People of the Book:
The ‘enduring dilemmas’ of teaching Israel with Associate Professor Sivan Zakai

April 8, 2024

Sivan Zakai

Teaching Israel Book cover artSivan Zakai, Ph.D.’s latest book project, Teaching Israel: Studies of Pedagogy from the Field (Brandeis University Press, 2024), co-edited with Matt Reingold, is an acknowledgement of a fundamental truth about Jewish education: “Teaching is very hard work,” Zakai says, “and teaching Israel is doubly hard.” The Sara S. Lee Associate Professor of Jewish Education, Zakai has been a member of the faculty at HUC-JIR since 2017. In March, Zakai was awarded the prestigious 2024 Ilia Salita Excellence in Research Award (ERA) in recognition of the significant contributions of her groundbreaking study, the “Children’s Learning about Israel Project.” She also directs the Children Learning About Israel Project and co-directs the Learning and Teaching about What Matters Project with her HUC-JIR colleague, Lauren Applebaum, Ed.D. Zakai’s research and scholarship focus primarily on teaching and learning about Israel in Jewish institutions. Teaching Israel, which illuminates how a wide range of educators learn, understand, undertake, and ultimately improve the work of teaching Israel, has arrived at a time when the questions and dilemmas that teachers of Israel have never been more complex or challenging. We caught up with her in her home office to discuss the book.

Much of your work — including Teaching Israel and your previous book, My Second Favorite Country — seems to be motivated by a mission to produce scholarship that’s useful to teachers. Where does that come from?

SZ: I care deeply about teaching. I am a teacher. I began my career as a middle school teacher at a Jewish day school, and I’ve also taught at the high school and elementary school levels. I want good teachers in the world, and I want good teachers for my children.

For teachers of Israel, it’s hard to imagine a time when this book could be more urgently needed than today. When was it written?

SZ: This book was on the printing presses on October 7. All the research in it had been conducted; the chapters had been written and edited. But the dilemmas of teaching Israel in North America that are highlighted in the chapters are enduring dilemmas. They’ve only become more pressing and challenging in the intervening months, and they’ll become even more complicated in the months to come.

The primary target audience for this book is teachers, but it’s clear you have an extremely broad definition of who those teachers could be.

SZ: We define teaching as any deliberate, careful attempt to foster another person’s learning. That means classroom teachers are certainly teachers. But so is your camp counselor, your rabbi, your grandparent. In fact, anyone who’s trying to help you learn and making conscious decisions about how you might go about that learning counts as your teacher.

The book also covers a broad range of learning settings.

SZ: Yes, people are learning about Israel not only in Jewish institutions. For example, one of the most interesting chapters in the book is written by Amin Tarzi, who directs Middle East Studies at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. He focuses on teaching Israel in the context of the U.S. military.

One of the 13 chapters is co-written by a teacher and his high school students. What’s the story behind that?

SZ: That’s Matt Reingold, the book’s co-editor, and Alexa Jacoby and Benjamin Day, Matt’s students at TanenbaumCHAT, a Jewish day school in Toronto. They focus on a moment when the students didn’t like what they learned about Israel, yet they all powered through together. The students realized that their own families might not count as Jewish according to the Israeli rabbinate. What I love about this chapter is that it’s written in alternating perspectives, with the teacher and his students offering different insights into the challenges of teaching Israel.

We couldn’t help noticing that two of our HUC-JIR colleagues made fascinating contributions to the book.

SZ: Yes, Lauren Applebaum, Ed.D., director DeLeT Programs, writes about what happens when day school teachers are the learners and they engage in professional development about how to do Israel education in their classrooms. She finds that learning new ideas is easy, but changing what you do in the classroom is very, very hard. Another chapter is by Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, Ed.D. ’94, ’95, director of the Master of Educational Leadership Program. It focuses on what it takes for teachers in a Jewish synagogue school to navigate their own personal and political beliefs about Israel and the classroom environments in which they teach.

You’ve noted that many scholars have studied young Jews’ beliefs about Israel but fewer are studying teaching about Israel. Why is that, and where does this book fit into that discussion?

SZ: Research into young Jews’ beliefs about Israel has been very well-funded because of fear of waning attachment among young Jews to Israel. This book is an attempt to pivot from that conversation, which is often very hand-wringing in nature, to a belief in the power of teachers and teaching.