Brookfield, IL - When Brookfield resident Nancy Gebhardt travels to Israel this summer, it won't be her first time in the country.
For about eight years, when she was in her 20s, Gebhardt lived and worked on kibbutzim – Israeli communal settlements – in the Jordan Valley and in the Sinai Peninsula.
She is now associate director of the Jewish Studies program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. This summer she will visit Israel as a participant in Brandeis University's Summer Institute on Israel Studies.
The program was founded in 2004 by Brandeis professors Sylvia Fuks Fried and Ilan Troen, and this year will include 20 participants from colleges and universities throughout the U.S. and the world. Participants will attend seminars on Brandeis' Waltham, Mass., campus from Wednesday, June 13, to Wednesday, June 27, taught by faculty members who are world-renowned experts in various aspects of Israeli studies. They will then travel to Israel from Friday, June 29, through Thursday, July 5.
The program is designed to help give American academics the background needed to teach the history and culture of Israel in a rigorous way.
"I have dual citizenship. I made Aliyah, I immigrated to Israel and I have Israeli citizenship," Gebhardt said. "But I didn't have much real background in the history of the state, or Zionism, or even the religion, really, so I wanted a deeper knowledge."
That desire for deeper knowledge led her to become involved with the growing Jewish Studies program at UIC. The program offers only a minor, but Gebhardt and program director Dagmar Lorenz are working to create a Jewish Studies major.
A desire for deeper understanding of Israel also prompted Gebhardt to apply for the Brandeis program.
"It has scholars in every area of Israel studies: The politics, the religious aspects of the country, the historical aspects of the country, the conflict aspects, the peace process. Every aspect of Israel is covered in this program," she said.
Professor Troen said the program is designed to help bolster the study of Israel at universities.
"It's trying to make up for a shortfall in people who are able to teach Israel responsibly," Troen said in a telephone interview from his home in Omer, a suburb of Beersheba in southern Israel. "By responsibly, I don't mean teaching one side or the other, but teaching it like you would any other academic discipline."
He said an understanding of Israel is crucial to understanding many of the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.
"The worst situation is when you have ignorance together with malice," he said. "Professors can't do very much about malice. They can do a great deal about ignorance."
During their week in Israel, the program participants will tour historical sites, attend concerts and meet artists, public figures, journalists and everyday people.
In the end, each participant will create a syllabus for a course on Israel, which will be shared with all the other participants.
For Gebhardt, the week in Israel at the end of the institute will be a return to a place that has been an important part of her life for 30 years.
After high school, a number of factors prevented her from pursuing a college education. She was on a bicycle trip in Europe with a former boyfriend who had just finished college when they decided to travel to Israel almost on a whim.
"It was in September and it was a very cold winter. It kept snowing as we were riding south," Gebhardt said. "We started out in Luxembourg, rode through Germany, rode through France. We took a train over the Alps, but as we rode south in Italy, it kept snowing and snowing.
"We weren't prepared for that, and somebody mentioned the fact that the flights to Israel were cheap," she said.
Her boyfriend had family there, so they decided to go to wait until the weather got warmer.
Gebhardt ended up staying. She learned Hebrew through a program on a kibbutz and worked in the children's house, helping care for the children of the settlers while they worked in the fields.
She stayed in Israel for about eight years, making occasional trips home to visit, before returning to the U.S. for good in 1983. After her return, she eventually went on to earn a bachelor's degree in English from Roosevelt University and a master's in English from UIC.
She has made a few trips to Israel since moving home, and said she is looking forward to going again after attending the seminars at Brandeis.
"It's always more interesting when you go someplace with a deeper knowledge of it," Gebhardt said. "I look with wiser eyes then I did when I lived there in my 20s."