Covid-19 has hit us all very hard. For us at AMHSI, we have been forced to cut short and cancel our teaching sessions of the Spring and Summer Sessions, and I find myself with time to really reflect.
One thing that I have realised is that this summer I will be celebrating my fifth year teaching at AMHSI - my Muss-iversary! Before I joined the school, I didn’t really know much about Muss and the educational work that was done here. It was also my first experience formally teaching Jewish American high school students. I remember sitting in the first lessons in the summer of 2015, when I was training to be a teacher, thinking to myself how much I needed to learn to be a teacher at AMHSI!
Since then I have had the most meaningful five years of my professional career. Meeting so many wonderful students and having the privilege to connect them to 4,000 years of Jewish history and memory has been one of the greatest honours of my life. So, what have I learnt over the last five years of being a teacher at Muss? What do I know now that I didn’t know before I started five years ago?
The Story of the Jewish People
Most of the students who I have met when teaching at the AMHSI are very proud of their Judaism and their Jewish heritage. The challenge that most of my students face, however, is their lack of ability to express what it is that they are proud of. They struggle to define what it means to live a meaningful Jewish life in the 21st century.
What is it about Israel and Zionism that is so important to their identity? What is the story of the Jewish people and how do I fit into this story? These are the questions that most of my students have when they come to Muss. The greatest challenge that they feel is that Jewish history seems so long and boring. Jewish teachings are so vast; how can they access it and feel excited by it?
The way we face these questions is by sharing a story of the Jewish people that our students can grasp, understand and ultimately take ownership of. By having a sense of the story, from Avraham to Bibi, by grasping the narrative, my students feel a part of the story. Knowledge and understanding of Jewish history fosters Jewish identity. In my opening class of every session I share the following passage by Professor Zeev Maghen:
See, you personally were born quite recently. You haven't existed, built, climbed, fallen, lost, won, wept, rejoiced, created, learned, argued, loved and struggled for thousands of years. Nevertheless, you, my friend, happen to have lucked out. You are a distinguished member of a nation which has done all these things, and more. You have special eyes, eyes that can see for miles and miles. If only you will it - enough to work at it - you can extend your arms and touch the eons and millennia, you can suck up the insights and bask in the glory and writhe in the pain and draw on the power emanating from every experience of your indomitable, indestructible, obstinately everlasting people.
This is not an ability acquired solely through learning or reading (although this is a major ingredient, I hasten to emphasize); it is first and foremost a function of connection, of belonging, of powerful love. If you reach out and grasp your people's hands - you were there. You participated in what they did in all places and at all times, you fought their battles, felt their feelings and learnt their lessons.
This small passage summarizes the essence of what I am trying to achieve in the classroom and on our tiyulim. We want our students to feel intimately connected to the story of the Jewish people. We want our students to appreciate, with pride, that the story we are telling is their own personal story.
But how does the story impact on my different students? That is the exciting bit for me and what motivates me to get to work every day. Every student connects to the story of the Jewish people in a unique way. When we teach our course, it is isn’t just Jewish history. It is also Jewish philosophy, Jewish law, Jewish geography, Jewish archaeology, Jewish culture, Jewish sociology, Jewish politics and much more. Every student relates to this rich story in their own way. There is so much to offer in terms of the Jewish experience of three millennia, that every student finds her or his own way of hooking into their Jewish heritage. Each student finds his or her access point.
On the wall of my classroom I have a picture of German Jewish philosopher Franz Rozensweig and the motto that he hung on the wall of the House of Jewish Learning that he established in 1920: “Nothing in Judaism shall be alien to me.” Rozensweig believed that every student of his had the right to love or reject any element of what it means to be a Jew, but at the very least one must have knowledge and understanding of what one is loving or rejecting. That is the environment I try to create in my classroom. I call it a laboratory of ideas, in which my students feel comfortable to raise whatever feelings they have on a subject, knowing that they will never be judged for their opinions they hold. It is their story, and therefore they are invited to take ownership of it.
Armed for Campus
The other big concern of my students when joining us on AMHSI, is what awaits them when they graduate high school and begin their college careers. The anti-Israel atmosphere and BDS movement on campuses has been so well documented in recent years, students are understandably worried about what they will meet them when they turn up as freshmen. Students often share with me the following concerns. Will I be able to answer all the questions that fellow students ask them about Israel and the conflict with the Palestinians? What happens when I am condemned and vilified for just supporting the idea of Zionism and right of the Jewish People to self-determination in their ancient homeland?
Last November, an opinion piece in the New York Times by a George Washington University sophomore student, Blake Flayton, best summarized how many of my students feel:
Before I arrived on campus, I could proudly say that I was both a strong progressive and a Zionist. I didn’t think there was a conflict between those two ideas. In fact, I understood them as being in sync, given that progressives have long championed the liberation movements of downtrodden minorities. I viewed — and still view — the establishment of the state of Israel as a fundamentally just cause: the most persecuted people in human history finally gaining the right of self-determination after centuries of displacement, intimidation, violence and genocide. For me, this remains true even as I oppose the occupation of the West Bank. It is my Zionism that informs my view that the Palestinian people also have the right to their own state.
But my view is not at all shared by the progressive activist crowd I encountered on campus. They have made it abundantly clear to me and other Jews on campus that any form of Zionism — even my own liberal variant, which criticizes various policies of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and seeks a just two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — is a political nonstarter. For this group at my school, and similar groups on campuses and cities around the country, Zionism itself is, to parrot the Soviet propaganda of several decades ago, racist. And anybody who so dares to utter the words “right to exist” is undeniably a proponent of racism.
Some of my students would agree with every word of this and some of my students would not necessarily agree with the political outlook of the writer. What they all would share is their commitment to the State of Israel and hence the feeling if isolation and antagonism on campus.
So how do we best equip our students to deal with being in this environment? I think the answer is twofold. Firstly, I seek to create a safe environment in our classroom. My students must feel that there is no question or opinion that is invalid. If my student is scared to raise a question about Israeli policy regarding the Palestinians, out of fear that they will be seen as somehow going against what it means to be a Zionist, they may never again find themselves in a non-judgmental context that would allow for such questions to be raised.
Secondly, the best way to I believe that our students need to be prepared for the campus environment is through a real understating of the conflict and its context. There is a little chance of our students convincing a pro-Palestinian activist that they are wrong. However, what is important is that our students will have the ability to explain the historical context to their neutral friends on the sides. If our students are hearing about Nakba, Dir Yassin, Sabra and Shatila, and the situation in Gaza for the first time at an anti-Israel demonstration, how will they be equipped to have intelligent conversations about these issues with their friends? If there is hope for dialogue in the future it is important that our students have the appropriate knowledge and context to engage in this dialogue.
Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make me a Match
Ultimately, what I have learnt from my five years at Muss is that I have found two great loves. My first is history and story of the Jewish people. I love and am inspired by the millennial narrative of the Jewish people. My second love is the love I have for my curious, funny and inspiring students. I therefore believe that my job is that of a matchmaker between these two great loves. And like any matchmaker I get enormous satisfaction and pride when more often that not the match is a fantastic success. It is for that reason that I feel I have been blessed with the most inspiring five years of my working life and I can’t wait to for us to open our doors in the Fall and start my sixth year as an AMHSI educator.