What American Jewish Children Learn About Israel

The growing gap between Israel and American Jews makes Israel education more important—and more complicated—than ever.
By | Nov 15, 2017
This story is part of Moment’s multi-issue exploration into the Israel and american jewish divide.

When I was in fourth grade, the night before Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, my classmates and I gathered in the cafeteria of my Jewish day school and were handed a laminated map of Israel, a carton of ice cream and sundae toppings. We were told to use the ingredients to decorate the map—chocolate ice cream for the Negev, vanilla for the center of the country and Hershey’s Kisses for major cities. Years later, I discovered this was actually an activity in many day school and after-school curricula. The idea, I assume, was rooted in the Talmudic recommendation of putting honey on Hebrew letters when teaching children to read, so their learning would always be associated with sweetness. Similarly, we would always associate Israel with store-brand chocolate and vanilla ice cream.

To a certain extent, it worked. My classmates and I at my 1990s Modern Orthodox day school felt a strong connection to Israel throughout our school years; some lived there for a time, and some even made aliyah. Of course this wasn’t just the ice cream. It was the Israeli maps and posters decorating every hallway, the celebrating and commemorating of important Israeli events throughout the year and the requirement to take “Zionism” for one semester in ninth grade. The unspoken goal was that we would graduate with ahavat yisrael, or “love of Israel,” as we went on to the next stage of our lives.

My experience is not necessarily representative; day school students are a small sliver of American Jewish children. Other Jewish children and young adults learn about Israel in their Sunday schools, youth group chapters or summer camps. Wherever they are, Jewish educational programs, formal or informal, make love of Israel a priority and a key part of Jewish identity. Nevertheless, there are growing reports—both anecdotal and from studies, such as the 2013 Pew survey—that younger Jews do not share the same commitment to Israel as previous generations do. “Just preparing people to love Israel doesn’t seem sufficient anymore,” says Bethamie Horowitz, co-director of the Ph.D. program in education and Jewish studies at New York University.

“Going to college and learning about the occupation for the first time made me reflect back on my 11 years of Jewish education with sadness and anger, realizing that our Israel education had been misleading and one-sided.”

Some young adults are satisfied with what they learned about Israel, but others are not. This past September, IfNotNow, an anti-occupation group made up mostly of Jewish millennials, launched a campaign to collect and share stories from peers who believe that their Jewish educational institutions never taught them the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Using the hashtag #YouNeverToldMe, one graduate of Solomon Schechter, the Conservative movement’s day school network, wrote, “Going to college and learning about the occupation for the first time made me reflect back on my 11 years of Jewish education with sadness and anger, realizing that our Israel education had been misleading and one-sided.” Another, who was a product of the United Synagogue Youth movement, wrote, “I grew up attending trips to Israel sponsored by Jewish institutions such as my day school, my summer camp and my youth group. In general, on all of these trips, I learned that to love Israel was to defend it at all costs.”

Over the past 15 years, a cottage industry has sprung up of Israel education nonprofits and organizations, funded by anxious philanthropists concerned about the next generation’s connection to Israel. Their efforts have only become more urgent as the gap between Israel and American Jewry has continued to widen. These groups have attempted to professionalize the field of “Israel” by developing teacher certifications and degree programs, creating curricula and even inventing a new vocabulary. Each one has a different theory about what should be taught and how to approach Israel’s political, religious and social successes—and challenges, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Orthodox monopoly on religion. The goal, for better or worse, remains the same as when I was making my ice cream map: to create a lasting and emotional connection between young Jews and the State of Israel. As one survey on Israel in North American Jewish day schools called it, Israel education is “work on the heart.”

Questions of what to teach children and young adults regarding the Jewish homeland began even before the establishment of the state. In 1901, the American Zionist Federation, a then-newly formed amalgam of Zionist groups, wrote in its constitution of the need “to arouse the child’s national feelings by implanting in his impressionable heart the seeds of love and patriotism” through education. By 1944, in a survey of Zionist education in America, Jewish educator Samuel Dinin lamented “the indifference” and lack of organized Zionist education in Jewish day and congregational schools. He suggested one pathway in particular: “The idea of correlating Palestine with the teaching of Hebrew should be encouraged.” Reading material in Hebrew, he writes, “should include stories of the defense of the Yishuv, the role of the Palestinian child in the up-building [sic] of Palestine, the plight of the Jews in the Diaspora and the new life and homes that await them in Palestine.”

