Three white men (two bald, one with hair) and a white woman, seated. The men are watching the woman speak.
Left to right: Yehuda Kurtzer, Shlomi Ravid, David Myers and Tova Hartman speaking on a panel at the 2018 Zionism 3.0 conference at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto (Photo/Sue Fishkoff)

Teaching Israeli and American Jews about each other

How do Israeli and American Jews teach their children about each other? What should they know, and how might that be accomplished?

This year’s Zionism 3.0 conference at the Oshman Family JCC set as its aim moving from outlining the differences between the world’s two largest Jewish communities to trying to bridge those differences. To that end, several panels at the Dec. 9 gathering in Palo Alto addressed those questions, which many speakers described as central to the Jewish future.

Panelists at a session called “Educating Jewish Peoplehood: How Are Israel and Diaspora Taught to Each Other?” agreed that more needs to be done, but disagreed on where the problem lay.

Ron Hassner, codirector of the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies, said Israel is doing a good job of teaching world Jewish history to its youth. “I’m not worried about them,” he said. On the other hand, he said, “American Jews are woefully undereducated” about diaspora history, and that concerns him deeply. “They need to know who they are and where they come from.”

Jewish educator Yael Yechieli-Persico, who, like Hassner, grew up in the Israeli school system, contradicted her co-panelist, saying she was in her 20s before she met her first non-Israeli Jew.

“I knew nothing about diaspora Jews,” she said. “We learned in school that Jewish history is all about us — the first aliyah, the second aliyah, the third aliyah. And only from Europe, nothing about aliyah from the Arab countries.”

Like several other panelists, she suggested a “reverse Birthright” kind of program, whereby young Israelis might spend a gap year in a diaspora Jewish community, to expose them to “different Jewish narratives.”

Panelist Shira Hecht-Koller, who teaches Jewish text study at the Drisha Institute in New York, agreed, saying many of her students were raised in Israel by American parents who made aliyah — and who now want their children to understand “the richness” of Jewish life in a major cosmopolitan city. Noting that this is sort of the reverse of the norm, diaspora Jews going to Israel to study, she said, “There’s a power to studying Jewish text in the diaspora.”

And panelist Tova Hartman, the dean of humanities at Ono Academic College in Israel, said the entire paradigm needs to lose its binary focus. When she was setting up a Jewish studies department in Israel, she interviewed several Ethiopian Jews as potential students and teachers, and realized that her understanding of any Jewish community outside Israel and North America was weak.

“I could tell you about the arguments in the Rabbanut [Chief Rabbinate] about whether or not they are ‘really Jewish,’ but what kind of Jewish life did they have in Ethiopia? What were the compromises their community made, living in that society? They had been in Israel more than a generation, and I didn’t know.”

We have lost the sense of obligation and responsibility that came with an ideology like Zionism.

Since then, she said, she has believed that Jewish education needs to be multicultural, going beyond denominational pluralism, which is what American Jews tend to focus on. “There are so many other [Jewish] communities,” she said, and all of them need to be taken as seriously as the two largest.

Another internal debate among Jewish educators: the particular versus the universal, or how much attention should be placed on learning and protecting the perceived needs of the Jewish people, and how much on making the world a better place in general.

That was the focus of another session at the conference, which had panelists agreeing — more or less — that it’s not an either/or conversation, or even a matter of placing oneself along one linear spectrum.

Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, suggested that when young American Jews engage in social justice work, they are doing so as Jews, by putting their Jewish values into action, even if they don’t articulate it as such. “It’s particularism in service of the universal,” he explained.

Saying he “pushed back against the notion that justice is a universal value and self-preservation is particularistic,” he said that both can and should co-exist. “Investing in a shared discourse and respecting the other” is key, he said.

David Myers, professor of Jewish history at UCLA and recently appointed president of the New Israel Fund, suggested that the malaise of many young Jews who “don’t have language for their Jewish identity” could be repaired by “reinvigorating the idea of ideology, of yoking thought to action.

“We have lost the sense of obligation and responsibility that came with an ideology like Zionism,” he said, adding his voice to those calling for a “reverse Birthright” to expose Israeli Jews to American ideals of democracy and pluralism.

Asked what solutions they would propose, Kurtzer said “constructing a thick, authentic Judaism that reflects the best of our moral aspirations,” something that American Jews see as the goal of Jewish education, “while Israelis don’t always.”

Myers said he’d ask different questions of each society. “Of Israel, I’d ask how do we reclaim the liberal democratic values that were part of Zionism and have been lost? Of America, I’d ask how do we reclaim the right to be different?”

In other words, Israel needs to look more universal, and American Jews could do with a bit more particularism.

Not to be binary or anything.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at sue@jweekly.com.