Tag Archives: Education

Building Peace: Know Thyself

It has been quite a while since I last wrote about peacebuilding. Frankly, there have been other things on my mind, like the US presidential election, living in New York City, and trying to feel better on a daily basis. I recently returned from a much-needed trip to Southern California where, among other things, I remembered what I used to feel like and who I am capable of being. My mum recently told me that I’ve lost my sparkle. I hadn’t phrased it in such stark terms in my head, but I know that I felt sparkly in California.

I felt like me, which hasn’t happened in a long time.

In struggling to feel like myself and understand the changes I’ve been seeing in the world, I’ve been finding it difficult to continue the work I love. I love writing about education, peacebuilding, and working to make the world a better place. It has been difficult to focus on those things when so much of me is caught up in other trains of thought.

But I’ve been thinking a lot. Reading a lot. Time has passed. I went away for a week. According to the calendar, a tough year is over.

So it’s time to start over.

“Write down three adjectives to describe yourself.”

“If asked in complete confidence, what would your students say about you? Your friends?”

“When you think about being happy, what comes to mind?”

I have asked and been asked many varieties of the questions listed above. But rarely when I was a student. My employers and the friends I’ve made as an adult have been much more interested in how I would describe myself than anyone ever was when I was in school. Back then, it was always about what I wanted to do after college. People talked about the future. Rarely was anyone interested in the present.

Continuously looking towards the future seems to reduce or eliminate a focus on today, specifically in making changes today to benefit the world of tomorrow. I think this is problematic for several reasons:

  1. We need to believe in our abilities to have an impact in the world.
  2. We need to evaluate our present options in order to set ourselves up for a sustainable future.
  3. We need to decide today (actually, really yesterday) what kind of better world we want for tomorrow.

I see peace as the keystone in the arch of what comprises a better world. If we cultivate peace within ourselves, it is easier to see what we can do to make the world better because we are in the process of doing it, in our own lives. This means understanding ourselves in order to know why we want what we want and why we’re making the choices we’re making. To what ends, as my advisor in grad school used to ask. Indeed.

If we haven’t decided who we are, we can’t create the world we want to live in.

In working with students, I’ve found that it’s difficult to get young people to articulate who they think they are. Some are confident in themselves, which is great. But many laugh their way around the question, reluctant to sound too self-assured. Some truly don’t have anything kind to say about themselves and are crying out for help to whoever is willing to listen.

I think that one of the reasons for this uncertainty is that we don’t often ask young people what kind of people they want to be. We tell them what they should be. We tell them to be good, kind, strong, courageous, hardworking, polite, respectful. But do we provide them with opportunities to develop those attributes in themselves? Do we ask how they think they’re doing and where they want to improve?

One of my favorite activities with students in any grade level is when everyone sits in a circle and each student writes his or her name at the top of a piece of paper. They pass the papers around the circle, spending about a minute on each student’s page, anonymously writing down something they appreciate about that particular classmate.

To their credit, every group of students has taken this seriously. My favorite part is the minute or two of silence once each student has received his or her own paper and begins reading the anonymous messages. I love seeing their eyes move rapidly through the message, flipping the page over, returning to their favorite notes. I love the small smiles that spread unnoticed across their faces, the eyes widening in surprise and pleasure. I love the warmth that suddenly fills the room and the uncertain giggling when the nervousness breaks and students try to figure out who wrote what. Even when they begin to tease each other again, they keep the most personal messages private. No one really wants to spoil the moment. In every class, there are at least a few who whisper, “I didn’t know everyone thought that about me,” or “Oh! They think I’m funny.” In every class there are a few whose eyes just shine.

We learn what others think of us. But how does that align with what we think of us?

To build peace in the world, we need to understand that about ourselves. We need to know who we want to be and how to become those people.

In my ongoing quest to figure things out, I picked up The Hero Handbook by Nate Green. I’ve had a copy of it sitting in my GoogleDrive for so long that I honestly don’t remember how it got there. But I’m currently going through a self-exploration period and opened the book in my search for answers. As Hermione Granger aptly stated, “When in doubt, go to the library.”

