Educators learn to teach about Israel

Educators learn to teach about Israel

An innovative graduate program focuses on that country’s complexities

Assaf Galin, left, Ilana Picker, and Avi Siegel
Assaf Galin, left, Ilana Picker, and Avi Siegel

“Now more than ever, Israel educators need the confidence, knowledge, and expert educational approaches to engage learners in all of Israel’s complexities,” Erika Vogel said. Ms. Vogel is the graduate degree program director of the Illinois-based iCenter for Israel Education.

In September, 21 professionals from Jewish federations, foundations, advocacy and social-justice organizations, day and supplementary schools, Israel travel programs, experiential education institutions, Jewish camps, and Hillel International and campus Hillel chapters in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Israel began the sixth cohort of this unique academic program, which has matriculated more than 130 Jewish professionals so far.

The joint initiative with George Washington University culminates in a graduate certificate that can be leveraged toward an optional second-year master’s degree. Eighteen students from Cohort 5 chose to begin that second year.

Although the students knew when they began that Israel was undergoing political turmoil, they could not have known that only a month into their studies, Israel would experience one of the most catastrophic events in its history.

In fact, one member of Cohort 6 — Assaf Galin, who’d just returned to Israel after two years living in Cresskill while serving as the emissary for the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement — had to suspend his studies after the first month because he was called up to reserve duty. He ended up serving for 114 days.

“I started the program but due to the war decided to postpone it to next year,” he said.

He learned about the graduate curriculum last year at the iCenter’s iCON conference, the largest gathering of Israel educators in North America.

“As a Jewish educator, I was really interested,” Mr. Galin said. “Now I am teaching in a high school in Israel, but if I ever want to grow my influence in the Jewish diaspora, it’s a great way to expand my knowledge.”

Avi Siegel of Maplewood, director of Teen Initiatives at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, is another member of Cohort 6.

“Most of us working in Jewish communal professions got our degrees in education, psychology, or Jewish studies,” he said. “The idea of Israel as a degree was a field I didn’t know one could pursue.

“GWU and the iCenter realized that in order to train the next generation of leaders for Israel and America, a program of this type is needed. I was able to step into an echelon of academic learning supporting the informational training and exercises in development that I’ve done on my own.”

Mr. Siegel, 35, said he has been gratified to learn from “some of the greatest minds in the field,” such as Professor Barry Chazan, a pioneer in the field of Jewish education and the founding international director of education at Taglit-Birthright Israel; Dr. Rachel Fish, cofounder of Boundless Israel and former executive director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University; and Professor Benjamin Jacobs, who has spent most of his career preparing social studies teachers and Jewish educators for school and non-school settings, and consulting with Jewish education agencies on curriculum, teaching, and research.

Mr. Siegel added that tackling assignments and project-based learning with his cohort is enriching, as it encompasses professionals from other parts of the world and other types of communities, including a teacher in a non-Jewish public special-needs school.

“I’m thankful to sit around the table with people who have vastly different constituents and experiences than I do,” he said. “It’s not an echo chamber. This has made the program feel like I’m expanding my world of Jewish education. I no longer feel my language and ability to educate comes only from experiential knowledge.”

The cohort meets weekly for classes over Zoom, quarterly in person, once at the iCenter and once at GWU; they’ll also attend a summer seminar in Israel.

Mr. Siegel said he especially enjoys delving into primary sources and exploring topics such as the Six-Day War and how the philanthropic relationship between Israel and the diaspora changed between 1948 and 1967.

At the end of a semester-long class on how Israel is experienced, each cohort member was asked to write a blog post that could be submitted to an online publication describing a potentially transformative moment in an Israel trip.

“I tried to reimagine the power of the Kotel and what we do in that moment and how we stay in that moment,” Mr. Siegel said. He made his first trip to Israel at 18 and has visited once or twice every year since.

“Israel should be part of academia and get as much interest and attention as culinary arts, physics, or poetry,” he said.

Ilana Picker of Fort Lee, the associate director of Teen Immersive Israel programs at the Union for Reform Judaism, is one of the Cohort 5 students continuing their education toward a master’s degree.

“The decision to participate in this program stemmed from my connection with and passion for Israel but also as a next step to grow both personally and professionally,” she said.

“As a member of the professional team for Yallah! Israel, URJ’s high school Israel summer program, I wanted to gain the tools to help our learners foster understanding and deepen engagement with Israel.”

Ms. Picker said that after working for almost 10 years in the Jewish nonprofit world, focused on programs in Israel, “the iCenter/GW program offered a unique blend of academic rigor and practical experience, making it an ideal fit for my professional goals. But being able to engage with a diverse cohort of peers and learn from lead experts in the field of Israel education has been the most meaningful part of this journey.”

The program has allowed her “to explore deeper into Israel’s multiple narratives and given me the tools to teach and talk about Israel in a meaningful and authentic way. What I have learned over the past two years is something I will take with me for the rest of my life.”

Specifically, Ms. Picker said, “the program has taught us how to integrate critical pedagogy into Israel education. There is an important focus on how the educator can empower learners to critically engage with diverse perspectives, challenge assumptions, confront biases, and navigate complex historical and contemporary issues related to Israel. I have since been able to implement these learnings in my current role.”

She has also learned that “effective educators must be attuned to the diverse needs, backgrounds, and experiences of their learners and be willing to adapt their instructional strategies accordingly. The field of Israel education requires continuous reflection, adaptation, and refinement to ensure meaningful engagement and learning outcomes, and I now have the tools to do so.”

Another key insight from the program, she added, “is the significance of community building and dialogue in Israel education. I’ve come to understand that meaningful engagement with Israel is inherently relational. By creating safe and inclusive spaces for conversation, reflection, and debate, I’ve learned to cultivate a sense of belonging and mutual respect within educational settings.”

Ms. Picker said that the events of October 7 “changed our lives forever. So many things in my professional world became unknown. However, this program allowed us a safe space to process everything going on.

“I am so unbelievably grateful to have had this cohort during this time. We were all able to lean on each other knowing we were going through similar things both professionally and personally. It has allowed for many important conversations and opportunities to implement what we have learned over the past two years during these unprecedented times.”

More information about the Graduate Degree in Israel Education, which receives financial support from the Marcus Foundation, is available at

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