From the Executive Director

Israel Education and Engagement: The Evolution of a Field

By Chip Edelsberg on June 10th, 2014

Periodically in this column I take stock of Jim Joseph Foundation philanthropy dedicated to Israel education. I do so because the Foundation from its inception committed to fund Israel education as essential to the character of Jewish education the Foundation seeks to support and develop.

Over the years, the Foundation’s investment in Israel education has steadily grown. The current portfolio of grants includes investments in Brandeis University’s Summer Institute for Israel Studies; UC Berkeley’s Institute for Jewish Law and Israeli Law, Economy and Society; and the recently established Israel Institute. The Foundation is a major supporter of Birthright and NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation. The Foundation’s $31,025,000 of funding for these two entities has benefited literally thousands of young adults, through meaningful experiences in Israel and post-trip Israel-related engagement activities that help to shape Birthrighters’ Jewish journeys.

Educators’ learning that occurs in Israel through the Foundation’s funding of the Hebrew Union College’s and Jewish Theological Seminary’s Jewish Early Childhood Education Leadership Institute (JECELI) is a highlight of this inter-institutional program. The Jewish Theological Seminary’s Kesher Hadash, also funded by the Foundation, provides critical professional development for Jewish educators. For the Foundation, these grants represent strategic philanthropy: investing in immersive Israel education for individuals who we believe will inspire others – colleagues, peers, and students whom they teach – to explore making Israel integral to their Jewishness.

Perhaps most significant among the Foundation’s Israel education investments is its funding of the iCenter. Now in its 6th year, the iCenter is enabling a measurably increasing number of educators to cultivate a common language, understanding, and repertoire of skills in offering vital Israel education and Israel engagement experiences. (Our partner in the iCenter’s creation is the Schusterman Family Foundation, which has provided invaluable resources to bolster the iCenter in every aspect of its work.)

Last month, more than 250 individuals, including graduate students from seven institutions of higher education and Jewish summer camp personnel from across the country, convened at two separate iCenter-facilitated seminars. The graduate students who gathered in Chicago are participants in the iCenter’s Master’s Concentration in Israel Education. This program certifies individuals – iFellows – as Israel educators in groundbreaking institutional collaboration across 11 denominationally diverse campuses. Talented students in programs of Jewish education, communal service, and rabbinic training deepen their understanding of Israel education and are equipped with tools, resources and networks to be effective in their teaching and to grow the field. The program integrates rigorous academic study, ongoing mentorship, learning opportunities in Israel, and creation of a final Israel education project.

I was fortunate to be at this most recent convening to see the graduation of the third cohort and induction of the fourth cohort into the program. Students engaged directly and passionately with leading experts in the field. The educators shared their own ideas for dynamic Israel engagement. As one iFellow commented, “We often live in ‘our side of the world.’ It’s amazing to sit around the room with people from different academies of our time. To be able to come together with a group of people to invent the future of it together is very powerful.”

At the same time as the Master’s Concentration seminar, the iCenter also facilitated a seminar for the Goodman Camping Initiative for Modern Israel History. Run jointly with the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), this initiative equips camp staff to integrate Israel and Israel education throughout the entire, immersive camp experience. Now in its third cohort, the two-year program provides camps with customizable Israel education curriculum resources, staff training, and ongoing mentorship throughout the year. The more than 170 college students and camp staff who participated in the seminar now consider themselves to be Israel educators. The collaboration between the iCenter and FJC is the first-ever program that connects independent Jewish summer camps around Israel.

Jamie Klein of Camp Daisy and Harry Stein shared her thoughts about the initiative:

The Goodman Camping Initiative taught us that Israeli education and culture can be implemented all over our camp, from the Art Shack to the ropes courses, and even inside the cabins. As Goodman Fellows, we were able to organize activities and collaborate with Fellows from other camps to practice our ideas and learn from each other. Aside from gaining experience in planning meaningful programs, we also learned how to facilitate these programs so that campers are able to form their own personal connections to Israel rather than being told what information to know.

By funding these various initiatives and programs, the Jim Joseph Foundation is incrementally helping to institutionalize Israel education in training programs for professional educators and embedding substantive Israel education in a cross-section of settings. This two-pronged strategy results annually in thousands of Jewish teens and young adults experiencing meaningful Israel education and engagement. A bona fide field of Israel education is emerging. We hope you will join us in accelerating the field’s growth.

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The Jim Joseph Foundation invests in promising Jewish education grant initiatives. We partner with effective organizations that seek to inspire young people to discover the joy of living vibrant Jewish lives.