Educational classes focusing on Israeli politics led by Rabbi Yaacov Benamou at the Jewish Rockville Outreach Center (JewishROC) have taken on a new sense of importance since the Hamas terrorist attacks on Oct. 7 and the ensuing war.
Benamou has taught countless classes since 2006 after he founded JewishROC to be a place where people could have meaningful experiences and further their education about Judaism.
A soldier in the Israeli army during the 1982 Lebanon War and an Israeli resident for 14 years, Benamou has firsthand experience with the tensions, politics and conflict that pervade the region.
“Being Israeli, I was living there from age 14 until age 28, which gave me a lot of knowledge and the opportunity to see everything as it was being developed over the course of these many years. I’m 63 years old, and you begin [over the years] to get more and more understanding of all the issues,” Benamou said.
Benamou said his personal experiences opened his eyes to the realities of the complex political situation in Israel and the Jewish state’s relationships with surrounding countries, which has allowed him to teach these classes on the subject in a way that differs from knowledge learned simply through media coverage.
“I see a lot of people come to classes because people need to hear the whole thing. People don’t know that the media is so confusing. And there’s so much false news and false analysis that it [your knowledge level] depends on who you listen to,” Benamou said.
Benamou says he believes people enjoy his classes because he does his best to stick to the facts of what is happening or has already happened. He leaves analysis out of his explanations and that usually works in conveying a clear and logical explanation to people.
According to Benamou, his classes have become popular over the years, as people are hungry for knowledge on the situation in Israel and he’s able to cater to individuals with varying levels of knowledge about the situation and Judaism as a whole.
JewishROC also offers a variety of classes on Jewish subjects that are largely centered around text-based learning, with Jewish history and scripture being important topics they cover.
But with the popularity and relevance of Benamou’s Israel classes, he said he’s considering incorporating elements of those lessons into all the different classes JewishROC offers.
“Last year, we intensified classes because we found that people are just very, very thirsty for information. And we’ve been giving them for the last year more frequently, at least one class a week. But I began to see that it’s growing. And I’m considering putting it as part of the curriculum of all the many classes we give during the week,” Benamou said.
He says that having people craving knowledge and providing them a space to learn allows for greater community involvement, and he hopes that it will allow a wide array of Jews with diverse backgrounds to have a more intimate relationship with their religion and be a greater part of the community.
The history of Judaism can often seem complicated to people and can appear to be vastly different based on the contrasting nature of the Diaspora between scattered Jewish communities, and Benamou hopes to use his educational programs to help people make sense of it all and get them engaged.
“The benefit is they are involved in the community. They start becoming involved in community, they start going to participate in events in the community. They start following Federation announcements,” Rabbi Benamou said. “All kinds of information is available and they start coming to services, they care about Jewishness, the traditions. They become involved when beforehand they … had nothing to do with the Jewish community.”
The issue of being undereducated, which leads to a lack of connectedness with Judaism, is something Benamou is working to correct. He sees it as a problem plaguing the entire Jewish community, which informs his approach to welcome people from different walks of life when they come to learn.
“I think that is what our community is missing. And that’s what every Jewish community is missing – the opportunity to have people come and learn and be inspired about the Jewish life because we are suffering from intense assimilation, unfortunately, and a lot of my time also been devoted to fighting assimilation … Although we are Orthodox, we are an extremely friendly Orthodox community … We don’t let anyone feel that he is not welcome,” Rabbi Benamou said.