Planting Deep Connections from Afar: Yom HaAtzma’ut During This Second Covid Year

A year ago, none of us dreamed that we’d be back having the same conversations again one year later. How can we do this season of Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut in our day schools as well as we always do, when we are distant/ separated/ hybrid and more? But this year, our educators have done the amazing and extraordinary: day schools have designed, developed, created, built and imagined ways to foster and deepen connections to Israel, a key value for so many schools, even, despite, and perhaps because of, the pandemic.

Museums in Israel have opened their doors for “virtual visiting,” inviting students and teachers to explore, connect and learn. In fact, many schools have taken this a step or two further and created their own virtual museums and experiences, with students and sometimes parents being the curators and even the docents. From exploring the meaning and history of street names to designing virtual tours of unexpected places, schools have found ways to understand Israel, leveraging technology and their own graduates who are now there. Schools have tapped olim, IDF soldiers or faculty who were were shlichim, benot sherut, or shinshinim, building upon relationships and connections already in place. 

Recreating the shuk has always been a great activity, but going even further, some schools have designed entire city projects, where students study a city, and create places (that honor Covid rules, of course) where there are experiences and opportunities to “meet and greet” the people who live there, from famous leaders and pop stars, to everyday people. 

In the arts department, many schools are focusing on Israeli songs, creating lip dubs, lip syncs and even Tik Tok videos to engage families of all ages. Some schools taught classic Israeli line dances so the school could still dance while being 6 feet apart. Other schools have decided to explore the traditions and music of the global Jewish communities in Israel by learning famous lines in tefillah (prayer) and how different synagogues sing/ chant/ say this verse.

One activity that schools have designed enabling students to understand and relate to critical moments in Israeli history is called WWYD: What would you do? Cases allow students to consider what they would do in given circumstances. Role playing and discussions around famous dilemmas, from Ben Gurion’s decisions with the Irgun to modern day elections, enable students to consider many points of view and opinions, weigh factors that might be important to include and consider reasons behind a decision.

Even as the Yom HaZikaron and Yom Haatzma’ut programs are taking place in Israel, many schools livestream these inspiring events. Programs about the torchlighters, examining this year's honorees and what they represent in Israeli society, are popular.

Schools are producing make-your-own bingo games with Hebrew words and images, Israeli-themed Chopped (food) games, community car parades, escape rooms, scavenger hunts, hiking, archeological “digs,” farming extravaganzas, STEM programs about the Dead Sea and so much more. From podcasts, Kahoots and international quiz shows like Chidon Hatanach and Israel Unpacked, our schools have brought Israel alive this 73rd birthday.

Here is how Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, has adjusted to teaching about Israel during Covid:

1. Israel studies teachers in the Jewish studies department are making more room for current events discussions.

2. 12th graders have had or will have five sessions of Israeli current events with one of their teachers from Alexander Muss, Danny Stein, who is an Akiba/Barrack alumnus.

3. Danny is also doing three current events sessions with our 11th graders, including one on the Abraham Accords and one on the most recent elections.

4. Our 10th grade Jewish studies unit on moral dilemmas in Israel is being enhanced by three double period length sessions, one in March, one in April and one in May with experts from the Center for Israel Education (Diversity in Politics, Changing Borders, Pop Culture, Identity and Politics).

5. Our 9th graders will have their regular unit on Israel as part of 9th grade history in the spring trimester.

6. Our 8th grade had two Stand with Us livetours (virtual city tours) with Yoni Zierler, one in Mishekenot Sha'ananim and one in the Jewish Quarter, in addition to their trimester unit on the history of Zionism and the establishment of the State.

7. Our 7th grade has been building a partnership with their peers at the Da'at School at Kibbutz Sa'ad in Sdot Negev, part of Philadelphia's partnership region (Jewish Agency’s Partnership2Gether program). There has been an asynchronous exchange of information, and we just had our first virtual synchronous meeting with half the grade, and the other half will meet next week.

8. Our 7th grade also met with people from Ofanim, a STEM education program that serves Israeli students of all backgrounds throughout peripheral regions, as part of a curricular unit on tzedakah.

9. In December we had an upper school assembly with Israeli educator and fashion advocate Liri Cohen about Israeli fashion resilience.

10. We will be marking Yom HaZikaron with special assemblies and Yom HaAtzma’ut with a virtual torch ceremony, a special lunch, field day activities and special sessions with Hebrew teachers on Israeli culture.