“I too was present at Mount Sinai…”

June 9, 2016 by

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Identity is both given and chosen: it is given in that one’s choices are not unlimited and it is chosen in that there are multiple groups and ideas to which one subscribes. Identity is gender, profession, religion, ethnicity, and nation among others. What pulls these together is a story or a narrative. Groups need a narrative to justify who and what they are, because they do not want to perceive themselves as either totally eclectic or as totally self-serving. We want the stability provided by the anchor of story.

Yet narratives change; they are ‘puncturable’, and we sense their fragility in the modern history of the Jewish People. Let’s think of the Zionist narrative – on my teenage Israel experience there was no more poignant moment than when we visited the ‘magic mountain’ of Masada, exploring the story of heroism and the symbol of Jewish defiance and dignity, that we had heard so much about from when we were little children. Today, we go to Masada the tourist site and the tour guide relates: ‘But you know, maybe they weren’t heroes. Maybe the story happened in a different way.’ The narrative is punctured the moment we ask: do we really want to view suicide as the embodiment of Jewish potential?

It goes deeper. Think about what Zionism represents – the contemporary realization of millennial Jewish longing for the ancestral homeland. And then recognize that one of the fastest-growing Jewish communities in the world today is in Germany. Germany! Put that in your Zionist pipe and smoke it! Can we just carry on? When there is compelling historical evidence, the narrative is undermined. Yet within the best, most exotic stories, and the Jewish story is certainly that, there is the power to rebuild, to reconstruct, to add and to change.

This Shavuot the festive celebration of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, I would like to remind myself that we would do well both to remember and to forget. Berl Katznelson taught us that: ‘Were only memory to exist, then we would be crushed under its burden…And were we ruled entirely by forgetfulness, what place would there be for culture, science, self-consciousness and spiritual life?’ Human beings are really good at both remembering and forgetting, although we sometimes get confused as to what should be in which category.

Eric Hobsbawm taught us that the ‘authentic’ Scottish kilt, which we suspect is an ancient tradition, only achieved widespread use as a result of an enterprising English businessman in the eighteenth century. This should give us heart. We can rewrite the lachrymose view of history, that Jewish life is an ongoing tale of woe, into a creative narrative that gives purpose for the future. The key property will be truth-likeness, rather than truth as the historical record, and its promise is that a people can rebuild and invite us into an ongoing conversation of the many and varied stories that we will create.

Our tradition teaches us that we were all present at Mount Sinai for the receiving of the Torah, those of us then and all those yet to be born, which means us. A few years ago, in a heated debate in the Israeli Knesset the interlocutors pressed their respective claims with reference to the Torah. One secular member retorted to a dismissive claim of her right to quote Torah by declaring: “I too was present at Mount Sinai.” And she continued, “even if it never happened”. Chag Shavuot Sameach.


Jonny Ariel directs Makom – the Israel Education Lab of the Jewish Agency

VIDEO – Yonatan Ariel – The Jewish Guide to Plate-Spinning


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As his JDOV talk, Yonatan Ariel presents his approach to Jewish Plate-spinning.

How can I be an individual and part of a collective? What makes a Jewish person part of the Jewish People?


Rami: The Magician of Two Disparate Landscapes.

June 24, 2015 by

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Yonatan Ariel, Executive Director of Makom, gave this eulogy at the Global Jewish Forum of the Jewish Agency for Israel on Wednesday morning, June 24th 2015. It has been a year since Rami passed.


Rami Wernik passed away last Erev Shabbat from cancer. He was 46 years old. He served as the North American Director of Makom and was a dear friend and colleague.


Rami is the son of Rabbi Joe and Miriam Wernik – with Joe known to many here, as he served on this Board for numerous years. Rami leaves them, his sister Idit, his wife Kim and his two children Zohar and Dvir to whom he gave his all.  And an astonishing array of friends, colleagues and admirers, including his children’s mother, stellar Jewish educators on three continents, and an avalanche of students touched by his gentle and stunningly modest spirit.

We would like to dedicate this Global Jewish Forum to Rami’s memory – here’s why.

