Teaching High Schoolers How to Talk About Israel

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Jerusalem U’s educational initiatives employ films as an effective tool in teaching high schoolers about Israel.

How do you teach high schoolers about Israel? That is the question Jerusalem U is trying to answer.
More than 20 teachers, education directors, rabbis and other educators joined together for a symposium on Aug. 5 in an attempt to answer this question and learn how to use Jerusalem U’s educational program to its fullest extent.
Producing short and feature-length films, Jerusalem U creates lesson plans and discussion guides for teachers responsible for educating teenagers about Israel — and all of the background and history that goes with it — in a way that helps them become informed and comfortable with talking about the country with others.
The goal is to lay the educational groundwork about Israel before these students get to college, said Jerusalem U executive director Andrea Gottlieb.
“The program will give them a foundation of Israel education so that they’ll feel a sense of pride but also be able to understand the complexities,” she said, “so if they experience any anti-Israel activity when they get to campus, they’ll be educated and understand where it’s coming from.”
While the organization does work with Hillels at schools across the country, this will give them that background in case they do not go to Hillel or get additional education about Israel while on campus, she said.
Many of the participants at the symposium already employ Jerusalem U and its teen-focused initiative, Step Up For Israel, in their schools and congregational religious schools, and spoke highly of its effectiveness.
“All of their stuff — their movies, their materials — is well-researched, well put together, and relates to the target audience,” said Sherrie Klein, education director at Adath Israel in Merion Station, in a phone interview. The religious school at the congregation uses “bits and pieces” of the program as it fits into their own curriculum for its weekly Sunday school classes.
There are step-by-step instructions for each lesson, as shown on the sample lesson plan provided to the participants for one of the new films the organization is releasing, including how much time to spend on discussion and a few sample guiding questions.
“The only thing these don’t tell you is when to scratch your nose,” one of the participants joked during the event.
The organization, which is based in Jerusalem, started six years ago and has since put out films with diverse subject matter, from the anti-Israel presence on college campuses, to the role of the media in shaping Israel’s image, to the journeys of Israeli soldiers. There are also shorter films and clips incorporated in the program.
Film is the best way to communicate with these teenagers, said Gottlieb.
“Film is the easiest way to educate the masses” as a way to “bring Israel into the classroom.”
As students today are “attached” to their phones and TV, Gottlieb added, using technology this way is a means of connecting with the students in a way that is relevant for them.
Eva Wyner just graduated from Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, which also employs parts of Jerusalem U.
Her class watched Israel Inside, a film that is part of the Step Up for Israel course, and wrote final papers about it.
Her senior year, her class watched Crossing the Line 2 and Gottlieb had them research anti-Israel activity at the schools the students were attending in the fall.
“It hit home a little bit more,” she said.
One aspect of Jewish day school, she said, is that people are under the impression that everyone who goes knows all about Israel, which is not always necessarily the case.
“There was still a bridge piece sort of missing, which is taking that knowledge for advocacy for Israel,” she said.
She feels the program has successfully prepared her for college because it teaches about Israel in a way that still lets the students form their own opinions.
“Teaching the history lets you develop your own opinions,” she said. “It definitely prepared me in the sense of how to advocate for Israel in so many different ways.”
Beneath the Helmet, which is about IDF soldiers, and Crossing the Line 2, which focuses on anti-Semitism on campus, seemed to be the two most popular based on the participants’ reactions — many of them raised their hands when asked who had seen them before. Both happen to be Klein’s favorites.
Beneath the Helmet has been shown to both Adath Israel teens and their parents multiple times, Klein said. The school has shown it to the congregation and also to nearly 75 students and parents at a screening at Lower Merion High School. Showing it to a larger community brings a different set of questions, she said, which is important to have truly meaningful discussion.
While the lessons are set up so that even a novice teacher can effectively teach the film in a classroom, Klein said that should not be the norm, as the teacher must be prepared for questions from students. The best way to be prepared to answer these questions and lead thoughtful discussion is preparation and personal experience, she said.
“People need to grapple with the big issues before they can really have the discussion, and the film helps you personally grapple with it,” she explained.
During Wednesday’s presentation, Zeev Ben-Shachar, director of Israel Education at Jerusalem U, presented key tactics for successful Israel education: critical thinking; appealing to emotion; and word choice.
“Words matter,” he said. He shared examples of how different word choices can change meaning, sharing news articles that either use “Gaza” or “The West Bank,” or “Palestine” or “Judea and Samaria” as examples.
Ben-Shachar, who appears in many of the films, also noted that the program is not without bias — “I don’t think you can teach about Israel without bias,” he said — but the films strive to show both sides and help the student make their own opinions.
“Teaching about Israel can be intimidating,” Gottlieb said. “We want to take away that element.”
The goal, both Gottlieb and Ben-Shachar said, is to inspire students to support Israel, but also to give them a well-informed background that will help them lead conversations.
For today’s generation, having this background and being informed is crucial, Klein said.
“I’m from the Yom Kippur War generation,” she added, reflecting that when she was growing up, everyone spoke well of Israel. “That’s not the way of the world anymore.”
Adath Israel begins using pieces of the Jerusalem U lessons in 10th grade, when the students also have the opportunity to go to Israel for two weeks over their winter break. The experience of going to the country helps the lessons sink in, Klein said, and Ben-Shachar has even met with students there while on the trip.
The progress of critical thinking the course encourages is seen through the questions the students begin asking in the discussions, she said.
“Teens are bright, and teens are aware, and this gives them the historical background and knowledge the materials they need to engage in those conversations,” she said.  She added that “when we send them off to college, we want them to be prepared and not be embarrassed about a love of Israel or not feel bad when someone says something bad. We want them to respond in an appropriate and intellectual way.
“We need to give kids the tools they need to be Israel supporters in a thoughtful and emotional way.”
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0740.

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