What Israeli School Children Learn About American Jewish Life

The growing gap between Israel and American Jews makes education more important—and more complicated—than ever.
By | Jan 23, 2018

Moment’s exploration into the growing gap between Israel and American Jews has included a symposium and, in the previous issue, the article, “What American Jewish Children Learn about Israel.”

The year 2017 was another rocky one in the relationship between Israel and many American Jews, punctuated by conflict over matters once considered common ground. Some controversies—including a backlash over comments about American Jews’ military service by Israeli deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely—suggest a level of misunderstanding that could end up harming both sides, especially in a world where Israel continues to rely on its deep emotional, political and financial ties to the United States.

The Israeli think tank Reut Institute describes “a consistent decline in the connection between the two major centers of the Jewish people—the State of Israel and the large Jewish communities in the United States.” This decline, according to a recent Reut Institute report, “The Future of the Nation State of the Jewish People: Consolidation or Rupture?” is fueled by “an increasingly complex relationship between Israel and the younger generation of American Jews,” among other things. The report attributes the chasm to the diminishing prospects of a two-state solution and differences over the status of progressive Judaism in Israel, including the Israeli government’s failure to make good on promises for egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.

Some educators think the divide runs deeper. While the American Jewish community has actively developed fresh and innovative ways to educate the next generation about Jewish peoplehood and Israel, Israel has not met it halfway, says Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University who resides in Israel. “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.” As a result, he says, “Israeli Jews, from the leadership to the average citizen, know less than nothing about the American Jewish community. And their ignorance is combined with the arrogance that they think they know.”

Although Israeli soldiers meet with students or ride the buses with Birthright participants, and Israeli teenagers spend summers as Jewish camp counselors, they are there to teach, not learn. This attitude has its roots in history, says Troy. “As far as Israeli leaders have been concerned, the State of Israel served as the vessel for the Jewish people to realize its national historic mission. In return, the Jewish people existed to serve the State of Israel and provide it with financial and political support.” The result, he says, is that understanding the Jewish diaspora—of which American Jews make up the majority—has been regarded as an afterthought.

Limor Rubin, director of Israel-Jewish relations at the Ruderman Family Foundation, agrees: “The main point of the Israeli educational system is to educate the younger generation about the Zionist ethos.” Israeli students, she says, “learn about dead Jews. In history, they learn about the Council of the Four Lands in Poland, which operated from the 16th to the 18th century, but they know nothing about the denominations of Judaism in the 21st century. They know about the Holocaust, but they don’t know anything about the role of Jews in the American civil rights movement. They know nothing about the vibrancy of Jewish life outside of Israel today.”

The focus on Israel as the only worthy home for the Jewish people today is a deep disservice to both American and Israeli Jews, says Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. “Jewish peoplehood includes both a majority Jewish culture, like Israel, and a minority culture, as in the United States.”

When Naftali Bennett, the leader of the right-wing religious Jewish Home party, was appointed Israel’s education minister in 2015, he announced that he considered imparting “Jewish identity” to students a top priority, adding that this included learning the culture of the diaspora. Bennett and other Ministry of Education officials declined several requests for interviews for this story. A spokesman for the ministry, Reuven HaCohen, would say only that the ministry is working with the Jewish Agency to train school principals about the American Jewish community and is collaborating with the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs—of which Bennett is also minister—to “develop a unit that will deal with the Jews of the diaspora.” HaCohen wouldn’t comment on what kind of progress has been made on the curriculum in the intervening years and instead pointed to the ministry website. The curriculum units posted there, however, are still focused on Israel as the center of Jewish peoplehood.

The Israeli public school system is made up of four streams. In addition to separate schools for Arab students—who do not study Jewish peoplehood— there are three types of schools for Jewish students: secular, national-religious and ultra-Orthodox. The Ministry of Education maintains centralized control over curricula, particularly those of the secular and national-religious schools. Most secular schools, which don’t teach religion, do not include curricula focused on American Jewry. One major exception is the schools that belong to an optional system called Tigbor Limudei Yahadut (TALI), or Enriched Jewish Studies. TALI schools, which offer supplemental programs focusing on Jewish pluralism, make up about 12 percent of secular public schools (about 325 public schools and pre-schools with 50,000 students) and attract many Israelis from English-speaking countries. TALI students learn that “the Jewish people are very diverse in terms of how individuals and communities express their Jewishness, in terms of types of observance, and also in terms of where they live,” explains Ada Brodsky, a Jewish studies teacher at a TALI elementary school in Jerusalem. Students are sometimes paired with students in American Jewish day schools in video conferences to learn “about the differences between Judaism as a majority culture and Judaism as a minority culture.” Funds for these programs come from the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel and North America, which have recently scaled back support because of budgetary reasons.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu knows very well that the majority of the Jewish community in the U.S. opposes Trump and his policies. But he has little  interest in reaching out to or pleasing that majority.”

When it comes to teaching about the diversity of Jewish American life and institutions, teachers at national-religious schools are in a quandary. “The educational leadership, the teachers, my students and their parents see that Orthodox Jews in North America are largely right-wing and support the government and settlement in Judea and Samaria, while the majority of Conservative and Reform Jews are left-wing,” says Tova Muchnick, who teaches in a religious-Zionist high school in the Tel Aviv area. “So how can we teach about Reform and Conservative Jews when it is our responsibility to prepare the next generation for the challenges of Zionism in Israel, especially settling the land?”

