The number seven is one of the most powerful numbers in Judaism. God’s earthly masterpiece took seven days to be completed; we celebrate Shabbat on the seventh day of each week; Jews celebrate Passover and Sukkot for seven days; we count seven weeks during the Omer; the Jewish Patriarchs and Matriarchs are a total of seven, and the Menorah at the Temple had seven branches. Many more aspects of Jewish tradition can be associated with the number seven, but I would like to share with the community my own personal seven.
I joined the Agency for Jewish Learning in 2007 as the Israel education emissary to the Pittsburgh Jewish community. My role was to teach people of all ages about the homeland, Israel. Early in the process, I decided I wanted it to be a mutually engaging learning process. I wished to deepen my Jewish education by learning about Jewish life outside of the Jewish state and for my new community to engage in conversations about life in modern Israel.
Over the years, I have worked hard to make Israel part of the larger context of Jewish education in Pittsburgh. However, the question that is often asked of me here in Pittsburgh is, “Why is Israel education so important? We barely have enough time for religious education.”
I would like to share seven reasons why it is important to engage in Israel education, based on my seven years here working as an Israel educator, as well as share some learned lessons on how to do it correctly:
1 Beautiful, inspiring, controversial, miraculous and intriguing. These are just a few of many adjectives to describe Israel and its many faces. Israel education’s approach should be multidimensional. Israel should be taught from more than a narrow, one-dimensional perspective. When teaching about Israel, we need to create opportunities to learn about it from multiple perspectives. Like any other country, Israel too is far from being a utopia and we should refrain from teaching it as one. This will only lead to confusion for students who visit Israel later in life.
2 Israel education is an imperative part of Jewish education in the most simple and traditional way. For example, every time we engage in Jewish education and prayer, we refer to Israel either by facing Jerusalem or by mentioning Israel in the text of our central prayers. The purpose for teaching about Israel ought to be as a reminder that Israel is a part of how the Jewish people think about themselves as Jews. Israel should be an integral part of their personal and collective identity. Israel is in our life whether we feel connected to it or not, so why not just embrace and enjoy what Israel has to offer: history, culture, language, atmosphere, diversity and so much more.
3 Israel fascinates Jews and non-Jews alike. Israel is important to many people throughout the world. It is a religious center for Christians, Muslims and Jews and a shared spiritual place for people who wish to trace religious history. We need also to engage in Israel education in a manner that will bring all people who share a relationship to Israel as sacred space closer together through honest dialogue and reflected tolerance.
4 Israel education is not Israel advocacy. It seems that there is a lack of clarity on the difference between these two concepts. The difference between the two is very simple: Education is about teaching and learning; advocacy is a political process that aims to influence people’s ideas and opinions. Advocacy usually comes after the individual already gains knowledge in the process of education. Israel education should come first, then Israel advocacy. It seems that today Israel advocacy gets most of the focus and that advocacy comes before education. But before advocating for Israel, we need to teach about Israel. Even more importantly, if engaging in advocacy is a goal of Israel education, we need to teach people how to do it civilly and constructively rather than in an aggressive manner that encourages polarization of differing views in the community.
5 The mainstream of Jewish people in the Diaspora is often misinformed about many aspects of modern Israel. It is incumbent upon those of us engaged in Israel education to help people to understand the bigger picture beyond just Israel’s history — in other words, helping students form and understand their relationship with ancient Israel but at the same time helping them find where modern Israel meets their own personal narrative and day life.
6 Why Israel education? Because Israel is the only Jewish country in the world and therefore the homeland for all Jews around the world. Learning about Israel intensifies the connection for Jewish people to their homeland. It serves as a reminder to the Jewish community that Israel is a vital element in strengthening the roots of a meaningful Jewish identity.
7 Seek first to understand, then to be understood. As an educator and an Israeli, I’m a firm believer that we should teach our students what’s on both sides of the coin, especially around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After one understands that there is more than meets the eye, then it is easier to form an opinion and to be understood by others.
A little while ago, someone told me, “Israel has had good luck.” I don’t think modern Israel is a product of luck. On the contrary, it is due to the commitment and education of people who share a vision. These seven reasons for quality Israel education are as true today as they were when I arrived here seven years ago. They have been seven good years, in which I have met many who share the same vision and love for Israel as I. Pittsburgh very quickly became a home to me, and people greeted me with a big smile and a vote of confidence in my mission to bring my Israel to the community. During the past seven years, my life has changed tremendously, and for that I am indebted to many people. In my journey toward becoming an Israel educator, many people in this community walked by my side believing in me and my educational approach. Thank you for a meaningful seven years; I have learned so much from each and every one of you.
After seven years in Pittsburgh as Israel education specialist at the Agency for Jewish Learning, Efrat Avramovich is returning to her native Israel.