Building support for Israel is engrained in every Jewish day school across the country.
So advocacy for the Holy Land begins at a young age, taught through songs or Hebrew phrases.
But by the time students reach adulthood, have they acquired enough information about the Jewish state to tackle complex dialogues?
Day school educators say yes.
In fact, Israel advocacy and education begins with fostering a love of Israel.
Rabbi Isaac Entin, dean of Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia, said as a K-8 school, it differs in explaining Israel.
“In high school, there’s a different level of awareness of Israel in global and U.S. politics,” he explained. “Middle school and certainly elementary school, less so. The most important thing we can teach about Israel advocacy in our school is a love of Israel.”
Entin said it’s difficult to be an advocate without the emotional draw, and its absence can result in “half-hearted and easily eroded” support.
At Torah Academy, a curriculum is in place to teach children the history of Israel — ancient and modern — as well as the values instilled in its people.
“Everything we do is always infused with Israel, and we make sure to point it out and mention it to them,” Entin said.
Additionally, each year, the school hosts two women from the Jewish Agency for Israel’s emissary program, who serve as ambassadors of Israel and expose students to Israeli culture and Hebrew.
“They’re really creating a bond with Israelis and seeing and developing lifelong relationships,” he said. “That’s invaluable.”
If that relationship isn’t developed at an early age, Entin said by the time they enter college, students will be lost on campus.
“By the time they get to college, they’re going to be placed on the defensive,” added Lee Bender, co-president of the Greater Philadelphia chapter of the Zionist Organization of America. “Unfortunately, the progressive left has become so anti-Zionist that it leaves some students a choice: ‘You can’t be pro-Israel and also be a part of our progressive agenda.’”
College students are often liberally supportive of women’s rights, minorities, LGBTQ rights, free press and an independent judiciary. But Bender said these, too, are the values of Israel.
“Unfortunately, you cannot say anything like that for Israel’s neighbors,” he noted.
Having a connection with Israel is important, but Bender said you have to put it in a context: “We shouldn’t have to relitigate history, but we have to. We have to teach our own people — students and young people especially — the abusive language used to delegitimize Israel and the Jewish people’s rights.”
Even in school textbooks, the ZOA has monitored anti-Zionist or anti-Israel biases.
If it does not look “kosher,” so to speak, they’ve encouraged others to speak up to illustrate a fair and balanced view of Israeli history.
Within textbooks, complex political explanations can become daunting. As a result, some adults just steer clear of Israeli politics all together.
“Most Jews who relate to Israel don’t relate to Israel all that politically anyway,” said Steven Cohen, research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. “They differ sharply in the extent to which they have experienced Israel.”
Of the half of Jewish Americans who have been to Israel, Cohen noted only some have been many times and have lots of contact with Israel. There’s also another small fraction who are politically active.
“So Israel advocacy really speaks to a small minority of American Jews who are Israel-engaged and politically Israel-engaged — a subset of a subset,” he said.
As a Zionist and Israeli citizen himself, that connection comes from one’s values.
But when it comes to why one should have a relationship with Israel, Cohen set aside the complexities: “Jews are a nation and Israel is their state.”
However, Sharon Levin, head of Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, said the school doesn’t refer to it as advocacy anymore.
“The term advocacy has become a trigger word for some,” she noted, though Israel education remains at the heart of the school’s mission. “We believe in an inquiry approach and critical thinking, and we want our students to become critical thinkers when it comes to Israel.”
That begins in sixth grade and is emphasized during an eighth-grade Israel trip.
By then, students have a background in modern Israeli history, biblical and rabbinic literature, and comparative religion.
“They study it in the classroom,” she said, “and then they go.” Barrack also offers a study abroad program in Israel for juniors, and additional trips to Poland during the study of the Holocaust.
Last year, Rachel Fish, associate director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, collaborated with day school educators to put on an Avi Chai Foundation conference about Israel education and how educators can prepare their students. Some from Barrack attended.
Although a historian by trade, Fish said she’s acquired some insight on how formal and informal Jewish education environments engage in transmitting knowledge about Israel.
For middle- and high-schoolers, “you often see that the educators are focusing on their own personal narratives and how Israel has been part of their Jewish journey,” Fish explained, “and it’s an entry point for many students to engage in that conversation.”
Though it is an important and necessary entry point, Fish doesn’t believe it’s sufficient enough, because it often becomes the “primary lens,” as opposed to the “historical scaffolding.”
Controversial complexities go against the “feel-good” conversations about Israel, she continued, and that has challenged day schools that intend to foster a sense of identity and a positive relationship.
“The advocacy doesn’t need to be the first point of entry, and it’s actually a mistake in the long run; for many, it actually becomes a turnoff,” Fish explained. “There are ways to build Israel into a curriculum around Jewish education where Israel is not siloed, but it’s the same kind of framework and airtime as other aspects of Jewish education.”
That deep learning is intrinsic for elementary schoolers at Perelman Jewish Day School, said Head of School Judy Groner.
“It’s not giving them sound bites,” Groner said. “Israel is so integral in everything we do.”
As a dual-language school, kids hear Hebrew in hallways and classrooms.
In science or geology classes, Groner said teachers explain the subjects in the context of the U.S. and Israel.
“We really prepare them for that level of more abstract thinking when they go to middle school and high school, to start really examining some of the questions they’re exposed to,” she added. “We’re building from the ground up. … This is the age that it really goes into one’s heart from the very beginning.”
Above all, educators do not want Israel to be strange to them.
“We want it to be theirs. It’s their country. They are connected to that country,” Groner said. “Kids are not prejudiced at this age; they’re young. The more that we can expose them to Israel in a positive way and also in an untarnished way, it really enables them to move on to the complex questions.”
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