Area teachers to get closer view of Mideast through summer trip

"What's going on in the Middle East?" is a hard question to answer. It's even harder if you're a teacher and several of your students put you on the spot by asking.

With textbook information on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict growing more and more outdated by the minute, San Francisco's Israel Center and Bureau of Jewish Education are participating in a program to bring Jewish educators to Israel to get a firsthand look at the situation. The program was devised by Israel's Jewish Agency, with the participation of local federations and agencies through United Jewish Communities.

"Educators are the frontline people [in developing public opinion] within the Jewish community. The very idea of this trip is an exciting one," said Fred Astren, a professor of Jewish studies at San Francisco State University and a BJE board member who plans on making the trip.

"Nobody is going to come back an expert. You can go to Israel all your life and never be an expert," he added. However, Astren expects those returning to "feel they have some psychological and intellectual ground to stand on as they discuss what's going on there with students, family members, peers and members of their congregations."

West Coast educators teaching Jewish-related subjects are eligible to apply for the July 23 to August 3 trip. Funding from both the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and the Jewish Agency will keep the costs down to $1,000 per person.

Teachers do not necessarily need to be from the area served by the JCF, the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay or the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose.

"They'll be speaking with a range of Jews, Israeli Arabs and Palestinian Arabs…as well as with social leaders and social observers," said Lisa Gann-Perkal, the Israel Center's executive director. "It's going to be a mix."

Gann-Perkal hopes that 30 to 40 educators from the Bay Area will participate in what has been dubbed the "Jewish Educators Mission." Those interested in the program have until Thursday to sign up, though qualified applicants might be admitted after the deadline.

During the trip's first five days, the educators are scheduled to visit an Arab community, meet with Knesset members and tour a mixed Arab-Jewish neighborhood, among other stops.

During the last four days, the visitors will travel to the partner regions of their respective federations. Those from the JCF region, for example, will head to the Upper Galilee. In the partner regions, the educators are scheduled to sit in on federation-funded coexistence programs.

"When they come back, they won't be dependent on what they're reading in the newspapers," said Gann-Perkal. "We're going to try to give them a more complete understanding of the political and security situation. In order to do a better job educating large groups of people, they need to experience firsthand the realities facing Israel and what the prospects and difficulties are."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.