Educators from around the world meet in Israel

Global Jewish Education Leaders Meet in Israel

I record these reflections days after returning from Israel. The occasion for my journey was a four-day convening of 33 Jewish educators from 12 countries, aimed, in part, at considering the implications of October 7 and its aftermath for Jewish education. Invitees included five educators from the United States, 16 colleagues from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Mexico, South Africa, and the United Kingdom, and 12 Israel-based educators. Though many of our experiences paralleled those of other visitors during these trying months, the opportunity of visiting schools was unique; after sharing the context of the trip, I will focus on lessons learned from two school visits.  

Upon arrival in Israel, I checked into the “home base” of the conference, the Prima Kings Hotel, in Jerusalem. As at many hotels throughout the country, most residents were Israelis displaced from their homes. In the case of the Kings Hotel, that meant 200 people from Shlomi, in northern Israel, who were evacuated – among hundreds of thousands of Israelis – because of the threat (and reality) of missile launchings by hostile neighbors in the south and north. While the Kings Hotel is a lovely place to stay for a few nights, for families displaced from their homes, with adults in many cases unable to work because of the remote (from their jobs) location, children removed from their school setting, and families relegated to a small living space with little privacy, it is – after nearly four months – a challenging reality.  

Conference participants came from diverse communities and professional settings. For example, Geoff is Director of Jewish Identity & Community at the Herzlia School, educating 1300 students, in Capetown; Erica directs the Martin Buber School, educating 1500 students, in Buenos Aries; Michelle heads a teacher training institute in Melbourne, as does Danny, in Mexico City. There were directors of BJE-like organizations from New York City, Buenos Aries, and London (as well as from Los Angeles, represented by the author), foundation personnel from the U.S., Brazil, and Israel, and educators engaged in research, directors of university schools of education and Jewish studies, and more.  

The four very full conference days included a variety of meetings and visits, the most raw of which was a trip to beautiful, though now uninhabited, Kfar Aza, where, October 7, invaders from Gaza attacked, crossing the fields to murder, kidnap, rape, and pillage. In addition to meeting with educators, government officials, families of hostages, and visiting the sites of the Nova Festival (where more than 360 people were murdered, October 7)  Sderot, and Hostage Square (in Tel Aviv), among numerous other places, we met with educators at two schools. In each case, the words “Who is like Your people, Israel?” (I Chronicles 17:21) sprang to mind.  

Ofakim is a city of 40,000 inhabitants, less than 18 miles from Gaza. It was among the 22 locations struck by well-trained Hamas terrorists, October 7. Police and armed citizens saved the city from invaders who aimed to kill as many people as possible. More than 50 defenders of Ofakim died in defense of their families and neighbors; their heroism saved the community from the full extent of the devastation the attackers aimed to inflict.  

Many families fled the area. For those who remained, terror and anxiety reigned. Educators at the Amal school that we visited in Ofakim organized to re-open their school at the earliest possible opportunity; their mission was to restore stability to the lives of the school’s children and families.

As an educational experience, small groups of middle school students were invited to meet the visiting educators from around the globe, and share their experiences, during a walking tour of the neighborhood surrounding the school. At various points, we saw bullet holes that had penetrated buildings, and pictures of residents – some of them school alumni -- who had been killed at these locations; words of memorial were expressed by the students. At one stop, a teenaged boy spoke of his brother-in-law, who lost his life October 7, at that spot, in defense of the city, outside his apartment, in view of his family. Throughout the tour, the tone and tenor of the remarks of students and educators alike emphasized bravery and moving forward, with no trace of victimization or debilitation.  

The visit to the Amal school was a reminder of the important place of schools in the lives of their students, well beyond the formal curriculum and instructional program. Soon after October 7, the Head of School packed her family to Netanya and devoted herself, fully, to attending to the needs of educators, students, and families, with the goal of resuming “regular” operations as soon as possible. That this was accomplished is a tribute to remarkable educational leadership and the dedication of the teaching staff, many of whom have a spouse in military service or are, themselves, called to military duties for extended periods. While they spoke of others in their city as heroes, they, too, are among the heroes.  

The other school we visited is a “pop up” school. With tens of thousands of school-aged children displaced from their homes, there are (at least) two available educational options. In some cases, “refugee” children attend existing schools. In other cases, they attend schools – meeting in a variety of physical spaces near the hotels at which families are lodged – that have been especially established to meet the learning and social needs of displaced children. One of these pop-up schools, in Jerusalem, was launched by a young Israeli woman named Keren Appelbaum.  

Keren Appelbaum, an educator, is a founder of Mabua (formerly known as Beit Prat Yisraeli), a program for post-army Israelis interested in exploring Jewish texts as a matter of personal enrichment. Over the decade of its existence, Mabua has engaged young people of diverse Jewish backgrounds. For anyone interested in the thinking that underlies this remarkable program, I recommend an excellent book, The Wondering Jew, by one of Mabua’s faculty – one of Israel’s leading public intellectuals -- Micah Goodman.

Keren is troubled by the rigid division in Israeli schools between government religious schools and government (secular) schools. She would like to see the option of community Jewish schools, serving children from diverse Jewish backgrounds and including (for all students) Jewish studies and experiences. At a time of emergency permits for pop-up schools, Keren has created such a school.  

At Keren’s (coeducational) school, we saw boys with kippot and tzitzit and boys without such apparel. Non-coercive, non-judgmental Jewish learning is part of the daily program of study and activity at this unique “pop up.” The Hebrew word mashber means both crisis and birth stool. Crisis often gives birth to opportunity; Keren Appelbaum hopes to build on this wartime project to more fully realize her vision in the years ahead.  

Needless to say, there is considerable anguish, grief, and distress in Israel, today. People regularly speak about the very real possibility of full scale warfare in the north, where, already, there has been loss of life, injuries, and evacuations. Lives have been ended, shattered, and devastated by the invasion of October 7 and the ongoing war in the south. Hostages remain in captivity, four months after having been seized. Amidst all of this, there is resilience and hope.

I would be remiss in not recognizing the partners who mounted this convening, known as the Global Jewish Education Leadership Solidarity Mission: Jewish Education after October 7. Several Israeli entities, UnitEd, the Ministry for Diaspora Affairs & Combating Anti-Semitism, the Pincus Fund for Jewish Education, the Education Department of the World Zionist Organization, and the Koret Centre for Jewish Peoplehood – each of which relates to Jewish education in communities outside Israel – (uncommonly) joined together to organize this international gathering.  This, too, is instructive for communities, as our own, in which multiple organizations work to address critical issues, all too often in isolation from one another. To paraphrase a declaration that one sees (in Hebrew) on billboards throughout Israel: Together we will prevail.