By Leah R. Harrison

They came from Florida and Minnesota, Washington state and New Jersey, British Columbia and Illinois, Ohio and Texas, Ontario and California. The educators hailed from more than 25 schools, 14 states and three countries to attend the 14th annual CIE/ISMI Teacher Enrichment Workshop on Modern Israel.

Running from June 21 to 26 at the Atlanta Marriott Perimeter Center, the Center for Israel Education/Institute for the Study of Modern Israel workshop convened for the purpose of “getting teachers trained,” institute President Kenneth Stein said. “Most people in Atlanta don’t really know about the teacher workshop. We’re making a difference in Jewish schools.”

Primarily for fifth- to 12th-grade Jewish day, supplemental and congregational school teachers, the workshop benefits other educators as well.

Spots are limited. Aspiring attendees must submit an application explaining why they should be considered well in advance.

Photo by Leah R. Harrison Rich Walter (left) listens as Kenneth Stein asks a question during the opening workshop session.

Photo by Leah R. Harrison
Rich Walter (left) listens as Kenneth Stein asks a question during the opening workshop session.

Attendee Tamara Weaver from Congregation Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster, Pa., found out about the training from her rabbi. In addition to teaching fifth grade in religious school, Weaver instructs a literature-based Holocaust unit in public high school and the Holocaust through literature at Harrisburg Area Community College.

Weaver said many of her community college students, who come from 37 countries, had never heard of the Holocaust. Weaver wrote in her application: “I found that my students do not have an understanding of modern Judaism or the state of Israel, and therefore (this unit) must provide background on all levels to allow for proper literary analysis. This workshop will provide me with additional source materials for improved instruction.”

As for her high school curriculum, she wrote that her Holocaust unit “includes information on the formation of Modern Day Israel; this workshop will better round out my background knowledge and hopefully give me more research topics to explore with my students.”

The CIE sessions provide the context for the history of how the Jewish state came into being and why it remains essential.

In the opening session, Stein explained that the goal of the workshop is to provide a comfortable and vast working knowledge of modern Jewish history and modern Israeli society, politics and culture. “We want you to walk away with new tools and methodologies that make you better as an educator for conveying to your students what Israel is all about and why does it matter.”

Fresh off the plane from Israel, Reuven Hazan, the chairman of the political science department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, addressed Israeli government, politics and political institutions. He spoke of the dynamics of Israeli politics and how vastly Israel’s parliamentary democracy varies from U.S. presidential democracy.

The ensuing sessions included Israel’s foreign policy, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Israeli literature and music, and a simulation of the first Zionist Congress. Breakout sessions covered targeted discussions and curriculum and lesson development.

At breakfast the final day, three Jewish college interns provided insight into their experiences on campus, including manifestations of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement; the discord among Jews regarding Israel, the lack of respect and communication among Jewish factions and organizations, and the struggles between those organizations and others, including student governments and university administrations.

The interns encouraged the educators to help their students develop opinions and dialogue about Israel.

“Coming home was such a letdown! I felt like I needed to be back there soaking up more knowledge,” Weaver said, calling it the best conference she ever attended. “There was so much information that will be valuable for passing on to my students, but also to the adults in my congregation — other teachers, the rabbi, other congregants.”

She said the workshop prepared her to be an ambassador for Judaism and the Israeli people.

Rabbi Stephen Berger is collaborating on a new Israel awareness program for his pre-college students at King David High School in Vancouver, British Columbia. He said: “It was so much information in such a short period of time! They gave us a lot of tools and knowledge to be able to go back to our communities and be able to answer questions about why Israel is important. They did a very good job of communicating that.”

Rabbi Berger praised the workshop for offering many perspectives on Zionism, including music and literature. “I wish there was a follow-up to see how we’re integrating it. Trying to figure out how to use all the information is the dilemma.”

The AVI CHAI Foundation sponsors the workshop. Participants submitted a $150 application fee, but they received a stipend for their travel and had all meals (kosher food provided by For All Occasions and More’s Jodie Sturgeon), accommodations and materials paid for. Those items included a large binder containing resources culled from past workshops for curriculum development, lesson planning and classroom use, as well as books to support the information covered and to augment school libraries.

Over the years the workshop has trained 89 Atlanta-area educators and touched just about every local school that offers Jewish or Israel education. In 2000, the inaugural year, teachers from Congregation Beth Shalom, The Temple, Davis Academy, the Epstein School, Temple Beth David, Congregation Or VeShalom and Congregation Shearith Israel participated. This year only five the 61 slots went to local educators.