We read with interest the April 19 article by Chloe E.G. Tross (TOA Graffiti Shows We Need Better Israel Education), in which Tross shares insights from her own Jewish education surrounding Israel. She found the activities enjoyable but superficial, lacking the depth and nuance she later realized she needed. “If the case for Zionism is not made adequately, and the space for questioning is not given, the choice for anti-Zionism becomes reasonable,” she wrote.
We are well acquainted with Chloe’s perspective. In fact, two years ago, when an anonymous funder approached us and asked us what program we would build if we had funding, we developed The Letters Project: Conversing Across Narratives to focus exactly on the concerns Chloe raises. Our goals are:
- Helping young Jews acquire an understanding of Zionism grounded in our historical, ancestral connection to Israel;
- Providing young Jews with a respectful space for a deep dive into the dual narratives at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and
- Enabling young Jews to stand with pride in their own story, with empathy for the Palestinian story, secure in the knowledge that their Jewish education has prepared them for this complicated world.
The Letters Project is a letter-writing contest based on Yossi Klein Halevi’s book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor: With an Extensive Epilogue of Palestinian Responses.
This groundbreaking program, developed by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC), addresses the need for an honest and thoughtful reckoning with the dual narratives at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It answers the question our youth are posing: “Why was I never told the Palestinian narrative?”
We chose this book because we feel it is the right tool: dual narratives, readable, combines a love for Israel and empathy for Palestinians and is accessible to an enormous range of readers. The Letters Project creates a meaningful opportunity to explore the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a place of deep and profound Zionism, to find one’s own voice, and to hear different perspectives.
Two years later, hundreds of Jewish teens have read this book, grappled with its contents, engaged in substantive conversations, and written their own letters in response. We have many local and national partners, including synagogues, Jewish day schools, Jewish summer camps, and campus Hillels.
In addition to twice-yearly letter-writing contests, the JCRC developed a five-week online compendium class taught by local rabbis and JCRC staff. The class was covered in depth in this TC Jewfolk article.
Here is just a sample of the feedback we have received from class participants:
“This class pushed me out of my comfort zone and helped me see both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I now feel confident in my knowledge on the conflict, and I understand many more of the issues than I did before the course. I would recommend this course to anybody who is even considering it.”
“There are rare times when intention meets success. This was a home run. We pray/strive for this kind of engagement with our teens. Yes, it was a select number, but the stories from this group help radiate that this sophisticated deep dive into the conflict is happening. The fact that this class happened in the Twin Cities, helps change the narrative from ‘I wish that we could help our teens’ to “We are helping a select number of teens and it is working” which gives confidence in many other settings instead of defeatism.”
We invite every rabbi, teacher, and youth director involved in formal and informal Jewish education to join us in the essential work.
Sally Abrams and Holly Brod Farber are the co-directors of JCRC Speakers Bureau/The Letters Project.