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Monthlong Project Aims to Make Israel Central to Jewish Education

January 16, 2003
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In the poster, a girl wearing a peace sign necklace shouts during a rock concert, a boy in baggy jeans skateboards and a sullen-looking teen with a partly shaven head wears his headphones askew.

Over these black-and-white images run blue, white and yellow lines like some kind of video test pattern. The phrase “tune in” splashes across the scene, alongside some high tech-looking icons.

Focus on the icons, though, and they reveal images such as a palm tree, a camel and a map of Israel.

The poster isn’t advertising some music video; it’s for Israel Education Month.

The campaign, which runs from Jan. 19 to Feb. 16, involves an unprecedented array of Jewish and Israeli organizations who hope to return study about Israel to the center of the American Jewish educational agenda.

The program is aimed at young American Jews, whom organizers consider the future of Israel-Diaspora relations.

“We want to hard-wire kids about Israel and Israel’s place in Jewish life,” said Benita Gayle-Almeleh, director of the Renaissance and Renewal Alliance of the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella and of the Jewish Education Service of North America.

Beyond the goal of winning young Jewish hearts and minds with a “hip” package, the campaign — led by the UJC, JESNA and the Jewish Agency for Israel — is designed to integrate teaching about Israel into “the educational life of institutions and individuals,” said JESNA’s President, Jonathan Woocher.

In the past, there have been isolated efforts by individual schools and federations to boost Israel education. But the monthlong smorgasbord of teaching plans, curriculum ideas, Web resources and events caters to educational settings as diverse as Hebrew and synagogue schools, Jewish day schools and youth groups such as Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

While earlier efforts came in response to specific threats such as the Palestinian intifada, Israel Education Month hopefully will “create a new framework” that makes a lasting educational impact, said Marion Blumenthal, chair of the UJC’s Task Force on Educational Involvement With Israel.

Israel once took center stage in American Jewish classrooms, but organizers of Israel Education Month say programs emphasizing Israel’s centrality to Jewish life have fallen victim to social and historical forces.

As historic turning points such as the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War have receded into memory, teaching about the Zionist enterprise has taken a back seat to lessons about Jewish religion and culture.

In addition, less Jewish history is now taught in Jewish schools, reflecting a shift away from history lessons in general education, initiative organizers said.

In fact, “there was a sense among educators that Israel has never received the central place it deserved in the totality of the educational process,” said Elan Ezrachi, an official with the Jewish Agency’s Department of Zionist Education.

In recent years, programs such as Birthright Israel have tried to promote Zionism by bringing young people to Israel on free trips. Some U.S. Jewish summer camps also focus on Israel programs.

Over the past year, those behind Israel Education Month began meeting to discuss ways to renew classroom focus on Israel. They eventually designed the month-long menu of programs.

Among the offerings:

Israeli educators from the Jewish Agency and from the MELITZamerica program will make “house calls” on educational professionals, lay leaders and students to discuss issues about Israel and develop classroom materials;

Educators from Kibbutz Gezer’s Pinat Shorashim Jewish theme park will visit U.S. classrooms to discuss how to create an interpretation based on a biblical story about the Land of Israel;

A package of Israeli documentary and experimental films called “Long Shots of Israel” will be made available;

Booklets dealing with contemporary Israeli themes, called “Right on Time,” are posted online, and will include a special issue for Israel Education Month;

Guides to Israel advocacy are posted online.

Until now, Woocher said, Jewish educators have not focused on “how to make Israel come alive,” he said.

To combat that, much of the material involved in Israel Education Month is on a new Web site at, which targets a young, Web-savvy audience, Woocher said.

The site features a virtual tour of Masada; an interactive Tu B’Shevat seder, co-sponsored by the UJA-Federation of New York; and a Web-based music-mixing tool that allows users to create their own Israel-themed mini-videos.

Woocher said he hopes kids will forward the music video tool to their friends in what’s called “viral marketing” — getting the word out via email.

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