What is Real Talk and who is it for?
Real Talk is a resource for facilitators working with a group of Jewish leaders, in order to help them think differently about how Israel engagement happens in their particular context. It will be appropriate for use with a wide variety of audiences and settings, including, but not solely: lay leaders of Federation committees or Synagogue boards with Israel remits; day school faculty who want to think about the place of Israel in their curriculum; groups of rabbis coming together for in-service professional development study; or even student activists who want to revitalize their Hillel. While not a curriculum per se, it offers a narrative description of how these sessions were successfully run by one particular individual. From this record or documentation, it is hoped that the reader will be able to internalize the ideas and methods of the unit, and adopt or adapt them as needed for his or her own context. The guide can be followed rigorously and exactly, to try to recreate the precise moves described, or it can be used more as a resource or idea base which can be massaged, customized, and added to for different contexts, as appropriate.
Why do we need to Change the Way we do Israel Engagement?
Many Jews, especially those who have not visited Israel, are caught between the Scylla of negativity and the Charybdis of myth. The Scylla is the plethora of negative received images about Israel that the average Jew sees and hears every day: Israel is perceived as a place that is extremely dangerous; at constant war; responsible for aggressive actions against the Palestinians that are difficult if not impossible to understand; a place with a severe poverty problem; a country whose inhabitants live in personal situations that are to be pitied. On the other hand, the Charybdis – the mythic view of Israel that certain elements of the Jewish community seek, consciously or not, to perpetuate – perceives Israel as a heroic nation; a Davey Crocket fighting off the Mexicans; with the strongest army in the world; a place of incredible high-tech achievements and intellectual brilliance; a place where oranges grow in the desert and Microsoft turns to for its best ideas.
Both of these perspectives, of course, contain elements of truth, but are, for the most part, quite distorted pictures of a more complex and nuanced reality. But from an educational perspective, lack of “accuracy” is just one problem. Perhaps even more worrisome is the fact that these images of Israel have extremely problematic educational implications. Firstly, the overload of negative images creates enormous barriers that Israel educators have to overcome. Who would want to visit a war-torn, poverty-stricken place like that? Who would want to have a relationship with it? You might feel sorry for it, but would you want to “engage” with it? Secondly, the “antidote,” while an important component of Zionist identity for a certain older generation, is often seen as suspect by many young Jews. Who can blame them? If highly respected media outlets tell you one thing, and the local Jewish paper tells you another, who are you likely to believe? Thirdly, the Jewish community itself is caught in a confused tension with its messages. On the one hand we want to raise money for Israel, and it’s perhaps easiest to do so by peddling the “poverty” image. On the other hand, we also want to attract our best and brightest young people to visit Israel and engage with it, so we also send out the “Microsoft” messages. Mixed messages such as these are not conducive to educational success.
How, then, do we get Jewish leaders of all varieties to think differently about Israel engagement? How do we break ourselves out of our old paradigms and expose ourselves to the new ideas about Israel engagement with which MAKOM seeks to imbue the world Jewish community? And how do we do this quickly and efficiently, both respecting our audience’s past and present service to the Jewish community, and also inspiring them to re-envision what their future service might look like?
This mini-curriculum of three sessions is a response to these difficult and complex challenges. These sessions were held (in a slightly different format) with a group of lay leaders from the Jewish Federation of Metrowest New Jersey in fall-winter 2005-6, and with a group of synagogue lay leaders, also from the Metrowest area, in fall-winter 2006-7.
The central educational and political challenge in running such sessions is that, by definition, these will usually focus critically on the kinds of ideas and modes of action that the participants have been creating, working in, and committed to, for several years. However, one cannot simply walk in and say, “What you have been doing until now is wrong”. Rather, the educational challenge is to create stimuli that will lead to the participants arriving at certain realizations on their own. Only then will they truly buy into the MAKOM vision because only then will it truly be theirs.
John Dewey, in The Child and The Curriculum, wrote that education is not about letting the learners do whatever they want, nor about merely presenting learners with facts as a “hieroglyphs”. Rather, it is about starting with the learners and finding ways to have them move themselves to the established ideas of the curriculum. That is precisely the challenge in these three sessions.
Note to the Facilitator:
In what follows, I will attempt to walk you through the sessions as I ran them. Again, please note that this is not a curriculum, but a narrative description of what I did, and what my goals were in doing it. Much of what you will read below consists of my own idiosyncrasies and teaching “shtick,” which is unique to me and no better or worse than your own tried and trusted methods and styles. The aim is not to have you copy me; it’s to give you a sense of what I did, in the hope that you will be able to adapt it as necessary for your own personal style. Handouts referred to in the text below can be found in the Appendix at the end of this leader’s guide.