It wasn’t until the 1960s that Israel became a prominent factor in American Jewish education—mostly because of new interest sparked by Israel’s David versus Goliath victory in the Six-Day War. In 1968’s Behold the Land, a popular English-language textbook on Israel for students ages nine to 12, author Helen Fine channels the excitement of the time. Like many textbooks during this period, it was produced by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now the Union for Reform Judaism, but was also used in Orthodox and Conservative congregations. Fine highlights the biblical connection of the Jews to the land of Israel, including God’s promise of the land to Abraham, and recounts how Jewish pioneers made “the desert bloom.”

These themes are echoed in Israel Today, which was designed for high school students. The 1980 second edition is a treasure trove of information on early Zionist thinkers, the Israeli government and its educational system. It also takes a firm stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict: “Jews did not take the land away from Arabs. They bought it—at high prices, and only land not used by the Arab themselves.” The popular 1995 textbook Our Land of Israel is more reflective of the post-Oslo I era. Crafted for fourth to sixth graders, the book explores Israel through the eyes of different children who live there. It carefully uses the phrase “captured lands” when referring to the West Bank and, when discussing the one million Arabs in Israel, asks students questions such as, “How do you think that they feel about the many wars that have taken place in the region?” The answer: “They have different opinions. Some feel sad and mixed up…Other Israeli Arabs don’t have mixed feelings. They complain about taxes and health care, just as Israeli Jews do. But in general, they support the government.”

When the Oslo Accords fell apart in the late 1990s, Israel education in the United States became more complicated. “By the end of the last century there was an uncomfortable feeling that ‘teaching Israel’ wasn’t focusing on the right things—or real Israel,” says Barry Chazan, a professor of Jewish education at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership and most recently the author of A Philosophy of Israel Education: A Relational Approach. “It was sometimes an overly romanticized view, often taught by well-meaning Israelis who, for various reasons, were not living in Israel and had memories of what it was like.” Then came a series of events that became a catalyst to revamp Israel education. These included the Second Intifada in 2000, which led to anti-Israel actions on university campuses; the 2001 World Conference against Racism draft text that made headlines worldwide when Zionism was equated with racism; and the 9/11 terror attacks, which thrust the geopolitics of the Middle East into public consciousness.

“By the end of the last century there was an uncomfortable feeling that ‘teaching Israel’ wasn’t focusing on real Israel. It was overly romanticized, often taught by well-meaning Israelis who had memories of what it was like.”

American Jewish organizations and donors mobilized to train educators and others to respond to attempts to delegitimize Israel, in what became known as “Israel advocacy.” Groups such as The David Project, StandWithUs and The Israel Project launched to defend Israel. While the focus was largely on college-age students, school-age children—particularly those in high school—were taught how to stand up for Israel in preparation for their arrival on campus. 

There was a doubling down on tying Jewish identity to Israel. “When we teach Israel, we are teaching about a piece of ourself and developing our own identities in relation to Israel,” states a report from iCenter, an organization launched in 2008 to provide support and resources for Israel educators. The goal should be, according to the Spertus Institute’s Chazan, for each student to ask, “What does Israel mean to my life, both as a Jew and as a human being?” This form of inquiry, it was hoped, would lead to “engagement,” a popular education buzzword. Israel engagement means “having a stake in watching this country deal, struggle, wrestle and re-struggle—and we wrestle along with it,” says Avi West, senior education officer at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. “Hugging and Wrestling” is a catch phrase of the Jewish Agency’s branch for Israel education, which was rebranded as Makom in 2006 to grapple with a “complex unfolding Israel.” In 2008, West and Makom helped put together a new curriculum for Washington,  DC area schools, which showcased Israel’s multicultural society. Promising “no camels,” it included lessons about the songs of the Israeli pop band Hadag Nahash and the start-up nation.

