Research shows that strong connections with Israel are essential in building an enduring Jewish identity. But according to the Jewish Agency for Israel, many North American Jews have become disconnected from Israel, and educational institutions have not sufficiently integrated the Jewish state into their curricula to instill powerful bonds in the younger generation.
To change those trends, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has launched several important initiatives with JAFI as part of the North American Coalition for Israel Engagement.
"The idea is to engage people, and infuse everything we're doing in the community with an Israel component," says Jeri Zimmerman, director of Federation's Center for Israel and Overseas. "This helps accomplish our mission of creating closer connections to Israel in many ways and on multiple levels."
As one of nine original NACIE pilot communities, Philadelphia has chosen to focus its efforts specifically on teenagers, who have no collective memory of the Holocaust or relevant events in Israel's history, says Philadelphia NACIE committee chair, Vicki Erlbaum. In addition to educating the next generation, the aim is to engage seventh- through 10th-graders in deeper discourse at a time when they're more open to it.
"A lot of teaching has been too black and white, too much about Israel the myth rather than Israel the reality," says Talia Lidar, the community shlicha ("emissary") coordinating Philadelphia's NACIE efforts. "We bring different shades to the table and provide them with a more complex way of thinking."
A major initiative is "IConnect," an intensive Israel-infusion training program developed in conjunction with the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education and several Israeli organizations.
IConnect's professional development and technology-based resources help local teachers, educators and rabbis transmit meaningful Israel-infused curriculum and programming. Travel to Israel is an especially important component.
"Teachers may not always get the opportunity to go there, yet they're the ones on the front lines teaching our kids," said Rabbi Gregory Marx of Congregation Beth Or, one of nine local synagogues participating in IConnect. "Our teachers are enthusiastic about the chance to learn more about Israel firsthand."
Lidar explains that coordinators of IConnect - which sends teachers to spend one week at Hebrew University's Melton Centre and one week in Netivot-Sedot Negev, the Philadelphia area's Partnership 2000 communities - hope to create a "cadre of Israel experts."
Teen travel is also key, with synagogues planning confirmation-class trips to Israel. This past summer, nearly two-dozen Philadelphia-area and Israeli teens participated in "Mifgash 2005," a Federation/NACIE-sponsored exchange program that successfully immersed the group in Israel for 10 days of adventure, learning and friendship, and then in America for another 10 days. The reaction from both groups was extremely positive.
"It is incredible to be in Israel at this point in our lives because we will remember this forever," wrote Lauren Pfannenspiel, 16, of Richboro.
Philadelphia NACIE coordinators are also reaching out to the broader teen population, including those who do not receive formal Jewish education, to spread support, knowledge and appreciation for Israel in contemporary ways. For example, a communitywide "mega-event" featuring food, dancing, an Israel showcase and a concert by popular Israeli band "The Idan Raichel Project" is planned for March 19.
For more information, call the Center for Israel and Overseas at 215-832-0537.