Educators Aim To Move Beyond ‘Mythic Israel’

Coalition Responds to Study That Sees Flawed Efforts To Teach About Jewish State

By Nacha Cattan

Published August 08, 2003, issue of August 08, 2003.
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Israel education in North America is in the dumps.

That is the conclusion drawn by Israeli and American education experts interviewed in a new study on the subject: “Mapping Israel Education, An Overview of Trends and Issues in North America.”

Israel study here is not its own “field,” because it sorely lacks focus and a body of knowledge, the educators say. Educational institutions — from day schools to Jewish community centers — often work to instill a love for Israel, the study notes, but they neglect to teach basic aspects of the Jewish state’s history and modern culture, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and even the Hebrew language. Educators are not sufficiently trained and do not have access to quality resource materials on the subject, the findings suggest, and teaching venues often avoid articulating an ideological mission — such as the goal of immigration to Israel — for fear of stirring up controversy.

“At best this leads to confusing messages and vague educational goals, at worst to a reluctance on the part of educators to teach about Israel at all,” states the study, which was commissioned by the Gilo Family Foundation, which is overseen by San Francisco-based Israeli entrepreneur Davidi Gilo, who made high-tech history when he sold his cellular phone company, DSP Communications, to Intel for $1.6 billion in 1999.

These findings are not surprising, educators say; it’s been this way all along. But a 92% drop in teen travel to Israel since the start of the intifada in 2000 has jolted educators from their doldrums and raised the issue to crisis mode.

Recommendations made by the study include developing new curricular materials and lesson plans to move beyond a “mythic Israel” and toward a realistic and engaging view of the modern state. It also recommends creating a resource clearinghouse — possibly Web-based — that can provide teachers with quality lesson plans, curricula and program ideas.

This fall, a new effort is expected to tackle the problem. The North American Coalition for Israel Education is being formed as a partnership between the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Zionist education department, nine local American Jewish community federations and a cadre of leading educators, including Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Davidi, who commissioned the report, will be one of the coalition’s chairs.

“There are many school principals who are saying today we cannot take for granted our kids having a connection with Israel,” said Alan Hoffmann, the director general of the Jewish Agency’s Zionist education department. “We have to build this into the curriculum. There is very little thought given to what is developmentally appropriate material on Israel,” from early childhood through adulthood, he said.

Despite the study’s extensive account of the problem, few concrete solutions have been offered. But according to the director of the coalition’s planning process, Meryl Weissmann, that is as it should be. “We are not going to be sitting here thinking what North American Jewry needs,” said Weissman, who heads the North American team of the Jewish Agency’s Zionist education department. “We’re going to be working together with North American Jewry to understand the needs and develop solutions.”

The coalition’s planning document states that a core syllabus will eventually be prepared with the help of Ellenson and other key educators. It will then be adapted for specific educational institutions. From there, a basic curriculum will be developed and implemented on the local level by representatives from day schools, congregational schools, camps, community centers and campus Hillels. Teacher training will then occur to show how to implement curricula into their institutions.

Educators interviewed by the Forward agreed that Israel scholarship should not shy away from thorny issues, as they claim it has in the past. “We live in a world where Israel faces very serious and complex problems,” Ellenson said. “As our students become older, we need to speak about these challenges with much greater candor and approach them with the complexity that these issues deserve.”

To pursue its goal of improving education about Israel, the coalition hopes to secure a $5 million budget by 2004. Ten funders will be tapped to contribute $250,000 a year for five years. The Jewish Agency will contribute an additional $1.5 million of reprioritized dollars from its existing budget in 2004 and $2.5 million thereafter; participating federations would pitch in $100,000 each. The program will begin in September as a pilot project in nine Jewish communities: Palm Beach, Fla.; Miami; San Francisco; Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; Bergen County, N.J.; Metrowest, N.J.; Washington D.C. and New York.

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