmental Education, introduced this theme as she welcomed us all to this year’s 16th annual conference. She was teaching it in the context of Jewish environmental awareness and the interface between the learner, the teacher and the land, but I’m going to extrapolate from it: The education experience is like an ecosystem. The way we teach something has an impact on what we’re teaching. By bringing in new and possibly novel ideas and modalities, we can have an influence on both the learner and on what she is learning. While this isn’t such a revolutionary idea, the setting in which it was articulated made it special.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow followed Nili by exploring a spiritual aspect of the current environmental crises: Finding God in the Gulf, if you will. He started with the unpronounceable name of the Deity, explaining that it can only be articulated by exhaling. He’s right. Try to pronounce those 4 Hebrew letters. You can’t. If God’s essence is in a breath, then all life (human and other) is united by this. “The breathing of all life is God’s name.”  The implication is that “God’s own name is at risk” today on this planet, because of the threat to its ecological soundness. I found this thought refreshing not because I’ve become a follower of Jewish renewal (I have not), but because it reframed the question of our relationship to the environment, adding an extra layer to how we relate to it, interact with it, and influence it. The edge effect in action, if you will.

In my last post I wrote about my expectations of this seminar and how I hoped it would provide a new way to teach about Israel. Now I want to see how this “edge effect” can also describe the influence our teaching can have not only on the learner, but also on The Land.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Teva-JNF seminar:pt.1

Whew.  Finally got a seat at a bar as I await my flight here in Ft. Laurderdale as I begin my journey to the Teva-JNF Ambassadors’ seminar.  I’ve been mulling over the next few days – what can I expect, especially in this past week of Zionist maritime adventures?

This whole conference, initially meant to teach educators how to present Israel in a green perspective has taken on a more poignant perspective.  It’s not just about creating a connection between Creation (ma’aseh b’resheet) and Jewish life and Israel.  It’s become more urgent – building a link between Jewish youth of today and tomorrow and Eretz Yisrael in a language that speaks to their sensibilities. And now, after the events of the week, we need to find ways that create positive links to Israel, despite the troublesome stream of bad news from the region. We're not talking about PR.  It's not about image.  It's about how we want our kids to teach their kids about Israel.

So…my expectations?  What do I want to come away with?  A way of presenting the idea of Israel that is not linked to blockades and ships and commandos landing on a deck being attacked.  A way that will help us look at Israel as a fulfillment of the dreams of a people searching for freedom for themselves, and not at the expense on another.

Let’s see what the next week brings. I'll be tweeting  (you can follow me as redmenace 56) and blogging here.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Choosing to Squeeze the Trigger

Yesterday was a difficult day.  As Daniel Gordis described it: A yom kasheh - a tough day. It’s irrelevant if the decisions of the Israeli government regarding the flotilla were right or wrong.  There are as many articles being published in Israel by fathers and mothers of Israeli soldiers calling the operation a debacle as there are hailing the bravery of our Israeli boys and nefariousness of the so-called “peace activists” (see the Gordis piece above). And now government ministers are protesting that they were not included in the decision.  I’m not sure we’ll ever really know the truth of what happened, but what concerns me is something different:  What has this conflict done to our sense of humanity and how  will it impact on what we teach the next generation.

I’m an old-time Zionist whose pride in Israel was shaped by the events of June 1967.  But as I grew, my belief in the righteousness of Jewish nationalism was enhanced by another Jewish value:  “That which is hateful to you, don’t do to another.” As a Jewish educator, I try to teach that the value of Tzedek – Justice, is a fundamental component of Jewish living, especially expressed in the context of the Jewish State. It is for this reason that I am repulsed by Golda Meir’s statement of how difficult it will be for Israel to forgive Arab leaders for “forcing us to kill their children.”  You see, it’s us, the Jews/Zionists/Israelis who are choosing to squeeze the trigger.  Yes, it is in self defense, but I can’t help but wonder if there could be another way.

Zionism is not a movement to create a country that’s just like others, like Thailand or Russia.  Its mission is to create a Jewish state – a place where Jewish values thrive.  Kedoshim Tehee’yoo – You shall be Holy.  These words are from the book of Leviticus, in Parashat KedoshimKadosh means special, distinct. Not like everyone else.  It means that we need to take the extra step towards imitating God, in whose image we were created.   This belief informs how I approach what happens in Israel, which I consider my homeland, from which I live in exile. I don’t know how to reconcile a blockade of 1.4 million people with holiness.  And Hamas be damned - we are talking about human beings.  Kids.  Old people. They are suffering.  Hamas is forcing us to do this?  We are squeezing the trigger. How is this holy behavior? In the name of self-defense can one put striving towards holiness on hold?  How do I explain this to a 7th grader?

Yes we are at war, and we need to defend ourselves.  But, are we doing it the right way, the just way?  How do we teach this to our kids?  I don’t know.  That’s what’s scaring me and made yesterday a yom kasheh.