Alan Goldman is a Senior Israel Educator at Jerusalem U. He oversees the Jerusalem U Oz Fellowship, an elite training program for Israel activists. Alan also teaches approximately 400 students as part of the Jerusalem U Gap Year Program, an Israel education and leadership development program for post-high school students studying at some 15 gap-year institutions in Israel. Prior to joining Jerusalem U, Alan worked in formal and informal Jewish education in Israel programs for 25 years, serving on the senior faculty for a number of organisations, including Young Judaea Year Course, Ramah Israel Programs, JRoots, and Heritage Seminars. Alan moved to Israel from Philadelphia, PA in 1989 after completing a BA from Clark University in Sociology and Jewish Studies. He later went on complete a Master’s Degree in Jewish History and to receive Rabbinic Ordination in Jerusalem.
After my shot of whisky, and of course obligatory bagel to break the fast at the end of Yom Kippur, I turned on my phone to catch up with the world. What stunning tweet did I miss while Israel shut down for 25 hours? How many bicyclists did Magen David Adom treat over the holiday? However, more exciting for me, buried on the bottom of the Times of Israel feed, not attracting a lot of attention, was an article based on the just released survey The Nishma Research Profile of American Modern Orthodox Jews. As opposed to the often quoted Pew studies, which focus on the total American Jewish community, this study focused only on Modern Orthodox Jews.
While it is worth reading the whole study, I want to relate to the Israel piece, which is what I mainly focus on professionally. Though many may be shocked to learn that only 43% of 18-34 year olds rated “personal active support for Israel” as important, it confirms what we have been experiencing on the ground at Jerusalem U (in the JU:Israel Gap Year department) for a number of years. Among Modern Orthodox students, 65% have a strong emotional connection to Israel, but are significantly less inclined to be active defenders of the cause. This is in contrast to previous generations. Among 55 and older 71% think being an activist is crucial, and for the 35-54 age category, the numbers decline, but still hold at a strong 57%. So what's going on?
It's clear to all that the 21st century has brought changes to the structure of human society. Unfortunately, too often these changes go hand in hand with "those millennials are being ruined by the smartphone, or the internet, or Facebook." One can read the studies and hear them quoted often: less attention span, too much screen time, always looking at their phones etc…
It's true that things have changed. Students are learning and interacting with each other and the world differently. Of course the technical revolution has had a major effect. However, I've been involved in Gap Year education for close to 30 years. I started long before the cellphone revolution and the smartphone leap. And I find students today to be just as inquisitive as ever, with a thirst to learn and a passion for truth that is admirable.
The students aren't the problem. It's us. It’s how we, the establishment, are "selling" Israel.
The perfect example is the Nishma survey. The tiny section tracking the relationship of Modern Orthodox Jews to Israel is titled, "Israel Connection and Advocacy". Boom! There it is in a nutshell. There is one question about emotional connection, and then ten political questions, basically about the conflict with Palestinians.
We are indoctrinating Jewish students to love Israel, and then become lawyers to defend it. Does anyone really think that this is the way to build a strong sense of belonging to the country? Or a meaningful understanding of the Modern Jewish State? Yet, I would argue that this is a pretty accurate reflection of the state of Israel education in North America today. (At least as my students describe it.)
Students today are growing up differently. They have more access to information, a more global worldview, a greater sense of social justice, are more independent learners and are truly becoming citizens of the world. They are amazing!
When teaching Jewish students about Israel we need to take all of this into consideration. We need to approach Israel education from a broader perspective.
We must both instill a sense of belonging to the homeland (even if one chooses to live in the Diaspora) and truly educate about the complex nature of a modern Jewish democracy.
We need to teach why Jewish self-determination in the ancient homeland is a fundamental right and is critical to Jewish identity in the postmodern world.
We need to stop assuming, that showing highways in Israel empty of cars and filled with bicycles on Yom Kippur will create a meaningful relationship with the homeland.
Although we need to have adult conversations about Israel's challenges, including the Palestinian conflict, we need to stop controlling the conversation.
Our youth are diving deep, with or without us. So it's time we start teaching and stop indoctrinating. It's time for Israel education to leave the 20th century and enter the 21st century.
It’s time for us to be as amazing as our students.