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On considering the other side – Israel education, and exposure to the “other” narrative

23 Mar

by Ilan Bloch


Image courtesy of Wikimedia

I recently guided a *great* group of non-Jewish non-Zionist students from overseas down south. Before I joined them, they had spent nine days in Judea and Samaria/the West Bank, where they were hosted by Palestinian organizations and institutions, and religious networks. They also visited a Jewish community/settlement and heard from a resident/settler spokesperson. I thought about how woefully inadequate it was to include a one-hour session from a competing narrative, and to assume that by doing so, one could check the educational box of exposing students to other viewpoints, and facilitating the development of independent, critical and analytical thinking amongst them.

And then I thought about other groups and contexts; I have guided Jewish, Zionist Israel programs of 6 weeks’, or even 4 months’, duration, where in an attempt to be open and to expose students to other viewpoints and narratives, we included a one-hour session with a Palestinian speaker.

Surely that which is so overwhelmingly obvious when considering the educational context of an Israel trip for non-Jewish, non-Zionist students should be just as overwhelmingly obvious when considering an Israel program in a Jewish, Zionist educational context.

Ilan Bloch is a licensed Israel tour guide.


It’s not political… but it kind of really is

28 Feb

by Ilan Bloch


Image courtesy of

Recently I participated in a professional development day of learning for Israel educators. One of the speakers there explained that his organization had an agenda – it is a Zionist organization, and that it should not need to apologize for that. Moreover, he said that his organization believes in Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and that it should not need to apologize for that. He added that this is not at all a political statement; being Zionist, his organization supports the Declaration of Independence and this includes the idea that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people.

But, in the context of Israeli politics of the last few years and the proposed legislation Basic Law: Israel – the nation-state of the Jewish people:

  • which enshrines the establishment of communities based on an ethnic or religious character as a quasi-constitutional right, and
  • which specifically doesn’t include mention of equality of all citizens (even though the Declaration of Independence does!) or the embrace of democracy as a supreme value, and
  • notwithstanding sophisticated amendments to its wording brought yesterday, cancels the status of Arabic as an official language, and
  • notwithstanding the removal of the clause requiring judges to consider Jewish law in their judgments when no statute, precedent or analogy exists (and instead enshrining in a Basic Law the provisions of the Foundations of Law Act (1980)),

to state that an organization believes in Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and doesn’t need to apologize for this is, by definition, a political statement. In the context of Israeli current affairs to present such as otherwise is ideologically and educationally disingenuous!

One could also quote the Declaration of Independence:

“THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations,”

using this clause as an apparent proof-text for numerous liberal-left policy principles and then suggest that your organization is not political; it simply believes in the Declaration of Independence and shouldn’t need to apologize for this. In the context of Israeli current affairs this too would be ideologically and educationally disingenuous!

I am not arguing for or against the proposed legislation; I am arguing against Israel educators who present right-wing positions as consensus Zionist positions or ideas which should accepted as a given. And then they wonder why so many American Jewish youth and students become disillusioned and feel they have been brainwashed.

Ilan Bloch is a licensed Israeli tour guide. 

Moving from a blind love to a more valid love

31 Aug


Rishon beach Rachel Bonder

Rishon LeZion beach. (Photo credit: Rachel Bonder)


A summer Israel program participant reflects on her experiences, her connection to Israel and Zionism, and Israel education

by Rachel Bonder

Along with my growing appreciation for my Judaism, I have found a new appreciation for Israel that I did not know was possible to have. For my entire life Israel has been a dream destination to me. My mother is a proud Zionist and a proud Israel advocate. She has always updated my family on Israeli current events. The first time I went to Israel the feelings I experienced were indescribable. The sound of the Hebrew around me and the kosher food on every corner, I felt like I was truly home. After that trip I had been to Israel another two times. The first trip I would describe as a tourist trip, touring around the most popular sites of the country. The second trip was a mission trip, visiting different projects my community has started and supported. The third trip was another tourist trip with my school. And this was my fourth time in Israel. I knew it would differ from all of my other experiences, but I did not quite know how. The narrative of our trip was “The Many Faces of Israel.” We visited a Catholic Church, a mosque, a Druze village, a Circassian village, and African asylum-seekers in south Tel Aviv, and we had a panel with both Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel. All of these experiences were extremely eye-opening. They reminded us that although we were in a place where we finally were not the minority, Israel was still home to many. Over this trip I had become aware of the flaws of Israel. Israel is not a perfect country by any means, but my love for Israel has not wavered. If anything, my love for Israel has grown stronger. I have realized that my love for Israel before this trip was almost a blind love. I was made aware of the positive aspects of Israel on my previous trips, but rarely the negatives. Now that I am more aware of Israel’s flaws and mistakes and my love for the country is still strong, it feels as though my love now is more of a valid love. This trip has truly allowed me to strengthen and develop valid opinions on a country that I like to call my home and I will never forget it. 