Green suggests coming up with a list of personal rules to live by, which is something I’ve never actually done. I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions and ruminating over the answers. I’ve learned a lot about myself. There are decisions to make. Determining my guiding principles will hopefully help clarify how to live going forward.

In coming up with these rules to live by, I’m creating a moral code, such as it were, that I hope will help me take responsibility for my decisions, trust my instincts where appropriate, and stand by what I believe to be the best courses of action for myself.

Rebecca’s Rules to Live By

  1. Take care of myself by eating well and exercising regularly.
  2. Practice compassion to myself and those around me.
  3. Connect with friends and family by reaching out, sharing experiences, and acting from a place of love.
  4. Seek out and do things that scare me.
  5. Learn at least one new thing every day.

The five rules listed above are what I need to do in order to feel the best about who I am. This is what I require of myself in order to do what is important to me, which is to make the world a better place.

If I were to ask my students for their rules to live by, I wonder what they’d say? I wonder what I would have said five years ago, or ten years ago, or even farther back. If I’d had to come up with rules years ago, where would I be now? What rules would have changed as I changed? What would have stayed the same?

I’ve tried to make these rules as flexible and pragmatic as possible, but also constrained in the sense that these are five things I will not compromise. Come what may, if I can take care of myself, be compassionate, connect with others, push myself, and keep learning while doing New Thing X, New Thing X is worth it. If I can’t do those things, New Thing X is not worth it and shouldn’t happen.

So what?

That’s the question my students are required to answer at the end of any argument, written or oral. So what? Why do we care? Why does this matter?

This matters because I always want to be better. Better at being who I want to be and doing what I want to do, which is make the world a better place. I hope that creating these rules for myself reflects my current (and fluid!) understanding of what I need, what I am willing to do for the work I love, and the level of importance I ascribe to helping improve the world we all share.

I have done a lot of stumbling over the last months and that has distracted me from what really matters. Right now, I’m working to get all of that back on track.

Because the world needs it.

Because I need it.

Peacebuilding requires an understanding of what peace is and what we can each contribute to it. Knowing who I am and deliberately giving myself guideposts to continue growing as that person will help me do the work that I believe needs to be done.

Falling down is part of life. Getting back up is living. – José N. Harris

What Scares Me

My sixth graders have recently come up with a game. Before class begins, they hide just inside our classroom while I wait outside the door greeting each student as he or she walks in. While I’m doing this, the students inside the room jump out and yell, “Boo!” And then they laugh uproariously when I turn around slowly with my eyebrows raised, completely unfazed.

What my sixth graders don’t realize, among other things, is that part of teaching middle school means constantly being prepared for anything and taking it all in stride even when you aren’t.

The first time this happened, the kids asked in awe, “How are you not scared?”

I replied simply, “I’m not afraid of anything.”

They were stunned. One student spent two days listing off different events or activities that might scare me (i.e. a tarantula in my bedroom, climbing a mountain, skydiving) and consistently expressed surprise when I disagreed that each would be scary. While a tarantula in my bedroom might be uncomfortable and concerning and skydiving might be nerve-wracking and exhilarating, neither strike me as remotely scary.

“Things” don’t scare me. They never have.

Truth be told, however, I am more afraid now than I ever remember being.

Real Fears
With Donald Trump as the President-elect, there’s a lot to be afraid of.

And I am.

I am a woman, a naturalized US citizen (and I vividly remember the anxiety in our house when we applied for and received our Green Cards), and a religious minority. The vast majority Trump’s rhetoric and early policy proposals hit right where it hurts.

I have been inappropriately touched, spoken to, and spoken about on the subway. More than once. More than twice.

I have seen swastikas spraypainted on more than a few buildings.

My reproductive rights are at risk. As a result, so is my health. The affordability and accessibility of healthcare is uncertain.

My status as a person has plummeted and I no longer feel safe when I go running after dark.

I care deeply about the well-being of all people all over the world and of the health of the planet itself, so just about everything else Trump says is also cause for concern. My heart goes out to everyone who is a victim of the hatred caused by fear, which is a constantly increasing number. America promised to stand for the “tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free” and I will. I purposely smile every time I see a women in a hijab and men holding hands on the street.