Another approach to Israel education was to reinvent what was tried and true. Launched in 1999, Birthright-Israel, a ten-day subsidized trip to Israel, quickly became a rite of passage for many Jewish youths ages 18 to 26. “It’s changed the whole face of American Jewish life and education,” says Chazan, one of Birthright’s creators. The “Israel trip” soon became a vital component of Israel education for younger students as well. Of course, traveling to Israel was not a new idea—youth groups have long had summer trips, and institutions such as Alexander Muss, where students can study abroad while in high school, have existed for decades. But now, trips were no longer considered an add-on or reward; instead, they were integrated into the curriculum. At the nondenominational Gann Academy near Boston, an Israel trip that traditionally took place senior year was moved to the tenth grade this past year, says Jonathan Golden, who serves as the school’s Israel curriculum coordinator, a position created only three years ago. Students study Zionist thinkers such as Ahad Ha’am and Ze’ev Jabotinsky before they leave, and then meet selected leaders when they arrive. This year’s cohort met with former Knesset member Rabbi Dov Lipman, who identifies as a moderate haredi. “They had a great discussion with him about why he made aliyah to Israel and why he became a champion of so many issues related to Jewish pluralism,” says Golden.

Since interacting with Israelis need not take place 6,000 miles away from home, mifgash, Hebrew for “encounter,” is another pillar of Israel education. Mifgash provides opportunities for American Jewish students to interact with their Israeli peers—or Israeli teachers and counselors. Unlike shlichut, the Jewish Agency’s longtime program of sending Israelis to Jewish communities throughout the diaspora, exchanges are supposed to be more equal, with both sides learning from one another. “The old-style thing was, we are one and there’s no space between us,” says NYU’s Horowitz. “Now mifgash is acknowledging, ‘Hey, we may have some differences.’”

Such encounters are one reason almost all Jewish summer camps have Israeli staff, although what is taught about Israel varies. A religious Zionist camp may encourage campers to make aliyah and move to Israel, while others may focus solely on Israeli culture. At one nondenominational Massachusetts girls’ sleepaway camp, Camp Pembroke, Israel is infused into every part of camp life, says director Ellen Felcher. This means everything from hiring Israeli arts teachers and tennis coaches to posting facts about Israel in bathroom stalls. “It’s experiential Israel,” says Felcher. “We are hoping that they are leaving with their heritage and their history.”

Not everyone views Israel trips and mifgash as the solution. “You could have a great experience in Israel, but what are you going to do the morning after?” says Ken Stein, founder and president of the Center for Israel Education (CIE) at Emory University. Stein believes teaching Israel’s history through primary sources is the only way to make a lasting impact. “As a historian, I let the facts tell me where the story is going. I say, ‘Here are the Arabic sources, here are the Hebrew sources. You tell me what happened,’” says Stein. “If students glean it themselves, it’ll stick. It’s like oatmeal rather than Cheerios.”

This past March, liberal journalist Peter Beinart wrote a Forward column describing his ap-proach to Israel education: “Love first, truth later.” Talking specifically about his own children, he explained he wanted to give them positive Israel associations and introduce the trickier aspects later. He writes: “My fear is that if they encounter harsh truths at too young an age, it will drive them away. They’ll grow to hate Israel, or wash their hands of it. I’ve seen that happen a lot.”

This conflict drives much of the current Israel education debate. How much is too much? In Jewish day schools—where students take both secular and Jewish classes—the biggest issue confronting Israel education is time, says Stuart Zweiter, director of the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education. Designed to be 16 lessons per year, the Lookstein Center’s curriculum for grades one to eight, “Eretz Yisrael Throughout the Year,” is currently used by 70 day schools—mostly Orthodox ones. At Orthodox Jewish day schools, Israel education is wrapped up in religious Zionism, since most of the content of the Bible takes place in what is now Israel. Rabbinic sources view living in Israel as a commandment, and daily prayers are devoted to returning to Israel from exile. As a result, each lesson in the Lookstein Center curriculum is built around one of four holidays: the arbor day festival of Tu B’Shvat, the fast day Asara B’Tevet, Jerusalem Day and Israeli Independence Day. Zweiter describes this approach, which does not touch on the Palestinian perspective, as “unabashedly Zionist” and “age-appropriate.”

