Monday, July 13, 2009

Shabbat: Tumbling Onward and Upward

After a hectic and exhausting week, Shabbat came just in time. In the morning, participants prayed among various synagogues in the area, or they rested.

In the afternoon, we were treated with another encounter with a leading cultural figure - best-selling and highly acclaimed Israeli writer Etgar Keret.

Etgar read the first story he ever wrote (while serving in the army), and discussed his writing, Israeli and Jewish literature, his family, and his thoughts about Israel, Jewish peoplehood, and Judaism. The session was both thought-provoking and hilarious (especially stories about his family - his Holocaust survivor father who, while serving in the 6 Day War, mistook a group of Egyptian soldiers for Israelis and ended up cooking them breakfast, and his brother, serving in the Lebanon War, who was ordered to guard an antenna, and ended up turning it into a totem pole out of boredom and was convicted of paganism).

Keret, who employs magical realism and absurdism in his work, says he likes to create confusion among his readers. "If I lived in a land of the confused, maybe I would want to create certainty. But I live in the land of the certain, where everyone is convinced. So I like to create some uncertainty."

School groups then re-convened for one last time to review gleanings from the day and the week. Later, each school shared with the entire group their key outcomes from the week.

As each school delegation shared their feedback, it became clear that the forum had had a far more powerful impact on the participants than I had imagined.

Some of the outcomes we observed and heard about:

  • School groups coalesced and established a common language for discussing Israel in their schools. Some of the school groups came as disparate individuals and left as a coherent team with common and well understood purpose;
  • Participants obtained practical tools that they felt they could bring back to their schools and use in their educational practice;
  • Many spoke about the development during the week of a vision for Israel education in their schools, of big ideas that could be applicable to their efforts. One example - the focus on "peoplehood" - for several, our intensive study and consideration of this concept was helpful in their articulation of the relevance of Israel studies in their school community. Others pointed to their exposure to the power of school partnerships in permeating the school culture in deep and unexpected ways.
  • Educators shared with each other, across school boundaries. Affinity groups placed Jewish studies teachers, general studies teachers, school professional leaders and lay leaders together to discuss common challenges - this had never happened before among day schools in northern California.
  • It was lost on no one that, by the end of the week, we were left with a community of Israel educators in Northern California. Eighty educators, parents, and lay leaders who experienced something profound together, and who were prepared to work together to advance Israel education among all the day schools of our community.
In fact, several people commented that we had created more than just a community of Israel educators - a community of day school educators. It was the first time so many day school educators and leaders from so many schools convened in this manner - in Israel OR in San Francisco.

People spoke from the heart, they composed and read poetry, and they sang. We sang Havdalah together, saying goodbye to Shabbat and to each other. Scott Copeland of Makom quoted Philip Roth, who wrote what many BASIS participants had experienced and were feeling:

"Israel...was personalized for me through individuals and their anguish and their struggle. Here was a place in which everything mattered. Because the issue was an issue of survival, of life and death...All this Jewish turbulence. I wanted it to tumble through me."

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Film, Identity, and Poetry

This is off-topic, but I just have to say - you CANNOT match Israeli hummus in California. Good hummus is now plentiful in the Bay Area. But you have to come here to get truly great hummus. There's just no comparison. Now that that is settled, back to the BASIS Summer Forum -

Friday began at Bet Daniel, a progressive synagogue in Tel Aviv, with each school group processing the enriching experiences they had the previous day, and those from each of the 3 tracks sharing their findings with those from the other tracks.

Educators (South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in foreground),
sharing and processing learnings from Thursday.

Then the whole group came together for an amazing encounter with Katie Green of the Ma'aleh School of Television, Film & the Arts. The session was - Looking at Jewish Identity through the Camera Lens. Ma'aleh is the only film school geared for Orthodox Jewish filmakers. Students learn the crafts associated with film and television and Ma'aleh helps young filmakers make and distribute their films.

Katie Green of Ma'aleh Film School

Filmakers cover a broad array of subjects - no subject is taboo. The only restrictions relate to showing sex or nudity on the screen and language.

We saw 2 short films - 'Willingly' ('Haray At' in Hebrew) - about a young Orthodox couple going through a divorce; and 'Evacuation Order' - a hilarious comedy about soldiers who must evacuate an illegal settlement.

Scene from "Willingly" ("Haray At") - Michal and Yoni,
a young couple seeking a "get."

