Jul 172015
 
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By: Deborah Fishman

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Reenactment of First Zionist Congress.

Over 50 educators gathered in Atlanta from June 21-26 to attend “Modern Israel’s History, Politics, and Culture,” a teacher’s workshop run by The Center for Israel Education (CIE) and the Emory Institute for the Study of Modern Israel (ISMI) and sponsored primarily by AVI CHAI. The teachers who attended received professional enrichment in content and in instructional techniques. More than half of those attending were those from Jewish day school settings, the rest from Jewish supplementary schools.

The workshop took the participants through an intensive journey of modern Israel, from the biblical origins and modern rebirth of Zionism, the yishuv, Israeli culture, literature, and society, to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Israel and Iran, and American foreign policy toward the Middle East. In addition to this comprehensive content, the program offered sessions by pedagogy experts, providing teaching strategies for how to present the content to varying grade levels.

Led by Dr. Kenneth Stein, President and  Founder of CIE and Professor of Contemporary Middle Eastern History, Political Science and Israel Studies at Emory, the workshop featured presenters Dr. Reuven Y. Hazan, Chair of the Political Science Department at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Dr. Michael Berger, Associate Professor of Jewish Law and Ethics at Emory University’s Department of Religion and AVI CHAI program officer,  Uri Bialer, Professor Emeritus from the Hebrew University and Dr. David Menashri, renowned scholar of Iranian Studies.

The thought-provoking presentations left the participants with new insights in how to think about – and teach – modern Israel. Here are a few of the many concepts which were raised:

  • There is a viewpoint that modern Israel came about because of the sympathy of the Western world following the horrors of the Holocaust. Dr. Stein presented a wealth of information about the early development of the Jewish settlements pre-’39. Then he asked participants: “What happens if we discard the significance of 1939-45? What happens if we recognize that nation-building is what Jews did for themselves?  This is our story, not the narrative that others give us. We have never wallowed in our victimization. We took victimization and turned it into opportunity.” As an example of these resourceful efforts, he went on to explain how, since Zionists were a minority population, they succeeded by forming alliances, relationships,  an enterprising strategy which is also seen in advocacy efforts in the US today.
  •  In a creative session with pedagogy specialist Dr. Tal Grinfas-David, participants looked at early Zionist haggadot, written by the halutzim (pioneers) in the pre- and immediately post-State period. The writers of these texts were looking to express their own values and work using the framework and story of the Haggadah. Dr. Grinfas-David pushed the participating teachers to contemplate how they could expose their students to primary sources and encourage them to take their own meaning out of them. Students could even write contemporary haggadot which reflected their own values and lives. She suggested educators could tell their students, “It’s so cool – look what these people did! They scrapped the holy text, rewrote it, but it’s still telling the story of the past. Are you today living the story of the past?”
  • In a session on Hebrew and Israeli Literature, the teachers read and discussed two short stories by Etgar Keret. Grinfas-David emphasized how, in the short story format, no words are wasted, and the story is often allegorical, serving as a vehicle to raise bigger-picture concepts. One story, “Siren,” discussed the true meaning of Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron as seen through the eyes of high school students. The main character does not reflect the letter of how to celebrate these days, but rather the spirit. Through his actions, Keret expresses how the days should not be devoted solely to static thoughts about the past. Rather, they are about values such as freedom, self-reliance, respect, and perseverance – which should be lived out not only on these days, but on a day-to-day basis. This connected to a thought from one educator in contemplating the national anthem, Hatikva: “I wish our narrative was more about blood, sweat and tears, and less about reliance on hope.” Keret’s short story sparked the thought that themes such as the meaning of “Hatikva,” or of Israel in general for that matter, should not be relegated to two days a year. Rather, they should be debated and internalized year-long.
  • In a reenactment of the First Zionist Congress, Rich Walter, Associate Director for Israel Education at ISMI, appeared dressed as Theodor Herzl, sporting a long black beard and top hat. Participants were each assigned to represent a delegate to the Congress. They played their parts by voicing their delegate’s viewpoints on Zionism, what its agenda should be, and the issues of that day. Some of the essential questions guiding the activity included: “What strategies for achieving a Jewish State were developed at the First Zionist Congress?” and “Who were some of the delegates, what were their interests, where did they obtain their inspiration and views towards a Jewish homeland?” In exploring such questions, this activity – which educators could take home to their own classrooms – allowed for experiential learning about the Congress, its delegates and the time period in which it occurred.

The five-day workshop left educators with practical knowledge, new instructional techniques, and experiences of teaching in action. Moreover, each educator left with binders full of information and teaching resources to bring back to their schools and classrooms. At the end of the summer, each will receive almost a dozen books to add to their school libraries, all associated with Israel’s modern history. We wish these educators and those throughout North America b’hatzlacha as they embark on their important work of Israel education during this coming school year.