(Miami, July 16, 2017)—When Cheryl Eth joined an observant Jewish community more than twenty years ago, her political views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict made her feel like an outsider. Looking back, Eth, who was raised in a less observant household, says, “I came to feel that I was not a good Jew because I didn’t agree with some of what was said about Israel.” Now a congregant at Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center (ATJC) in Miami, Eth has studied at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Israel and is currently participating in its newest i-Engage course, “Jewish Values and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”
The innovative course combines in-person instruction, video lectures, and textual materials, and is offered at her synagogue and eleven other venues in South Florida during the 2016–17 academic year, thanks in part to a grant from Targum Shlishi. The venues include Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and non-denominational institutions, a broad range that has the potential to shift the culture of conversation about Israel in South Florida.
The course has helped Eth reaffirm her love of Israel and connect her political beliefs to larger Jewish values. “It doesn’t make me less Jewish to ask questions and clarify my values,” she explains. “We’re not here to solve the conflict, we’re here to discuss what we think a future for Israel should look like. And that’s very liberating, because you’re free to examine…I’ve found it’s just an open-hearted way of approaching Judaism.”
I’ve found it’s just an open-hearted way of approaching Judaism.”
“Jewish Values and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” promotes communal discourse about Israel and guides participants to unpack the values and narratives that inform various political approaches to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a time of deep political division, this course allows students of all political persuasions and denominations to engage in nuanced and pluralistic conversations within their communities. Course facilitators utilize Jewish texts, video lectures and interviews with experts, and online materials prepared by the Hartman Institute to explore a range of Jewish viewpoints regarding topics such as attitudes towards the land, justice, self-preservation, Jewish exceptionalism, and peace.
The program’s twelve sessions cover a range of topics, such as “The Israel We Imagine,” which examines differing narratives and assumptions within the Jewish community regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and “Jewish Narratives of Peace,” which considers various models of peace within Jewish sources. At the heart of the program is a commitment to values-based discourse.
Opening minds, inspiring conversation
Rather than promoting a specific type of Israel advocacy, “the immersion in an intensive process of high-level learning that’s grounded in Jewish text and Jewish values but is applied to our contemporary challenges is an act of Israel engagement in and of itself,” says Rabbi Lauren Berkun, director of Rabbinic & Synagogue Programs for the Hartman Institute, educational consultant and facilitator trainer for the Miami i-Engage course, and a facilitator for the ATJC i-Engage group.
Instead of “solving” the conflict or delineating policy positions, the curriculum guides students to engage in “a pluralistic conversation about Israel,” explains Berkun. “Hopefully the impact is a much more nuanced and sophisticated way that the people in that class are able to think about Israel, their relationship with Israel, and the way they speak about Israel within their community.”
A pioneering format
Digital innovation is a critical consideration in Targum Shlishi’s grant evaluation process, and the methods used by the Hartman Institute’s i-Engage program could serve as a blueprint for other adult education programs. “In an age where video content will soon dominate the Internet and online course offerings boom, the use of technology and video to enhance learning is essential. Targum Shlishi seeks to fund ventures that utilize technology to advance Jewish learning in innovative ways,” notes Aryeh Rubin, director of Targum Shlishi. “Enhancing communal learning with digital access to world-renowned experts and a professionally designed curriculum, the i-Engage course model mitigates the shortcomings of both online learning and traditional education, bringing together the best aspects of each to create a unique experience.”
Grassroots methods, widespread impact
As rabbis, educators, and congregants in South Florida engage in thoughtful discourse, leaders anticipate a ripple effect throughout the community. “When we can get a grant like we did from Targum Shlishi to offer this course throughout a city at the same time, there’s a feeling that the entire city is kind of immersed in this new conversation,” explains Rabbi Berkun.
This effort was underscored at the Limmud Miami event in February 2017. Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, delivered the lecture “Jewish Values and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Maintaining Our Moral Compass in Times of Crisis.” The lecture was part of the Hartman Institute’s outreach to the community beyond the twelve participating institutions.
“This kind of conversation is new for almost everyone at the table. It’s a long-term process,” says Rabbi Berkun. “This course asks participants: ‘How can we listen to other people that have different opinions from ours, and respect that maybe their opinions also come from a place of Jewish values?’ And it’s amazing to see that it actually happens.”
For more information
To learn more about Targum Shlishi’s venture philanthropy, check out the foundation’s “About” page.
The Shalom Hartman Institute is a pluralistic center of research and education deepening and elevating the quality of Jewish life in Israel and around the world. Learn more about the institute at its website.
Watch a video introduction to i-Engage: “Jewish Values and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” with Rabbi Lauren Berkun here.