Rabbi Melissa Buyer-Witman during the eight-day Qushiyot workshop in Israel.

It’s harder to talk about Israel when we’re living in an increasingly polarized age. Yet the need to embrace the conversation about Israel and wrestle with all its complexities has never been greater. That’s true for tweens and teens as well.

“I had the feeling that we were doing teens a disservice by not giving a meatier, more sophisticated understanding of Israel,” says Rabbi Melissa Buyer-Witman, Director of Lifelong Learning at Temple Israel of the City of New York.

So when Rabbi Buyer-Witman learned about the Qushiyot Israel Education Fellowship, a program of The Jewish Education Project and funded by UJA-Federation, she knew she wanted in.

Qushiyot, Hebrew for “questions,” is a yearlong fellowship for educators who teach preteens and teens in part-time educational settings at congregations and JCCs in Westchester, Long Island, and throughout New York City. The goal? A new approach to learning about Israel through questions that explore the complexities facing the country today.

The question-based method was developed by Makom, an initiative of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

“Qushiyot gives us permission to have conversations about the realities of Israel,” notes Rabbi Buyer-Witman. “And teens understand that questions are invited.”

The yearlong fellowship also includes individual coaching for educators, workshops in New York, guidance on gaining support from lay and professional leadership, and an eight-day workshop in Israel based around Makom’s question-based method.

Rabbi Charles Savenor with other educators at the Qushiyot workshop in Israel.

For Rabbi Charles Savenor, Director of Congregational Education at Park Avenue Synagogue, the emphasis on asking questions was liberating.

“Before I participated in Qushiyot, sometimes [I felt] questioning Israel was seen as not standing with Israel,” he says. “Qushiyot showed me using questions can bring us closer to Israel and closer to each other, because we can have constructive conversations.”

Some of the questions Rabbi Savenor is likely to ask students now include: What is an Israeli? What does Israel gain and what does Israel sacrifice by having such a strong army and security network? What does it mean to have a connection to the land, when other citizens have their own connection to the land?

Rabbi Savenor has learned that, whether or not people agree with the responses to these views, raising questions helps people have a deeper appreciation of different perspectives.

“As an educator before I participated in Qushiyot, I would think, ‘What’s the point I want to make to students?’” Rabbi Savenor says. “Now I think, ‘What are the questions that frame the issues we look at, what questions do I want students to leave asking?’”

The questions posed by Qushiyot’s method are not an end point in themselves. They are a direction leading to a deeper understanding of Israel.

As Rabbi Savenor says, “This new approach enables my students to explore Israel in a really constructive, positive way.”