Finding A Nuanced Way To Teach Israel Education

Nowadays, it seems like the easiest way to upset, divide, and exhaust Jews is to bring up Israel. 

Whether on college campuses, in synagogues, or at family gatherings, talking about the Jewish state is like “ding-dong-ditch, when you ring the doorbell and run away,” said Eilat Harel, the director of community impact for engagement and the Israel Center of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation.

“No one’s really listening to each other,” she said. “People unfriend each other on Facebook for saying something about Israel that they don’t agree with. It’s just such a toxic culture.”

It’s that divisiveness that drove Harel to bring a new Israel education initiative to the Minneapolis area, one focused on discussing Jewish values rather than arguing over opinions. 

With financial help from the Minneapolis Federation, seven synagogues will spend the next nine months educating congregants using the Shalom Hartman Institute’s “iEngage: Jewish Values and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” curriculum.

Despite what the title may suggest, “it’s not an introduction to Israel. It’s not a history of the peace process,” said Rabbi Sharon Stiefel, the rabbi at the Reconstructionist Mayim Rabim Congregation.

Instead, it’s an “opportunity to see how our Jewish values shape what we want for Israel,” she said.

The curriculum is focused in kits that have a variety of video lectures, expert interviews, and texts focused on the values that different Jews associate with Israel, along with resources to help rabbis teach the material. 

Synagogues pay a one-time fee for the kit, half of which is covered by the Minneapolis Federation, and can use it indefinitely. The kits are also supported by sponsorships with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Israeli Consulate in Chicago.

The community-wide initiative grew out of a chance encounter Harel had with Rabbi Michael Latz of the Shir Tikvah congregation two years ago, where he mentioned Shalom Hartman’s iEngage program.

Latz had already been teaching with the iEngage curriculum for several years, using it as part of his confirmation class and a pre-requisite for Shir Tikvah’s trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories. For Latz, Hartman offered a better way to talk about Israel than the political conversation that often dominates Jewish life.

“I knew that if I was going to be able to lead in my community in the way I wanted to do it, I needed a curriculum and a platform that would be an invitation to a discourse and discussion about Jewish values, rather than about pitting AIPAC against JStreet, which seems like it has torn the community,” Latz said.

Intrigued, Harel sat in on one of the Shir Tikvah classes, and was surprised at the respectful and deep discussion participants were having — a rarity when it comes to Israel.

So she decided to help bring iEngage to other synagogues in the area. Over the course of 2019, Harel reached out to Minneapolis rabbis to see if they were interested in teaching the Hartman program in 2020 with Federation help. Many jumped at the opportunity.

“They were all really comfortable with doing this,” Harel said. “And I guess the fact that they went in so quickly maybe shows that they’re all also struggling on how to talk about Israel internally.”

For some synagogues, like Mayim Rabim, that struggle meant avoiding Israel altogether.

“We had been doing very little regarding Israel education…because it’s so divisive and difficult,” Stiefel said. 

But after learning about iEngage, Stiefel decided it is “a wonderful opportunity to take advantage of, to have a curriculum that specifically wanted to deal with differences… And why somebody might come to [a] value, versus being dogmatic about a certain way, you know, ‘Israel must do this.’”

Mayim Rabim started teaching with iEngage in July, though most synagogues will start after the High Holidays. The other synagogues using the curriculum are: Adath Jeshurun Congregation, Beth El Synagogue, Bet Shalom Congregation, Congregation Darchei Noam, and Temple Israel.

To officially launch the community-wide program, the Minneapolis Federation, along with sponsoring synagogues and organizations, will host Dr. Micah Goodman, author of the book Catch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War, for a Zoom conversation and Q&A on October 25

Harel says that Goodman will help set the tone for the iEngage curriculum, offering a nuanced analysis of the many attitudes Jews — in Israel and outside of it — have toward the Jewish state and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Finding that nuance, and a new way for the community to teach and talk about Israel, is key, says Harel.

“My hope is for people to be more respectful with their conversations,” she said. “We’re at a deadlock. We’re at dead ends with these conversations.”