Day Schools Need New Israel Ed Approach

Study suggests students need fuller picture of Jewish state to forge connection.

Wed, 02/16/2011
Editor And Publisher
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

 An eye-opening and somewhat discomforting new study of day school students’ attitudes about Israel has me wondering whether we need to rethink and recalibrate our approach toward traditional Zionist advocacy.

The study, first reported in these pages last week (“Students Seen ‘Suspicious’ Of Israel Education”), found that many of the 43 U.S. high school juniors interviewed by a research team from the Melton Center for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University were somewhat doubtful of their schools’ attempts to convince them of certain pro-Israel points of view. And a frequent criticism is that the schools and teachers are “biased,” according to Alex Pomson, senior researcher at Melton.

In part, he explained, this reaction reflects a natural tendency of teenagers to mistrust adults and to react negatively to people who try to shape their opinions.

These findings indicate it may be more effective to present students with information on both sides of an issue — particularly one as complex as Israel — and let them form their own opinion rather than shielding them from criticism or being perceived as forcing on them the “correct” response.

The students interviewed were from four Jewish day schools from different parts of the country, two Modern Orthodox and two community schools. Pomson, who kept the identities of the schools secret, discussed the findings and showed video clips from the interviews with students last week at the North American Jewish Day School Conference in Los Angeles, where the study was unveiled.

Judging from the remarks shown in the clips, it seemed the students at the Orthodox schools were somewhat more positive but one-dimensional in their views on Israel than the community school students, who expressed ambivalence at times.

For instance, “Mike” (a pseudonym), who attends an Orthodox school, said he felt a strong and unwavering commitment to Israel as “the foundation of my existence.” But he also acknowledged that he believed he has been “spoon fed propaganda” about the Jewish state by his teachers over the years.

“It’s too late for me,” he said wistfully, at the tender age of 16, in terms of changing his mind about Israeli policies. He and several other students who spoke almost robotically about their views sounded like their connection to Israel was a mile wide and a few inches deep.

“Naomi,” another student at an Orthodox school, said she was reluctant to talk about Israel and was not sure she would call herself a Zionist but plans to spend a post-high school year in the Jewish state.

(In general, the students were vague and uncomfortable when asked to define “Zionism,” and whether they considered themselves “Zionists.” Clearly, the terms have taken on negative baggage; one teacher at a conference session geared to high school educators noted that it was “painful to watch these day school students who can’t define one of most simple values of the Jewish community,” adding: “And I’m sure the students in our school would answer the same way.”)

Students from the community day schools tended to speak of the situation in Israel as “complicated,” “difficult” and “a struggle,” but “rich in opinions” and “working hard” to resolve conflicts.

Pomson cautioned against reading too much into a study of relatively few students, each of whom was interviewed for about 35 minutes. But he did note that the data represented “the tip of the iceberg,” and that “there is a lot going on beneath the surface for our students.

“The challenging conclusion,” he said, is that young people are “suspicious” of what they hear from adults and “distance themselves from what they hear in the classroom.”

The hard truth is that few Jewish day schools in this country, including prestigious ones in the New York area, offer any full-term courses focusing on modern Israel. And now we learn that those that do may be pushing Israel’s case too hard, creating an unintended and worrisome backlash among students.

‘It’s A Different Generation’

Tuvia Book, a teacher in several local day schools and author of “For The Sake Of Zion,” a curriculum of Israel studies published by the Jewish Agency for Israel, says, “You can’t teach about Israel through rose-colored glasses anymore. These are savvy students.

“It’s a different generation,” he added, noting that today’s teens were raised during the intifada rather than Entebbe or the Six-Day War.

“The old-fashioned ‘my country-right-or-wrong’ doesn’t work for thinking kids; it’s two-dimensional.”

What does work, he said, is bringing in Israelis with different ideologies to offer their viewpoints. “A multicultural approach makes the students more open-minded” and counters their feelings of “being duped.”

Educators also need to consider that, based on the study’s results, students are more willing to accept strong ideological messages from programs they are exposed to at summer camps or youth organizations outside of school rather than in the classroom itself, perhaps in part because the latter setting is involuntary.

What seems clear is that the most successful means of instilling positive and lasting feelings about Israel in students is to have them experience the country firsthand, the younger the better.

