Thursday, December 1, 2011

Israel Education - Seamless Integration into our curriculum

It's been a while since I've posted. Here is something that I wrote on "The Seamless Integration of Israel into Supplementary School Curriculum," some time ago, back when I was still an Education Director as well as a Student Rabbah. Given all the craziness in Israel and the tenuousness of the relationship between it and today's young, I thought I'd post this. 

For far too many years, Israel has been taught in supplementary schools as the Land of Milk and Honey. It is discussed as a land of abundance, a safe haven for the Jewish people in times of persecution, the land of our forefathers (and foremothers), the land of our people’s inheritance as it states in the Torah. This view of Israel no longer works for the youth of the twenty-first century. They are growing up in a time when Israel has always existed – they have never yearned for Zion of old because modern Israel, today’s Zion, is an actuality. They do not remember what it was like to be Jewish before the existence of the State of Israel. The persecutions experienced by the first generation Jewish immigrants to the United States are not real and urgent, they are the stories of their great-grandparents.
Today’s youth have a different relationship to God and religion than those of the past as well. It is “cool” to question or be scornful of organized religion, the existence of God and one’s relationship to God. For some, religion is still an integral part of their daily lives; for others, religion barely exists in the periphery. The concept of spirituality has taken the forefront – but spirituality can be found without a connection to Judaism, even without a connection to God. Witness Buddhism, a religion and philosophy that is a cornerstone to spiritual practice but as a non-theistic religion does not have a God figure attached to it. Another popular spiritual venue is the study of Kabbalah, particularly in Hollywood. The spirituality being found in this popular Kabbalah is also not God-centered. The Kabbalah Centre International gives a definition of Kabbalah on its webpage that touts the attainment of spiritual wisdom without mentioning Judaism or God.
So where does Israel come in? How do we keep our children connected to Judaism and to Israel in a world that offers so many options? One solution is to take a close look at the curricula in supplementary schools and see how Israel is being taught. What message is the school giving and how is it making Israel relevant to the everyday lives of its students?
I believe that the way that Israel has been taught in the past no longer works. Designing a curriculum that has an Israel focus in one grade (usually fifth) as well as programs for Yom Ha’atzmaut and references during teaching the holidays is not sufficient. This tactic gives the message that “Israel” is a stand alone topic that is not really related to anything else that the students are learning. It is either an afterthought or a subject that the school doesn’t really know what to do with.
The following set of questions can be found in the document “Changes-Israel Then and Now"”: A CurricularGuideline to Accompany the Exhibition Changes” edited by Kiewe, Moskovitz-Kalman, and West.
“‘Israel’ as a learning subject must be revised. A few questions should be asked when approaching to create a learning framework for ‘Israel’:
·         What do we want to teach? “Israel” the concept? ‘Israel’ the holy land?; ‘Israel’ the land of refuge for all Jews?; ‘Israel’ the melting pot?; ‘Israel’ the modern state?, ‘Israel’ as an initial sign coming of the moshiach? (For additional insights, see Dr. Barry Chazan’s article: “What We Know About the Teaching of Israel.”)
·       How do we fill the gap between the land of Israel as perceived by someone whose primary source is the Bible, and reality in the year 2002 as shaped by the modern State of Israel?
·       How can we ensure that the subject of Israel will be periodically upgraded and integrated? What will the process of revising our curriculum include?
·       How can we equip educators, especially those who have not been to Israel, with the sufficient tools to create a change?
·         How can we present difficult issues that exist in the reality of a Jewish State/democracy with non-Jewish minorities in a fair and accurate way – without undermining a sense of loyalty or affinity to the State?”
The idea of seamless integration of Israel into curriculum does not seem very difficult on the surface. Instead of teaching Israel only as a discrete subject, it should be interwoven throughout the curriculum. When holidays are taught, link them to Israel; when discussing Tikun Olam, discuss Israel and ecology; when looking at text, find the link to modern as well as ancient Israel; and when reviewing life cycle events, discuss how they are celebrated by Israelis in addition to Americans. This seems easy enough. So what makes integration of Israel so difficult? And why did it take weeks of research until I could find even a few documents or templates for Israel integration? One answer is that this is still a fairly new endeavor so the examples are few and far between. The programs that do exist are still in the proposal stage or are just finishing their first iterations. According to Gerber and Mazor (2003) “The underlying issue it seems is not an absence of Israel Education but a lack of systematic national planning and thought. With only a few exceptions, comprehensive, multi-disciplinary, developmentally and sequentially appropriate approaches to Israel Education are lacking.”
Any type of change that is systemic, as full integration of Israel into the curriculum of a supplementary school would be, requires buy-in from several different categories of stake holders. In this case they would be Hebrew school committees, teachers, parents and possibly synagogue boards.
To fully integrate Israel into curriculum, several steps must be taken.
1.     The community (school, synagogue or both) must define what it means by the term Israel. Does it mean the modern state (and which aspects of it: religious or secular?), the historical state, or the religious Zion.
2.     The definition must be articulated and transformed into an educational goal. Curricula must be found or developed to support this new goal.
3.     Teachers must be trained to teach all aspects of Israel – with training programs, visits to Israel, etc.
4.     Finally, where do the Palestinians and the Arab-Israeli conflict fit in? How will they be presented? Who will train the teachers to present this information in an objective manner and is it possible? At what age should this be presented?