Amihai Bannett is Educational Director of Israel Connect (www.israelconnect.org), a Melitz program dedicated to developing and facilitating a two-way, long-term and interpersonal connection between Jewish youth from around the world and their peers in Israel in order to enhance their Jewish identity and commitment to the Jewish people. He is also a proud Wikipedian. He lives with his family in Beit Shemesh, Israel.
Tell me about your network.
We work to build a network of Jewish schools, educators and students around the world. I prefer using the word “connection” – we create direct connections between schools, resulting in many small networks of students and teachers in one school with students and teachers in their partner school. The big network is that of all the schools together. We’re currently working with 25 schools in Israel and 25 schools around the world – a quarter in the Former Soviet Union, half in North America, and the rest in South America, Australia and Europe.
How does utilizing this network help you in your work?
I do my job better because I do it with so many schools. I collect ideas from everyone, run ideas by everyone, and see what works and what doesn’t. Because of that, I can suggest what’s been successful, or say that I don’t think an idea is going to work because of the network experience I’ve had in other places. Some educators ask me: “Why couldn’t we just set up this connection ourselves?” The answer is that anyone can do it by themselves, but when you’re connected to a network, you get a better result.
How would you like to see Israel Connect grow in the future?
While technology allows us to carry the whole world in our pocket, the best kind of relationship is when it is done face to face. I want to seek resources to run a yearly conference where teachers can meet face to face – by bringing everyone to the same place and with portions open to participation online. Teachers would be able to see that they’re not alone. These teachers are engaged in this work because they’re passionate about it – and this way they would be able to connect and network with like-minded colleagues. Since there are differences in language and other points of reference between different areas of the world, we could even have mini-conferences so teachers could learn more from their direct peers. I would love to implement regional directors/network-weavers to foster mini-networks within the network. Finally, I’d like to build an Internet platform where everyone can connect and share ideas.
As a Wikipedian, I believe in open and free content. Everyone would share their lesson plans and ideas. I want to bring all of the people who are connecting Jews to each other to be under one roof.
How did you start out in building this network?
Six and a half years ago, I came back to Israel from being a day school Principal in Winnipeg. I taught in a Beit Shemesh school for a year. But from my time abroad, I was bitten by the idea of creating connections with Jews abroad. There was an ad in the newspaper looking for an Educator with knowledge in technology and familiar with schools around the world and in Israel, through AMIT, and I answered it. I then started running it on own, and in 2009 joined Melitz.
In terms of building the network, we did an initial tour in North America, but now schools around the world find us. We are active on social media (@israelconnect on Twitter and Facebook) and have a website.
Many schools in Israel are now in a Ministry of Education program to adapt the educational system for the 21st century. This program provides equipment for educational use, on the condition that the Israeli schools connect to a school outside of Israel. I also build a lot off of my personal network – through my personal connections, it becomes much easier to make new connections. So in some ways, you need a network to build a network.
What technology do you use for communication and collaboration in your network?
We use online collaboration and learning tools, such as Wikis, online forums and facebook groups. We’re also working on Moodle, an educational tool. For video conferences, we use Skype or high-end video conferencing equipment when we have more people involved.
How does your network promote Jewish peoplehood?
I see Jewish peoplehood as anything that connects Jews to Jews – that is its practical application for me. It could happen through schools and also through other platforms where Jews come together such as youth movements, March of the Living, Hillel, post-high school organizations, Jewish Federations, and so on. In fact, a lot of organizations share the same ideals we do, but it’s hard for them to do it all by themselves, so they come to us and hire us to help them achieve their goals.
One of the bigger challenges we’re facing is connecting the Jews in Israel with the Jewish people around the world. The Israelis don’t have the Jewish World in their frame of reference. The same can be said about Jews around the world’s connection with their peers in Israel. Everyone agrees that Jews everywhere should be connected to Israel, but I believe that the best kind of connection is a connection with the people and not only to the land of Israel. That’s one of the greater needs we’re filling: helping Jews around the world be in touch with Israelis and helping Israelis realize they should be in touch with Jews around the world.
Why is educational content necessary in the networking work you do?
A connection is more meaningful when it has content. If we’re friends on facebook but don’t talk about serious content, it won’t be as meaningful as if we do.
There are so many teachable moments when we have the kinds of global connections that Israel Connect creates. The by-product of these connections is in fact education. Of course we also talk about lighter things, because it gives a personal connection. But when we talk about – Why am I Jewish? What’s my connection to Israel? How do I celebrate Chanukah or Purim? – the connection becomes more meaningful.