Doubt is not a word I usually associate with the World Zionist Organization, the global umbrella organization for pro-Israel groups. But that was the theme of a WZO-sponsored workshop for Jewish educators I attended Aug. 8 in San Francisco.
I sat in a room with about 40 rabbis, educators and students, clutching “The right to doubt,” one of 11 toolkits developed by the WZO’s Department for Diaspora Activities. The toolkits are part of the WZO’s Beit Ha’am Jewish education program, which has been designed for a generation of American Jews who doubt more than they accept — about the Jewish state and everything else.
Is the IDF a humane army? Doubt. Are Jewish settlements a good thing? Doubt. Is aliyah a worthy goal? Maybe.
Instead of countering such doubts with Zionist hammer blows, the agile and very entertaining educators leading this three-hour seminar laid out a “radical” teaching tactic: Listen to students’ doubts, share your own, and question together.
It was so refreshing to hear that from an establishment agency.
Rabbi David Kasher, the education director for Kevah, a Berkeley-based organization that encourages Jewish text study, led off the seminar by welcoming us to “a modern beit midrash,” which he explained is usually translated as “house of study,” but which really means “house of seeking,” from the Hebrew lidrosh, to demand or look for.
The Sages who gathered in the beit midrash 2,000 years ago “were looking for something,” he said — and today’s Jewish community would do well to remember that. “There is a boldness in the [old] rabbinic style of learning that is not always found in our [current] Jewish community, which is fragile, often fighting for its life. There doesn’t seem to be room [these days] for the classical Jewish mode of questioning.”
The Zionism of the 1950s no longer works for young American Jews. How could it? Today’s 18-year-olds know Israel as a high-tech giant, where hip young entrepreneurs sip lattes and fly back and forth to Silicon Valley. Anyone younger than 55 can’t remember the Six-Day War; the notion of a beleaguered Jewish state doesn’t match the newscasts of Israeli jets bombing Gaza.
“I can’t make any assumptions about my students’ connection to Israel,” said one of the WZO’s 11 campus coordinators, all of whom attended the seminar. “For many, being Jewish is a very small part of their total identity.”
So what’s a Jewish educator to do?
Rather than demand adherence to an outdated model of the Zionist enterprise, perhaps a more useful approach would be to address what is, and work with it.
The training booklet I clutched proposes using Jewish texts as conversation starters, even with secular students. Why? Because those texts show that Jews have been thinking about these issues for 2,000 years.
Aliyah? Kasher whipped out a Talmud tractate, Ketubot 110b, which states that it’s better for a Jew to live in the land of Israel even if he has to live among non-Jews than to live in the most Jewish neighborhood outside Israel.
But the Tosafot, or medieval French commentators, on the same page warned their countrymen not to move to Israel — there are hundreds of commandments that apply only inside Israel, there’s no way you could obey them all, and you’ll suffer God’s wrath for failing. Better to stay in Paris, they counsel.
So rabbis have been arguing the pros and cons of aliyah for centuries, Kasher said. The same argument goes on today. “This isn’t just our conversation. It’s the entire Jewish conversation — it connects what is going on today with what always has been.”
Nomi Conway, 21, is a rising senior at Amherst College in Massachusetts, where she will be the WZO’s campus coordinator this year. She says doubt “played a massive role” in her Israel activism.
“I’ve spent the past two to three years trying to figure out where I stand on Israel issues while at the same time forming a pro-Israel group on campus,” she told me.
But she didn’t doubt from a position of ignorance — because she came to college with a strong Jewish foundation, the process of doubting what she always “knew” forced her to clarify her beliefs, making them stronger.
That’s the key, said Ilan Vitemberg, Israel education director at the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education, one of several local groups that co-sponsored the Aug. 8 workshop. Good teaching involves “doubt, love, whispers and a soft conversation.”
That sounds about right.
Sue Fishkoff is the editor of j., and can be reached at email@example.com.