From the Professional Staff

In Our Backyard: Israel Education Flourishing in the Bay Area

By Dawne Bear Novicoff on September 19th, 2014

As a mother of two school-aged children, a Jewish foundation professional working in the area of Israel Education, and lover of Israel, this summer’s situation in Israel created many reasons to worry. I worried for friends and family, soldiers and citizens, and victims on all sides. I worried for college students and Hillel professionals preparing to re-populate college campuses across the country. I also worried for my kids—born and raised in San Francisco—who have not yet visited Israel and clearly found the events confusing and scary.

Judaic Studies Principal Dan Finkel’s guest blog earlier this month shared how his Bay Area day school—a member of the Jewish LearningWorks BASIS Israel Education Day School Project—is supporting educators to help students process and discuss the summer’s events.  Educators in our community and across the country recognize that this is actually an opportunity, a starting point, for learners to have meaningful and deep ongoing connections with Israel. For the Jim Joseph Foundation—which holds as a core value to support organizations that instill in youth, teens, and young adults a strong connection to Israel—this prospect is exciting.

Foundation executive director Chip Edelsberg recently discussed Foundation investments in major Israel education institutions and initiatives, such as the Birthright Israel Foundation and the iCenter. In different ways, these organizations help individuals build personally meaningful connections to Israel. These investments—national in scope—are integral to the Foundation’s strategic goals.

At the same time, there are a number of successful Foundation-supported Israel education initiatives close to home, in the San Francisco Bay Area. They too are exciting, and it’s worth examining how a congruence of initiatives can lead to significant change for a specific region.

First, the Bay Area-focused initiatives place Israel as a central component of Jewish life in a region that has lacked this historically. The Bay Area’s creativity is world renown and Israel education can be part of the innovation, and even risk-taking, which defines this area.

Second, the local initiatives as a whole offer numerous opportunities to “opt-in” at different stages of life. Youth, college students, and young adults now engage in a range of Israel experiences, many of which didn’t exist a few years ago. In fact, a child born in the Bay Area today can experience meaningful Israel education throughout the formative years.

As one example, students at the eleven Bay Area BASIS day schools learn about and experience Israel in entirely different ways than prior to 2008, when the initiative launched. Before then, at many Bay Area day schools, Israel education was limited and even disconnected from other aspects of the learning experience.

Dan Finkel shared insights showing how this approach has changed. BASIS helped school’s integrate Israel education into the whole school experience and place it at the core of their community and culture. By showcasing Israel’s arts and culture, twinning with schools in Israel, traveling to Israel, and aligning Israel education with learning in general studies courses, BASIS put students and teachers in direct contact with Israel. Today, as Dan and others can attest, these schools continue to embrace Israel education as a vibrant, whole school experience.

Another significant change in the region occurred in 2011 at UC Berkeley. That year, the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israeli Law, Economy and Society launched, creating new opportunities in Israel education for the entire community. Now known as the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies, the Institute hosts guest speakers, visiting scholars, and Israel Studies Colloquia, all to explore Israel from a range of perspectives and topics.

While the community at large benefits, Berkeley students specifically can engage in serious Israel education at a premier university. There are more course offerings exploring Israel, more research opportunities, more Israel study abroad opportunities, and more mentorship opportunities because of the Institute.

Finally, the Foundation continues to focus on the post-college years for young Jewish adults. Investments in Birthright and NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation have helped shape the Jewish journeys of tens of thousands of young Jewish adults—and in making Israel a part of that journey.

Two grants approved last fall launched an innovative pilot program between the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties and NEXT. Known as the JCF-NEXT Birthright Experience Pilot, the initiative is designed to maximize the Birthright experience through pre- and post-trip Jewish engagement and community building in the Bay Area. While in its early phase, the pilot will help Bay Area young Jewish adults connect to each other and build on the connection often sparked by Birthright trips.

Like many foundations, the Jim Joseph Foundation is examining its strategy for Israel education and engagement. The increase in Israel education opportunities in the Bay Area shows the possibilities when multiple, effective grantee partners operate in one region, each targeting different age-groups. We are closely watching these investments and others in the context of the summer’s events. From national initiatives to local pilot projects, the Foundation continues to pursue a vision of vibrant Jewish life in communities across the country, with Israel as an integral part of it.

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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.