Few subjects in Jewish life today evoke as much controversy – and anxiety – as the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. So when we decided to offer the Hartman Institute’s “iEngage” video curriculum, “Jewish Values and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” in our Adult Education program at Temple Israel of Natick, I wasn’t quite sure how it would go.
Every summer the Hartman Institute brings hundreds of Rabbis and lay leaders from across all denominations to Jerusalem to tackle the core issues of Israeli-Diaspora life. Through iEngage, its acclaimed series of Adult Education Video curricula, the Hartman team, led by Rabbi Donniel Hartman and some of the world’s leading Jewish and Israeli scholars and thinkers, brings the conversation into American synagogues, community centers and other settings. iEngage invites participants to an open and pluralistic discussion about issues of Jewish identity, peoplehood, ethics, and theology, as they relate to nationhood, land, sovereignty, Jerusalem, occupation, and moral red lines.
At first, people were skeptical: Yes, there was a live facilitator (me), but who really wanted to be lectured to by talking heads on a video? After a couple of sessions, however, word began to get around: 1. The teachers were amazing and the production value of the videos were high. 2. Each class had an opportunity for text study in hevruta (pairs or small groups), and lots of class discussion. 3. Most important, this was a safe space, where all points of view were explored and respected. We learned from each other, and from the Hartman scholars on video whom, surprisingly, we felt like we had gotten to know personally.
For three months, our double classroom was filled every Wednesday night to capacity. We listened to voices and studied texts that spanned the Israeli political spectrum. The goal of the class was to bring to light the Jewish values that underlie each of those positons, even those that some people in the class considered beyond the pale. Slowly, we let go of the need to change anyone’s mind, and were more willing to understand the values of those with whom we seriously disagree. My students appreciate both the scholarship and the ideological openness of the Hartman Institute’s curricula. The Hartman Institute’s not-so-hidden agenda is not to push one ideology over another. Rather, it is to explore and support what we have in common in the context of complex political, religious and historical realities. In one student’s words, “It’s as if we’ve opened up a window in the ideological echo-chamber I so often get caught up in, and let in some fresh air.”
This spring, I look forward to bringing this breath of fresh air to participants in Open Circle Jewish Learning’s iEngage class. This year’s theme, “Israel’s Milestones and their Meanings,” explores the pivotal events of 1947 and 1967 – following the 1917 Balfour Declaration – as key moments when Zionism unleashed new thinking about the meaning of Jewishness for generations to come. I hope you will join me at Hebrew College this spring to start the conversation!
iEngage: Israel’s Milestones and Their Meanings
Rabbi Dan Liben
Hebrew College, Newton Centre
Mondays, 7:30-9:00 p.m.
March 12, 19, 26, April 9, 16, 30, May 7, 14