Area Educators Learn Strategies for Teaching About Israel


Held by the Center for Israel Education and the Emory Institute for the Study of Modern Israel, the weeklong educational program, funded by the Avi Chai Foundation of North America, hosted 77 participants.

Kids may rejoice when school lets out for summer break, but for teachers, summer can mean school’s still in.
Take, for instance, this summer’s participants in the 15th annual educator workshop on teaching Israel, which took place in June in Atlanta. Held by the Center for Israel Education and the Emory Institute for the Study of Modern Israel, the weeklong educational program, funded by the Avi Chai Foundation of North America, hosted 77 participants. They came from the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
Of those, 12 were from the Greater Philadelphia/South Jersey area: seven teachers, including three from Barrack Hebrew Academy, along with two participants from Temple Sinai in Dresher, one from Temple Beth-El in Voorhees, one from Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill and one from Beth Tikvah B’nai Jeshurun in Erdenheim.
Since the program’s inception in 2000, more than 800 educators have participated in the five-day workshops, which were the brainchild of Emory University professor Kenneth W. Stein.
Rich Walter, associate director of CIE, described the program.
“The underlying philosophy is that Israel and Zionism are important components of both Jewish history and Jewish peoplehood and, as such, should be prominently featured in all Jewish educational settings,” he said. “We feel that every Jew should ‘know’ Israel like they ‘know’ the four questions. Too often, we shy away from the topic because of discomfort over politics or policies.”
One of the problems with current teaching around Israel, Walter noted, is the way it’s contextualized.
“When it is taught, it is often within the framework of what others did to our people as opposed to how Zionism is about Jews shaping their destiny. The workshop is meant to both build participants’ personal knowledge, as well as provide developmentally appropriate tools for teaching the subject in a variety of Jewish educational subjects.”
To that end, participants engage in learning activities that use primary sources Stein has accrued in his 40 years of teaching college courses on modern Israel. They come from Arabic, English, German and Hebrew archives.
Stein employs them to demonstrate for workshop attendees how they might use them to teach in creative ways that go beyond the straight historical/chronological classroom lecture. For instance, this year Stein demonstrated how these sources might help educators illustrate the demographic and socioeconomic differences between Arabs and Jews before the state of Israel was established.
But the question of demography is not just important to history. Walter pointed out that current global demography provides an important rationale for the workshop.
“Within the last decades, world Jewry has, for the most part, centralized into two global centers — Israel and North America,” he said. “In fact, in the last few years, Israel has now surpassed the U.S. as the largest Jewish community. With more than 85 percent of world Jewry living in either Israel or North America, it is imperative for the future of American Jewry to know about Israel (and ideally, vice versa).”
The other reason it’s important to continue to offer the workshop in 2016 has to do with geopolitics.
“As we are seeing on college campuses and elsewhere, efforts to delegitimize Israel and target Jews who support Israel are real and not going away anytime soon,” Walter said. “The need to educate Jewish youth, especially, has never been more critical.”
Such education is not, however, mindless boosterism. When it comes to Israeli politics and policies, CIE instructors are careful to leave personal biases aside.
But “it is important that our students learn the history, politics and culture of the country, ideally through primary sources, in order for them to shape their own opinions and be best prepared to address the issue as it plays in the public realm,” Walter said. “One of the hallmarks of the workshop is that teaching Israel is more than just teaching the conflict.”
After the five days in Atlanta, CIE participants leave with new teaching strategies and curriculum to use in the following year, either in the classroom or in their other work with Jewish youth and adults learning about Israel. They come away laden with new information.
“They are surprised to learn that Israel grapples with many issues not related to the conflict,” Walter said, “and they are challenged to think about why Zionists were successful in building and creating a state.”
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