Rachel Bonder is a student from the Greater MetroWest NJ Jewish community.

Thoughts on the matzav

15 Oct

by Ilan Bloch

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

As the wave of terror continues to engulf the streets of Jerusalem and other cities and communities across the country, our minds are filled with thoughts, and prayers for a more peaceful time. Images which we saw through social media shocked us to the core and some footage was eerily reminiscent of our memories from the Second Intifada, which we would prefer to forget.

As ירושלמים (Jerusalemites), we are thankful for the deployment of Border Police and police on the streets of our city but also saddened that we have returned to such darkness – ironically, the armed forces are a potent symbol of our weakness. A decade after the last intifada ended we again remain in a city starved for a solution. Twenty years after Oslo II was signed, there is nothing more final than an interim agreement, which has not brought, and cannot, bring peace.

Our armed forces on the eastern side of the city, in Palestinian neighborhoods and villages which came under Israeli control in the Six Day War, represent something else. These police and combat soldiers staffing checkpoints at the entrances to particular parts of the “undivided” capital are potent symbols of the challenge of Zionism.

From the end of the Bar Kochba Revolt, the Jewish people was able to occupy the moral high ground because we were a people with no power. The challenge of Zionism is how to wield power once again – in this case, power backed by a mighty army and, according to foreign forces, 200 nuclear warheads – in a Jewish way.

How can we, as a Jewish state, impose restrictions on freedom of movement on 37% of the united capital, based on their ethnic identity? How can this possibly accord with our understanding of תיקון עולם (social justice)? On the other hand, Israeli security cabinet decisions cannot be considered in a similar vein to resolutions of a synagogue or youth group board, as they may well result in saving lives or – חס וחלילה (Heaven forfend!) – the spilling of even more blood. There is no imperative to commit collective suicide in order to retain ethical purity. We simply don’t enjoy that luxury.

Did Zionism seek to normalize us a nation or make us an אור לגוים (light unto the nations)? Are we meant to be an exceptional country (in something more important than nanotechnology) or just a state just like any other? How do we balance the need for security with the human rights implications of security policy? There are certainly those who would draw the line differently (whether to the right or the left) of where it has been drawn this week, but, wherever we stand on this issue, we should stand deeply engaged with Israel.

We hope for a day of a perfect Messianic peace – an age of the dove and of the olive branch. In the meantime, we utter a prayer for security and embrace a simple and most basic idea of civic discourse. A new campaign launched by 20-year-old Ofer Gelfand asks people to support the concept of שנאה היא לא ערך, גזענות היא לא הדרך (hatred is not a value, racism is not the way), either by liking his Facebook post or writing the statement on the palm of their hand, photographing it as a “selfie,” and posting it to their own Facebook pages. Wherever we draw the line in regard to the security/human rights dilemma, we should be proud to draw it against racism and hatred. This is just one way that ordinary Israelis have been trying to retain a semblance of sanity during this most difficult week.

Ilan Bloch is a licensed tour guide and Director of Teaching Israel.

Six (or seven) essential tips for Israel tour guiding this summer

17 Jun

As we enter the peak of the guiding season and consider our educational goals for the summer, licensed guide and Teaching Israel director Ilan Bloch takes a (somewhat) tongue-in-cheek look at this summer’s real goals…

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The six (or 7) ש’s/Sh’s

a) שתייה/Shtiya/Drinking – Without water and stops to refill or buy more water, your summer has ended before it starts. The blank look on the face of the chanich staring past you isn’t just because he doesn’t care about the Second Temple period; it’s because he’s also suffering from dehydration.

b) Shade/צל/Tzel– Even if you can literally make King David come alive and speak to the group, if it’s not happening in the shade, it’s not worth it. However much chanichim may love to sunbathe at the beach, for some reason they don’t want to do so while listening to even King David himself speak with them.

c) ש”ח/New Israel Shekel – Ensure that your group has access to ATMs and change places, otherwise d), e) and f) can’t happen.

d) שווארמה/Shawarma– Along with the delicious and nutritious packed lunches from the hostel, make sure your group has the opportunity to buy fast food during break times, otherwise you might see them suffering from schnitzel (or, worse yet, Tivol corn schnitzel) overdose.

e) Shopping/shoes – The northern border might heat up, but in terms of interest, such an event might pale in comparison to hot summer sales — especially relevant to the Naot factory outlet.

f) שירותים/restrooms – When they really need to go, they really, really need to go. Anticipate restroom stops before emergency situations develop. And, no matter what the bus driver says, two stops on “long-haul” journeys (e.g. Safed to Jerusalem) are an absolute necessity.

