Conservative Schools Rethink Israel Studies

Curriculum Offers View of Country as ‘Three-Dimensional’

By Marissa Brostoff

Published January 16, 2008, issue of January 18, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

This month, a new middle-school curriculum focused on Israel will be launched as a pilot program in Conservative congregational schools.

Israel Today is the final unit of Project Etgar, a curriculum currently being tried out in 25 supplementary schools affiliated with Conservative synagogues.

“If you go to synagogue school, you come out thinking that Israel had pioneers that made the land bloom, and they have wonderful fruits, and everyone’s a Hasid with peyes and they go around singing songs and tilling the land,” said Rabbi Shelley Kniaz, who writes curricula for Project Etgar. Teachers have missed an opportunity, she said, to present Israel as a “three-dimensional” place where “moral positions are debated daily in the public forum.”

To rectify that problem, middle-school students at participating schools will examine an Israeli Supreme Court case regarding the placement of the West Bank security fence, as a way to learn about Israel’s disputed borders. In order to understand the role of the Masorti movement — Israel’s equivalent to the Conservative movement in the United States — they will plan their own public relations campaign.

“We wanted to try something very different from the way Israel is usually taught,” said Deborah Miller, the program’s project director and the associate director of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Melton Research Center for Jewish Education. “We wanted to present multiple voices of people who actually live in Israel, and to give our students a chance to grapple with issues that real Israelis grapple with.”

Miller said that Israel Today will attempt to engage students in a conversation about some of the philosophical and political questions raised by the Jewish state: What’s it like for Jews to be the majority? How do you deal with a minority? What is the nature of the Jewish state? How do you understand that, given that 80% of Israeli Jews identify as secular?

Other sections of Project Etgar have been phased in over the past six years. Students involved in Project Etgar will study units on friendship, bikkur holim (visiting the sick), early Zionism and the Holocaust before they encounter Israel Today in eighth grade.

An educational system called 4Mat helped the program staff develop a pedagogical approach. 4Mat, which aims to address the needs of students who learn in different ways, encouraged Project Etgar’s emphasis on collaborative work, hands-on projects, and emotional as well as intellectual engagement. Sixth graders learning about kashrut, for example, are assigned to keep kosher for a week in their own homes.

“Good education ought to be done in this way all the time,” Kniaz said. “But it’s particularly appropriate to an after-school program. This is a peripheral part of their life for a lot of kids, so it has to be even more compelling.”

Jack Rosenbaum, the principal of Temple Beth Am in Margate, Fla., says the program seems to be working for students and teachers. Rosenbaum, who introduced Project Etgar at the school five years ago, says that students who are quizzed on what they have learned earlier in the year have a high rate of retention. He also says that attendance has been good, perhaps because the curriculum involves projects that stretch from one session to the next.

The educators see the peripheral status of Hebrew school as both an obstacle (hence, etgar, Hebrew for “challenge”) and an opportunity. While they must contend with kids who are not only fidgety from a full day of regular school but also frequently juggling other after-school commitments, they also have the resources of a synagogue, enabling teachers to involve family, clergy and congregants in the learning process.

Project Etgar was the brainchild of Robert Abramson, director of education at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and Steven Brown, a dean of the Davidson School. The program is a joint endeavor between the university and the synagogue federation.

Now that the middle-school curriculum is almost complete, Abramson said that the next step for Project Etgar is to develop a program for the elementary grades and to involve more schools in the program.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.