In Teaching Israel, Day Schools Grapple with Conveying Nuances

At the Tehiyah Day School in this city in the San Francisco Bay area, Israel is taught in practically every subject.

In a third-grade science class about birds, the teacher might bring up the birds of Israel. When the eighth grade screens the PBS documentary “The Jewish Americans,” it could be followed by a screening of “A Woman Named Golda,” after which the students would compare immigration in the United States versus Israel.

“They never know where they’ll hear about Israel — in math, in art, anywhere,” said Judaic studies teacher Lisa Wurtele.

This 280-student community day school is one of many Jewish day schools trying to integrate Israel into various aspects of its curriculum. Experts say the practice has gained currency in recent years, at pace with increased concerns about a growing disconnect between Diaspora Jews and Israel.

But Israel is not always a subject easily taught, particularly when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Israel’s religious-secular divide.

Jewish schools like Tehiyah, which prides itself on teaching tolerance and features a hallway mural students painted two years ago showing smiling Arabs and Jews holding hands atop the Western Wall, are grappling increasingly with the question of how exactly to teach Israel.

“Schools are asking, what is the goal of Israel education?” said Rabbi Joshua Elkin, the executive director of PEJE: Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, an advocacy and support organization for North America’s Jewish day schools. “To paint it as ‘Israel can do no wrong,’ the unblemished Israel? Or should we engage people with the real Israel, Israel with all its warts, an incredibly exciting place that struggles with all these problems?”

PEJE’s national conference, held last week in Boston, hosted a session on the topic.

“We hear from schools in left-leaning communities where parents don’t want them to do pro-Israel education, and others with right-wing parents saying don’t teach pro-Palestinian,” said Marion Gribetz, the facilitator of PEJE’s Community of Practice, a networking group of 130 day-school educators.

Teachers and parents today can’t take for granted that their children will automatically feel connected to Israel, even after 12 years of Jewish day school.

“The Israel portrayed in the news raises a lot of questions for this generation,” said Reuven Greenwald, North American director of the 4-year-old Makom initiative, a Jewish Agency-sponsored program that advises Jewish communities on strengthening their Israel education. “If we talk on a superficial or mythic level, we won’t reach them. They may say, ‘I have a strong Jewish identity here in my community, why do I need Israel?’”

Some educators say Jewish schools should focus on Israel advocacy and that introducing too much controversy will muddy the waters. Others say instructors should adopt the same critical-thinking approach to Israel that they use for other academic subjects.

“There’s a temptation to teach only the heroic story, and there is a heroic story to be told — that Israel is a modern miracle brought about by the valiant efforts of the Jewish people,” said Marc Kramer, executive director of RavSak: The Jewish Community Day School Network.

“That’s true, but it’s a piece of the story. The story is far more complicated than halutzim putting on their kova tembel and picking oranges,” he said, using the Hebrew words for pioneers and triangular hats.

Part of it has to do with grade level.

Cookie Rosenbaum, the Judaic studies principal at the elementary school of the Striar Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox day school in Sharon, Mass., says that because her school only goes to sixth grade, “we don’t go there” when it comes to discussing the current political situation in Israel.

Not teaching Israel’s nuances carries a price as well, some educators point out. They say it’s unfair to expect older teenagers who were taught only the mythic, heroic version of Israel to be able to deal effectively with anti-Israel hostility on college campuses.

Partly to help schools meet this need, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Jim Joseph Foundation joined forces recently to launch an Israel Education Resource Center that will provide materials and training for use in schools, camps and youth groups.

“We realized that most students were coming to university with very limited understanding of modern Israel,” said Lisa Eisen, the Schusterman foundation’s national director.

At Gann Academy, a pluralistic community day school in Waltham, Mass., Susie Tanchel, the associate head of school for Jewish education, says the school “doesn’t run away from nuance or complexity” in teaching Israel. It’s part of Jewish critical thinking, she says.

In the 12th grade, students go through a transition program called Maavar where they are introduced to the hot-button, Israel-related issues stirring controversy on college campuses, “so they will learn how to navigate those conversations and won’t be taken aback when they confront them,” Tanchel said.

“Hopefully,” she said, by learning about the land and people of Israel, including its most perplexing problems, “they will develop a desire to advocate for Israel.”

Day schools increasingly are sponsoring trips to Israel to cement what students are taught with face-to-face contact. The trips have been on the rise for about a decade, according to Gribetz, as day schools assume more responsibility for instilling a love of Israel that children used to get at home, camp or a youth group.

“Today, for many of these families, day school may be the only Jewish or Israel connection they have,” Gribetz said.

The Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union in West Orange, N.J., long has been sending its 12th-graders to Israel for a semester. Two years ago the school expanded the program to a full four years, beginning with a ninth-grade trip to its sister school in Merhavim, in southern Israel.

By the end of high school, says the chair of the school’s Hebrew department, Lilach Bluevise, American students and their Israeli peers forge close bonds.

“I can’t just bring an advocacy program to my high school kids; they’ll say it’s just propaganda,” Bluevise said. “Once you have friends in Israel, no matter where the fence goes or who the prime minister is, you love Israel because you have a friend there.”

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