Foundations, educators search for innovative approaches to Israel education

Jewish educators meeting at URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute in Wisconsin for Israel at the Center conference. (Rachel Tepper)

Jewish educators meeting at URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute in Wisconsin for Israel at the Center conference. (Rachel Tepper)

OCONOMOWOC, Wis. (JTA) — Is Israel the central component of Israel education? Not necessarily.

At least that’s the provocative theory being pushed by the iCenter, the newly founded Israel education initiative funded jointly by The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Jim Joseph Foundation.

“When you want to invent something new, the tendency is to add or replace,” presenter Amnon Levav, managing director of Systematic Inventive Thinking, told a crowded room of Jewish educators who came to this Wisconsin city recently for the iCenter’s latest endeavor, the Israel at the Center conference. “But much comes about when you subtract.”

More than 100 Jewish educators, rabbis and lay leaders from across North America attended the three-day summit at the URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute for a discussion on alternate methods of teaching Israel in the face of what many consider to be a critical point in Israel education.

Levav’s technique is all about overcoming “functional fixedness,” which he described as the tendency to have a mental block against thinking about things in a new way that is required to solve a problem.

“The ability to switch the fixedness off is the key to innovation,” said Levav, who often employs the concept of “subtraction,” or the removal of a seemingly key aspect, to encourage novel thinking.

This kind of unconventional thought process is at the crux of the iCenter’s vision to inspire creative thinking and provide new and more effective resources to the fledgling field of Israel education.

Backed by two philanthropic giants, the year-old iCenter has hit the ground running. The summit was its largest effort to date.

Levav, whose approach has typically attracted large consumer companies such as Oscar Mayer and Johnson & Johnson, led the group through a series of exercises meant to provoke thought, conversation and, perhaps most important, discomfort. 

“The path of most resistance,” he explained, or the option that feels most distressing, is often what yields the most innovative results.

Removing Israel in a literal sense from the equation of Israel education may seem counterintuitive, but the ensuing conversation yielded the results for which Levav had hoped: a flurry of ideas as to how teachers can relate the importance of Israel and Jewish identity without resorting to a traditional history lesson. 

Michael Colson, director of Israel Programs in the Schusterman Foundation’s Washington office, said the summit’s discussion topics were chosen in response to what several educators believe is a growing “disconnect between young American Jews and Israel.” 

The goal of the iCenter, Colson said, is to create a greater awareness of Israel education, build a community of Israel educators and provide a place for the cross-fertilization of ideas.

Conference participants echoed the idea that serious discussion on Israel education was needed.

“There’s a huge gap in what North American Jews know in terms of substance and what they claim to know,” said summit attendee Kenneth Stein, director of the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel. 

Stein, who also serves as a professor of contemporary Middle Eastern history and Israeli studies at Emory University, stressed that many North American students now learn about Israel from a political perspective and not a personal one.  The new sort of Israel education being promoted by the iCenter, he says, is “not about preaching. It’s about learning the story not just about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but about how Jews took control of their own destiny.”

Among the new ways of approaching Israel education, the integration of arts and culture into curriculum and the employment of new technologies were emphasized.

Israeli musician Udi Krauss led several sessions that urged educators to incorporate modern Israeli music into their lesson plans. Though his day job as a producer and drummer for major Israeli acts such as Eric Berman and Miri Mesika keep him busy, Krauss developed a passion for Israel education after participating in a Shorashim Israel Birthright trip in his teens. Shorashim is a 20-year-old peer-to-peer Israel program popularized by Birthright Israel.

Krauss continues to lead Shorashim trips in his spare time. 

“Educating Jewish teens has become a part of my DNA,” he said. “It’s only natural to blend music into it.”

Krauss believes that if North American teens “know what’s going on in Israeli music, they can relate to it.  Music is a part our establishment as a country.”

Sessions about new technology included a tutorial in Second Life, a virtual world that has grown in popularity in recent years, and an explanation of how social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter can be applied to Israel education.

The questions posed during the technology sessions were among the most provocative.

 “Why is the Jewish world so far behind?” asked David Bryfan, director of the New Center for Collaborative Leadership. “And why are they afraid of technology?” 

Bryfan’s session discussed the implications of new Web technology for the classroom. Online media sites such as YouTube, he said, are changing the way teens relate to Judaism, but Jewish educators are lagging. Jewish teens are not learning the way they used to learn, and old education methods are no longer resonating with them.

His questions, Bryfan said, often were “deliberatively provocative” because educators need to adopt a newer and more dynamic “mind-set that today’s technology symbolizes.”

Bryfan, who serves on the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York, is among the 10 educators on a panel dubbed the iTeam who serve as consultants for the iCenter.

“We’re forging the field of Israel education,” said iCenter President Anne Lanski.

Though teaching Israel has long played an important role in primary and secondary Jewish studies, Lanski said it has never been considered a specialty in its own right.  Only a short time ago, “there was no field,” she said.

The summit marked the first time that leaders from diverse fields met to discuss different approaches to teaching about Israel. 

Before being tapped to head the iCenter, Lanski for more than two decades had focused her energies on bringing Israel into the conversation of Jewish education. In 1989 she founded Shorashim.

Lanski noted that the center will continue to hold summits and training sessions, but that its primary purpose is to provide resources to Israel educators. The center’s online home, expected to launch soon, will provide a catalog of more than 85 Israel education curriculums in a searchable database and an online shop featuring products that bring Israel into the home and classroom.

Summit participants by and large were impressed with the ideas presented, but realized that Israel education is still in its infancy. 

“As a beginning, I could tell I got exposed to resources that I think will be valuable for my community,” said Ilan Vitemberg, director of the Israel Education Initiative. “But I believe it’s still a beginning.”

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