Apr 2, 2018
By
Rabbi Jodie Siff

‘Go in Peace’: Key Lessons from the Qushiyot Israel Experience

students studying in Israel

“The Rabbis taught: Four entered the Pardes (orchard). They were Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva said to them, "When you come to the place of pure marble stones, do not say, 'Water! Water!' for it is said, 'He who speaks untruths shall not stand before My eyes' (Psalms 101:7)". Ben Azzai gazed and died (Rashi: from looking at the Divine Presence). Regarding him the verse states, 'Precious in the eyes of G-d is the death of His pious ones' (Psalms 116:15). Ben Zoma gazed and was harmed (Rashi: in losing his sanity). Regarding him the verse states, 'Did you find honey? Eat as only much as you need, lest you be overfilled and vomit it' (Proverbs 25:16). Acher cut down the plantings (Rashi: meaning, he became a heretic from the experience). Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and left in peace (Rashi: and went on to become the leading Rabbinic figure of the era” (Babylonian Talmud Hagigah 14b).

Enter in Peace

Why was Rabbi Akiva the only one of the great rabbis who was able to go and leave the orchard in peace?

When Rabbi Akiva told the others not to speak untruth, he was sharing an eternal message. When you arrive in paradise – coming from your own world to another world – and you see something new or different, don’t rush to name it. Instead, absorb it, breathe, and focus.

Four different people went into the orchard and four different things happened. Ben Azzai stood at the gate, did not enter and died. Ben Zoma looked in and saw something too complex and lost his mind. He was attracted enough to enter but didn’t have the tools to deal with what he saw. Acher became a heretic, he cut down the Jewish community in a way that nothing further could grow. Rabbi Akiva, however, was the right age, had the right emotional state to engage in new, deep ideas. He entered in peace and therefore came out safely.

Go in Peace

We explored this topic on a week-long Qushiyot trip to Israel, where we studied the land, the multivocality and complexities of Israel as a land and a people and the democracy and religious life. As I traveled (and ate!) my way through the land of our forefathers, visiting sites from Hebron to Samaria and the Western Wall, I delved into what Rabbi Akiva’s lesson means for my community and my congregation.

Several key points stood out and I share these with you to raise questions and spark meaningful debate. Sorry, there are no right or wrong answers here.

We do not believe in presenting both sides, we believe in multivocality, presenting many sides. When we meet new community members and face difficult challenges, we must not place our assumptions or reality as an overlay on a different paradigm. Each new challenge is an opportunity. My understanding of issues will always be strengthened when placed in dialogue with different understandings.

We must engage with what is burning inside the participants. The need to present a multivocal Israel is not just a matter of educational technique. It is, in fact, a much truer representation of Israel’s complex nature and the day to day reality for those who live there – Jews and Arabs and religious and secular Jews alike. We must open up critical debate and ask the difficult questions. This approach requires courage, honesty, and optimism. On the other hand, if we marginalize the Israel related issues that are of central concern to our participants, then we risk marginalizing Israel for them and marginalizing them from the Am (the Jewish people).

Israel education must be multi-generational. When engaging with modern-day Israel, we must draw on and refer to other wise Jews and their writings throughout the generations. In this way, we place Israel in the context of living in a Jewish civilization and ensure that Israel will not be an optional add-on, but rather a central element of our Jewish lives and heritage.

All Israel education programming must point to opportunities for the participant to make a difference.

No one size fits all. Every country, and every community within every country, has its own cultural assumptions that influence the ways they may engage with Israel or any topic. These must be addressed and incorporated into the programming.

Bettering, not battering. We see this method of education as crucial. All Israel education programming must point to opportunities for the participant to make a difference. It can never be enough to intelligently learn of Israel’s flaws without being introduced to those organizations and people who strive to fix them. True, successful engagement with Israel leads people to slip off the fence and take a stand to work at bettering, not battering Israel.

Don’t go in to a challenging place alone; only enter when you have tools to deal with what is there. Rabbi Akiva’s lesson implores us to consider our own communities and congregations. How do we address Israel through the lens of “l'hiyot (to be), am (peoplehood), hofshi (freedom), b’artzeinu (in our land)?” The Four Hatikvah Questions (4HQ), developed by Makom, is an educational method that creates a framework for studying and understanding Israel and its complexities. The meaningful final lyric of Israel’s national anthem Hatikvah begs us to look at our communities and ask ourselves: What tools do we have to engage with Israel and Israel education in a meaningful and open dialogue with congregants? What programs have we dedicated to this end? Are we building the connections that impact our future generations through the strength of our heritage?

Qushiyot is a 12-month network experience that includes an intensive 8-day workshop in Israel, offering an opportunity to connect with colleagues of diverse perspectives and partake in a range of learning opportunities to spur innovation. It is a comprehensive, open approach to Israel education that embraces the vibrant complexity of Israel. Quishiyot is a partnership between The Jewish Education Project and Makom.

Rabbi Jodie Siff directs Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore’s (RSNS) synagogue school and is active in every part of the community. Rabbi Jodie is a mentor in the Leadership Institute of Congregational Educators and is an active member of the Port Washington/Manhasset Clergy Association. An alumna of Lehigh University, Jodie began her Hebrew studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary and graduated from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2001. Jodie and her husband Peter are the proud parents of four children.

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Abby Pitkowsky
Qushiyot, the Israel Education Fellowship, is a full-year network experience that offers participants the opportunity to connect with colleagues of diverse perspectives and partake in a range of learning opp