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Center for Israel Vice President Rich Walter is not above dressing up as Theodor Herzl to teach about the Zionist Congresses.
Center for Israel Vice President Rich Walter is not above dressing up as Theodor Herzl to teach about the Zionist Congresses.

CIE Builds Better Model of Israel Education

The 10-year-old Center for Israel Education in Atlanta has influenced hundreds of thousands of Jewish students, adults and a large Spanish reading audience and draws 7,500 people a week to its website, israeled.org. It all began with a simple request almost 20 years ago.

Ken Stein, a professor of Middle Eastern history and Israel studies, founded the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel at Emory University in 1998. The following year, teachers at Greenfield Hebrew Academy (now part of Atlanta Jewish Academy) sought his help to create a course on Zionism for seventh-graders.

After another Atlanta school expressed interest, Stein launched a two-day workshop for a dozen teachers, then offered it again and drew 25 educators. With funding, first from the parent of a former student, then from the AVI CHAI Foundation, the Israel enrichment workshop became a weeklong fixture for Jewish educators each summer and the core offering around which the nonprofit CIE grew.

“It evolved from something pretty small into something highly significant,” said Stein, the president of CIE, which is sustained by foundation and donation support. “It came from a request, and out of it, I believe it would be fair to say, we built it, and they came.”

The center has an international reach in work with organizations such as Hadassah, American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Agency for Israel, and it sends staffers to communities across the country.

The annual summer workshop has taught 993 educators from 36 states and six foreign countries since 2000. Those educators represent 417 day schools, synagogue schools, teen programs and other organizations with a combined 375,000 Jewish students.

Beyond its workshops, CIE attracts those interested in expanding their knowledge of Israel because it avoids polemics in understanding Israel’s complexities.

“The focus of CIE has always been content, context and perspective,” Stein said.

Hope Chernak, the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta’s chief program officer, said she “drank the Kool-Aid” on CIE’s approach while regularly attending the June educator workshop when she worked for Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York. She was part of the first group to complete CIE’s yearlong certificate program in Israel education in 2016.

Thanks to CIE, her approach to Israel education shifted to primary sources and historical context and away from personal connections.

“Educators sometimes get trapped where they’re responding to the news or responding to the politics of the day. The CIE model helps us move away from that,” Chernak said. “It’s not just focusing on the positive, but it’s just showing the different frameworks, the different lenses, the different ways to teach about Israel beyond the politics.”

That broader, deeper view helps teens “understand that they have a voice for Israel. They have a place in it,” she said. “It’s important to allow students to appreciate her, love her and also challenge her to be the best version of herself, to not stand by and just accept or to criticize.”

Atlanta Jewish Academy teacher Lisa Marks said: “As a history teacher, sometimes we give kids the pieces of the puzzle, but we never put the puzzle together for them. That’s what I think CIE does.”

She praised the way CIE makes connections to sources going back to Scripture and how the staff is always available to answer questions and provide support. For example, CIE Vice President Rich Walter visited AJA dressed as Theodor Herzl to talk about Zionism.

Operating with a small staff, CIE holds workshops for camp counselors and teen leaders in addition to the June educator enrichment week.

“It’s an organization I’ve always really believed in and supported,” said Rabbi Peter Berg, who is the senior rabbi of The Temple and has served on the CIE board for about two years. Last year the center helped prepare high school juniors and seniors at The Temple and other Atlanta congregations for the questions about and criticisms of Israel they might face in college.

“There’s a lot of misinformation about Israel. Different news outlets cover Israel in different ways, and there’s a lot of general lack of knowledge. One of the things CIE does is to teach the facts and to teach the truth,” he said. “It’s not a sermon.”

Dov Wilker, AJC Atlanta’s regional director, said his agency has maintained a close relationship with CIE, most recently turning to the center to strengthen AJC’s Leaders for Tomorrow program for high school sophomores and juniors.

“Through their extensive knowledge and work in education, CIE has helped to shape our program through primary source materials, which has helped all of the students in our program,” Wilker said.

CIE has made those primary sources, along with course materials, additional historical information, and links to other scholarship and analysis, available on its website, whose traffic has grown the past two years from 400 to 7,500 visitors a week. Free subscriptions to many items are available.

“Users come to the website because it is a reliable source,” Stein said.

CIE’s content now includes online learning units, short explainer videos and monthly webinars, archived at israeled.org/blog/digital-resources.

Stein said, “We’ve shown people that you can gain excellent access to informed materials about Israel, do so at your pace and come back for more.”

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