The Holy Challenge of Teaching Israel Education to Youth by Cantor David Fair

The Holy Challenge of Teaching Israel Education to Youth

April 2023

This month, our Jewish holiday calendar is beautifully full. In the early half of the month, we are thinking very much about Passover. However, I’d like to focus on the second half of this month, which hosts a
trifecta of three significant holidays: Yom HaShoah (Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day), and Yom HaAtsma-ut (Israeli Independence Day).

The three holidays have an interesting relationship to each other in that they each connect us to the next holiday.  Because of the events of the Holocaust, Israel’s population skyrocketed (Yom Hashoah). This led to Israel having a robust pool of citizens to enroll into the military (Yom HaZikaron). As a result,
Israel was able to win the War of Independence in 1948 (Yom HaAtsma-ut).

As the Director of the United Jewish School, one of my jobs is to shape how to have conversations on Israel. With our youngest minds, we talk about the land’s beauty, cultural significance, and sacred
history. With our teenagers, however, we have to have more nuanced conversations.

Having conversations about Israel with any type of group is a challenge. Even speaking about Israel with other Jewish people is tricky. You know the adage: Two Jews, three opinions. 

I have to keep in mind that our youth are impressionable. We are role models and these might be the first time they’re having a serious conversation about Israel – so we have to do this thoughtfully.

I like to start the conversation by seeing everyone’s humanity. When we speak about the West Bankers and Gazans, I start off by showing pictures and videos of these people just living their lives. We talk about their culture and what makes them a unique people. Who are these people’s ancestors and from where did they descend? For many of them, their ancestors came from exactly where they are now. After all, it’s easy to see these folks as the “other” unless you see them as humans. These are people who love going to see a move on a Friday night. Some of these people are foodies who love to cook or buy a gourmet meal. These are teens start to have awkward crushes on their classmates in middle
school. Many are focused on education and can’t wait to go to college. They’re just people.

Then we talk about the Jewish people who live in Israel. We talk about how for many hundreds of years, the Jewish people have not had official ownership of a Jewish state and what a miracle it was to finally establish one. I talk about the early days of settlement – how kibbutzim were formed, how the language was developed, and how Tel Aviv is a hip and trendy world vacation destination. I talk about my personal experience of living in Israel for one year and all the friends I made and the beauty of living in such
sacred land.

In regards to teaching about the conflict, it would be easy to regurgitate blanket statements I’ve heard all my life that are not the whole story, statements such as “the Israelis were willing to make
concessions and compromises, but the Arabs rejected them, so they attacked Israel and lost.” But I don’t feel that it’s fair to make those statements without a Palestinian present. After all, we all know some
version of the Robert Evans quote: “There are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth. And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each differently.”

In general, I try not to use my precious time teaching facts that can be effortlessly learned by just reading Wikipedia. Rather than teach facts for teens to ingest, I want them to learn the skill of finding their own facts. I’m more interested in saying: “Get out your phones and find two different sources that tell the story. Find a Palestinian webpage that tells the story of what happened in 1948, and then find a Jewish webpage that tells the story of what happened in 1948. What are the different sides of the story? Where do we see facts align? Where do we see facts diverge? Why do you think there’s a divergence in what are perceived to be “facts?”

I’m an unusual educator. People always want to talk about facts, but I want to talk about feelings. Facts can be researched and argued about, but feelings are what I find can open us up to powerful
conversations. I want to encourage critical thinking. I say to teens:
* The West Bankers and the Gazans grew up in this land, tilled the land, and set up generational homes, schools, stores, and communities. The Israelis grew up in this land, tilled the land, and set up homes, schools, stores, and communities. How do you imagine it feels to know that your family has been on this land for generations, a land that you love, and that ownership is being
threatened and disputed?
* What do you think has led to such an acrimonious relationship between the two people? Do both sides have legitimate feelings? Is it possible to empathize with both people?

I also don’t want to be all gloom and doom. How can we make this feel positive and look into a brighter future? There are many organizations that are made up of both Palestinians and Israelis that want peace, such as “The Alliance for Middle East Peace” (the largest and fastest growing network of
Palestinian and Israeli peace-builders) and “Seeds of Peace” (where twice a month, groups of Palestinian and Israeli citizens meet for an advanced-level dialogue on all the issues pertaining to the Israeli-
Palestinian conflict). I’ll give teens the assignment: Go online, look at these organizations’ webpages and
tell us about their platforms and objectives. What can we learn from these organizations? Do you think
they could actually create a more positive future? How many more organizations can you find that are similar to these? What do you make of the fact that many of these organizations exist?

Now, the kids are not just being talked at and listening to an educator’s bias; they’re directing their own

As adults, can you direct your own learning? I’ll admit, I’m susceptible to watching, listening, and reading from specific news organizations that tell a distinct narrative. I want to challenge myself as well as you all to look outside of the box. Be critical of what you hear and how it’s influencing your thoughts.
Listen to other perspectives. Jewish liberals, take a peek at once in a while. Jewish conservatives, take a peek at from time to time. Only then will you be able to speak
from a place of true wisdom and a broader knowledge base. I think we owe it not just to ourselves, but to our children.

Wishing you a holiday season of curiosity, openness, and wonder,

Cantor David Fair (He/Him)

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