Stand strong. I stand with you.

I am afraid of the rhetoric that half this country has deemed acceptable.

In short, everything about the recent US presidential election scares me.

And I need to keep bringing it up because I refuse to sit by and wait for history to repeat itself. We know what happens when fear gets the better of us. We fought World War II already. An estimated 50 million to 80 million people died.

Personal Fears
These are irrelevant compared to the much more significant discussion above, but I’m going to include them anyway. If my fears about the political state of this country and the world are enough for you, stop reading here. (No hard feelings! Come back soon!)

Otherwise, here we go:

I’m afraid of being alone forever. I’m afraid of never being able to express my love for others with the depth, intensity, and care that I desperately want to. I’m afraid no one will love me enough to keep me.

I’m afraid of not making a difference in this world. I’m afraid of not making it better.

Looking Ahead
My sixth graders ask, “How are you not scared?”

I am.

Bu my sixth graders don’t need to know. They are already far more attuned to racism, sexism, violence, xenophobia, anti-immigration sentiment, anti-LGBT sentiment, discrimination, prejudice, and other issues than I was at their age. They live in a world dominated by fear, and this is where that fear has brought us.

Afraid? Very much so.

Giving up? Not on your life.

Now more than ever, I am committed to understanding the concerns of those around me. As I do so, I will continue working to build a world that is truly sustainable, better, and more peaceful for all who call it home.

Please join me.

Fear is the main source of superstition and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom. – Bertrand Russell

Building Peace by Waging War

Disclaimer: I attended a Jewish day school from kindergarten through grade eight and then went to public high school. I grew up celebrating Jewish holidays and going to synagogue Saturday mornings. My siblings and I had to negotiate pretty hard to miss a Friday night Shabbat dinner at my parents’ house and I spent nearly every Friday night at Hillel throughout college. I attended Hebrew School on Sundays throughout high school to keep my Hebrew in reasonable shape and taught a grade eleven Hebrew School seminar on the Arab-Israeli conflict for two years after college. I am currently teaching at a K-12 Jewish day school. The following post reflects my personal beliefs and not necessarily the views of my school and governing bodies, our curriculum, or Conservative Judaism.

An alumnus came to speak to the eighth grade students at school last week. After graduation, he had moved to Israel and joined the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces. He spoke briefly about the experiences traveling in Israel that led to his decision but most of his talk centered around cool drone technology for gathering intelligence. The kids were understandably impressed and excited. They asked all sorts of questions about the mechanics and uses of the plane. The speaker showed photos of his army unit and explained the challenges of basic training.

I listened to the presentation with my mind racing. I was very aware of the conflicting narratives running through my head. Over the summer, I wrote about the search for congruence in my personal life. Over the course of the presentation, I realized that my views on Israel have historically been highly incongruent with my current conception of the necessity of peace for the sustainability of the planet and humanity.

The following is an attempt to trace my views of Israel and how they have changed over time. These ideas are very much in flux and I’m writing this post to demonstrate that – the changing nature of ideas we hold dear as new evidence and experiences force reevaluation.

High School
When I was a senior in high school, I took a contemporary issues class in which we spent each week investigating an ongoing global conflict in preparation for a discussion, debate, or Socratic Seminar at the end of the week. I remember being really excited when the Arab-Israeli conflict appeared on the docket because I had visited Israel for the first time over the most recent summer break.

During our weekly computer lab session I was sitting next to the boy I’d just started dating. I don’t remember the conversation we had at the time, but I do remember that he later told me, “The look in your eyes when you were talking about what Israel means to you – I couldn’t decide if it was beautiful or terrible.”

Likely, it was both. I felt a deep sense of ahavat yisrael, love of Israel. I was certain that Israel was the place where the Jewish people belonged. To my thinking then, it was the place that had been promised in biblical times and therefore had to be defended at any cost.

For the eight and a half years our relationship lasted, that boy in the computer lab and I managed only a few conversations about Israel without arguing. This is mostly my fault. Israel was usually a topic I would either refuse to discuss, or would only entertain under very limited and specific circumstances. Those were few and far between and largely occurred after an attack in the region made global headlines.

