Israel Education: One Size Does Not Fit All
Tue, 05/27/2014
Special To The Jewish Week

On June 1, thousands of day school students in the New York area will march in the Israel Day parade.  While they will march by school, new research highlights differences among students within schools when it comes to caring about Israel.  The findings offer a call to action for day school leaders and supporters.

As a foundation committed to peoplehood and Israel as central Jewish values, AVI CHAI has long supported Israel education programs.  But we lacked data on key questions such as: What do day school students across the country feel and think about Israel?  What do they learn about Israel in school and what lessons do they internalize?

AVI CHAI turned to professors Jack Wertheimer, Alex Pomson and Hagit Hacohen-Wolf, who conducted school visits and surveyed approximately 4,000 eighth and twelfth graders and 350 teachers at 95 day schools.   Their report, “Hearts and Minds: Israel Education in Jewish Day Schools” (available at http://avichai.org/knowledge_base/hearts-and-minds-israel-in-north-american-jewish-day-schools/) represents the most ambitious study of Israel education ever conducted.

Across the country and in different streams of schools, day school students exhibit high levels of Jewish engagement and feel confident discussing many different kinds of Jewish topics.  Most students say that Israel is important in their lives as the homeland and spiritual center of the Jewish people.  These students will presumably march in Sunday’s parade with genuine pride.  There is another group, however. The data show that a minority of students in all types of schools describe themselves as more marginally connected to Israel (and to Judaism generally). The presence of 25-45 percent of students who feel detached from Israel relative to their day school peers should concern all of us who care about either Israel or day schools.  

Not surprisingly, students whose parents are themselves Jewishly involved were most likely to feel that Israel is important to them.  Family continues to be the strongest influence on children, and family trips to Israel reinforce the message of Israel’s importance.  (More than 60 percent of the 4,000 responding students, an astounding number, have relatives in Israel.)  For these lucky students, the combination of home and school produces young people who care about Israel and even know its core story.  I wondered how many students had heard of Theodore Herzl and Golda Meir; in fact most students not only recognized the names but expressed their admiration for these historic figures.  Parents and schools are succeeding with these students and can build on this strength by providing greater Hebrew language skills and deeper knowledge of modern Israel.

The second group of students, most of whom have parents not as deeply involved in Jewish life, express only a marginal sense of belonging to the group that cares about Israel. The proportion of such students varies, depending on the type of school, grade level and location.  Even in Centrist and Modern Orthodox schools, more-detached students comprise over 25 percent of those surveyed – a large enough group to require urgent action.  Day schools have the opportunity and responsibility to play “catch-up” with these students: inspiring them to feel a sense of belonging to Israel and to those in America who care about Israel.  

One recommendation is for schools to map their students, target the more detached with special programming and even draw in their parents.  Many schools already hire Israeli shlichim and “shinshinim” – younger Israelis in their year after high school – who present Israel as an exciting place.  More such Israelis can be brought, and their work can be targeted to students who need the most inspiration. Embedded school Israel trips already generate positive changes in student attitudes toward Israel, and schools can maximize the effect of those trips with thoughtful pre- and post-trip education.

One of the study’s other key findings is about the content of Israel education.  Schools primarily seek to connect students emotionally to the idea of modern Israel as a timeless spiritual homeland that has become a modern state.  Trips to Israel, with their focus on religious and historical sites, contribute to the image of Israeli as a symbolic place for the Jewish people, rather than as a living, breathing society.  At the high school level, students learn about the Israel-Arab conflict, but the rest of contemporary Israel – culture, economics, politics and the daily experience of Israelis – receives far less attention.  The results speak for themselves: students express a lack of confidence talking about contemporary Israeli culture and life. Schools can increase Jewish unity by enabling Jewish youth in America and Israel, which are together home to approximately 90 percent of world Jewry, to share a common culture.

As a strong day school supporter and advocate, I celebrate the accomplishments of the parent-school partnership in building strong connections to Israel among the majority of day school students.  The next steps are to build similar connections among students who come from different family backgrounds and to increase all students’ familiarity with the contemporary Israel experienced by Israelis.  AVI CHAI looks forward to working with educators and lay leaders to imagine how schools can achieve these critical goals.  

Yossi Prager is the executive director-North America of The AVI CHAI Foundation.

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