“My fear is that if my children encounter harsh truths [ about Israelat too young an age, it will drive them away. They’ll grow to hate Israel, or wash their hands of it. I’ve seen that happen a lot.”

But Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman “wanted more than just making blue and white cookies on Yom Ha’atzmaut.” In 2015, Zimmerman, a rabbi at Shaarei Shamayim, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Madison, Wisconsin, published “Reframing Israel,” a kindergarten through 12th-grade Israel curriculum, after becoming frustrated with the material available. A large part of her curriculum involves introducing a Palestinian narrative into the lesson plan. “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is central to Jewish life,” she wrote in a JTA op-ed introducing her project. “It’s as important to Jewish identity as prayer and the weekly Torah portion.” In the curriculum for ages five to eight, for example, one lesson explains that “the Palestinians have lived on this same territory for a very long time; they refer to this land as Palestine and consider it their homeland; Palestinians are part of the Arab people and speak Arabic; most are Muslims; a smaller number are Christians.” One primary source she recommends is the 1994 picture book Sitti’s Secrets, by Naomi Shihab Nye. Its description reads: “Mona carries special memories with her from a visit with her grandmother, who lives in a Palestinian village. Upon her return, Mona writes a letter to the U.S. president about her feelings.”

Zimmerman and her curriculum were immediately attacked in conservative Jewish outlets such as The Tower as supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Zimmerman was called anti-Israel and the authors disparaged her representation of “the extended and brutal Palestinian attacks of the Second Intifada” as “‘grass-roots’ retaliation against Israel.” The curriculum was also criticized for focusing on just one aspect of Israel—the conflict. However, for parents such as Brad Brooks-Rubin, who writes the column “Parenting from the Left” on the Jewish culture site Jewschool, “Reframing Israel” is exactly what was missing from the conversation. “Teaching a foundation about Israel and why it’s important doesn’t require us to give up the idea that it is an important place for other people as well,” he says.

“Reframing Israel” has not gained traction in the Jewish educational world. Zimmerman says a few teachers have contacted her to say they are using parts of the curriculum but are doing it quietly so as not to draw controversy. Still, Zimmerman deems the project a success: “What it has done is create a level of conversation that wasn’t happening previously,” she says. For Zimmerman, teaching different sides is part of the educational experience. “We owe children and teenagers the respect to teach them the truth,” she says. For her, the argument that you need to instill love before teaching criticism doesn’t hold sway: “You would never tell a historian to lie and withhold information.”

Anne Lanski, executive director of the iCenter, disagrees. “Israel is not synonymous with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” she says. “Israel includes so many things, but when I say ‘Israel,’ the reaction is sometimes extremely political and negative.” The Center for Israel Education’s Stein concurs: “Israel is not just about who’s arguing with whom. It has to do with Israeli literature. It has to do with Israeli culture. It has to do with Israeli economy. It has to do with the role that Israel plays in Jewish identity worldwide.”

According to David Waksberg, neither the conflict-centered approach nor the “ostrich-head-in-the-sand” approach works. The CEO of Jewish LearningWorks, a San Francisco-based organization for Jewish educators, Waksberg says it is critical to formulate a third way. “We’re helping the educators we work with expose kids to the Israel they love and to understand it, but not to leave their brains behind,” he says. “We think that actually creates a more enduring Israel education.”

What about the American Jewish children who don’t attend day schools, congregational schools or summer camps? “There are approximately 1.6 to 1.7 million Jewish kids between the ages of five and 18 in the United States and less than 35 percent of them get any formal Jewish education,” says Stein. He argues that Israel education groups should be focusing on this demographic group. To jumpstart this effort, CIE launched a six-week online instructional program in October for Atlanta teens in grades nine to 12 on Israel-related topics. “These kids have never had any exposure to Israel,” he says. “These are kids whose parents don’t belong to a synagogue or don’t belong to a federation or don’t belong to the American Jewish Committee or the Anti-Defamation League.”

