Rethinking Israel Education

Rethinking Israel Education

Just this week, rockets fell on a home in north Tel Aviv and Israel responded with air strikes against Hamas targets in Gaza, continuing the ongoing violent confrontation between Israel and Palestinians.  The United States formally recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, territory considered disputed by Syria for over 50 years. Advocates for Israel in the United States gathered at the AIPAC conference amid a climate of political contention, including the comments of a sitting member of the US House of Representatives questioning the loyalty of American Jews who support Israel.  All this as Israel heads towards casting votes for the 21st Knesset, less than two weeks from today. It has certainly been an eventful and complicated week for Israel, and, as an extension, to be an Israel educator.

Whatever one’s political leanings, every one of these events raise big questions to grapple with.  Can Israel maintain its security and also come to terms with its neighbors? What is the status of territory that changed hands in the war of 1967?  How do American Jews maintain commitment to the interests of the United States and support for the only Jewish state? Which parties and leaders have the right vision for the future of Israel?  As an educator, I am challenged to consider how I can best support my students’ growth towards being able to engage these and many other hard questions as they navigate the complicated world they live in.

I have actually been thinking about this challenge in Israel education for some time now.  A couple of years ago, in the regular course of self-reflective process at Schechter Manhattan, I began to think critically about Israel education.  We always aspire to look carefully at our educational practice, to see our strengths, challenges, and opportunities for growth. When thinking about Israel education, I found that there were complicated things going on in the world, like the events of this week, and I wondered if our Israel education program was really preparing our students to face and understand them.=

I am a Zionist.  I believe that Jews have a right to a sovereign country of our own in our ancestral homeland, that the Jewish State is necessary for the national identity and safety of the Jewish people worldwide, and that a love of and commitment to Israel are important parts of a strong and meaningful Jewish identity in the 21st century.  The goals of Israel Education at Schechter Manhattan have emerged from these beliefs and have largely focused on building our students’ emotional connections to Israel. We have aspired for Schechter Manhattan students to 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 as such, a part of their Jewish identities.  These are already lofty goals, as it is not easy to nurture such attachment in young people in NYC to a foreign country, with a different language and culture. And yet, we have been pretty successful at achieving these goals, with students who know Hebrew, learn Israeli history, consider the place of eretz yisrael, the land of Israel, in Jewish tradition, and build cultural capital like the repertoire of Israeli songs they sing together in shira btsibur.  The students knew just what to do when the Israeli singer David Broza stopped by the school a couple of weeks ago, because connecting to Israeli culture is a natural part of we do at Schechter Manhattan.

But these types of learning opportunities, that focus on building emotional and personal connections to Israel as a Jewish state and Israeli culture, don’t necessarily address the reality of the challenges that Israel has faced and continues to face.  Like all countries, Israel is dealing with significant problems — conflict with the Palestinians, setting immigration policy for asylum-seeking refugees, corrupt politicians, and the suppression of Jewish religious pluralism, to name a few. If our students are going to be Zionists, they will need to be able do what we adults who support Israel do: they will need to hold together both the pride in Israel, such a huge success story in the history of the Jewish people and a miracle in our time, as well as the reality that, like all countries, Israel was built and led by people, who sometimes made mistakes, and those mistakes have consequences.  I worry that, in a contentious and ever more divisive cultural milieu, young people will see the commitment to Israel and the reality of Israel as being mutually exclusive, and reject Israel altogether.

It is my commitment to raising another generation of American Zionists that compels me to rethink the way we are doing Israel education.  I believe we need to add to our goals, so that our students feel connected to Israel and see it as a part of their Jewish identities, and also engage with challenges and problems within the history and current events of the State of Israel in developmentally appropriate ways.  We, the Jewish and Zionist educators who are nurturing our students’ love for Israel, need to be the same people who share with them a variety of Jewish and other perspectives of Israel, so that they understand Israel deeply, and so that they feel prepared to consider the diverse opinions that they will certainly encounter in high school, college, and beyond.

I am pleased that, with grant support from the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge and leadership from Gary Pretsfelder, Principal, and Ruth Servi, Hebrew and Jewish Studies Coordinator, a cohort of Schechter Manhattan teachers has been partnering with expert Israel educators from the William Davidson School of Jewish Education to do just that.  They are considering how we can implement developmentally appropriate curriculum and programming that support these broader goals for Israel education. We have just begun this work, and expect it to be an ongoing process of revision. Initial steps include identifying age appropriate content to explore different communities and perspectives within Israeli society.  For example, a Gan teacher is developing lessons about different ways that people in Israel mark holy days each week, including various types of Jewish communities and practices (secular, religious, haredisefardi, etc.) as well as Christian and Muslim people.  An eighth grade teacher planned a lesson in which students looked carefully at various versions of the map of Israel and asked critical questions about what perspectives different maps represent.  Gary and Ruthi are also developing learning goals and essential questions for the Israel curriculum that spiral from K through 8 in an intentional way.

To be sure, we will continue to celebrate all of the wonderful things about Israel with our students, including participating in the upcoming Upper West Side Celebrates Israel program, the annual Celebrate Israel Parade, a full day of festivities on Yom Haatzmaut, building positive relationships with terrific shinshinim, and the amazing 8th grade Israel trip coming up right after Pesach.  In these ways we will continue to inspire our students’ positive feelings towards Israel and also enrich their understanding of its complexities.

Our students want this from us.  They have access to all of the information and misinformation in the world available on their smartphones, and they know when we are not being straight with them.  They deserve Israel education that will help them figure out what all of this means to them, and how they will connect with Israel as they grow into adults.

Shabbat Shalom,

Benjamin Mann