Hearts and Minds: Israel in North American Jewish Day Schools

Community day school students pray at a discrete distance from the Kotel plaza
Community day school students pray at a discrete distance from the Kotel plaza

by Alex Pomson and Jack Wertheimer

Israel, we are informed with regularity, is a source of ongoing and bitter strife among American Jews. According to a cascade of press reports, rabbis feel themselves muzzled when it comes to speaking about Israel, communal institutions are wracked with divisive debates over Israel-related programs and Hillels on various campuses are convulsed by disagreements about what kind of talk about Israel is off-limits.

Amidst this narrative of communal schism, Jewish day schools appear to be islands of tranquility. In an intensive study of 95 Jewish days schools situated all around North America and under different kinds of Jewish auspices,[1] we found little evidence of dissension or debate about the centrality of Israel to the educational mission of schools.

To the contrary, our conversations with parents and school administrators suggested that this mission is a source of broad consensus. Sixty-six years after its establishment, Israel remains a central feature of Jewish educational programing in North American Jewish day schools. Anyone visiting such schools cannot but be struck by the omnipresent physical reminders of Israel, daily messages about Israel and the many special programs convened to memorialize or celebrate developments in Israel, marking both historical occasions and current events. Some day schools begin every school day with the singing of “Hatikvah”; many “reward” their graduating students with a trip to Israel. Some schools bring Israeli emissaries, including recent high school graduates, to spend a year interacting with American Jewish students. Some utilize modern technologies to enable their students to twin with age peers in Israeli schools and study with Israel-based educators. The vast majority decorate the walls of their hallways and classrooms with images of Israel and the flag of the Jewish state. And all devote considerable attention to marking Israel Independence Day.

In our full report we explore the consequences of these efforts for how young people think and feel about Israel. Here, we’re interested in what such activity means for parents and schools. Not only is the emphasis on Israel not divisive, we found that it serves as a glue bonding together school communities. Especially outside the Orthodox schools, Israel is the most powerful common denominator among the parent body. Day school families may differ profoundly in their commitments to Jewish observance, the kinds of Jewish subject matter they want their children to learn and just how Jewish the school ought to be. But Israel, generally, draws them together.

Perhaps nothing symbolizes this spirit of unity better than the large attendance of parents at school events concerning Israel. At times of crisis, day schools sponsor solidarity programs attended by parents, along with their children. And in quite a few day schools, the major community celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut is held at the school, often attracting thousands of participants. It would appear, then, that Israel is good for nurturing warm connections within day school communities, and, in turn, day schools are good at promoting warm connections to Israel.

Does this mean, then, that all is rosy and uncomplicated when it comes to the relationship between day schools and Israel? Not at all, but the issue in these schools is not about whether to include Israel education, but rather how it ought to be conducted. Parents hold differing views on the proper emphasis of Israel education. Some are disappointed that their children graduate unprepared to become campus advocates for Israel. They would like schools to teach their children how to respond when Israel is criticized; they would like their children armed with information for confrontation they may experience on campuses. Other parents would like their children exposed to a more nuanced approach to the Israel/Arab conflict. They would like them to learn about missed opportunities on all sides of the conflict, the humanity of Palestinians and the convoluted politics of the region, including in Israel.

Day school teachers also differ with one another, not only in what to teach but also in how to teach about Israel. The majority of teachers want their students to experience Israel the way they have. They teach Israel by telling stories of their own relationships to Israel and Israelis. We call these kinds of teachers “exemplars”: they see their role as being models for how to approach Israel. A significant minority of teachers take a different tack: they encourage students to discover on their own what Israel means to them. We call these teachers “explorers” because they see learning about Israel as akin to any other subject where students are expected to form their own impressions.

Both explorers and exemplars may be found in different ideological camps. Some exemplars regale their students with accounts of their connections to the disputed territories of Yehuda and Shomron, while others tell of the unequal treatment of women at the Kotel or of Palestinians. Some explorers are highly committed to more dovish politics; and others align more with hawks.

Beneath these various disagreements is a profound commitment by parents and teachers across the divide: they want day schools to inculcate a love for Israel. All concur that as a first step, Israel education is a work of the heart. Where disagreements occur is on the next step: work on the minds of day school students. Which aspects of Israel should be taught and emphasized – the history of the conflict with Arabs, contemporary Israeli society and culture, Israel as homeland and haven, or Israel as a modern experiment in Jewish living? Addressing this content and, ultimately, cognitive question is the current challenge facing Israel education in day schools and other settings.

[1]  The study was conducted under the auspices of The AVI CHAI Foundation in cooperation with Rosov Consulting. It is entitled “Hearts and Minds: Israel in North American Jewish Day Schools” and may be downloaded here. We did not include Haredi or Hasidic schools that are non-Zionist in the sample.

Jack Wertheimer, Professor of American Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary, directs the Center for Research and Policy at The AVI CHAI Foundation.

Alex Pomson is Director of Research and Evaluation at Rosov Consulting.