Though I am very much a promoter of dialogue, I was concerned that if I showed anything less than complete devotion to Israel, that would leave room for him and all non-Jews to question the validity of all of Israel’s land claims. Underlying this was the fear that people I knew and loved would not rally behind Israel’s right to exist.

The university I attended had a sizeable Jewish minority, which played a huge factor in my initial decision to apply. However, it was during my time in college that I encountered real opposition to Israel and Israeli policies.

My nine years of Jewish education, four years of Hebrew School, and lifetime of synagogue participation had not prepared me to respond to any criticism at all. As I had been taught, Israel was the Jewish homeland. Everything anybody did to defend Israel was good. Everything anybody did to suggest that Israel was misguided in some way, either in policy, laws, or land claims, was bad. All of my experiences with and about Israel had not prepared me to fact check myself and those around me, nor was I able to satisfactorily articulate my personal beliefs on Israel because I’d never engaged in real dialogue about it. I had always shut off those conversations and did not know how to respond when turning away was not an option.

I started to do a lot more reading and a lot more questioning. Everyone I encountered had a lot to say. As the adage goes, “Two Jews, three opinions.” The narrative among my Jewish friends, though varied, was limited. We collectively felt responsible for defending Israel around non-Jews and weren’t entirely comfortable with criticism among ourselves. If we didn’t steadfastly support Israel, who would? And of course, it is very difficult to be the member of a tight-knit group with a specific cultural narrative who starts questioning the narrative.

Hebrew School
Two years after college, while I was both a graduate student and a teacher, I was asked to teach the required grade eleven seminar at my synagogue’s Hebrew School. The Hebrew School model had evolved since I was a student, so this was not a class I had taken. Sure, I figured, how hard could it be?

Topic: Arab-Israeli Conflict
Goal: Explore the Arab-Israeli conflict in context with primary sources and evidence from both sides to help students think critically about Israel in order to deepen their understanding of and connection to it.  
Curriculum: The David Project

According to The David Project’s website, in the new curriculum that I was teaching:

Issues, especially those in the Historical Dimension, are addressed in a more chronological fashion, as opposed to reacting to common allegations or claims against Israel. We hope that this method will allow students to trace the evolution of the conflict and gain a wider perspective of key events.

There are no direct advocacy elements in this curriculum. While we believe Israel advocacy to be a worthwhile enterprise, the goal of this product is to engage students in thoughtful exploration of the conflict and to encourage future study and involvement.

The history of the Palestinian national movement is interwoven with the Israeli history and that of the conflict in general. While we do not take political positions, no study of the conflict could be complete without examining the Palestinian component and gaining a deeper understanding about how Palestinian identity, politics and terrorism, have shaped the conflict with Israel.

There is a greater emphasis on interactive learning, with each unit containing several suggestions for classroom activities that go beyond discussion questions. These activities are designed to produce a more experiential environment and one where students have to engage with the material on a more individual level and at a greater depth.

I learned along with my students. Almost every lesson I prepared involved a learning curve. Throughout the course, we encountered Israel’s founding documents; maps of the Middle East throughout history; statistics about Israeli settlements; political struggles in Gaza and the West Bank; legal documentation of the development of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO); position statements on one-state, two-state, and three-state solutions; academic texts about the refugee problem; and the moral dilemmas of Israeli policy that exist today.

This is what I had been missing throughout my own school years. I am confident that after completing the course my students were better prepared to articulate and defend their personal beliefs about Israel than I was at their age.

Back to Israel
I visited Israel for the second time over the summer of 2013, six years after my first visit. I had grown a lot and learned a lot, and had a completely different experience as a result. Israel had changed, too. There was more government-supported cooperation with Palestinians and Arab-Israelis, but also an increased number of controversial Israeli settlements. Our guide (who I cannot say enough good things about) constantly emphasized the need for multiple perspectives, multiple narratives, and the necessity of seeing all people as simply people who are trying to make a living and a life. Humanity is often forgotten in a fight for the right to exist. Most people, if given the option, would choose peace in order to live their lives and raise their families.

