From sharing the stage with professional Israeli dancers to sipping tea in Bedouin tents and taking midnight swims in the Mediterranean, a group of American Jewish day-school teachers have immersed themselves in Israel so they can bring that excitement back to their classrooms. “When a person teaches information to which they have no personal connection, it’s flat,” said Betty Wolfson, a Massachusetts day-school teacher on her first visit to Israel. “Now we can teach with passion and true understanding because we’ve touched it. We’ve been on the soil. It’s real to us.”
A total of 191 teachers and day-school staff participated in the two-week visit this month, arranged by the Kivunim Summer Institute, the largest in-service training program for North America teachers in Israel.
Organizers of the program, which has brought 500 teachers to the country since its founding in 1999, hope to make Israel relevant to educators in a way that will infuse their teaching with a sense of passion about the Jewish state and the Diaspora’s connection to it.
Kivunim believes that for a teacher to be effective, he or she must remain a student. Participants in the program are exposed to a wide range of issues, events and personalities shaping contemporary Israel, so they’ll be more informed educators.
Instead of a being given a traditional tour of Israel, the day-school teachers and staff learn about the country’s history, culture and politics from experts in the field.
“There is simply no way for a teacher to carry with them over their career a highly motivated, inspirational way to their teaching unless their life is full of experiences that expand who they are,” said Peter Geffen, Kivunim’s director and founder.
Empowering Jewish day-school teachers with knowledge and passion about Israel and Jewish identity is critical for the future of Jewish life in North America, Geffen insisted.
“They hold in their hands the responsibility for the future of the Jewish people,” he said. “Orthodox Jews, because of their lifestyles, will continue to exist. But we’re working with families who are primarily not from the Orthodox community — so if we don’t create open, powerful, pluralistic education for our children, we will not only lose them but also the Jewish future.”
Geffen, who has decades of experience in Jewish education, also founded the Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School, in New York City.
According to Geffen, once teachers and staff visit Israel through a program as intense and multifaceted as Kivunim, they go back to their schools and develop new curricula which communicate their strengthened connection with Israel to students — and even their families.
“It is not possible to teach about Israel from a distance,” Geffen has written.
Teachers in the program — which is funded by several family foundations and the UJA–Federation of New York, among others — receive an all-expenses-paid fellowship.
Tamar Fields, who teaches prayer at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Pioneer Valley in Northampton, Mass., said the trip has made an indelible mark on her.
“It gave us the chance to look into a window of so many aspects of Israeli society, from ancient times to modern political times — to examine the important issues of all those times and to really experience the cultural diversity in terms of ethnic groups,” she said. She especially noted a visit to a museum of Iraqi Jewry and a concert of North African Jewish music.
“We learned a lot about different olim and to appreciate the diversity of the Jewish people and the issues they present about modern Israel,” she said.
Wolfson, an instructional aide in the same school as Fields, said she’ll be a different type of teacher this fall.
“It’s the understanding that comes from experience,” she said. “We will be better teachers because we are sharing from that place that comes from our soul now. And I think the children will be able to take the information now in an impassioned way as well.”
Kathy Axelrod, a teacher at the Pearlman Jewish Day School, outside Philadelphia, is still reeling from the experience of climbing ladders along steep, rocky riverbeds in the Negev, listening to a symphony orchestra in Jerusalem and touring the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial.
When she returns to her first-grade students, she’ll be giving them much more than before.
“I’ll be able to say, ‘In Israel I did such and such and they were such interesting people,’ ” she said. “I’ll be able to impart the energy and diversity of the country and the landscape.”