Both films were excellent and provoked interesting questions and conversations about Jewish identity in Israel.

Then, prominent Israeli educator Leah Shakdiel led a discussion analyzing the Israeli Declaration of Independence as a key text to understand the Jewish and democratic natures of Israel today.

Wrestling with the Declaration of Independence in Hevruta

The afternoon included an optional walking tour of Jaffa and Neve Tzedek. Neve Tzedek, the oldest Jewish neighborhood of Tel Aviv, predates Tel Aviv -having been settled by Jews in the 1880s. It eventually became a center for writers and artists, fell into disrepair and has been redeveloped and renovated and is again a center for arts and culture.

At sunset, we gathered on the Namal (Tel Aviv Port) for a kabbalat Shabbat (welcoming the Sabbath) service. It was an incredible scene, and emblematic of the changes occurring in Israeli Jewish identity, to see 300 people gathering at seaside for a public Shabbat service in Tel Aviv - the center of secular Israel. The service, accompanied by acoustic instruments, was led by the leaders of Bet Tifela Yisraeli, a non-denominational congregation in Tel Aviv, supported in part by the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation. As the sun set over the Mediterranean, surrounded by Israelis, Americans Argentinians, and other Jews from foreign lands (many here for the Maccabia Games), it was a lovely way to greet the Shabbat.

At dinner, prominent educator Barry Chazan poetically called for educators to put the poetry back into Israel education. Barry quoted Yehuda Amichai, Chaim Nahman Bialik, Leah Goldberg, Naomi Shemer and others, asserting that Israel studies must be less prosaic, more poetic.

Friday, July 10, 2009

People-to-People Partnerships - High Touch & Hi-Tech

In the 2,000 year old catacombs of Beit Shearim

Today, the 17th of Tammuz, the Roman army breached the walls surrounding Jerusalem. It was the end of the siege of Jerusalem, and the start of the Roman onslaught, which ended in death and destruction of the city, the community, and the 2nd Temple.

Jewish leaders adapted to the destruction of the Temple, the ultimate "central agency" for Jewish life, by establishing an academy in Yavneh, and a Sanhedrin, a convening of 70 leaders, that was portable and was not dependent upon Jerusalem.

I began my day in Bet Shearim, where for awhile the Sanhedrin met, and where Judah the Prince, the compiler of the Mishnah, was buried.
The Sanhedrin, the Talmud, and all that followed were creative adaptations to new conditions - no Temple, no Jewish sovereignty.

Ours are not the first generations of Jews to deal with cataclysmic change.

The BASIS Summer Forum split into 3 tracks today. One group focused on arts and culture. They looked at video, photography, music, film, and attended a performance of One of a Kind, an acclaimed children's show combining theater, story-telling, and animation about the Ethiopian experience in Israel.

Actors from 'One of a Kind' discussing the play with BASIS
participants after the performance.

Another group went to Jerusalem - their theme was "Memory and meaning in the Shadow of the Sacred." That included study tours of Yad VaShem or the Western Wall and workshops on shlichut (use of Israeli emissaries in a school community and on family education).

I chose the 3rd track, which traveled north to Oranim College, focusing on school twinning and use of technology.

After visiting the caves of Bet Shearim, we examined school twinning and other partnerships as mechanisms to promote Jewish peoplehood and identity. We reviewed several models of school, youth, and educator partnerships and were presented with powerful evaluation data tracking impact of these strategies. Then we turned our attention to technology. We looked at distance learning, radio broadcasting, and innovative uses of technology in collaborative art. Finally, Doron Nesher, of Timeless Jerusalem, demonstrated his virtual reality application, linking students and educators in North America and Israel for virtual meetings, classes, games, and parties.

The visit at Oranim had a powerful impact. Those who have been involved in school twinning shared their successes, and the schools who have not twinned were inspired. The evaluation data showed compelling evidence of substantial positive impact on students and teachers. Every participant with whom I spoke left Oranim with practical ideas to implement in their school and with a deepened vision of how to use people-to-people programs and technology to bring Israel alive in their schools.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

BASIS Day 2: Narratives, Comics, Comfort Zones, and Cracks

Israel pushes people out of their comfort zones. We straddled the line at and beyond some comfort zones and dealt with some of the conflicts that plague this place - including ethnic (Jew & Arab), religious (religious & secular), historical narrative (competing versions) and land.