It is one thing to love Israel because of its history, culture, beauty, and people, which I do. It is quite another to agree blindly with every government decision. I had started to understand that in my first year teaching Hebrew School and grew to believe it during that summer.

I grew to love and understand the nuances of Israel far better than I had previously. And it’s really impossible not to love a place that looks like this:

Hebrew School Again
When I taught my Hebrew School course for the second time to a new group of grade eleven students, I had the background of the first year of the course as well as a foundation that came from my discussions with our guide, Ilan, over the summer. I’d spoken to him about my personal struggles to understand various elements of Israeli policy that did not match the narrative I had been taught during my own school days, in which there were no questions and no moral dilemmas.

By the end of the second year of the course, I thought I knew where I stood on questions about security barriers, settlements, and refugees. I did not agree with every decision the Israeli government made, but when do I ever agree with every decision any person, body, institution, or government makes?

As all of my recent writing on peace should suggest, I am very concerned with the state of our world. I am concerned with the lack of discussion given to peace not only in social studies classrooms, but in our contemporary and historical narratives. We are inundated with news reports and media glorification of violence, aggression, and war. We have not developed school curricula that emphasize peaceful dialogue, interactions, relationships, or cooperative efforts towards compromise.

When we talk about Israel, we focus on defense. How are we trying to protect Israel’s right and ability to exist when surrounded by neighbors who have sworn to annihilate it? How are we trying to maintain a distinctly Jewish identity in the tumultuousness of the Middle East? How are we honoring the legacy of those who fought and died so that Israel could exist?

While those conversations should take place, it is the glorification of the fight itself, the wars for independence and existence, that dominate the narrative. The speaker who presented to the eighth grade class at my school last week did not once explain what Israel is fighting for, or who, or why. There was an implicit message that fighting is the only choice, the only option, the only reality simply because it has always been that way. There was absolutely no context for why there’s war in the region or the need for continuous military intelligence. This is due to a prevailing view that Israel needs to fight to literally stay on the map.

While there certainly is ongoing conflict in and around Israel, we need to rewrite the narrative that only emphasizes war. We need to expose today’s students to context. We need to talk about why and who and how, as well as explore peaceful solutions to the conflict. One of my favorite examples is Seeds of Peace, which operates all over the world and has special programs that bring Israeli and Palestinian teens together. These initiatives need to be part of the conversation, too.

Discussions of peace must be far more nuanced than a simple lack of violence. At the moment, the narrative does not go that far. We absolutely need to emphasize peace as an attitude and state of mind if we are going to build a world where sustainable well-being for all is attainable.

I have attempted to convey the evolution of my views about Israel, particularly in relation to my goal of building a better, more peaceful world that is sustainable for all. Likely, these ideas are still in transition and will develop further as I continue to read and learn.

As explained above, the vast majority of my learning began when I was ready to see the other side and wanted to understand perspectives inherently different from my own. All I know for sure at this moment is that dialogue and honest conversation were integral to the expansion of my ideas about Israel and what it means to support Israel in today’s world.

I firmly believe Israel’s fight is worth fighting. If cessation of violence were presently a viable option, the Israelis would stop fighting tomorrow. Since it isn’t, however, they fight to protect their families and lives against those who have sworn that Israel will be destroyed at whatever cost to innocent human life. Ironically, this is the more peaceful option. Protecting human lives and promoting peace in Israel means fighting Hamas and its supporters, who use children as human shields and launch attacks from schools and hospitals.

I believe that Israel’s fight is necessary because it emphasizes that human life has value. If we lose that perspective, we have lost humanity. We can’t build a world that increases sustainable well-being by destroying human life in the process.

Supporting Israel means valuing and protecting the innocent person’s right to live.

Our world is struggling to cope with increasingly advanced AI, increasingly devastating climate change, and a variety of global issues that are far bigger than the conflict in one region. If any nation at all wants to survive, priorities around the globe have to change. We have to decide that innocent human lives are worth protecting and worth a reevaluation of our time, energy, and efforts. Israel is fighting to do that within its borders. This fight to protect humanity needs to be part of the way we discuss Israel’s history, politics, and efforts at conflict resolution.

For me, dreaming is simply being pragmatic. – Shimon Peres