Over the past year-plus I’ve been privileged to be part of the iFellows, a “master’s concentration in Israel Education” run by an organization called the iCenter.

iFellows is a program open to Jewish education, communal service, and ordination students from most of the schools offering such programs in the United States. It also includes as participants shlichim (emissaries), Israelis working in diaspora Jewish organizations. The program consists of three seminars over the course of a year, work with a mentor over the course of a year, an analytical paper, a practicum, and a trip to Israel. I also receive credit for an elective towards the Master’s of Jewish Education degree I am working on from Hebrew College. Almost all of it is paid for by the iCenter’s donors, including travel and lodging for the three seminars in the Chicago area. There is a stipend provided towards creating your own Israel experience.

Israel, and specifically my first visits to Israel in high school and college, were a major influence on my Jewish life and activity. So, I wanted my current program of study to serve the Jewish community to include an Israel component. On the other hand, one of the reasons I chose to attend Hebrew College’s cantorial school is that it didn’t require me to spend a year living in Israel, which would be too disruptive to my family. Being able to participate in iFellows, with a trip to Israel seemed like a good compromise.

Throughout the course of the program, though, it was so much more than a trip to Israel. One of the biggest benefits of the program was being able to develop personal relationships with students at other Jewish education and rabbinical/cantorial schools. It was a great chance to learn from them, network with other people similarly working to serve the Jewish people, and expand my knowledge of the Jewish world.

The program was also a way to develop further as an educator and leader, outside of Israel. The iCenter takes an approach of education as a primary goal (as opposed to advocacy on specific issues) and that resonated with me. My mentor, Dan Tatar, helped me work through lesson plans for classes I was teaching during the past year and asked me be a group leader in a singing event. The paper I had to write and practicum, for which I gave a short recital and talk about Israeli music, were experiences beyond what I would ordinarily have gotten through my cantorial school curriculum.

Finally, it gave me more perspective on Israel. What I realized the most is all the issues which lead to debates are even more active issues in Israel itself. It can seem on social media that Israel is a monolithic thing and people outside it can debate a certain policy or social issue. But really, all those issues are much more real inside Israel itself. It’s easy to get upset on Facebook that “Israel” is doing a certain thing I don’t agree with, but what I realized after exploring some of these issues further, including with Israelis, is that on pretty much every issue is complexity and different sides to the issue within Israel itself (the same as with any issue here).

Today I am starting on the final part of my iFellows experience which is the trip to Israel. The stipend doesn’t totally cover my expenses, but it makes it much more affordable. Since I’ve never done extended Jewish study in a traditional way (like in a yeshiva, as opposed to an academic institution) and since I’ve been hearing for years about Pardes which offers that type of study in English in Jerusalem, I’m headed there right now. As a final component of my iFellows requirements, I’ll be documenting on this blog my experience.

Oh, and one more benefit of iFellows: after flying to Chicago three times I’ve learned a few things about flying. Like, a shirt with pockets is really helpful when stuck in coach and not able to reach your bag. And that TSA PreCheck is totally worth it.

Blogging from the bar in Heathrow on my way to Israel!

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