We began with a Siur, a study tour in Jaffa. This was not a site-seeing tour - we had a Jewish and an Israeli Arab guide, each providing a different perspective on the history of Jaffa.

Ben and Fahdi, our Jaffa guides

"Narrative" and "multiple narratives" tend to be overused words in characterizing the Middle East conflict. Yet, much of the work of education is in the telling and the understanding of stories - collective stories and individual stories. Hearing the rich multitude of stories here and making sense of them in the context of our educational goals is part of our task as educators.

The clash of narratives, and the different reactions to them among forum participants, created some discomfort in the group. Makom, our educator partners in the Jewish Agency, use the metaphor of "hugging and wrestling" in describing Israel education in the diaspora. "Hugging" - meaning we embrace Israel in a loving way, and "wrestling" - meaning that we confront some of the troubling complexities inherent in Israel's situation. This morning was definitely a wrestling morning, as participants figuratively wrestled with the narratives, and with each other. After the tour, we split into affinity groups (school leaders, Jewish studies teachers, general studies teachers, lay leaders) to process the experience and its relation to our educational work. To provide context, we studied a paper by Michael Rosenak and Arnold Eisen - "Israel in our Lives - Basic Issues & Philosophical Guidelines." We discussed if, why, and how addressing some of Israel's difficult issues would be relevant to our teaching our students.

BASIS participants listening to our guides and "wrestling"
with difficult issues in Jaffa

We spent the afternoon at the Museum of the Diaspora discussing the concept of "Jewish Peoplehood" and its relevance to Israel studies. We studied 4 seminal Jewish thinkers of a century ago - Theodore Herzl, Ahad Ha-Am, Nahum Syrkin, and Simon Dubnov. Each school received a packet of curricular materials related to Israel and Jewish Peoplehood.

"Peoplehood" has been a recurring theme during the Forum, with varying interpretations. In part, it underscores the partnership in and responsibility for the project of Israel, among those who live here and we who live elsewhere. It also offers a context in which a school community in California can understand and rationalize a deep connection with Israel.

After dinner, we had an "encounter" with Israeli comic artist Shay Charka. Born in 1967, Shay, a prominent comic artist and satirist in Israeli newspapers and books, lives in the West Bank and provides a very different perspective and narrative than those we heard this morning in Jaffa. Shay, an Orthodox Jew, expresses his perspective through his art, which he displayed and demonstrated.

Shay Charka's comic in Ydiot Aharanot newspaper
depicting President Obama acting like a landlord
(thus putting his feet on the table, representing Judea
and Samaria, the territories on the West Bank of the Jordan River).

Shay, whose politics were 180 degrees from our guides in Jaffa, spoke softly but his art spoke loudly. When asked his opinion of diaspora Jews, he drew a picture of a mouse...

Today was a day in which everyone's perspectives and assumptions were challenged, a day outside people's comfort zones. Which is a part of the Israel experience. Cracks were detected, in the group and in people's previous assumptions.

As Leonard Cohen says, there is a crack in everything - that's where the light gets in...

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Day 1: "Pray for Rain and Watch Out for Missiles..."

More than 70 educators from 11 Northern California day schools gathered today to kick off the BASIS Summer Forum.

It was an amazing day, and I cannot report all the great strides that were made here – but a few highlights…

Early in the morning, we reviewed mission statements of our schools, to explore how we talk about Israel in our educational vision. At least one school’s mission statement had been devoid of ANY reference to Israel before BASIS – now it clearly states “an inextricable commitment to, and love for, the State of Israel, its culture, language, history, and land…” This was a huge step for a school community that had shown, at best, ambivalence toward Israel. A nice achievement for the first year of BASIS.

Michal (BASIS Director) briefly reviewed 6 different models/orientations for teaching Israel. Just as there are 70 faces to the Torah, so there are 70 faces of Israel, Michal asserted, and multiple (legitimate) approaches to teaching it. BASIS works with each school to find the approach that fits.

Jonny Ariel of Makom discussed “elephants in the room” when we talk about Israel, and posed these questions which each school group discussed in break-out sessions:

• WHY, and in what sense, ought Israel be an integral part of renewing Jewish life in your school? (Why engage with Israel? What should an educated graduate know about Israel?)

• WHAT should be the Israel that students encounter? (To what topics, challenges, issues, & achievements should we expose our students?)

