Service-Learning, Myths, and Israel

In addition to my fellowship through the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellowship, I am also currently serving as a fellow with the iCenter for Israel Education. I am a fellow with their Master’s Concentration in Israel Studies program, in which students enrolled in a master’s level program in some facet of Jewish education can receive extra instruction and mentorship regarding how to teach about Israel. My experience with the iCenter along with my Jewish Foundation Fellowship and conversations with my brother who directs a service-learning program in Israel have all caused me to reflect a bit on service-learning as a model for teaching about Israel.

As I prepare for an upcoming iCenter seminar, the staff there has asked each participant to create a short presentation answering a certain question. I have chosen to answer the question of what story I believe every student learning about Israel should hear. Jewish education often involves telling stories, and there are many common stories about Israel that are repeated in many religious school textbooks and told on every youth trip to Israel. Many of these stories are appearing in my thesis research right now, as I am currently reading about the building of Israeli collective memory as it relates to my thesis topic, martyrdom. Unfortunately, when held to the critical light of scholarship, many of these stories fall apart. Among the great martyrdom stories in the Israeli consciousness, for example, is the story of the heroic martyrs of Masada and their leader, Eliezer ben Yair. Yet increasingly scholars believe that the story was either fabricated, exaggerated, or misinterpreted. Our main source for reading the story, for example, is Josephus, who may have actually been criticizing the zealots atop Masada rather than valorizing a group of martyrs. The story of Masada is now often referred to as a “myth” because its role in nationalist and political discourse has distanced the story from the actual historical event. So what do we do, I find myself asking, when the stories that we teach students fall apart? I have seen too often students who learned these stories as children and later see the stories broken apart under the light of critical inquiry. Too often these students feel lied to and cheated by their educators and grow concerned that anything we say about Israel is suspect and biased.

Service-learning, it seems to me, is a way out of this conundrum. Service-learning allows students to create their own stories. These stories may not be as grand and heroic as the story of Eliezer ben Yair or Joseph Trumpeldor, but because they are personal stories they mean even more to each of us. Every year when I lead a Passover seder, I tell a personal story about the seder I attended while living in Israel. I went to my cousins’ house in Ramat Gan, where one of my cousins had invited the man who cleans his workplace each week. The man was a refugee from the Ivory Coast, living illegally in Israel. At dinner, he told us that he was quite envious of our holiday. When we asked why, he mentioned that when growing up in the Ivory Coast, he never learned his own history. He learned only French history, about kings and queens who lived far away and did not look like him. We get to sit down each year on Passover, he said, and talk about our history and how it makes us who we are.

The story is incredibly powerful in my mind, and if I am doing my job as an educator, it can also be a powerful teaching tool. The story will never fall apart because it is personal and not mythological. The service part of service-learning helps to remove some of the mythology from learning. When teaching about a subject like Israel so filled with mythology, it seems especially important to provide learning opportunities grounded firmly in reality. Service-learning is an excellent model for doing just this. Mythology and storytelling most certainly have a place in education, but it ought to be balanced with real world experience. I hope that my work at my fellowships at the iCenter and at the Bruggeman Center can teach me how to strike this balance as I develop into a rabbi and a teacher.

Josh Herman

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