Pomson acknowledged in an interview that while he had been skeptical of the benefit of school trips to Israel for seventh and eighth graders, because they are so young, he now believes that the earlier youngsters are exposed to “the real rather than the theoretical Israel,” the stronger their ties, which are heightened by social networking with Israeli peers they meet on their trips.

Thanks to Facebook, Skype and other new technology, the American youngsters often stay in touch with their Israeli guides and the children of their host families, deepening their understanding of Israel’s daily as well as political life, and deepening their personal relationships.

Australia Emphasizes Teacher Training

Educators should recognize and take advantage of this social capital, according to Pomson, who encourages teachers to use as many tools as possible in connecting students to Israel in a positive way, from curriculum to school programs to keeping in touch with Israelis on Facebook.

“Keep in mind that even when schools don’t know what they’re doing, their students do,” he said, explaining that youngsters pick up on whether the schools are approaching Israel in more academic or emotional ways, and they respond accordingly.

Pomson also observed that for many day school students, key positive feelings about Israel are established in the home, with schools providing history, context and supplemental support.

(Students from interfaith families, the study found, felt more distant from Israel. One girl in the video chillingly said she felt as little connection to the Jewish state as she did to Greenland.)

The Melton study is part of a larger project looking at what it takes for day schools in both Australia and the U.S. to connect students to Israel.

One advantage in Australia is that courses on modern Israel are standard at Jewish day schools there, with a major emphasis on teacher training.

Book, who has attended two-week teacher seminars in Australia in the summer, says that as a result “the students there don’t feel brainwashed, they feel empowered.”

By contrast, he said that when many day school students in the U.S. go to college, “they don’t know what they’re advocating for, they have no [historical] reference points.”

With so much of our communal attention on college campuses as a Mideast battleground, it’s time we learned that Zionist education — including an open exploration of issues rather than the candy-coated version — must start long before students reach university. And the very best way to ensure an Israel connection for our children and grandchildren is to get them there, appreciating that Zion is a real place, not just a hollow concept.

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I cannot understand how family involvement was not mentioned anywhere here. Parents also have a tremendous impact on their children's attitudes towards Israel by either taking their kids to Israel, going there often, getting Jerusalem Report and/or Israeli newspapers. No one can say that any one institution is going to have the final say over a child's attitude.