• WHO should be the Israelis that are the focus of our teaching? (Which teachers? Iconic heroes, peer groups, voices, victims?)

• WHERE in the formal and informal program should Israel be encountered? (Israel travel, Jewish studies, Hebrew, Arts, general studies, Shabbatonim, website, school walls…)

• WHEN should we encounter Israel thoughout the daily and yearly calendar and life cycle?

In the afternoon, we went on “constructivist tours” of Tel Aviv. Rather than the traditional tour with a guide, educators were divided into small groups, each given maps and source materials and sent to discover information about various sites in Tel Aviv.

Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, where Ben Gurion read
the Declaration of Independence. Studying the Declaration
has been a theme for the week. Independence Hall was a
stop on our "constructivist" tour of discovery.

We had an “encounter” with Israeli singer-songwriter Kobi Oz. Kobi discussed his poetry, song lyrics, his influences and their resonance with contemporary Israel. Later in the evening we were treated to a Kobi Oz concert – where he sang the songs whose meaning he had discussed with us earlier.

Singer-songwriter Kobi Oz being interviewed by Makom's
Robbie Gringras.

Here’s an excerpted translation from one of Kobi’s songs – Elohai

"I have so much to tell You, yet You know everything
I have so many requests to ask of You, but You anyway want the best for me
I give You a little smile for every thing of beauty I notice
I’m a bit embarrassed – don’t know what to call You – Elohim or Elokim?

I have so so so so many thankyous standing in line at your door, but my thanks always come out corny.
I have so so so so many requests to ask of You, though I’m basically fine.

Lord, if you hear my prayer, maybe you can send my love to my Grandfather
Tell him that the Sephardi moderation he maintained has been replaced by zealotry
But despite everything, tolerance is bubbling beneaththe surface
Look how people are bit by bit leaving behind the tension and in the end just want to be united
In this great synagogue called the Land of Israel
Where everyone is welcome to look up at the heavens, pray for rain, and watch out for missiles."

What is BASIS

What is BASIS?

BASIS is a major initiative to change and enhance Israel education and engagement in Bay area day schools. BASIS is an acronym in both English and Hebrew:

Bay Area Schools Israel Synergy

BAtei Sefer Israel San Francisco

BASIS emerged out of the Israel Education Initiative (IEI) – a joint project between BJE, the Jewish Community Federation’s Israel Center and the Jewish Agency's Makom. IEI’s goal is to promote Israel learning and connection throughout the Bay Area educational community.

BASIS also promotes Israel learning and connection, but it is focused solely on Northern California day schools. It has been generously supported by the Jim Joseph Foundation.

IEI and BASIS are intended to imbue among our youth a stronger connection to and understanding of Israel, enhancing their own sense of Jewish peoplehood and identity.

BASIS aims to make Israel a core part of each school’s academic program and its culture.

Recognizing that each school is different, BASIS supports a “customized” approach, working with each school to establish its own vision for Israel education and engagement within its school community, and helping each school to realize that vision. Core components of BASIS include:

  • Funding for each school to retain an “Israel education coordinator” to lead the school’s activities;

  • A leadership team in each school, composed of faculty, administration, board and parents to guide and help implement the school's Israel education plan;

  • Funding for each school to pursue its Israel education objectives;

  • A "community of practice" for all the Israel education coordinators to regularly meet and learn together;

  • Expertise in curriculum development, professional development for educators, and other strategies to promote Israel education, including school twinning, arts and culture, and technology;

  • A series of learning events, including an intensive week-long Summer Forum in Israel (happening now);

These educational services are provided by the BASIS staff at BJE, led by BASIS Director, Michal Morris Kamil. Working with Michal during just concluded Year One have been BJE Associate Director Renee Ghert-Zand, and IEI Director Ilan Vitemberg, and educational specialist Vavi Toran. Educational support is also provided by various consultants offering specific expertise of value to the schools.

The Summer Forum, which kicks off today, culminates the first year of BASIS. More than 70 representatives of the 11 day schools are gathering for a week-long seminar. Two key areas of focus of the Summer Forum are to help participants:

  • develop an appreciation of the conceptual alternatives of Israel education and select models that fit their schools;

  • deepen and broaden their knowledge and insight of Israel and its place in Jewish life and the world of their students.

Our goal for the forum is that each of the teams from the schools (and we have about 6-7 people from each school) will be equipped to return to their schools and teach Israel, with all its complexity, more effectively.