Much Ado About Something: Clarifying Goals and Methods of Israel Education

Alex Pomson and Howard Deitcher

When it comes to Israel education, many schools depend on a short-sharp-shock, much as Birthright Israel does.

These are the questions at the heart of two ongoing studies being conducted by the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem with support from The AVI CHAI Foundation, and The Jim Joseph and Schusterman Family Foundations. Over the last six months, members of our research team have been pursuing leaders of liberal and Modern Orthodox schools in North America to learn how their schools go about the work of Israel education, and where they see their challenges and successes. With survey data collected from almost 150 schools, with nearly 80 different sets of curricula analyzed, and with intensive qualitative research underway at a sample of 16 schools across the continent, we hope to complete the most comprehensive examination yet of Israel education in North American day schools.

Our research will wrap up later in the spring. For the moment, we can share some preliminary findings and offer some first thoughts about what we’re learning.

Differences Between Orthodox and non-Orthodox

Modern Orthodox and non-Orthodox day schools go about Israel education in profoundly different ways. (By referring to non-Orthodox schools we group together community, Conservative and Reform schools, since there doesn’t seem to be a statistical difference between these streams in relation to Israel education.) To provide some examples: non-Orthodox schools are 50% more likely to run some kind of trip to Israel for their students; they’re more than twice as likely to use commercially produced curriculum to teach about Israel, rather than rely on school-developed efforts; they’re half as likely to employ Israelis on short-term contracts as either teachers or informal educators; and they’re almost twice as likely to run professional development about Israel education for their faculty.

Each of these differences could be explored at greater length since they reflect what may be a significant cultural difference between the schools. Given the constraints of space here, we focus on one of these differences and what school leaders tell us about it: the Israel trip. This detail sheds much light on the larger picture.

A Dependence on Israel Trips

Non-Orthodox schools are not only much more likely than Orthodox schools to provide Israel trips for their students, they also view the role of these trips in sharply different ways. When we asked schools that provide Israel trips to identify which of their programs has greatest impact on their students’ connection to Israel, 85% of the non-Orthodox schools identify the trip. This is not unreasonable: the trip is a high cost program that in a short space of time provides students with an experience of great emotional intensity. When we asked the same question to Orthodox schools, only 30% of them point to the trip. We find this difference striking.

To explain further: The 70% of Orthodox schools (and the 15% of non-Orthodox schools) that don’t mention the trip refer instead to programs that celebrate significant moments in the Jewish calendar. They point to the relationships students develop with Israeli faculty, and in a few instances they identify aspects of the curriculum that have impact over time. In these schools, it seems, the Israel trip may be a peak experience, but it is not an exceptional or irreplaceable one. The two or four weeks in Israel (or one semester for some high schools) do not loom large over the other four, seven or twelve years of day school education.

We wonder what conclusions to draw from those schools where the trip is so important. Is this because their students would not otherwise visit Israel? Does the difference between Orthodox and non-Orthodox schools therefore reflect not an imbalance in the schools’ programs but in their students’ Jewish lives? We won’t know for sure until we complete our qualitative research. But for the moment we can say that, in either case, we’re concerned that in non-Orthodox schools so much comes to rest on such a brief educational experience. One might have thought that the great educational strength of day school education comes from its drip-drip effect, from the fact that, over time, students are socialized in to a covenantal Jewish community and have an opportunity to wrestle with Jewish ideas and concepts. It seems, however, that when it comes to Israel education, many schools depend on a short-sharp-shock, much as Birthright Israel does; and in these financially challenged times their dependence on such high cost and experientially brief interventions seems increasingly perilous.

An Emphasis on Enculturation rather than Instruction

In relation to one feature of Israel education, non-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox schools are very similar. When they reflect on where they have the greatest impact on students, the great majority of school leaders point to programs and interventions that occur outside the classroom spaces where their students spend the bulk of their time. For the non-Orthodox, it tends to be the Israel trip; for the Orthodox, it is those special programs and experiences they provide during the course of the year or the relationships children develop with Israeli personnel in the school. When we look closely at the materials that schools use in the classroom—and at this stage in our research, we have looked only at the materials developed by commercial publishers or not-for-profit organizations such as the Jewish Agency or local Boards of Jewish Education—we find that these materials tend to be heavily skewed towards what we call an “experiential” rather than a “cognitive” perspective, that is, they emphasize their relevance to the students’ lives and experiences rather than focus on abstract concepts or academic content.

These findings lead us to wonder whether in the field of Israel education we are witnessing what our colleague Isa Aron (following Christian educator John Westerhoff) once called a paradigm of “enculturation” rather than one of “instruction.” Enculturation constitutes the broadly conceived task of introducing children into a set of values and norms, and initiating them into a culture and its commitments. Instruction is a more narrowly conceived task that assumes the child’s pre-existing commitment to a culture and society. It is concerned with helping children acquire knowledge of the ideas and skills that society values. Enculturation, Aron argued, is advanced by providing young people with well conceived and positive Jewish experiences; instruction occurs typically within the walls of the classroom in an interaction between the teacher and learner.

We sense that when it comes to Israel education, schools are engaged in enculturative work. Both non-Orthodox and Orthodox schools are seeking to cultivate commitments and inculcate values by providing students with formative experiences. They don’t seem ready to assume that students’ commitments are firm enough that as educators they can focus on instruction. This is no small matter, since historically schools have been sites for instruction rather enculturation; instruction is what most teachers are trained to do. Perhaps that’s why so many schools are inclined to sub-contract the work of Israel education to providers of Israel experiences. These providers are much better prepared to provide enculturative education.

A Search for Coherence

When we asked schools about their greatest challenges, we have been struck again by the similarity between Orthodox and non-Orthodox schools, despite the differences in the balance of their practices. To put it succinctly: Orthodox and non-Orthodox schools seem equally uncertain about how best to translate their commitments into practice. A minority—just one-third— employ an individual to coordinate the work of Israel education, even though Israel education occurs in so many different settings and at so many different times. Many schools are plagued by doubts about what kinds of age-appropriate outcomes they should seek when their students are emotionally and geographically distant from Israel. As the head of a community high school put it:

The major challenge we face regarding Israel education is, To what purpose? Is our Israel education program designed to serve as [a series of] building blocks to a culminating experience of the senior trip? Is our Israel education designed to provide our students with tools to deal with anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses? Should our Israel education be designed to make the “gap year” part of the school’s culture? Is there a way to make Israel education and going to Israel part of a means of rejuvenating Jewish life on our school campus upon their return?

Such uncertainty is not surprising given what we have described above. Israel education is a congested field. Schools feel an obligation to be active in it, and they’re being bombarded by new programs and interventions that promise to serve them well. We hope that, by the time it is completed, our research will help bring coherence and clarity to an endeavor that it is evidently central to the self-understanding of North American day schools. ♦

Dr. Alex Pomson is a senior lecturer at the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University. He can be reached at [email protected]
Howard Deitcher is a senior lecturer at the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University and a faculty member at the Mandel Leadership Institute in Jerusalem. He can be reached at [email protected]
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HaYidion Israel & Zionism Education Spring 2009
Israel & Zionism Education
Spring 2009