The topic of American Jewry is even more problematic for ultra-Orthodox schools, where the validity of the kinds of Judaism practiced by most American Jews is rejected on theological grounds. Hannah Feigenbaum, a teacher in a Jerusalem ultra-Orthodox elementary school for girls, curtly dismisses an inquiry into teaching the diversity of American Judaism. “Of course we don’t teach our students about so-called Reform or Conservative Judaism. They are not Jewish at all.”

Teaching about American Jewish life is also fraught because the educational curriculum is deeply influenced by the political climate, says Elan Ezrahi, a Jewish educator who specializes in trips to Israel. “Educational systems are always tied to the historical and political context in which they operate. [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu knows very well that the majority of the Jewish community in the U.S. opposes President Donald Trump and his policies, both domestic and foreign. But Netanyahu believes that Trump is better for his own policies. So he has little interest in reaching out to or pleasing that majority of the American Jewish community.”

A ninth-grade teacher at a public school in a town outside of Tel Aviv says that this attitude has trickled down. “As teachers, we get the message that if we want to keep our jobs, we have to lay low,” she says. “It’s not just that we shouldn’t express ourselves—we can’t encourage the students to think. And so, of course we can’t teach much about the American Jewish community—first, because it is considered to be leftist and critical of the government. And second, because they are non-Orthodox. And third, because they are successful, which is seen as a challenge to the Zionist enterprise.”

In Israel, public school students often attend enrichment programs, ranging from art to agriculture to learning about the diaspora. But even these are now in jeopardy: To cut costs over the past two decades, many of these programs have been outsourced to independent educational organizations. Since Bennett took over the Ministry of Education, most of the groups which have received approval have been Orthodox-affiliated and allied with the Jewish Home party. In 2016, the Education Ministry allocated more than 15 million shekels (about $4.3 million) for religious programming in non-Orthodox public schools—and virtually the entire sum was contracted to Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox and pro-settler organizations, according to the Israel Religious Action Center, which is part of the Reform movement.

A few schools choose to augment the compulsory curriculum with content focusing on the diaspora, some of it supplied by the Center for Educational Technology (CET), an Israeli not-for-profit that creates and sells education materials used in Israeli schools. Content for lessons on “The Jewish People” includes examinations of the relationships between Israel and the American Jewish community abroad, along with discussions about non-Orthodox denominations.

One of the schools using the CET materials is the Orthodox Reut High School, which encourages a broader outlook. “It is important to encourage our students to respect pluralism and to know about the Jewish community throughout the world,” says Dina Weiner, who teaches civics at the school. “We can really get into heated discussions with the students. Recently, we discussed the meaning of Israel as ‘the state of the Jewish people’ and even brought up whether Jews who live in the diaspora should be allowed to vote in Israeli elections over issues such as conversion or the settlements,” she says. “After learning about American Jewry, a large number of my students—and almost all of them will be serving in the army in the next few years—thought they should.” But Weiner acknowledges that her school is unusual: “How we use these CET materials depends on the school, the teacher, the students and on the parents. I’m pretty sure that most schools aren’t as open as Reut.”

“Israel prides itself on being not only a Jewish state, but also the state of the entire Jewish people. How can we be this if we know nothing about the other Jewish communities?”

One of the few private schools in Israel is the Hebrew Reali School in Haifa. Two years ago, it developed an optional program for high school students that focuses on the history, sociology and structure of the American Jewish community. “We realized that the Israeli school system is completely Zion-centric,” explains Yehuda Lahav, who teaches at the Reali and holds a PhD in the philosophy of law. “We wanted our students to realize that they are a part of the Jewish people and to think about what it means to be a Jew today.” The program includes video conferences with like-minded schools in the United States. Lahav hopes the junior and senior classes will be able to visit a variety of Jewish institutions on a future school trip to the United States. “We want them to see Orthodox, Reform and Conservative synagogues, as well as synagogues for Jewish renewal and LGBTQ synagogues. In New York, they will visit the Tenement Museum. In Washington, DC, I hope they will meet with both AIPAC and J Street.

“I believe all schools should be doing this kind of teaching,” says Lahav. “Israel prides itself on being not only a Jewish state, but also the state of the entire Jewish people. How can we be this if we know nothing about the other Jewish communities? And how can our students know what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century if they don’t know anything about the Jewish people today?”

The Reut Institute report says that given its power as a sovereign Jewish state, Israel must take on the challenge of defining what it means to be the national state of the Jewish people in the 21st century and to begin to inculcate that definition into its educational system. “Within Israel, this requires changes in conceptual understanding, communal structure, and policies,” the report says.

Meanwhile, Rabbi David Ellenson, the former president of Hebrew Union College and the director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, shares the frustration of many American Jewish educational leaders and suggests that, among other things, it may be neccesary to create a “reverse Birthright.” “It is time,” he says, “that Israel take responsibility for the relationship, too.”

One thought on “What Israeli School Children Learn About American Jewish Life

  1. Davida Brown says:

    The diversity of opinions in this article are overwhelming! What is not dealt with, in my opinion, is the origin of what makes all things Jewish- related really Jewish. It is the God of Abraham, Isaac & Jacob Who defines “who is a Jew” and what constitutes “Jewish education.” Deuteronomy instructs all Jews to teach the sons of Israel…”You shall teach them diligently (Torah) to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.” (Deuteronomy Chapter 6)
    Pardon me for speaking boldly, as an outsider, but there is no greater oxymoron than the term, “secular Jew.” The very essence of this title, Jew, exudes the breath and purposes of the God Who authored it. The Bible is the family album and the textbook of Judaism and that should settle the issue!

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