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Focus on Issues: Educators Seek Ways to Make Israel Relevant to Jewish Youth

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“You want to know what’s wrong with Israel education in the Diaspora?” one American Hebrew schoolteacher said to an informal group of fellow educators last week.

“It’s stuck in a time warp.”

The educators, all participants in the 21st Annual Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education, could not have agreed more.

Some 1,700 educators convened here last week for the five-day Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education conference, which gave them the chance to share teaching techniques and to recharge their batteries in time for the new school year.

The conference, which was co-sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the World Zionist Organization, was built around the theme of Jerusalem 3000, the ongoing celebrations marking the three millennia since King David established his capital in the Holy City.

Sessions focused on the importance of Jerusalem and the Land of Israel in Jewish prayer, history and contemporary life. Methods for teaching about Israel was one topic that frequently surfaced.

In informal workshops as well as in interviews, the educators talked about what many view as outdated materials and outmoded methodology still used in the field of Israel education.

Asserting that many textbooks — and teachers — are out of touch with modern Israeli society, the educators acknowledged that it is far from simple to excite their students about Israel.

“We’re focusing on heroic Zionism, on the First and Second Aliyah, on the establishment of the State, with almost no points of connection between what is being taught and the reality of Israel in 1996,” said Yitzhak Rubinstein, the Coordinator of Jewish Education at the South African Board of Jewish Education.

“Teaching Israel should go way beyond this,” Rubinstein said. “The country has many conflicts and dilemmas, like how to have a democratic state that is also Jewish and how to ensure pluralism and minority rights.

“What about the whole interaction between Jews and Arabs? These are live issues that have a greater possibility of igniting the imagination of kids than the old ‘Zionist dream’ methodology of teaching Israel.”

According to Moshe Sokolow, the New York-based director of education services at the Joint Authority for Jewish Zionist Education, most schools, especially in the Orthodox community, do not teach Israel as a living, breathing society.

If anything, Sokolow said, “from a reality perspective, Orthodox schools know less about the State of Israel [than non-Orthodox schools], and this became evident after the Rabin assassination.”

“The assassination brought out many reactions, none of which included the observation that the democratically elected prime minister had been murdered by one of its citizens,” he said.

What was missing, Sokolow said, “was the realization that this was a political assassination. Instead, [educators and students] viewed it in more partisan terms.”

He said, “Those who favored Rabin called it a blow to the peace process; those who didn’t said it’s too bad, but maybe now people will rethink the peace process.

“The schools have failed to identify that dimension of Israel that they can identify with and support, regardless of who is in power.”

To prove the point that teachers are out of touch, Sokolow asked those attending a seminar to “create” a new city of Jerusalem, and gave them the task of assigning street names to the imaginary city.

The only stipulation: The streets had to be named after well-known figures in contemporary Israel.

“I told them they could choose from authors, poets, political figures, singers, sports stars, but they had a very hard time coming up with names because they’re not all that familiar with today’s Israel,” he said.

“If the teachers aren’t excited about what’s happening here, how can their students feel excited?”

Deborah Price, director of Jewish Education Services at the Board of Jewish Education for Bergen County in New Jersey, acknowledged that “in some of our schools, Jewish history ends at the Rabbinic period. Some schools don’t even celebrate Israeli Independence Day.”

Price fears that “unless we make Israel a priority — both for students and teachers — when a teen-ager turns 16 he won’t want to visit the country, even when it’s handed to him on a silver platter. I know, I’ve seen it happen.”

Still, Price says, there are many Jewish education success stories.

“Some of our local Hebrew high schools have an Israel trip as part of their yearlong curriculum. One-third of the funding comes from the federation, the synagogues do their part and the cost to the parents is under $1,000.”

David Harman, director general of the Joint Authority for Jewish Zionist Education in Israel, believes that the problem is not one of outdated materials, but of priorities.

“There is a lot of good Israel material available, but a lot of institutions don’t use it,” he said.

“Sometimes they have no budget, sometimes they have no time to teach the material and sometimes there are no competent teachers to teach it.

“Only 100 Jewish studies teachers are produced in the U.S. per annum, and this in a country with over a million Jewish kids of school age.”

Another fundamental problem, Harman said, is that the majority of Diaspora teens drop out of Hebrew school after their Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

“You want to get at the teen-agers because that’s the age when you have a major impact on identity formation, but that’s the very time we don’t have the kids.”

On the other hand, he said, “non-formal Jewish education is thriving. Jewish summer camps are a very real, live Israel experience. Each year we send 400 Israeli counselors to camps in the Diaspora, and they are the real Israel.”

Until every Jewish teen has the opportunity to see Israel firsthand, Harman sees such high-tech tools as teleconferencing and the Internet filling the Israel education void.

“The problem is that such things cost a lot of money, and we don’t have it,” Harman said.

“A good Jewish education costs good money; it can’t be done on a shoestring.”

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