And, if they are not a youth group, then

g) שתוי/Shatui/Tipsy – As opposed to שיכור/Shikor/Drunk, which is not allowed. Without their opportunity (legally, for the 18-20 y.o., in this country, as opposed to in the US) to imbibe (according to the rules), some chanichim may feel they were robbed of a transformative experience in the Land of Goldstar and Arak.

Bringing Israel Education into the World of Online Learning

18 Apr

by Laurie Rappeport

JETS online Israel education classes most certainly do not look like this. (Image courtesy of

JETS online Israel education classes most certainly do not look like this!
(Image courtesy of

Throughout my thirty years in Israel I have had a wide variety of experiences in Israel and Zionist education involving both informal and formal formats. I have also done some classroom instruction but mostly I have been involved in programs that include experiential activities — exploring the country, volunteering, creating meetings between Israelis and visitors, and engaging in hands-on pursuits.

So I was surprised and excited when I found out that different types of learning could be combined to create a dynamic educational environment that would enable students to really understand more about Israel’s history and achievements as well as the issues and complexities with which the country must grapple day in and day out. This online instruction is relatively new in Jewish circles but is quickly becoming a popular vehicle for bringing Israel and Jewish instruction to students of all ages and backgrounds.

I became involved with the world of online Israel/Zionist education when I signed up for the Jerusalem EdTech Solutions (JETS) No Teacher Left Behind course. This 10-week course left me reeling with the incredible array of online tools that teachers have at their fingertips to bring any aspect of Israel or Jewish learning to students in an interactive environment that meets 21st century educational paradigms.

As a confirmed “non-techie” I was nervous that my low level of computer skills would quash the entire project, but the course took me through the tools slowly, step by step, to the point that I can now engage students with virtual blackboards, shared online materials, an array of audio-visual data and other fun activities that make Israel and Jewish subject matter relevant and exciting.

After I finished my course I began to teach students from an afternoon school in Illinois. I was further stunned by the possibilities that online teaching engenders. My students — pre-teens — were fascinated by the correlations that we were able to develop as we delved into the meaning of Tu B’shevat as it relates to the environment and the Land of Israel, connections between Purim and courage, and between Passover and freedom, and our individual abilities to fulfill responsibilities to perpetuate the memory of the Holocaust. Suddenly Judaism and Israel were “cool” concepts which the students could explore as they grappled with many of the philosophical questions which are debated by Jews of all streams throughout the world.

In addition to an array of teacher training professional development (PD) courses, JETS offers a wide range of online courses which are applicable to many different learning situations, including Jewish day and afternoon schools, public schools, homeschoolers, and even adult learners and seniors groups. The JETS programs are non-denominational and geared to a pluralistic approach which ensures that students of all backgrounds will feel comfortable and involved.

JETS offers courses on Ancient Israel, Israel Today, Israel Culture and Society, the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Contemporary Jewish Issues, Tikkun Olam and Ethiopian Jewry. In addition, there are Hebrew language instruction courses, including “Hip Hop Hebraics” for kids and a PD course called “Otiyot Medabrot” that provides ideas for teachers of how to teach Hebrew reading and writing in an environment of engaging and interactive fun.

Laurie Rappeport is a JETS teacher. For more information visit

Interfaith Bibliodrama in Israel

18 Jan

by Yael Unterman

Photo courtesy of Peta Pellach

I grew up in the UK but have lived in Israel for the past twenty-two years. One reason I like  living in Israel is because that is where a lot of the interesting Jewish action takes place – or at least where it ought to take place – making Israel the center of Jewish religion and culture that the likes of Ahad Haam wished it to be. In reality though, the Diaspora, in the form of Limmud and many other original initiatives, is a close contender at times! Indeed, the following piece describes a new movement within Jewish education that has its roots in the Diaspora but is slowly establishing a presence in Israel.

For all of my adult life I have been involved in teaching Jewish texts – Torah, Talmud, commentaries, Hassidut, and so forth. For me, this constitutes a wonderful, profound activity that connects Jews to their sources and to one another. It is a tremendous feeling when the texts give up their mysteries to one’s probing eye, and it makes me delighted to be a Jew.

My involvement with the sources, however, took a fascinating and unexpected turn when, back in the year 2000, I encountered a technique called Bibliodrama, invented by Dr. Peter Pitzele of the US. Pitzele, who is trained in the methods of therapeutic theater and has a Ph.D. in literature, imported techniques from psychodrama and combined them with his refined literary sensitivities to create a new experiential method for studying Torah stories. The technique shifts us from left-brain (i.e. analytical) to right-brain (i.e. imaginative) territory, through asking questions to the group members directly as if they were characters in the text.

Rather than try to explain further, let me give you a snippet as an example:

The facilitator asks the group: So Cain, why did you decide to bring an offering to God? Your mother and father never brought any offerings, so where did this idea come from?

After a moment of thought, one participant might answer: I had heard my parents talking about God and I wanted to speak to God also.