“We’re helping educators to expose kids to the Israel they love and to understand it, but not to leave their brains behind. We think that actually creates a more enduring Israel education.”

Students who live in ultra-Orthodox communities are also largely left out of Israel educational programs. “The ultra-Orthodox—besides the extremists—care about Israel and come to Israel in droves but are challenged by the idea of the state,” says the Lookstein Center’s Stuart Zweiter, referring to the fact that some sects consider Israel a religious rather than a political homeland. “This is reflected in the fact that there is no place for Israel in their school curricula or programs. Yom Ha’atzmaut,”  he adds, “is a day like any other. Most schools will have students say Tehillim [Psalms] in times of war and other challenging times, but there is no Israel education.”

Still, the American Jewish community is way ahead of Israel when it comes to teaching about the other, says Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University who resides in Israel. He lauds American Jewish leaders for actively  developing fresh and more effective ways to educate the next generation about Jewish peoplehood and Israel. Unfortunately, he says, their counterparts in Israel are not meeting them half way. “The educational system here does not prepare its students to be part of the Jewish world,” says Troy. “It does not help Israeli children to understand what they, as individuals and as a community, can learn from the richness, diversity, history and culture of diaspora Jewry.” 

Additional reporting by Eetta Prince-Gibson
Stay tuned for the next installment of this series, which will explore what Israeli children learn about American Jewish life.

3 thoughts on “What American Jewish Children Learn About Israel

  1. Michal Morris Kamil, Director of BASIS says:

    I find this article fascinating on so many levels. I also find this article very sad. Though it raises the salient trend of the growing chasm between the relationship of young Jews of the Diaspora with their Israeli peers and spiritual ‘Home’, it omits one of the largest Israel education initiatives to take place in the USA in the past few years in the USA. One of the most heavily invested ($6.9 million dollars from the Jim Joseph Foundation) and creative approaches to Israel education, initiated as a pilot in 11 Jewish Day Schools in the Bay Area, among sectors as diverse and ranging from Ultra Orthodox to Berkeley Jewish Day Schools). BASIS, implemented by Jewish Learning Works, formerly BJESF, included and added on to all the existing approaches who claimed to be ‘the one effective approach’, including ‘Hugging and Wrestling’, ‘Advocacy’, ‘Heritage and Legacy’, etc. The approach of ‘BASIS’, focused on multiple portals of engagement with Israel exactly because of the diversity of relationships and theoretical perspectives of those sectors, including ALL of the above because different Jewish affiliations within the Jewish communities approached Israel engagement with diverse visions and appreciation. It was tremendously organic and more authentically reflective of the realities of Israel on the ground that are discussed in this article. Though a pilot, it was built as an approach to deal with the problems we urgently face and need to respond to among our younger populations currently, who are simply disengaging themselves from Israel and its integral relationship with Diaspora Jewry. A model was created with many components and foci that could be individually adopted and adapted, dealing with the Middle East politics, Israeli culture, peer to peer engagement, Israeli contributions to the world and humanitarian initiatives, the fight for Jewish pluralism and hegemony, and Jewish Peoplehood, along with other areas. The point was, if we want children to engage, and be confident and knowledgeable once on campus, and to ‘critically love Israel’ as a ‘Work in Progress that they can have an investment in’, educators, early on, have to be trained and provided with the tools to deal with these exact complexities and challenging dilemmas. BASIS provided an array of resources reflecting the diversity of narratives and voices, and the confidence and expertise to handle the challenges of Israel education. It was an approach that appreciated the need for spiraling the curriculum, content, and pedagogy that catered for the development of critical thinking skills and approaches among young people, and that reflected authentically and with the integrity required, the ‘need but challenges of Zionism’ in more global contexts, and to recognize that Israel serves as a microcosm to so many urgent and ethical dilemmas and issues worldwide. Most importantly, it created spaces for dialogue, difference, and civil discourse so badly needed in the reality of our Jewish communal spaces. Basis was developed and implemented between 2008-2013. Some of the top educators in this field and in Jewish education were involved in this round table approach to Israel education. Why on earth does the author of this article, and those directly involved, who are quoted in it, not raise this trailblazing initiative? I can only share an anecdotal feedback- on a recent visit back to the Bay Area, upon meeting a dozen educators involved in this program, unanimously, ALL indicated that this initiative had a major positive impact on their teaching capacity when dealing with the complexities and sophistication required when engaged with Israel education from a very young age. My take, and as usual, I will upset a number of people , what killed it, was the political and communal rivalry between individual leaders, and some of the organizations mentioned in this article. Shame on the rewrites of history and omitting one of the largest Israel education initiatives over the past few years in the USA. This was a groundbreaking pilot to be learned from, probably ahead of its time. And though had its faults, had much to learn from. I know for a fact, that the approaches, resources, and pedagogy impacted a number of those organizations and work of the leaders in this field, some of whom quoted in this article. What is astounding is their failure to
    recognize and mention BASIS. Shame. Perhaps some of the problems lie elsewhere when explaining failures in Israel education and we should be looking inwards at our own Jewish organizations, politics, agendas, and sadly, integrity before speaking about those kids who distrust their foundational sources….Rejecting narratives and partial realities of early years by our younger generations is natural, and yes challenging. It must be respected and dealt with appropriately, revising our approaches, resources, and PD. I worry about ‘us’, those responsible, more than ‘them’.

