Using the News to Enhance Jewish Identity in Jewish Kids

by Sheri_Oz

Use positive news events that arise concerning Israel to help Jewish kids maintain their ties to our culture and peoplehood.

What a challenge it is to raise proud Jewish children with strong ties to Israel when there is such a plethora of horrible news coming out of the Middle East and almost incessant Israel-bashing in the media. And then along comes a moment when our breathing becomes just a little bit easier and our chests expand with pride and happiness – seventeen countries, not all of them friendly to Israel, publicly acknowledge the connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and the vitality of Jewish culture wherever we are in the world.

On 5 July 2015, UNESCO inscribed Beit Shearim as the latest of eleven Israeli sites on the World Heritage Sites list. This event provides a unique opportunity to help raise awareness among Jewish youth regarding our ties to Israel as the indigenous peoples of the Land.

A Chance Visit to Beit Shearim

A friend was visiting me from the USA and we wanted to see something interesting and we had only the morning hours for our trip. I decided to take her to Beit Shearim as I had been meaning to see the place myself but had never yet had the opportunity.

It was with great surprise, then, that as we were waiting for the volunteer guide to meet us, a man running by excitedly stopped to tell us that just the day before UNESCO had voted Beit Shearim a World Heritage Site. Later we saw him being interviewed for foreign TV news and discovered that he is one of the archeologists working on the site. I took a chance and asked him if I could interview him for this article - he agreed, and I got permission from the National Parks Authority to use it. We will see it in a later section of this article.

Synagogue Outside Official Beit Shearim Site
Synagogue Outside Official Beit Shearim Site
Photographer: Sheri Oz

Israel Is Recognized as the Home of the Jewish People

In his acknowledgement of this support for the site, Permanent Member of Israel’s UNESCO delegation, Ambassador Carmel Shama Hacohen, spoke of his excitement for not having to defend Israel against defamation, but, rather, for being able to share a rare moment of “nonpolitical, professional, positive and solemn” discussion in which the ties of Judaism to the Land of Israel are endorsed by this international body.

This stands in stark contrast to the repeated demonization of Israel in the UN Human Rights Commission and other international bodies.

Indeed, it was moving listening to representatives of each of seventeen countries of the twenty-one on the World Heritage committee support Israel’s application for Beit Shearim to be added to the list of important cultural and historical properties. The four UNESCO committee member states that did not vote for the proposal also, uncharacteristically, remained silent, thereby avoiding any taint to the uplifting tone of the session. I was waiting anxiously for the inevitable rancor to emerge, and it never did. You can listen to the UNESCO discussion in its entirety beginning at 1:58 on the tape below. 

Congratulatory Speeches by the Nations Raise Interesting Discussion Points

Within the congratulatory speeches offered by a number of the delegates, we can identify talking points to raise with your children, or your students, if you are a teacher. For example,

  1. Turkey acknowledged the authenticity of the site, recognizing its connection with the Jewish people. Children might be curious about how authenticity is evaluated and the disagreement that can arise in spite of available evidence. While it appears that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, editor of the Mishna in its final form, is buried in one of the catacombs, there are those who dispute this claim. You can ask your kids or your pupils to look for arguments on both sides of this issue. Vibrant debate is part of our Jewish culture and examination of both sides of this argument can further our children’s abilities to respectfully carry on the tradition of: three Jews means four opinions, all energetically defended
  2. Portugal declared that Beit Shearim represents “an exceptional testimony to ancient Judaism and to Jewish culture . . . [and that] this site has outstanding value in historical, cultural, religious and artistic terms.” Exploring why Portugal would make this statement can lead to an understanding of the resilience of the ancient Jewish people after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, a trait noted by India.
  3. Historical evidence of our ancient Jewish culture, of the multiculturalism and intercultural relations of our ancestors, and of the aesthetic and artistic value of Beit Shearim were raised, respectively, by Finland, Vietnam and Columbia. At the site, archeologist Dr. Dror Ben-Yosef explained to me that Jews in the Diaspora integrated aspects of the cultures within which they lived and when families brought the bodies of loved ones to this spot for burial, either from within or outside of the Holy Land, the variety of artistic decorations ordered to adorn the stone coffins of family members attests to these influences. I was particularly intrigued by the ability, from antiquity to modern times, for us Jews to maintain our common sense of community in spite of having been dispersed across the globe; wanting to be buried in Israel is one expression of our spiritual connection to the land even after defeat and conquest. You might ask your kids or pupils to think of other ways in which Jews maintain community and connection to Israel today, or to think up new ways for doing so.

Gates to Rabbi Yehudi HaNasi's Tomb
Gates to Rabbi Yehudi HaNasi's Tomb
Photographer: Sheri Oz

Archeology May Contain Lessons For Today's Youth

Dr. Ben-Yosef made the comment that, while Jews of varying degrees of religious affiliation may find it hard to live together, in Beit Shearim they found peace in death, with idolatrous imagery on stone coffins resting side-by-side with the plain unadorned coffins of the ultra-religious. I can easily see this idea as an invitation to invigorating and fruitful discussion with our young people on the subject of tolerance and intolerance within the Jewish people.

Greek Motif on Coffin
Greek Motif on Coffin
Photographer: Sheri Oz

Another interesting point Dr. Ben-Yosef raised is one effect of the sudden large influx of people wishing to bury their loved ones near the great Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi: This meant that there were not enough skilled craftsmen who could fashion the coffins and, therefore, some were designed by untrained locals, resulting in charming "naive art" on some of them. You can see an example in the photo below.


To the left is a photo of a coffin with a Greek Motif.


Naive Lion Motif on Coffin
Naive Lion Motif on Coffin
Photographer: Sheri Oz

A Final Word

It was a rare privilege to listen to the discussion in a UN organization that did not accuse Israel of anything bad, but rather, that praised Judaism and the Jewish people and acknowledged our association with this land. I am going to hang on tight to this feeling and savour it because the next anti-Zionist/anti-Semitic moment is always just around the corner (as, in fact, happened just a few days later when the very same UNESCO denied the Jewish connection to Jerusalem). This feeling of pride and connection is something I want for all our kids.

A resource for understanding the basis for the UNESCO decision to endorse Beit Shearim as a World Heritage Site with information regarding the discussion questions above: ICOMOS Report for the World Heritage Committee, 2015: page 227 of the document (331 in the pdf)

Updated: 07/03/2016, Sheri_Oz
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Sheri_Oz on 07/26/2015

Thank, blackspanielgallery. Yet, disconnecting Jerusalem from the Jewish people is exactly what the Arabs, the UN and the USA are trying to do, declaring it instead and "international" city. This is why the USA (and many other countries) have their embassies in Tel Aviv and not Jerusalem, for example.

blackspanielgallery on 07/26/2015

Interesting article. I see no way to not connect Jerusalem to the Jewish people. Perhaps there was political pressure to rewrite history.

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