The pandemic has restricted a lot of summer vacations to Israel, but The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore has a way for you to learn about the country anyway.
Originally, The Associated began its second annual Insight Israel Forum in October of last year to promote education and dialogue about Israel. The forum brought Baltimore Jewish community leadership together through a series of lectures, circle conversations, speaker events, and online learning programs.
“It’s meant to provide an opportunity for the members of our community to get together to learn about the complex issues that make Israel, from an unbiased background,” said Will Minkin, co-chair of the Insight Israel Forum.
The inaugural panel community event had more than 300 participants, followed by 52 smaller group programs called PODS (Personal Opinion Dialogue Seminars), in which 205 people participated.
When the pandemic canceled participants’ May trip to Israel and most of its in-person meetings, The Associated quickly adapted with a book club format. Small groups read material ahead of time and discuss it in a Zoom session.
The team also now offers online events called E-Adventures. Minkin said E-Adventures are intended as a complement to the Insight Israel Forum conversations for the summer, rather than as a replacement. E-Adventures are a “lighter” version of the PODS, which were geared toward the families that would have gone to Israel.
The four E-Adventures themes started July 12 and recurred on Sundays. The first topic was “The Cities of Israel,” and participants learned about the history of David, The Jewish Quarter, Hebron, and Tzfat via Zoom.
On Wednesdays, starting July 15, there will be an E-Adventure on “Appreciating Jerusalem Through its Architecture.” This live tour of Jerusalem’s architecture event will teach the connection between the architecture and development of Israel.
The third series covers “Diversity of Israeli Society: The People” on Thursdays. These will examine a parent in a yishuv, a spice merchant, an Ethiopian small businesswoman, and a Tel Aviv biomedical worker.
Finally, also on Thursdays, the fourth E-Adventure sessions will cover “Ever Changing: Israeli Palestinian Conflict.”
You can register for any series on The Associated’s event page.
Insight Israel’s three co-chairs decided on these topics from results of a survey in June, which asked people what they wanted to learn about.
The creators set ground rules of respect to ensure that all conversations will be peaceful. Most of all, they were careful to invite responsible speakers, especially for the PODS later this year, such as Resetting the Tables, an organization dedicated to building meaningful dialogue.
“The co-chairs took a look at the PODS’ pedagogy and aligned themselves with a code of respect to all viewpoints,” said Jeffrey Blavatt, the forum’s executive director.
The organizers were motivated because they saw that discourse about Israel was getting emotional. “People with strong feelings are scared to justify Israel. So we want to learn about Israel from knowledge rather than from a place of emotion,” said Minkin.
“Another overarching goal is to paint Israel as a place that is important to younger generations who feel Israel is not there for them,” he said.
“This is not advocacy,” said Blavatt. Rather, the events offer a chance for individuals to explore their Jewish journey through education. For Blavatt personally, “It’s about how complex the world is. Candidly, when I look at my own children and the world they live in, we want to reduce its polarization.”
Minkin shared that sentiment. “I have teenagers now, and I do have a concern that that generation is not as attached to Israel. … Part of making sure that future generations understand the importance of Israel is understanding the issues and learning about Israel. For me, I see that it’s a realistic concern that future generations may lose interest in Israel.”
Blavatt noted that many people will only read or consume media from one side of an issue. He hopes that conversations like these can help others understand all sides, though he doesn’t expect people to necessarily change their minds.
“My grandmother would say if you’re listening, you’re learning. If you’re talking, you might as well be walking.”
In the future, Minkin said the chairs want to incorporate more flexibility for students and a wider range of participants. He also hopes the challenge of people understanding what the forum is will dissipate as it gains popularity.