Saturday, April 05, 2014

Am Yisrael Echad

David M. Weinberg

A minor flap flared this week over the activities of a religious educational NGO in the Israeli secular school system. The controversy provides us with a fascinating and troubling insight into religious-secular relations in this country.
The "Am Yisrael Echad" ("One People of Israel") NGO was accused by Haaretz's education correspondent of proffering sex education with a traditional bent in secular high schools. Basing itself on the complaint of a parent, a Haaretz editorial even demanded that the students be "protected" from the NGO's "religious indoctrination."
Without knowing a thing about Am Yisrael Echad or the actual content of its educational programming, the critics accused the NGO of proselytizing and pushing a worldview that is misogynist and "excludes women from the public sphere."
None of the overheated critics bothered to check with the secular school principal involved, or with the school's extracurricular activities educational director, to ask why the NGO was hired to offer programming in its classrooms or what school officials thought of Am Yisrael Echad's messaging and effectiveness.

Nor did the critics bother to ask themselves why 70 secular principals across the country have, out of free choice, invited this specific NGO into their schools to provide more than 5,000 hours of teaching time. This includes top-notch schools in Ashdod, Kfar Rupin, Kfar Saba, Maagan Michael, Nes Ziona, Omer, Raanana, Rehovot, Rishon Lezion, Rosh Haayin, Tel Aviv, Yavne and more.
Since I have proudly served on the board of Am Yisrael Echad for a dozen years, I'll tell you why it is such a popular choice.
Many secular school educators feel that, despite the religious-secular divide (or because of it), their students ought to be getting a smidgeon of exposure to basic Jewish values and rituals. They know that many of the ills in Israeli society are sourced in a breakdown of values, and are not afraid to admit that Jewish civilization and traditions are part of the answer in repairing our society.
They furthermore know, through 17 years of experience, that Am Yisrael Echad can provide their junior and high school students with informal educational programming in Jewish heritage and Zionist values that is exciting, fun, religiously profound, intellectually rigorous, non-judgmental and embracing of all Jews.
The success of the organization's programming is evidenced by the growing demand for its services -- demand that percolates naturally by word-of-mouth and comes from involved, discerning and caring secular school principals. They appreciate its educational units on a range of topics like good citizenship, giving and altruism, personal accountability and the power of forgiveness, leadership, tolerance, acceptance of strangers, teen-adult tensions, personal fulfillment vs. communal commitment, social involvement, ethical behavior on social networks, addiction and violence, man and nature, heroism and freedom, decision-making, heroic Jewish figures of the past, the significance of Jewish history and national memory, Jewish holidays, prayer and individualism, and more.
In each unit, educators show how Jewish sources, texts, philosophies and traditions offer relevant and fascinating perspectives on the societal or moral question under discussion.
The organization also runs very popular "Synagogue Days," in which secular students and their teachers venture (often for the first time in their lives) into a synagogue, to learn about important Jewish traditions and basic concepts of peoplehood. Thousands also participate in its early fall Selichot Tours of Jerusalem's Old City and the Western Wall.
And yes, the NGO has an educational unit on "Him and Her" in Jewish tradition. But unlike the raw and explicit "how to" sex education offered in Israeli schools to 15-yea-olds, the organization prefers to teach about relationships. The "Him and Her" seminar focuses on aloneness and companionship, support vs. dependency, sensitive vs. assertive communications, verbal and physical violence, honesty and respect in love relationships, and the value of commitment.
In doing so, it offers students a refreshingly unique perspective on boy-girl relations in the modern world. In fact, it was asked to develop this unit by several secular junior and high school principals. They felt the need to provide students with guidance on male-female teenage relationships, and believed that grounding an exploration of this topic in Jewish sources and wisdom would be useful.
The overwrought parent who went screaming to Haaretz about the organization's "Him and Her" unit complained that, when asked by a student, the facilitator admitted that he indeed was "shomer negiyah," meaning that he abides by the religious prohibition against unmarried boys and girls touching each other. "What does observing negiyah have to do with secular children, who are anyway drenched in pornography?" the parent exploded.
To this upset parent I have several responses. First, if that's the toughest indictment of the program you can come up with -- that's not so terrible. Obviously, the young secular pupil who asked about negiyah was interested enough by the discussion of healthy relationships and curious enough about the non-modern religious practice of avoiding negiyah -- to ask for an explanation. The informal education class was a good place for this to be aired, even though the program does not at all reference or promote Halachic rules of family purity.
Second, how can we ever talk to youth about cultural-religious perspectives different from their own, if not in such an open and adamantly non-proselytizing setting? Nobody was recruiting for religion and nobody was creating an ecstatic environment designed to get kids to drink Orthodox Kool Aid.
Third, I suggest that this parent take a good look at this week's newspaper stories about gang rape among students and teen prostitution rings. Perhaps he/she should ask any Israeli family doctor just how many 15-year-old patients are seen a week for contraception and abortion issues. Then, consider again the classroom discussion on the value of healthy and stable love relationships and the destructive impact of pornography on real relationship building -- a discussion that might also spark curiosity about less teenage touching. Is this really such a bad thing?
By synthesizing tradition with modernity through informal educational programming in Jewish heritage and Zionist values -- seminars that are exciting, fun, religiously profound, intellectually rigorous, non-judgmental and embracing of all Jews -- Am Yisrael Echad encourages development of an Israeli society that is more in tune with its roots, and is thus more united. Its work must not be derailed by the fearful and the narrow-minded.

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