Masorti Europe in Ukraine

Board meeting and Israel Education Workshop

Over the weekend of June 7-11 Masorti Europe held its semi-annual board meeting in Kiev along with a meeting of Marom Olami and an educator’s seminar focusing on Israel-Diaspora relations and on the state of Israel Education in our European Masorti Communities. The weekend had 30 attendees, and the educational content of the weekend revolved around two central axes—learning the historical background of the Zionist movement and examining the philosophies which inform our methods of Israel education.

Historical and Zionist Sessions

The historical background had two foci. Firstly, the group examined the deteriorating conditions within the Pale of Settlement which fostered the rise of messianic, spiritual and political movements, including Zionism. And secondly, we took a closer look at the founders of Zionism in Odessa and the array of opinions they promoted—and how these ideological differences affect the State of Israel to this day—as well as Israel education within our own communities. The historical sessions were presented by Rabbi Chaim Weiner, director of Masorti Europe.

The Israel education sessions examined the following issues: The various philosophies regarding the methods of Israel education, the role of narrative in Israel education, the end goal of our Israel education, and our boundaries and red lines as Israel educators. The Israel Education sessions were conducted by Ilan Bloch, director of Teaching Israel, an Israel education company based in Jerusalem. Ilan takes a unique approach to Israel education by examining the most difficult issues in Israel education and using them to spark serious and productive discussions between people who otherwise might shy away from touching on these issues. His sessions were particularly well received and following the end of the meeting several Masorti Europe communities were in touch with him privately and considering bringing him to host Israel educations sessions in their communities.

Summary of Weekend and Sessions 

The weekend was split up between the Masorti communities of Masoret Kiev and Kehillat Tifereth in Odessa. The meeting began Friday afternoon with a tour of Jewish Kiev including the birthplace of Golda Meir and the working quarters of Shalom Aleichem. Ilan Bloch led his first Israel Education seminar on Friday afternoon which delved into the philosophies behind Israel education—what should it look like? Should it be hasbara oriented? Should it encourage Aliyah? Participants were paired off into groups of 2-3 to discuss sources sheets and towards the end of the session the points were recapped and participants voiced their opinions as to their own views of Israel education.

Following Friday night services in the Masoret Kiev Community participants mingled over a home cooked meal prepared by members of the community, met new friends, networked and even celebrated the Sheva Brachot of a newlywed couple in attendance.

Following Shabbat morning services, members took a tour around Podol—originally a Jewish suburb of Kiev and part of the Pale of Settlement. We learned about Jewish life prior to WWII, the destruction of Jewish life in Ukraine during the war, restrictions of Jewish life during the Soviet era and the rebirth of Jewish life in Ukraine since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Ilan’s Shabbat afternoon session focused on the centrality of narrative to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the role of narrative in Israel education. We examined texts fro

m both Israeli and Palestinian history curricula and discussed their diametrically opposed interpretations of the same basic historical events. Participants debated the necessity of examining the narrative of the Other as a precursor for dialogue and eventual peace, and also the importance of narrative in constructing our own national identities as Jews and Zionists. We once again split into small groups to discuss our individual approach to narrative, and to try to unpack our own personal views and the underlying narrative that we—try as we may to be objective—inevitably bring to our students.

Towards the end of Shabbat, participants gathered in the sanctuary for an in-depth discussion on Masorti ideology led by Rabbi Mauricio Balter. Rabbi Balter led members of Masorti Europe and Marom Europe in a discussion of 16 points outlining a Masorti Jewish identity—topics ranging from belief to practice to Zionism. The text generated intense debates about the boundaries of Masorti identity, limited only by the one-hour time limit on the session. Rabbi Balter intends to continue the session at future Masorti Europe meetings.

On Sunday morning the group paid a visit to Babi Yar—one of the greatest single massacres of the Shoah—and took time for personal reflection and prayer.  Rabbi Chaim’s session on Sunday morning focused on the history of Jews in Eastern Europe—from their arrival from France and Germany at the behest of the Polish nobility, all the way through the Khmelnysky Uprising, the ensuing centuries of Pogroms, and the Holocaust. We learned about the mechanisms that were developed to confront these challenges—the rise of Messianic fervor ending with the conversion of Shabtai Tzvi,

the inner retreat into spirituality offered by the Hassidic movement, the Jewish enlightenment, and the birth of Zionism—the Jewish national movement.

Much of Sunday was spent in transit as we travelled south from Kiev towards Odessa with a stop in Uman where we discussed Hassidism while visiting the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. During the bus trip Ilan engaged us in his third session—this one focusing on the end goals of Israel education and what we want our students to take as lasting lessons. Upon arriving in Odessa we spent the evening visiting the Masorti community in Odessa.

Monday morning was spent with Rabbi Chaim touring the streets of Odessa, visiting the dwelling places of the early founders of the Zionist movement and discussing the contributions of each to the State of Israel. We started with a discussion of Bialik and his negation of the diaspora, and its continuing implications on Israel-diaspora relations to this day. Next went on to the house of Jabotinsky to discuss the ideology of revisionist Zionism and how the modern day Likud party still holds those ideals and how they have changed. At the house of Joseph Klausner we discussed the role of historicity in Zionism and also in Masorti Judaism. Next stop was the house of Meir Dizengoff, followed by Echad Ha’Am with a discussion of cultural Zionism.

The weekend was capped off by a final discussion with Ilan regarding the boundaries and limitations of Israel education. Each educator was compelled to reflect on his or her own educational philosophy and Zionist outlook and contemplate what they consider to be within the bounds of legitimate discussion with regard to Israel, and whether there are positions and issues which are beyond the boundaries of acceptability. Most educators agreed that this presents inherent conflicts between our desire as educators to encourage students to use facts to arrive at their own conclusions in stark contrast with our fear of our students supporting positions we hold to be “illegitimate” such as support for a one-state solution or extending Palestinian refugees the right of return. Once again, we debated these issues in small groups before reconvening and wrapping up the weekends seminar.

The weekend was an incredible opportunity to see two unique and special Masorti Kehillot, to rediscover our passion for Masorti Europe, and to connect with other community leaders from across the continent. The educational sessions gave us ample opportunity to reflect on how we teach about Israel and Zionism, and the tours brought us in direct contact with Zionism’s most influential thinkers. A huge thanks to Rabbi Chaim Weiner and Sandra Blankstein-Cohen for their organizational work at to Lena and Rabbi Reuven Stamov at the Masoret Kiev Community for hosting the board meeting and the group for Shabbat.