Israel in the Classroom: A Reflection
By: Daniella Adler and Elana Rothenberg, Schechter Manhattan teachers
As Jews and as Jewish educators, we spend a lot of time and attention thinking of ways we can enrich our curriculum and bring Israel into our classrooms, both formally and informally. We want to make Israel education more holistic and more nuanced, and to make sure that our units are developmentally appropriate while still depicting the cultural, religious and political complexity of this small country. How can we help our students make deep and meaningful connections to their ancestral homeland?
This year, we had the opportunity to join a professional development cohort focused on Israel education. In collaboration with Professors Ofra Backenroth, Shira Hammerman, and Alex Sinclair from JTS’s William Davidson School of Jewish Education, and with Gary and Ruthi as well as colleagues from grades K and 1, we began rethinking Israel education at Schechter Manhattan. This cohort gave us, as teachers in second grade and in the fourth-fifth grade, a bird’s-eye-view of the lower school’s scope and sequence of Israel curriculum.
We spent a significant amount of time talking about our own personal connections and our time spent in Israel and how that can be an additional resource for touchpoints in our units and for our students. Our conversations empowered us to explore our own biases, notions and ideas about the purposes of Israel education, and gave us the opportunity to be in conversation about how to make our Israel units more focused, more meaningful, and more complex.
A peek into our own units can provide a window into our hard work:
In second grade, Daniella’s students spend the first few months of the year studying the water cycle in Science and community in Theme. It felt logical to develop an Israel unit that would combine these two areas of study. The new unit, “Water Resources and Community” focused on water resources, water access and water technology innovation in Israel and in our students’ lives. Students explored the religious, cultural and political relationships the people of Israel have had and still have with water. They also reflected on their own water habits and learned about the water practices of countries around the world. Students got to think and reflect on the questions: Where does freshwater come from? How do people access fresh, clean, drinkable, usable water? How do different populations in the world have different relationships with water? What responsibility do governments have to provide fresh water to their people? What has Israel done to solve their water problem? How can Israel, as a country with a strong culture of innovative technology, help other struggling nations in the world with their water problems? This unit created meaningful and thought-provoking conversation in our classroom. Students got to think about Israel in a new and different way.
In fourth and fifth grade, Elana’s students spend four months learning about immigration to the United States: the push and pull factors that that led immigrants from around the world to leave their homes and come to the US, as well as the challenges and successes they experienced in America. It felt natural for the unit on Israel to parallel that exploration. Students are using the same research and presentation skills to learn and teach one another about different aliyot, immigrations of different Jewish communities from around the world to Israel. Students are learning about these aliyot through the personal: stories of individual families who made this journey. What factors pushed them to leave their homes? What factors pulled them to Israel? What challenges did they face in building a new life? The unit is framed through the concepts of home and homeland. How does our ancestral longing for the Land of Israel relate to the those Jews making aliyah to the modern State of Israel? How have these various groups, along with their ideals and diverse cultural backgrounds, shaped what we know as Israel today?
The experience of coming together to collaborate on units with colleagues was incredibly valuable. Going forward it would be wonderful to continue this collaborative process with the broader school faculty. We’d also like to explore how this way of thinking about Israel education could positively impact the experiential, less structured times of the day and year, including daily morning meeting and our celebrations of Yom HaZikaron, Yom HaAtzmaut and chagim, just to name a few. By coming together to think about how our units align and about the scope and sequence of teaching about Israel, we have strengthened the logical and nuanced trajectory of teaching Israel inside the classroom. Continuing this work with a focus on Israel outside of the formal curriculum can lend an additional immersive element to our students’ encounter with Israel as a theme throughout their school experience.
Daniella Adler and Elana Rothenberg