Teaching Israel Up Close and Personal-Jewish Exponent Article

In the Jewish state, where life often travels at a breakneck pace, March 21 was a particularly hectic and eventful day.

Israelis were preparing for Passover, and President Barack Obama was in the second day of his three-day visit to the country.

As Obama prepared to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, two rockets were fired from Gaza at the southern Israeli town of Sederot, causing some damage.

And eighth-graders at the Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley were there in the Middle East experiencing it all — virtually, that is.

Several times a year, usually right before a major holiday, the class is taught by a teacher in Jerusalem via videoconferencing: The virtual sessions are part of the Bucks County day school’s partnership with Bar Ilan University, which is located outside Tel Aviv.

More than a lesson, the classes are really discussion sessions in which the instructor tries to provide students half a world away with a flavor of life in Israel. Rabbi Ira Budow, who has run the Abrams Hebrew Academy for more than 30 years, said that students need to know “there’s more to Israel than ‘Hatikvah’ and Yom Ha’atzmaut.”

A passionate educator and Zionist, the Orthodox rabbi said he hopes to impart to every student that “Israel should be at the center of our Jewish thought, our Jewish heart. I am trying very much to make this something that they understand as central to their life.”

When his eighth-graders depart on their school trip to Israel later this month, Budow said, “they are not going to go as tourists; they are going to go as educated young people.”

One might think that teaching Israel to day school students might be a relatively simple affair, that these kids would already be getting lots of knowledge about the Jewish state at home.

But Budow and other administrators at day schools throughout the region said they don’t take anything for granted. The schools devote a great deal of time and resources, both high-tech and more traditional means, to offer students as broad a perspective as possible on modern Israel.

In teaching teens, educators must contend with the fact that, if students read digital media on the subject, they are likely getting an incomplete or unbalanced view of Israel. And, schools are facing a long-term trend in which the younger generation is less attached to the Jewish state than previous generations, who identified with Israel as an underdog and, in many cases, as a miracle for simply existing.

The 2009 “Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia” found that 35 percent of those 40 and under reported feeling “not very” attached to Israel, compared to 20 percent of 40-61 year olds and 14 percent of those over 62.

On the flip side, however, today’s teachers have more resources available than previous generations of educators could ever have dreamed of, including, of course, the ability to click through cyberspace for a seemingly endless well of information.

For example, there’s the iCenter (theicenter.org), a Chicago-based innovation hub funded by the Jim Josephs Foundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation that pushes for Jewish educational institutions to fully incorporate “Israel — people, land, history, language and culture — into the very fiber” of their missions. The iCenter is conducting a comprehensive survey of day schools nationwide to gather information about how Israel is taught so as to identify issues and challenges. It’s focusing specifically on the experiences and perspectives of Israel educators. Jay Leberman, Perelman Jewish Day School’s outgoing leader, serves as an iCenter consultant. He could not be reached for comment for this story.

Anne Lanski, executive director of the center, said one of the biggest challenges of the past few decades is that, too often, Israel has been treated as a distinct subject rather than holistically included in the development of Jewish identity.

“The burning issue is that Israel needs to be understood as integral to Jewish education,” said Lanki.

Nationally, the last decade has seen great improvement in both supplemental and day schools, she said.

“Today, we are at a very promising place in time because we are adopting best practices about identity-building in education,” she said.

The growing number of technological tools is another reason Israel education is improving, she said. “And the Jewish communal agenda and the place of Israel — it’s front and center.”

For a more traditional setting, there’s the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel, which is affiliated with Emory University in Atlanta. Last summer, Leslie Pugach, who teaches history and humanities at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, attended a summer workshop that was geared toward high school teachers.

Although students learn about Israel throughout their time at Barrack, Pugach has the particular challenge of teaching a course on Israel to 11th-graders who opt not to spend a portion of their junior year studying in Israel at the Alexander Muss High School, a program in which the majority of 11th-graders participate.

Pugach uses an array of curriculum and materials developed by the Emory institute. Through the institute’s online database, she introduces the youngsters to many of the primary documents that have defined Israel’s history. She also makes heavy use of audio-visual material. “When you talk about the foundation of the state, what are its moral foundations? What are its ethical foundations? What are the legal foundations?” Pugach said, describing some of the questions she explores with students.

Pugach said she hopes to get students thinking and talking about “what does being a Zionist mean? Not everybody needs to be a fan of Bibi — he might make some not-so-great decisions — so what do we do about that?” she said, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Budow, of Abrams Hebrew Academy, said he uses curriculum developed at Bar Ilan University to expose his students, especially his eighth-graders, to topics ranging from Israel-Diaspora relations to how the global media covers Israel.

“We have an obligation to educate our kids now in a very organized and structured way,” he said. “You have to have a curriculum. You have to have goals.”

Rabbi Shmuel Jablon, principal of Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia, which runs from pre-K to eighth grade, said Israel is a constant theme throughout his school’s curriculum and is taught as part of Bible studies, geography, history and Hebrew language.

“We are constantly trying to find additional ways to teach about Israel and it really is pervasive in the curriculum,” he said. “It is impossible to teach Judaic studies without teaching about Israel.

“Israel,” he added, “is very much a lving place. It’s more than just falafel on Yom Ha’atzmaut. It’s a deep connection every single day. We have many families with relatives in Israel or who visit frequently. We teach our students to aspire to make aliyah and to thank Hashem for the miracles He has done for us in Israel.”

Nearly everyone interviewed for this story placed a strong emphasis on preparing students for college, where many of their ideas and assumptions will likely be challenged by anti-Israel activists.

To that end, supplemental Jewish schools are also working hard to teach about Israel and prepare students for the college environment.

For example, the Jewish Community High School of Gratz College — which has more than 300 students in six locations — is planning to take about 20 students in May on a three-day, Mid-Atlantic college tour. Teens will hear firsthand from college students and Hillel staff about the tenor of the Israel debate on campus. The high school program also offers a variety of electives and special programs related to Israel, including a course focusing on Israel advocacy.

While supplemental schools clearly have less time to impart knowledge than day schools, a number of area Hebrew schools have strong Israel components and some offer their own trips to the Jewish state.

At the joint Hebrew high school run by Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El and Adath Israel, both Conservative synagogues on the Main Line, sophomores take a class on modern Israel that features content developed by Jerusalem Online University. Last winter, roughly 20 students took part in a winter trip to the Jewish state, according to Rabbi Leah Richman, who co-directs the high school.

“We teach students how to advocate for Israel in high school,” said Richman. “We teach the children to support Israel, and about the connection between the Jewish state and the Diaspora.”