Passing on the Jewish story through Israel education

— and finding the ‘cool kids’ in the process

Israel Education-Taam Yisrael image
Ta'am Yisrael participants gather at the Western Wall during the week-long educational trip. Photo credit: Emily Mitchell

In celebration of Israel@70, JUF News is running a yearlong series of stories to provide a unique window into Israel.

Traversing impenetrable deserts, crossing insurmountable mountains, navigating unfathomable seas, conquering all in your path: That's every tribe's stuff of legend. 

Not every tribe wrote down their legends. Few saw their words become globally sacred. Fewer still survived to record new chapters, century after century, millennium after millennium. Few but the Jews, who began writing their collective story 3,000 years ago and continue today. 

From velum to virtual memory, from parchment to pixels, the medium changes but the story grows, and grows.

The challenge for Israel education is that when it comes to Jewish history, there's so darn much of it! To learn the story of Israel, to really know and understand it, you need to begin at the beginning; peel back accretions of time; trace outlines of identity; follow twists of fickle history; plumb depths of human folly and suffering, sacrifice, and ambition. Understanding comes only by analyzing the impact of events large and small, ancient and modern, righteous and shameful. 

What's the point of the exercise? By grasping where we are and how we got here, we might determine where we're going as a people. And discover who we are as individuals.

I once read the ancient Judeans described as "a backward hill people with an uncommonly great literature." The capacity for story always has helped the Jews to overcome paucity. 

A people who lacked material resources became prolific in wisdom, who were few in number became abundant in achievement, who spread universal truth through strict particularism, who celebrated both sacred time and holy land, who adjusted to the contours of host cultures while fiercely guarding their identity… If we Jews and our singular feat, our national renaissance in Israel, are to be understood, we must be studied in all our dimensions and contradictions. 

In 1967, as a high school freshman after the Six-Day War, I joined the socialist Zionist youth movement Habonim, which met at the Dolnick Center on Damen Avenue. I looked up to the older kids who dressed in blue Israeli work shirts, knew some Hebrew, and argued the relative merits of MAPAM (the United Workers Party) and MAPAI (the Israel Workers Party). They reveled in the labyrinth of Israeli politics, following the twists and turns of ideologues and party hacks like participants in a bar mitzvah snake dance.

Street cred at Habonim meant knowing the fine points of Zionist ideology; to be one of the cool kids you had to be serious about making aliyah (immigrating to Israel) and becoming a chalutz (pioneer), immigrating to Israel to join a kibbutz. 

Fast forward several decades. Israel's population has nearly tripled in size and diversity. Its economy has shifted, from largely agrarian to high tech. The nature of Israel's conflict with her neighbors also has changed, from tribal scuffles; to massive tank battles; to rocket attacks; to suicide bombings, stabbings, and car ramming. Without a firm grounding in the facts, the fog of information makes the road behind and the road ahead hard to see. 

Thanks in large measure to JUF, which offers direct programming and funds community partners, Chicago is home to abundant, high-quality Israel education and experience programs for people of all ages and levels of engagement. Overnight camps, congregations, day schools, youth groups, volunteer organizations, public middle and high school Hebrew offerings, and serious adult education institutions give Jews of all affiliations and interests ample opportunity to learn the story of Israel. 

I know from my own experience that learning-and teaching-the story of Israel, contradictions and all, is complex. It's also fun, engaging and deeply satisfying. Ask any eighth-grader who has traveled on JUF's Ta'am Yisrael  (Taste of Israel) trip, any JUF Birthright Israel alum, and any adult who has taken a stimulating class at Spertus, Melton or elsewhere. 

Hats off to all the learners, and kudos to all the educators in our community who pass on the story of Israel from generation to generation. In my book they're all cool kids. 

Aaron B. Cohen is JUF Senior Communications Adviser.

Exploring Israel education resources
Providing quality Israel education offerings to Chicago-area children, teens, college students and adults is the mission of many JUF programs and departments, as well as numerous community organizations. The Community Foundation for Jewish Education, Birthright Israel, Diller Teen Fellows, Israel Education Center (Write On for Israel), Shorashim, Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, and Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning are among those to explore. In addition, numerous congregational movement-affiliated and non-affiliated organizations, schools, volunteer programs and tour operators provide extensive Israel educational and cultural programming locally and in Israel. The JUF News Guide to Jewish Living in Chicago is the best resource for exploring opportunities.  

"By grasping where we are and how we got here, we might determine where we're going as a people. "

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