A Rodeph Sholom student’s experience of our Israel education program begins in our early childhood division and continues until they graduate in eighth grade. Like many North American Jewish day schools, Israel is incorporated into the broader fabric of school life. We mark Israeli holidays, compare and contrast how chaggim are celebrated here and in Israel, incorporate Israeli culture in Hebrew classes, teach about Israel in Jewish studies classes, and our oldest students travel to Israel as a pinnacle experience. But until recently, there was no formal vision from which to tie together the various aspects of our Israel education program; in essence, the left hand did not always know what the right hand was doing.
Alignment with Our Vision
In order to ensure that our school’s vision aligns with our pedagogical aims and programming, administrators and faculty are conducting an audit of our Israel curriculum in light of our newly established statement on Israel. Approved by our board last spring, this statement, the first in the school’s history, was the culmination of a three-year process. It states:
Rodeph Sholom School fosters a lifelong love of, and responsibility toward, the State of Israel and its people (ahavat Yisrael). We guide students to develop their own connection with the land, people and State of Israel as a key component of their personal Jewish identity.
Through this audit, we aim to expound on not only how teaching students about Israel furthers the mission of Rodeph Sholom School, but, more importantly, how allowing students to explore what Israel means to them contributes to their intellectual and personal growth. Just as we devote time to helping students develop their own Jewish identities by giving them the tools to articulate what that identity entails, and understanding that this changes over time, we want our students to devote time to developing their own relationships with Israel and understand that it is normal for that relationship to evolve. We aspire to graduate students who understand the centrality of Israel (both physically and metaphysically) to Jewish peoplehood, and who also have the ability to reflect on what that means for and to them.
This reflective work is also essential for schools to ensure that they continue to be mission-driven and true to their values. At Rodeph Sholom School, this work is just one aspect of a larger, yearlong process, co-led by administrators and faculty, to evaluate a number of high-priority programs, including a review of several other curricular areas. The audit process will benefit both students and faculty as it allows teachers from across the divisions (early childhood, elementary, and middle school) to gain a better understanding of what is taught at each age level and why. It also creates opportunities for interdivisional collaboration, which strengthens the faculty as a community, as we experienced during our previous accreditation self-study. What makes the audit of our Israel curriculum unique is that we are aligning it with a newly clarified vision.
During the 2018-2019 school year, our Task Force on Jewish Life and Learning defined our school’s core values, grounded them in Jewish teachings and recommended that a vision for Jewish life and learning be clarified. This vision would serve as the guiding light for core areas in our school: Jewish studies, chaggim, tefillah, Hebrew and Israel. Initial conversations among school administrators were paused due to the exigencies of keeping school open amid the pandemic.
For a number of years now, there have been ongoing questions from faculty and families about the purpose of our Israel curriculum. Where and how does Israel fit into the mission, vision and core values of the school? What is the overarching principle that guides our Israel curriculum? Further, teachers and families sought clarity around these questions, when tensions escalated in May 2021. Families wanted to know how we were addressing this in the classroom, and faculty wanted guidance and assurance that the school supported what they taught. The concurrent rise in antisemitism sparked conversations amongst faculty about how we as a school should address it, and those conversations amplified the need to clarify our vision for Israel education.
Simultaneously, our school took part in the inaugural cohort of the New York Day School Fellowship with the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, which ignited ongoing conversations among school leadership about Israel and reinforced the need to revisit our work to clarify the purpose of Israel education at Rodeph Sholom School. The timing also coincided with our process to define our commitment to enhancing diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice (DEISJ) work; our school leadership saw the two commitments, to DEISJ and to Israel, as complementary and interrelated.
The adoption of our Israel education vision will ground our current curriculum and pedagogic outcomes and align it to our school’s mission. We need to take an honest appraisal of our Israel curriculum in order to gain greater clarity about what, how and when Israel was introduced in the school, and the extent to which the teaching of Israel is spiraled (or not). It also provides us with the opportunity to identify where our Israel curriculum is in line with other curricular areas. Not only will our Israel curriculum be strengthened as a result of this process, but more importantly, the student experience will be more robust. Our hope is that when we undergo our next self-study and accreditation process in a few years, our colleagues’ reflections and recommendations will continue to build on the foundation we lay in the year ahead.