Another participant says: I wanted to give a gift to someone to say thank you for all the abundance I’ve received.

A third person suggests: I want to see if I can get us back into the Garden of Eden –  it sounds like such an amazing place. Maybe I can change God’s mind with a bribe.

A fourth adds: Yes, they wrongfully took fruit, so I am giving back fruit!

And so on and so forth.

The character deepens as people hear one another and speak their interpretations; and thus a form of spontaneous midrash is created. It is always different with every new group of people. It is often playful, profound, surprising, and enlightening, and brings the ancient text to life right before our very eyes.

For me, my first experience of Bibliodrama was love at first sight. I subsequently read Pitzele’s book, Scripture Windows, containing instructions on how to run Bibliodrama, and began to do it whenever and wherever I could. I have been privileged to take it around the world (often alongside my solo show, ‘After Eden,’ a follow-on to Bibliodrama on the Cain and Abel story), and to train teachers to use it in schools. It has proven popular with religious and secular, Israeli and non-Israeli groups. Admittedly, it is not for everyone: strong intellectuals and people of a yeshivish background do not always take to it well.

The truth is that I would love to see this technique introduced into Tanach classes in Israeli high schools, in order to make the Tanach relevant, exciting and alive, instead of the rather boring class that I fear it often is. However, after a few useless fumbles in that direction I decided to wait for an opening and some heavenly help in that direction (I’m still open, if anyone reading this wants to pursue that direction with me).

Heaven, however, seemed to have other plans. In February 2011, a different project hurtled out of the blue straight into my lap, when I received a surprise invitation from a woman named Maria, who is connected to a theatre in Poland. She invited me to join an EU-funded initiative to advance “Bibliodrama as a Multi-Cultural way of Learning for Adults.” I joined forces with the Elijah Interfaith Institution, and together we became the Israeli partner in the project, which also includes partners from Iceland, Turkey, Hungary and Poland.

Thus, October 2011 marked my initiation into the world of interfaith Bibliodrama (I had only ever done such a thing once before), with the launch of our local interfaith group. In November 2011 we traveled to Poland to meet our partners and train in Bibliodrama (further details can be found on the blog by Peta Pellach, who works for Elijah). Our trainer was a Hungarian named Peter Varga, who hails from a different school of Bibliodrama a Christian-based school which derives its techniques strongly from psychodrama and spends less time looking at the text than we do. (Peta and I are getting the impression that Jews are more in tune with Pitzele-type Bibliodrama, as they are more used to text and interpretation and to midrashic ways of thinking.) Upcoming trips for the project include a Bibliodramatic intercultural encounter for twenty people in Iceland in June 2012 and, in 2013, meetings in Budapest and Istanbul and a Bibliodrama conference in Krakow.

For me, this was the first meaningful encounter with European non-Jews, and it proved a highly positive experience of sharing, laughter and acceptance. Though aware that I was thinking in a rather provincial Israeli-Jewish fashion, I confess that beforehand I had felt rather intimidated by the trip to a country where millions of Jews had died so horribly, in a continent where one sometimes gets the impression from the media that everyone hates Israel. I felt comfortable both as a Jew and as an Israeli, though it was truly shocking to discover that our trip from the airport to our hotel was going to take us past Auschwitz. Jews do not normally just casually drive by Auschwitz, as we did.

Our local interfaith group for Christians, Muslims and Jews takes place bi-monthly at the Yedidya synagogue. Setting dates is not always easy, as there are so many different holidays to account for. Running Bibliodramas on texts from other faiths is a step out of my comfort zone but the participants, hailing from the Congo, Uganda, Scotland, Slovakia and other countries, are amazing, and we are all learning new things together. I chose to ease them in with a neutral story, Hansel and Gretel, which turned out to work extremely well, and then moved on to some legends of great people such as St. Clare, Rumi and Shams, and Rabbi Akiva and his wife. We are now about to hit the “hard-core” texts, and see what that brings. As a person who believes in the value of encounter with the other but shies away from the political, I am happy to reach out and create ties with people of other faiths sharing our country and our beloved city of Jerusalem. Now we just have to find a few more Muslims – why are they so hard to find in Jerusalem?

There is much more to do with Bibliodrama in the Jewish world. This is such a different and powerful way to connect Jews with their texts, suitable to our generation’s Zeitgeist; that is, the search for personal meaning, relevance and growth. A few of us are doing a bit in the center of Israel and in the north, and I have just discovered someone in the south doing something similar. There is also a Facebook page in Hebrew. But it all feels like a drop in the ocean. I would like to see the day arrive where Bibliodrama is done regularly, alongside and complementary to traditional learning, in every Jewish school in the world, and in particular in every Israeli school where I think it is sorely needed.

Yael Unterman is one of Israel’s leading Bibliodrama experts and the author of Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar. See for more details.

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