Rami – I tried, and failed, to get you to work with me at Melitz. But I kept my eyes on the prize. When we met up again whilst you were a Mandel Jerusalem Fellow we had a series of rolling conversations about life, the Jews, education and the world. You have been a charming partner ever since. The exquisite devotion you pay to your thoughts before they emerge as words, the compelling and inviting attention that you offer to any conversant, and the rigor with which you challenge ideas before you take them inside are just wonders to behold.

Avraham, our patriarch, was a revolutionary, smashing the idols of his time. In our day, when in the midst of the blogosphere and the twitterverse we are stifled and suffocated by the clamour to make a deafening noise, and more-so in strident tones, then discreet, charming Rami stood out as a superb listener. He gave the most generous reading possible of any poorly expressed thought, gently enabling the other to be at their best, not trashing them for being their worst. Avraham Wernik, like his namesake, was a revolutionary for our times too.

So when you came to work at Makom, my heart thrilled. The purposefulness, the resolve to succeed in an honest way, and the spirit of fun and adventure that you displayed was magical.

For years I have called you by a nickname: Rambo. It always struck me as a delicious and judicious choice because of its incongruity. Rambo is the bulked up, physically aggressive drifter, lunging and wandering hopelessly. Contrast that with you as the smart, sensitive, handsome caring man with loyal anchors in so many areas of your rich life. Yet the determination with which you chose Jewish education as your profession and your knowledge, passion and skills for philosophy and its applications to real life is what it takes to be an elite craftsman in the education ‘A’ team. You prepared meticulously, designed passionately, and interacted delicately – with an abundance of care for your pedigree, your peers, and your participants. What an honor to be with such gifts.

Rami was the quintessential value-driven educator committed to and loving Israel and the Jewish People.

He was a true bi-lingual, bi-cultural talent. He spoke Jewish and Western with gusto. He grew up in Israel and having survived Hodgkins disease he was educated both in the US (JTS-Columbia, Harvard and Stanford and as a Wexner Fellow), and in Israel (Hebrew University and as a Mandel Jerusalem Fellow). He was a wonderful professional and an influential figure at Melitz, Mercaz Herzl, Camp Ramah, the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in California, the American Jewish University and has for the last several years directed Makom’s programs in North America, travelling the continent to cultivate and teach the embodiment of Klal Yisrael.

Leah Goldberg captures Rami’s bi-focal commitment in her poem Oren – Pine. The last two verses read:

אולי רק ציפורי-מסע יודעות
כשהן תלויות בין ארץ ושמיים
את זה הכאב של שתי המולדות.

אתכם אני נשתלתי פעמיים,
אתכם אני צמחתי, אורנים,
ושרשיי בשני נופים שונים

Perhaps only migrating birds know –
suspended between earth and sky –
the heartache of two homelands.

With you I was transplanted twice, oh my pine trees
with you, I branched into myself and grew –
And so my roots are in two disparate landscapes.


As Jon Levisohn his friend and co-conspirator in philosophy of Jewish education wrote:

“Rami was kind, compassionate, honest, funny, and so smart. Never naive, but never a cynic. If you ever had a conversation with him about Israel, you know what it sounds like to care so deeply that your critique is, genuinely, self-critique... He radiated warmth and kindness. He’s the kind of person who deflated ego just by his presence.”

Our tradition teaches us:

עשה לך רב, וקנה לך חבר, והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות

(משנה, מסכת אבות, פרק א’, משנה ו’).

Find a teacher and acquire a friend, and judge each person with merit.

My experience with Rami was that the order was reversed. First you found a friend, and then slowly, elegantly, he would peel the layers of his wisdom and offer them graciously for your consideration.

This is the distilled essence of what I have learned from Rami:

  1. Care and be curious about generations – those before you, those alongside you, and those after you.
  2. Practice listening, and learn how to disagree without being disagreeable. Let your ears trump your mouth.
  3. Think before you speak. Think fast, but think first.
  4. Find work that you believe in, that you can devote your whole self to.
  5. Eat nuts, fruit and dark chocolate every day.
  6. Make and nurture wise, happy and caring friends.

