Diaspora Education

Miriam Borenstein, left, during her participation in the Eshkolot program, says, “There’s nothing like learning Torah in Israel. ... You see street signs with the names of rabbis we’re studying. You hear snatches of Hebrew in the stores. You’re immersed.”

For Shani Tauber, it all came together when her group left the house of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the religious Zionism pioneer known as “Rav Kook.”

“We were coming back through the streets of Jerusalem when all of a sudden it hit me: We are walking the land where everything we’ve been learning happened,” Tauber said. “And I realized it’s not theoretical here. You can feel how real it is.”

Tauber, who hails from New Jersey, is one of 15 women spending the year in Jerusalem in a new program that immerses educators in Jewish texts and history in the very land where the events transpired.

The seeds of the Eshkolot program were planted several years ago when Malke Bina, founder of the Jewish education organization Matan, was visiting the United States to meet with day school leaders for what she calls “brainstorming how to revolutionize Jewish education in the diaspora.”

The challenge was how to give educators the skills needed to make this ancient wisdom come alive for students 6,000 miles away.

Matan opened registration last year for Eshkolot (the Hebrew word describes the finest grapes). Fifteen educators were chosen to take part in the yearlong program. Bina calls the participants “the cream of the crop, with the commitment and passion needed to take their year spent here in the heart of the Jewish world back home to their classroom, their school and by extension, the whole community.”

This pioneering group of Eshkolot scholars embarked on a rigorous schedule of coursework in the Bible, with Talmud and Jewish law in the mix, along with an immersion in educational strategies designed to transmit the power of this material to their students back home in the diaspora.

“There’s nothing like learning Torah in Israel,” said Eshkolot participant Miriam Borenstein. “You go on a tiyul (field trip) and see the place where [the prophet] Joshua led the Jews across the Jordan and you think, ‘We just learned about that in class.’ ”

This kind of program is a wise investment in the future, according to Erica Brown, who directs the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership and teaches at George Washington University’s School of Education and Human Development.

“It gives teachers the opportunity to be out of the classroom so that they can return to it deeply re-engaged with Israel, with text study and with the profession generally, ” Brown said.

Bina said she tells Matan graduates “that it’s against Jewish law to keep the excitement to yourself,” and reports that she is “already seeing great growth” in the Eshkolot educators. JN

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