By Dan Finkel
Jewish educational networks buzzed all summer with questions about how to handle returning to school in the wake of the conflict in Israel and Gaza this past summer. Educators are still looking for ways to process their own (often conflicted) thoughts and emotions, and continue to discuss what approach to take in handling these complex current events in school settings. I am no different – I spent the summer worrying about family, friends, and colleagues in Israel, sickened by violence, dismayed by the persistence of what feels like a hopeless cycle, and shocked by suddenly open displays of anti-Arab racism in Israel and anti-Semitism all over the world. I was also overwhelmed by the thought of helping faculty members, parents, and students learn something from these events once school started. Yet, when I began reaching out to colleagues, many educational strategies began to crystallize. Last week, I entered the school year with great clarity of purpose. Here is some of what we are doing at the Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City, CA to help students process this summer’s events.
School Position & Guidelines
When we ask our teachers to enter the classroom, we ask them to check most of their own emotional baggage at the door, so that they can support and care for their students. This means that the classroom is not a place for them to put forth their own personal political views. So how are they supposed to talk about Israel? We have a few guidelines for teachers for this specific situation, as well as an official school position (below) on the current conflict. The guidelines below provide a strong framework in which substantive discussions and learning occur:
- Ensure that students feel safe – ask questions to check for understanding and misunderstandings; respond to questions with the facts as you know them. We are using the resources curated by Jewish LearningWorks for background information when we are not sure of the facts ourselves. Reassure students that they are safe. Allow and create space for students to express thoughts, feelings, concerns, and questions.
- Community schools value diversity – we don’t need a class consensus, but rather we need to listen to one another, to validate points of view that differ from our own, and to learn from encountering opinions that challenge us.
- Students of certain ages are critical thinkers – 5th-8th grade students should be encouraged to bring their training in critical thinking to bear on these events. They should read about events from multiple sources and perspectives, and think about the information they can glean from the similarities and differences they observe. They should be challenged to think about the complex dilemmas that comprise relations between Israel and her neighbors, and to imagine what outcomes might be reached from various approaches to solving these problems.
- Building a personal relationship with Israel is important – Every single person in our community should continue to build their own individual relationship with Israel. This doesn’t look the same for everyone, but the overall concept is to create opportunities for various kinds of meaningful Israel engagement – be it through Hebrew language, arts and culture experiences, science class, or other settings. We will continue to build on our existing Israel curriculum (which is well-developed for the whole school thanks largely to BASIS – the Israel Education Day School project led by Jewish LearningWorks) to connect with our sister school in Haifa, and to bring the vibrant culture of modern Israel and Israelis into the lives of our students and their families.
These guidelines align with our school position on the conflict:
- We mourn the loss of any human life, as all humans are created B’tzelem Elohim (in G-d’s image).
- We support the right of Israel to protect her borders and her citizens from harm, as our Jewish community is intertwined with all other Jewish communities – Kol Yisrael Arevim ZeLaZeh.
- We pray for real, lasting, authentic peace between Israel and her neighbors.
Specific Learning Opportunities
While engaging students in such a serious and complex subject may seem daunting, it presents a rich opportunity. Students can reflect about what they have seen or heard about Israel this summer, and can have a truly meaningful educational experience. Our faculty pre-planning this year included a facilitated conversation about creating the best environment for this to occur, using guidelines created by Encounter. It was an opportunity to share thoughts and concerns, and to process our own emotions. We also discussed specific ways in which the school would handle teaching about Israel and Gaza. We decided that:
- We will create programs for our students in grades 3-5 and 6-8, respectively, to address the situation in gatherings together, in order to include a broader array of perspectives in the conversation. For our younger students (TK-2nd), we will use individual classrooms (rather than larger gatherings) as the primary forum for discussion. In all settings, we will use the guidelines and school position outlined above to frame the learning.
- We will informally survey parents to determine if there is interest in holding a parent meeting on the situation in Israel and Gaza. This possibly would be co-lead in conjunction with local rabbis and synagogue communities, and parents would help to determine the framework and goal of this type of forum.
- We will reach out to the local Muslim and interfaith communities to explore possibilities for our students to engage directly in dialogue or community service together.
Not surprisingly, anticipating the school year was far more fraught than the start of the year itself, and of course it helps that a stable ceasefire appears to exist. Many Jews outside of Israel, at a time like this, ask what they can do. As Jewish educators, we are in the enviable position of answering that question by just doing our jobs. Though achieving peace between Israel and her neighbors seems increasingly complex, by providing the next generation of Jewish Americans with space to reflect, to learn, and to discuss, we can help build deep and long-lasting connections to Israel.
Dan Finkel is the Judaic Studies Principal at the Ronald C Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City, CA, one of eleven Bay Area schools that participated in BASIS – the Israel Education Day School project – an initiative led by Jewish LearningWorks designed to integrate Israel Education across a school’s curriculum.
cross-posted on the Jim Joseph Foundation Guest Blog