What do we mean by high quality Israel education and engagement? Many thinkers have in recent years urged us to stop thinking about Israel through what Cohen and Liebman (“Israel and American Jewry in the Twenty-First Century”) call the “mobilization model,” in which Israel is primarily seen as in need of both financial support and political advocacy. In the past, this model may have worked: the “narrative” of Israel was that of a despised but heroic David surrounded by a series of genocidal Goliaths, a refuge for Jews ejected from the third world, and a country struggling with enormous economic problems, in need of every penny from abroad that it could muster.
HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Israel & Zionism Education
An attachment to the Jewish state, the main development in Jewish history over the last 2000 years, is central to the mission of Jewish day schools. Implementation, however, often proves challenging, as many schools lack a coherent curriculum or measures for success, or even a clear sense of goals. Authors here articulate visions, suggest ways to develop student knowledge, and describe portals for student connection to contemporary Israeli life and culture.
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In teaching history, the most difficult task remains creating context: catapulting students back into a different time frame and having them disregard their contemporary historical perspective. The goal is to “witness” history as it unfolded, not as it concluded.
In After Virtue, communitarian philosopher Alasdaire MacIntyre makes a case for a narrative understanding of who we are. Imagine a man standing in front of his house with a tool in his hand. To the question, “What is he doing?” one might respond: “Digging,” “Gardening,” “Taking Exercise,” “Preparing for winter,” or “Pleasing his wife.” In order to understand what the man is doing, we must understand where he comes from (origins), where he is going (telos), and the values and virtues which guide him. Likewise, a meaningful understanding of a school’s Israel education program requires an understanding of its guiding assumptions, its larger purposes, and its primary values and virtues.
Jewish day schools are very busily engaged in the work of Israel education. In fact, there may be no other area of day school education where there is so much activity, as the advertisements in this journal attest. There are new curriculum packages, many professional development opportunities for teachers, and no lack of short- and long-term experiences available in Israel for both students and teachers. We suspect that much of this activity is intended both to address the widely discussed disconnect between American Jewish youth and Israel, and to bolster elements in the students’ Jewish identities. We ask: how well conceived and how coherent is all of this work?
This column features books, articles, and websites, recommended by our authors and people from the RAVSAK network, pertaining to the theme of the current issue of HaYidion for readers who want to investigate the topic in greater depth.
The RAVSAK conference has always been a storm’s haven for so many of us. Intensely busy in our professional lives, here is a time that we meet friends, find new solutions and forge a sense of community with our fellow practitioners and trustees.
One of the speakers at our recent RAVSAK conference noted, “Things are bad. But we are Jews, we’ve seen worse.” His optimism based on pessimism is quintessentially Jewish. It reminds me of a joke making the rounds in Israel: A group of elderly, retired men gather each morning at a café in Tel Aviv. They drink their coffee and sit for hours discussing the world situation. Given the state of the world, their talks are quite depressing. One day, one of the men startles the others by announcing, “You know what? I am an optimist.” The others are shocked, but then one of them notices something fishy. “Wait a minute! If you’re an optimist, why do you look so worried?” The first man replies, “You think it’s easy being an optimist?”
One of the most powerful dimensions of Israel for me over all the years has been its all-encompassing nature. A true relationship with Israel isn’t one casual date: it’s an all-embracing roller-coaster, a perpetual romance. Visiting Israel, and even more living there, is a total entry into a gripping twenty-first century souk of people, fragrances, sounds, ideas, accents, beliefs, and garb.
In response to Operation Cast Lead and the ongoing conflicts facing Israel, Rafi Cohen, our graduate intern, has compiled a list of activities that schools and students can do today to express their support for Israel.
Under the weight of an ominous, foreboding soundtrack, the shooting cars begin to slow to a halt. We are looking down on a highway from a bridge, cars gradually coming to a standstill with no construction in sight. It is nighttime. The picture is grainy, dark, and the headlights streak the screen. Images are overlain, such that as the cars slow down, they leave a blur behind them. Ghostlike. And one by one the car doors open, and the drivers step out. They stand in silence.
There are at least five dimensions in which Israel is part of the educational experience at a Jewish school: the (1) aesthetic/decorative, (2) ceremonial, (3) conversational/interactive, (4) curricula and (5) school management dimensions. To think strategically about the development of “Israel education as a discipline,” we need first to describe all five dimensions and then ask a prescriptive question: How should educators incorporate these five dimensions into an overall strategy for Israel education?
In January 2009 Israel is fighting in Gaza to defend its citizens from rocket attacks launched by Hamas. At the same time, anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment stoked by the situation in Gaza is accelerating throughout the US and Europe. We see virulent anti-Israel demonstrations calling for the destruction and isolation of the Jewish state. Hamas supporters accuse Israel of “genocide” and “war crimes.” Supporters of Israel and Jews everywhere are on the defensive against a well organized and well funded opposition that dominates the media, negatively influencing public discourse. The confluence of these events exposes the vulnerability of our educational system, yet defines the elements which must be rebuilt, our sense of Jewish peoplehood, identity, and connection to Israel.
Israel Studies—an academic field that was all but nonexistent a few years ago—has emerged in recent years as a rapidly growing (and evolving) field in American universities. The circumstances of its growth reflect the fault lines inherent in the field. The appearance of Israel Studies programs, chairs, and visiting scholars has, to a large extent, been the product of intense activity by donors concerned with Israel’s image on American campuses. While this has been a welcome development, it has also created a certain tension in some areas between the concern and interest of the donor organizations and individuals on the one hand and the academic demand for disinterested and dispassionate research and teaching on the other hand. And if this is true on the institutional level, it is in many respects a reflection of the kinds of dilemmas faced on a personal level by scholars whose research and teaching focuses on Zionism and Israel.
The dissection of the relationship between Hebrew language and Israel studies in Jewish day schools reflects the ongoing conversation among foreign language educators about the relationship between the teaching of a target language and the teaching of a target culture within the foreign language classroom.
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