As students head back to school, Jewish educators are exploring news ways to engage young people in Israel.
During the Center for Israel Education’s annual training conference for Jewish educators, Rich Walter moderated a panel discussion June 28 among Rabbi Peter Berg of The Temple, former United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism national education coordinator Amy Dorsch, Epstein School Head of School David Abusch-Magder and Ta’am Yisrael: A Taste of Israel program manager Ariel Lapson about why engaging Jewish children with Israel instills pride at a time when they need it most.
The panel’s theme was that Jewish institutions should make it a priority to provide information about Israel in classrooms and through trips to Israel that are not conducted in a vacuum.
But successful Israel engagement begins in the home, Dorsch said. “The question is ‘Why should I care?’ But it should be ‘Why do I care?’ … It’s really about talking about Israel and having symbols of Israel in the home.”
Providing classroom tools and cultivating community relationships with Israelis have impacts on impressionable young minds, but Lapson said nothing compares to an Israel experience.
Between the start and end of a trip to Israel, students are “completely transformed,” Lapson said. “The question is, are you willing to make the investment in Israel and make it an integral part of their Jewish identity?”
Abusch-Magder agreed. He grew up in a household in which making aliyah was not an option. He said the Jewish community should take responsibility for the younger generation’s perception of Israel.
“I work to make sure students can make multiple connections. I try to give them an emotional connection and a dedication to stay engaged,” Abusch-Magder said. “I hope their view of the world continues to evolve and mature, and I hope their view of Israel matures.”
But sparking interest in young people grows more difficult by the day, Rabbi Berg said, so programming at The Temple is designed with a youth engagement component.
The Temple as a congregation now takes more people to Israel than the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta does, Rabbi Berg said. Temple members begin their relationship with Israel around b’nai mitzvah age, then take another trip in high school before they become eligible for Birthright Israel during college.
Despite The Temple’s encouragement for all members to support Israel, teens are increasingly aware of issues within the country and are asking tough questions, Rabbi Berg said.
“Human rights is the No. 1 issue among college students. We have to figure out how to engage with them on that issue, and we almost never do that,” he said. Speaking soon after the Israeli Cabinet suspended plans regarding an egalitarian prayer area at the Western Wall and supported tighter Chief Rabbinate control over conversion within Israel, he added: “They were rocked by the news at the Kotel, and the conversion news made it even worse.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government backed off both of those actions under pressure from American Jewish leaders.
The key is to give teens a place in the conversation in which their voice and opinions are acknowledged, even if people don’t agree, Rabbi Berg said. “If teens don’t have the freedom and flexibility to express themselves, they will walk away from Israel altogether.”
Dorsch said that giving teens space to question and disagree is important, especially on a topic like Zionism.
“The subject makes people uncomfortable. As Jews, we need to have uncomfortable conversations,” she said. “We need to give teens the space to say, ‘I don’t agree with everything you’re telling me about Zionism.’ ”
Guiding the conversation is essential, said Walter, who emphasized that Jews should not shy away from controversial subjects. Young adults are bombarded with anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses, making it tough for them to express support for Israel, so teaching them about collective identity and connections to Israel is important.
Lapson recalled being on a college campus in Indianapolis where people were scared to speak a word in Hebrew in public. It’s a “travesty happening in the U.S.”
Conversations about Israel give teens and college students the information and tools they need to engage others who hold opposing views, Lapson said.
“Jews have often hidden themselves, and that’s how we lose,” she said. “As an educator, it’s your job to reverse that.”