Rabbi Loren Sykes is the Principal of the NFTY-EIE High School in Israel. In these weekly postings, he gives a description and rundown of what the group is doing day to day, which he hopes sheds some light on what the EIE experience is like.
It was a very busy week for our students. In Jewish history, we covered:
The establishment of sovereignty in the land of Israel;
The anointing of the first king, Saul;
The anointing of King David;
Solomon’s anointment as the third King of Israel;
The building of the first Temple in Jerusalem;
The separation of Northern and Southern Kingdoms;
The fall of the northern kingdom;
The conquest of the land by the Babylonians;
The destruction of the First Temple and the exile of the Jews by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon;
The fall of Babylon to Cyrus of Persia;
Cyrus’s allowing the Jews to return from Babylon to the land of Israel and, finally,
The rebuilding and consecration of the Second Temple in Jerusalem!
In one week, we covered over five hundred years of history and several watershed events whose impact we still feel today.
Sunday, we visited several sites to get a sense of what it was like to live in First Temple Jerusalem. The rain hampered us a bit but, from the places we were able to visit like the First Temple Museum, we could visualize what Jerusalem was like 3,000 years ago. Yesterday, we held our annual Babylonian Bash where students learned about the fall of Babylonian Empire and its implications for Jewish exiles. They also heard about the internal debates that took place among Jews in exile regarding whether or not to return to Israel as King Cyrus permitted.
Both the Torah portion and Jewish history classes for the week deal with events that, although they transpired thousands of years ago, communicate messages that continue to resonate with and are relevant to the Jewish People in general and, specifically, our students. The Torah portion, Terumah, focuses on the construction of the Portable Tabernacle, God’s dwelling place among the Israelites in the desert. In Jewish history, we shifted focus from the conquest of the Land of Israel to the building of God’s permanent home on earth, The Temple in Jerusalem. We learned about destruction, exile, return, and rebuilding.
The question of sacred place is as relevant for Jews today as it was 2,500 years ago. The same is true regarding debates about exile and sovereignty. As part of yesterday’s Babylonian Bash, students participated in a debate about the merits of living in exile vs the merits of living as sovereigns. There was no right or wrong answer, no preferred outcome. Students were randomly divided and, based on texts they studied during the week, advocated for one of the two positions. Our only intended outcome was for students to use the knowledge they gained during the week, concrete learning based on historic texts and facts, to stake out a position. The debate was energetic, vigorous and thoughtful.
The “Babylonian Bash” debate, exile versus return, is an excellent example of the EIE approach to learning Jewish history. We focus on cultural literacy, an approach that believes that learning, knowledge, information and facts are important. It believes that to understand the world, to interact with it and to form ideas, opinions and arguments, a person needs to know facts and information. A cultural literacy approach believes that people who can build opinions and arguments anchored in knowledge will develop deeper, more sustainable commitments and will feel more comfortable arguing positions. Such people will have greater confidence that they can support their ideas with verifiable information, and articulate positions that are logically sound and defensible.
It is worth noting that our focus on cultural literacy is, in fact, countercultural today, especially in certain fields of study and on many college campuses. Because EIE is committed to developing cultural literacy in Jewish history and Judaism, we do not teach students what to think. We give them opportunities to learn. They take this knowledge and determine their own opinions about questions like the meaning of Jewish sovereignty in the ancient and modern world to questions about what is “authenticity” and who determines what is “authentic” Judaism.
Another busy EIE week came to an end on Friday. Students did one of three tzedakah projects – two at senior citizen centers where they spent time with residents and one where they worked with a local person who takes care of the neighborhood cats. During Shabbat, some participants visited a Reform synagogue for Kabbalat Shabbat, while other students spent the weekend away with family or friends. Regardless of where they were, Tzuba or elsewhere, one thing is for sure – they got lots of rest, exhausted from a week of intellectual challenge in Jewish history, Hebrew language, and general studies.