Biking through the streets of downtown Jerusalem every day for several months, Eli Bass, 30, of Oak Park, Ill., noticed the frustrated line of bumper-to-bumper cars and buses lining the streets. In response, Bass worked at the Ma’aleh School of Film to create a five-minute documentary (available on YouTube) encouraging new, green methods of transportation in the millennia-old capitol.
Bass was a participant in Kesher Hadash (New Connection), a new Israel-immersion program run through the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). The program provides a five-month semester in Israel to 10 students pursuing degrees in Jewish education; the Jim Joseph Foundation covers all the expenses.
The program aims to prepare “the next generation of teachers to go back to the States and teach about Israel,” said Ofra Backenroth, associate dean of JTS’s William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education. “To feel passionate about their subject matter, it’s important to first feel a personal connection to the land. The main tenet of Kesher Hadash: you can’t be an Israel educator if you’re not engaging with Israel constantly.”
Completing its pilot year this past May, the program offered participants an immersive look at Israeli life, education and culture. Students traveled all over the country, from Bethlehem (where they spent the night hosted by Palestinians) to Meah Shearim, the haredi stronghold in the heart of Jerusalem. They also took classes at Israeli universities, including the David Yellin Teacher Education College and the Ma’aleh School of Film, side by side with Israeli students.
One major component: overcoming the language barrier. “One of the things that stood out to me about Kesher Hadash was their mandatory intensive ulpan [Hebrew study] program,” said Dana Levinson, from Fanwood, N.J. “We got to class, and English simply wasn’t an option. My Hebrew improved 20-fold, b’vadai,” she said, using the Hebrew term for “certainly.”
“Yes, when they throw you into a different culture and language hook, line and sinker, there are bound to be miscommunications,” laughed Nina Yeske, a participant from Atlanta, recalling a humorous slipup when she referred to the special-education school in Modi’in where she volunteered as “gevina” (cheese), instead of by its proper name (Gavaniim). “But we were there to grapple with this culture, and part of that struggle was embracing the language.”
Hebrew was far from the only challenge.
“Struggle is an integral part of our goal for this program,” said Alex Sinclair, director of programs in Israel education at JTS. “The first element of our vision: complexity within a framework of commitment. Israel is a country rich with contradictions: old-new, East-West, religious-secular, fabulous and flawed. We want our students to engage in these complex conversations, and then bring these conversations back with them to their students in America.”
Donald A. Sylvan, president of the Jewish Education Service of North American (JESNA), said, “This program understands the critical difference between education and advocacy. It creates future Israel educators who are honest consumers of information, while also avid Zionists. This is what Israel education in America needs.”
“Diversity in Israeli Society,” taken at the David Yellin Teacher Education College in Jerusalem, brought challenging questions to the forefront. Participants studied with Israeli students from a range of backgrounds, including secular Jews, religious Jews and Arabs.
“That class stands out in my mind as one of the most important experiences of the entire program,” said Sarah Sechan, of Highland Park, Ill. “Alex [Sinclair] took charge of the class. One discussion that stands out in my mind was when he posed the class with the challenge of writing a new verse to ‘Hatikvah’ that made the [national] anthem more inclusive of Israel’s diversity, while still retaining Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. The challenge brought sensitive questions of national identity to the forefront. But we did not shy away from the questions.”
Did opinions change after in-depth discussions with the Arab students? Sechan responded, “At the end of the day, I believe in Israel as a Jewish state. But that doesn’t mean we can’t live together and respect one another.”
“Before this program, I struggled with questions about my Zionist identity,” said Levinson. “Can I be a proud Zionist while also empathizing with other viewpoints? This program showed me that these two ideologies, these two parts of who I am, don’t conflict.”
“One of the things that’s lacking in America today when it comes to education about Israel is embracing Israel as a complex entity,” said Backenroth. “It’s not enough to tell young American students just to advocate for something — they have to understand what they are advocating for. On this program, we let the participants first witness as much as possible firsthand, and then form opinions. By facing the questions, they will be better equipped to withstand [rhetorical] attacks against Israel, and better prepared to teach students how to respond to those attacks.”
Bass, who works as Israel director at a JCC camp in Wisconsin, put what he learned from Kesher Hadash directly into practice. “When it comes to Israel, I’ve started to replace a curriculum of advocacy with a curriculum of experience and thought,” he said. “Presenting questions about Israel without a preconceived end in mind allows students to connect to Israel on their own individual wavelength.”
He described a class given about recently released hostage Gilad Shalit, a topic that generated a huge amount of media coverage. “Exchanging one Israeli prisoner for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners — that’s a difficult equation to wrap your mind around. We presented what happened to the students, and asked them if they thought the decision had been just. The conversation got so involved that counselors told me kids were discussing it in the bunkhouses way past curfew.”
Complexity comes in many colors. “It was when a haredi Rabbi, in full-on haredi garb — beard, black and white [clothing], came to speak with us that we knew things were going to get interesting,” said Yeske.
Discussing everything from “kosher phones” (phones devoid of data plans, incapable of texting, and programmed to allow for a limited amount of contacts) to religious stereotypes to head coverings within the fervently Orthodox world, the rabbi left the group with an exceptionally positive impression. “He was so personable, so open and so funny,” said Yeske. “It gave a world that seems so austere a human face. It reminded me how important it is not to generalize about groups of Jews, no matter what you hear on the news. I admit — many of the stereotypes I myself had were challenged.”
“We set out to show participants the many faces of Israel,” said Sinclair. “As many faces as possible. One thing Israel is not is monolithic. It’s full of different people, and amazing conversations waiting to be had.”
“As much as the Israeli community has to teach us about a more national, public manifestation of Judaism, I think American Jews have a lot to teach them about tolerance,” said Sechan. “Pluralism is something we can teach.”