Adding Complexity to the Teaching of a Complex Place

by Gary Pretsfelder, Principal


Schechter Manhattan is a Zionist school.


For years, our school’s goals for Israel Education have been to help our students feel connected to the land, people, and state of Israel, and to see Israel’s story as an important part of the Jewish people’s story, and therefore our students’ own Jewish identities.  However, what is the Israel educator to do when the inspiring, mythic stories of Israel’s founding no longer are sufficient to sustain the connection and relationship of their students? Or when American Jews begin to question whether Israel’s story is still part of their own, because they find themselves personally challenged by their experiences in Israel or by the values, policies, or actions of the government?


This is the question that we at Schechter Manhattan have been asking. As the complexity of Israel’s daily reality becomes increasingly clear, and our modern understanding of Israel more sophisticated, how can we help our students continue to develop a deep and connected relationship with the wondrous and mythic events, people and visions that inspired previous generations, even as we introduce a more mature, and also of course imperfect, country that we still call our home. In other words, how do we teach complexity?

For years our school’s curriculum has revolved around the successes and wonders that make Israel special: the inspiring ingathering of Jews from around the world and their return to their ancestral homeland, the physical beauty of the biblical land, the miraculous blooming of the desert, and the development of Israel as a first-world country and a center of innovation and technological advancement.


Two years ago, we set out to explore what it might look like to rethink our approach to Israel education.  We started with our core principles about Israel: a) The Jewish state is necessary for the national identity and safety of the Jewish people around the world, and b) love and commitment to Israel is an important part of a strong and meaningful Jewish identity in the 21st century. We then added what we know to be the recipe for successful teaching and learning: preparing our students to navigate complexity by teaching them to think critically, ask probing questions, engage in respectful debate, and develop the skills of empathy and perspective taking so that they can ultimately arrive at their own conclusions.


As an elementary school, this was, and continues to be, a particularly challenging endeavor for us. To introduce social and political complexity to a discussion with high schoolers, and maybe even middle schoolers, seemed possible and developmentally appropriate. But how could we introduce complexity in kindergarten?  This question has guided our work since the beginning.

To get started, we had our own professional legwork to do before we could bring these questions to our students. Israel is sensitive and personal for many of us, and we recognized that we would have to navigate a range of opinions and perspectives among our staff.  In year 1, our Head of School, Benjamin Mann, reached out to Israel educators and researchers in the field to learn how other Jewish educators were exploring new ways of Israel education, and we started a conversation among staff members who were interested in engaging different perspectives about Israel.


In year 2 we established a cohort of teachers and administrators in a two-year-long Professional Development (PD) track to re-imagine Israel education in our school. Five teachers, spanning K-5, and two administrators joined in partnership with Israel educators from the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) – Drs. Alex Sinclair, Ofra Backenroth, and Shira Hammerman — to define and update our goals, develop guiding principles, create a mission statement, and start the hard work of evaluating the school’s current curricular units on Israel.


Ruthi Servi, our Hebrew and Jewish Studies Coordinator, and I were happy to be the educators to lead the group. Guided by our JTS mentors, we began by familiarizing ourselves with different educational voices and curricular approaches, Israel education resources, and pedagogic best practices. Ruthi and I developed a mission statement and list of enduring understandings and essential questions for the teaching of Israel at Schechter Manhattan.  The guiding principles reiterated Schechter Manhattan’s commitment to Zionism, the centrality of Israel in Jewish life, and the need for us to fill out the narrative about Israel so that it presents an Israeli society and reality that includes multiple voices and perspectives.  Most importantly, it called for an approach to Israel education that is open to respectful dialogue and disagreement within the context of a Zionist classroom.


With a mission statement to guide us, we started the hard work of considering how we would expand our telling of Israel’s story. Also, we had to identify educational building blocks of ‘complexity’ that a young elementary school student could understand and negotiate. For our Gan/Kindergarten students we used diversity, a concept that would prepare them for the nuanced conversations about Israel that they would have later in middle school, high school, college, and beyond.  Our Gan teachers explored with their students the people of Israel – Jewish, Muslim and Christian – and how each community celebrates its respective day of rest. Together they looked at the similarities and differences of the different religious celebrations, and met representatives from each of the communities who talked about their own family’s practices. Through this experience, we helped our five-year-olds understand that Israel is important to a range of people, each who call it their home. That basic concept will, one day, be fundamental to a more complex understanding of the country, and the social dynamics involved.


Our fifth graders, as part of their year-long theme of New Beginnings and their unit on immigration, studied the Jewish aliyot (immigration) to Israel.  They explored the idea of home and homeland, and what it meant for Ashkenazim and Sephardim to leave their birthplaces and move to Israel. At the same time, our 10-year-olds also investigated who was already living in the land of Israel – Jews and non-Jews — and how they experienced the influx of immigrants and the impact the newcomers’ arrival had on their already established life in their homes.  While the focus of the unit was on the history of Jewish immigration to Israel, including the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors, it did not ignore the established populations already living there. Challenging our students to explore another person’s view of the same encounter teaches them that it is possible to experience the same incident in different ways. The teachers asked our older elementary students to consider point of view in their thinking about Israel’s history. Practicing empathy and perspective taking is an important experience in understanding complexity, and is a foundational tool that our fifth graders, no doubt, will continue to use as they navigate the realities of Israel, and all subjects, in the future.

Our work is not done. This week, our Israel PD cohort meets again to kick off year 3 of our project.  Again, guided by the new Israel mission statement, the participating teachers will approach other Israel units in our current curriculum and look for ways to expand and enhance them so that their students’ understanding of the Israel narrative is wider, deeper and more complex. Our ultimate educational goal is for our students to recognize that in any family,  pride and disappointment, joy and challenges, can all exist with love.  As we teach the next generation of Zionists, we want to ensure that their connection to Israel is real, has deep roots, and allows them to express their Jewish identity in full and with honesty.