  2. Whomever is tendering the outcry over the lack of authentic, organic representational curricula concerning the living, breathing state of Israel today, never face a gun pointed at their heads, nor the heads of their children, and know it to be commissioned by a powerful state authority as well — meaning: we are no match: except spiritually: except by the thirty-five centuries in the evolution of the Hebrew tongue; by its text, both oral and written. Therein lies the ultimate key to pride, knowing, and continuity. Allow me this indulgence, since I know your lives are so pressured, and you really do desire justice, even though within a limited time reference: No one who has studied greater Araby ever thought that Saddam Hussein would have bombed the Persian Gulf, when his hegemony over Kuwait was challenged in September 1991. But he did, having wrought ecological destruction to the region that will last for several decades. Look at what became of the greenhouse systems left to the population upon the end of the administration of Gaza. No one is saying that the normative State of Israel is perfect, nor capable of being lily-white; but it is a source of significant fatigue, in that the roads, sanitation, electricity, medicine, hospitals, and five universities, wherein the concept of self-determination is able to be taught, that has been provided by the State of Israel for the native population, has been regarded as de rigueur. Shall we enquire, whether those sitting ensconced in the free, and protected erudite enclaves of sunny Berkley, California, and the like, would conscion a hostile people, whom the whole world is unfortunately using as their pawns, permitted to possess permanent, uncontrolled access to Berkley’s water supply, such as Israel has chosen to live, with the territories poised at the watershed of the Jordan: What sort of outcry would be then emitted through the building of curricula, concerning this very real threat that is not merely existential? It is fortunate, I suppose, that since the United States of America has acted as the greatest forebearer of democracy human history has ever known, the aforementioned American Jewry live with such rock-solid security, that they need not contemplate survival on the level herewith illustrated. But I will finish thusly: the fact of the State of Israel, breathing, developing, whose credit rating stands as third in the international arena, allows American Jewry an incontrovertible dignity, that prior to its having broken the yoke of twenty-five centuries behind the ghetto walls of the Middle East and Europe in 1948, had never been a factor before in modern history. Because the world knows that were Jews to be corralled for slaughter anywhere, at any time, the Israel factor would be a cause for re-calibration. Meaning: we owe our Israeli brethren a great deal of homage for their continued will for survival. Please allow that to be a significant impetus behind the creation of the “new” and more realistic curricula being espoused. Please make sure the full picture of realpolitik is justifiably taken into account when the injustices Israel is supposedly perpetrating is understood, with the clear implications of the neighborhood in which it lives, never being far from the fulcrum of such deliberations. M.S. Solow

  3. Why should it be moderated, the length to which I responded, encapsulated precisely why I felt compelled to challenge what is in the above article is being purported as balanced moderation? Moreover, your call for moderation, is in and of itself intellectually dishonest. This is a matter calling for consideration in depth.
    And I only wrote one rather long paragraph. M.S. Solow

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