American Jews are some of the wealthiest and most secularly educated Jews - people for that matter - who have ever lived. Before we draw conclusions that are specific to the American Jewish educational milieu, maybe we should compare the attitudes of non-Orthodox American Jewish teens with their counterparts in Israel. By this I do not mean the entire cohort of Israeli teens. Match them up with Ashkenazi non-Orthodox Israeli teens from middle, upper-middle, and upper-class families and see what you get. How does the parallel Israeli cohort feel about the Israel's general direction in terms of the peace process, religious-secular relations, civil society, corruption, etc? And how disaffected is the Israeli cohort? And how many of them want to leave Israel? We often forget that when American Jewish teens know Israelis - THIS is the group of Israelis whom they know - not so much the Sefardi population, not the more right-wing elements of the national religious camp, not the haredi world, and not the Russian community. I would suggest that American Jewish teens have the attitude they should be expected to have as fairly well-to-do educated secular liberals who don't live there and see Israel and its policies as being increasingly in the hands of Jews who are nothing like them. This isn't all that different an analysis than the Beinart piece, but please understand that the person writing this is a traditionally observant Zionist former day-school administrator who now lives in Israel. Facts are facts - as Israel has become more and more defined, it has become less and less like what most American Jews would want it to be.
If I thought American teenagers were regular consumers of newspapers and television news, I'd point to those information (and misinformation) outlets as one of the sources of the problem. But because the kids' parents likely are news consumers, I cannot help but think that news reports create negative attitudes that do drift down to children. Although U.S. news media are far more honest than those in Europe, two negative phenomena are at work. First is the tendency of news people -- almost always pressed for time, short of space and too-often short of information -- to reach for the handiest word to describe something. Too often, the word is negative toward Israel. The Arab side has been enormously successful in getting this conflict discussed in its vocabulary. The result is a slow, almost unnoticed drift in language that is negative to Israel. The second problem is the nature of news: News is what's unusual. What's news is a homicide -- not the fact that the city's other million residents were *not* killed today. So normal Israeli life isn't news; a violent outbreak or a political problem or scandal *is* news. The result is a shallow contextless picture that seems to portray Israel as something between the wild west and a police state, which those of us who've been there know is an almost-total inversion of reality. But the unusual -- most of the time negative -- is what U.S. residents read, see and hear. Add to that the huge volume of anti-Israel slander in electronic media that teens use, and it shouldn't be a surprise that even day-school students are ambivalent. The best antidote is a visit to Israel. I think summer high-school programs are the best, but they're expensive. Birthright is a fabulous gift, despite its limitations, but enrollment is limited by funding. Children start forming their opinions at home, and strong affection for and support of Israel, with honest discussion of its problems, should be the most-effective start for young people's support of Israel. Of course, this damands that parents make the effort to give themselves a solid base of knowledge.
Fascinating article. I think its more of a generational thing that really can't be fixed. Some of us were raised in a time when loyalty meant something. When you didn't betray your family, your friends, your people. Well, we're out of step with the way things are today. Sad, but so be it.
Dear Edward Ordman: Thank you! Cordially, Robin Margolis www.half-jewish.net
One wonders if in the present political climate (in the US or Israel) one could reconstruct a "big tent" Zionism, accepting many views within it. In the 1970's when there was burst of Jewish emigration from Russia, there were those in the US who felt that it was up to those Jews where to go, and donated to support them wherever they went - including the relatively expensive US. And there were those who sent money to support them in Israel, feeling we needed them in Israel and the same money supported more people there than in the US. But both groups respected each other and worked together, at least where I was. Similarly we could have Zionists who feel Israeli policy is up to the Israelis (e.g. AIPAC) and also have Zionists who feel that building a safe and peaceful home for the Jews requires that there also be a safe and prosperous home for the Palestinians, and who therefore encourage a two-state solution or a one-state solution or some other solution. If we could recognize all of these as valid and Zionist ways of working for the best possible homeland for the Jews and see that disagreement over details is possible within Zionism, our young people might be more likely to remain Zionist. If we can recognize J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace as valid forms of Zionism (or parties within the Zionist camp) support for Israel will enlarge. I agree with Robin Margolis as to the broad definition of "who is a Jew". While I prefer orthodox conversions when in doubt, the object should be to get people who want to be Jewish into the religion, and get people who want to be Israelis into Israel, not to exclude people.
This is a very good article. I hope lots of Jewish educators and communal leaders read it. It is an important message. With regard to the statement: "(Students from interfaith families, the study found, felt more distant from Israel. One girl in the video chillingly said she felt as little connection to the Jewish state as she did to Greenland.)" As the Coordinator of the Half-Jewish Network, the largest international organization for adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage, I believe it is impossible to expect uncritical "feel good" attitudes about Israel from half-Jewish people because we are aware that Israel has a huge web of discriminatory, negative laws and policies that harm us. My group routinely receives news of actions the Israeli government and Chief Rabbinate take to deny aliyah requests from half-Jewish people, rescind their conversions, prevent them from marrying Israeli Jews with two Jewish parents, etc. We almost never get any good news from Israel about half-Jewish people. Israel needs to change its behavior towards us.
I enjoyed this article and hope Jewish educators and communal leaders take a good look at it. With regard to the statement: "(Students from interfaith families, the study found, felt more distant from Israel. One girl in the video chillingly said she felt as little connection to the Jewish state as she did to Greenland.)" As the Coordinator of the Half-Jewish Network, the largest international organization for adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage, I am not surprised by her outlook. My group receives weekly and sometimes daily reports of discriminatory laws and policies directed against half-Jewish people and interfaith couples in Israel, which are extensively discussed on our message board. We seldom get any good news about warm behavior from Israel towards half-Jewish people. Asking half-Jewish people to have uncritical "feel good" attitudes towards Israel is not realistic in view of the growing discrimination against us in many sectors of Israeli society. Cordially, Robin
Fascinating study even if the sample group is limited. I would like to see a broader study of day school students as well as Hebrew School students. I suspect that the findings will be even more pronounced with Hebrew School students. It suggests to me that Peter Beinart is onto something. My kids have enormous "b.s" detectors and know when they are being fed propaganda versus the facts, warts in all. My husband and I have been to Israel and want to bring our kids but we want a tour that will both embrace all that is great about Israel, both historically and currently, and speak honestly about what is not great including the unbridled buidling of settlements on land that ultimately should be part of a Palestinian nation.

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