By Rabbi David Wilfond, Director of Education
It is winter now in Jerusalem and we are just a few days away from Hanukkah. Hanukkah was born in Jerusalem. It was a victory celebration of a minority people whose culture had been outlawed by the tyranny of the majority. The Hebrew word Hanukkah is connected to the Hebrew word for Hinuch “Education.” Hinuch (Jewish Education) celebrates diversity – the right to be one’s self, to learn about one’s culture and the right to build caring communities dedicated to ethics and morality despite current fashions that might be otherwise. The Jewish mitzvah of education is like Hanukkah in that we bring the learner through a process (step by step, candle by candle) of enlightenment. The learner acquires skills to help them increase the spiritual light of hope and fairness, and to kindle that spark in others to spread light throughout the world.
At NFTY in Israel, our education team is housed in the holy and ancient city of Jerusalem, (on the Campus of Hebrew Union College, the premier institution of Higher Learning in the Reform Jewish World). The Jerusalem Hanukkah spirit is a guiding light for the Hinuch, the Educational Spirit of NFTY in Israel.
In January, we will open the “2019 NFTY Israel Educators Course.” The way we train our Educators (Mechanchim) is truly one of the outstanding features of our NFTY in Israel summer program. In the world of “Israel Education for Teens,” it is very desirable and competitive to land a position with NFTY in Israel. We are in the enviable position of being able to select the best of the very best teen educators. Each of our educators have years of experience in informal teen education. Our educators are usually in their mid-20’s, which gives them understanding into the contemporary teen culture, while allowing them to be inspiring role models of cool Jews committed to building an exciting and creative future for the Jewish Community.
The NFTY in Israel Mechanchim Course extends over five months meeting Thursday nights in the classroom and then field trips on Fridays to learn how to guide teens through Israel’s most evocative sites. While Thursdays are dedicated to learning Educational Methodology, Pedagogy and “Best Practices” of Informal Education, Fridays the educators-in-training get to hone their skills while practicing “in the field.” The course curriculum follows the summer itinerary, in the sequence of the chronology of the Jewish Narrative. What the leaders learn during these five months, the participants live in five weeks. The idea is for the participants to be able to live the story of the Jewish people, so by the end of the program they will be able to say, “It’s not history, but my story.”
Our NFTY in Israel Mechanchim are trained to present a nuanced perspective of Israeli society. We are not trying to impose a political agenda upon our participants. We are trying to teach them to be critical thinkers and to figure out what questions to ask that reflect Reform Jewish Values. Israel today is a complicated, fascinating and compelling place. We have found teens can better understand the subtleties and challenges of contemporary Israeli society, if they better understand the history that state of Israel emerges out of and is a response to. Our educators bring our teens to engage for themselves with Palestinians, Israel Arabs, Druze, Bedouin, Israeli Ultra-Orthodox Jews (Haredim), Jewish Nationalists, Jewish Culturalists, and Israeli Reform Jews. The goal is to expose our teens to the diversity and pluralism of Israeli society today.
Others have asked us, “Instead of training your own Israel Educators, why not just hire Tour Guides?” Our answer is we have found teens respond better and are significantly more inspired by Israel Educators who are experts in informal education for teens. Our Educators don’t teach sites, they teach teens. The sites are merely a trigger for deeper conversations about issues relevant in the life and choices of our Jewish teens. Our Educators know how to make education active and fun, so the teens never feel like they are “in school,” but feel like they are being challenged to think critically and form their own opinions about exciting and relevant issues. Reform Jewish Values infuse the culture of our discussions and questions. Our Educators are not merely guides, they are mentors and Reform Jewish role models.
So, as we kindle the lights of Hanukkah, in Jerusalem at NFTY in Israel, our thoughts are turned to Hinuch (Jewish Education). May we all be blessed with a Hanukkah season filled with light and inspiring educational experiences in the spirit of Reform Judaism.