And that is why this Global Jewish Forum is dedicated to Rami z”l.

With tears in our hearts we remember a gifted educator, a deep thinker, a great team member and an all-round mensch. We are all going to sense the palpable absence of his warmth, intelligence, and moral compass. We will miss him terribly. With every good wish for the journey onwards.

יהי זכרו ברוך May his memory be for a blessing.


We, The People of Israel

December 1, 2011 by

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Recent contributors have raised the nature of the challenge for Israel education at this time. For the last several years Makom, among others, has been raising the call for this kind of conversation.

Sometimes it has felt as though we were blowing a shepherd’s flute in the midst of a rock concert. Yet slowly, slowly there are the outlines of an academic field (kudos to the Schusterman Foundation), and various kinds of educational inquiry and practice (with Makom, Center for Israel Education, the iCenter, the Melton Centre for Jewish Education and the Hartman Institute Engaging Israel project). To Full Post

Windy Places


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Jewish Travel to Israel has a long and potent history. “Windy Places” makes the case for a burst of creativity to be brought to bear on the field to ensure that the itineraries and experiences are appropriate for both Israel and Jewish identity as they have emerged in today’s complex world. This article appeared in “MASA – Time for a Journey” (JAFI 2006).

Click here for downloadable pdf.

Herzl to Herzliya


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“From Herzl to Herzliya” seeks to analyze the need for a new direction in Israel Education. It suggests that there is a profound shift in the Jewish People’s circumstances brought about by some remarkable successes in the last two generations. It argues that Israel education should be built as a sub-field of Jewish education, with significant possibilities for engagement that we have yet to explore.

Click here for downloadable pdf.

Creativity in Coalition


Creativity in Coalition suggests that to build momentum for change in Israel education requires bringing diverse people with varied strengths together. It advocates the kinds of skills and attributes useful for the coalition to succeed and highlights the emotional challenge of change in this arena. This presentation was originally given at a MAKOM network meeting.

Click here for the downloadable pdf.

Where I was the night Rabin was assassinated

October 20, 2010 by

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That Saturday night, I was preparing to leave for a work trip to the USA. I honored a long cherished promise to my two boys and took them to eat their first Big Mac, as the Kosher franchise in Mevasseret had opened to much fanfare. We came home, I tipped them into bed – happy fellows.

Amidst the half-packed suitcase my wife and I started to watch the movie Crocodile Dundee, for some brain-free entertainment. And then the ticker-tape rolled across the screen declaring a breaking news flash. The next few hours were a blur. The intense gathering of minute details of what had happened mixed with periods of shock so deep that I was sinking into a void, interrupted by calls from overseas from family, friends and the British media wanting instant comment and mature reflection. How plausible is that?

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Content-filled Conversations

June 11, 2010 by

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How do we make the Jewish journey compelling? I believe we need to reconfigure the art of Jewish conversation. We need to encourage exploratory, open conversation aimed at strengthening and deepening the foundations of one’s connections to Judaism in the world. For me one of the great treasures of conversation is the unexpected. Not the outrageous, nor the gaudy, but the comment that is the produce of a fertile mind absorbed in the messiness of reality. A sharp observation enriches me – even as I weigh its efficacy.

Between whom should these conversations be taking place? And about what? There is a famous description in Jewish tradition of two types of relationship that people have: between humans and God (Bein Adam l’Makom), and between humans and their fellows (Bein Adam l’Chavero). I want to add to these, three other types of relationship that should be at the heart of the conversation at these times.

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MAKOM’s response to Jay Michaelson

October 12, 2009 by

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Jay Michaelson wrote in these pages of his declining love for Israel. He referred to an approach of MAKOM – the Israel Engagement Network – when he described his fatigue with “hugging and wrestling”. Due to the intractable political conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and the rightward and orthodox drift of the population, he feels exhausted.

When I reflect on the admirable candor Jay showed in bringing his soul-searching on Israel to a public forum, I am struck by how rare it is: An engaged Jew acknowledging the sometimes painful complexity of an honest relationship with Israel. It would seem that Jay’s exhaustion, and that of others like him, emerges from this isolation.

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