How Can We Make Israel More Than Just a Holiday?

“When we elevate early-childhood educators’ knowledge about Israel, Israel has the power to become a real and dynamic society, rather than a once-a-year holiday.”

Photo courtesy The Children’s Learning About Israel via Jack, Joseph & Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education.

By Sasha Kopp

[Editorial note: Masters students at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management write theses or capstone projects involving original research about topics of interest to Jewish organizations. eJewish Philanthropy is highlighting some of their findings in the form of short articles with links to their theses on the Berman Jewish Policy Archive.]

“I feel comfortable talking about it [Israel] as far as three year olds goes, [but] I wouldn’t be able to hold a conversation with an adult who knows anything about Israel.”
Jewish teacher, who has never traveled to Israel, working in a Jewish preschool

Should there be a requirement of base Israel knowledge for teachers? Our Jewish early-childhood settings are filled with teachers who have diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. Each teacher brings their own personal experience to their classroom, and this reflects on how they teach Israel to our youngest learners. There is no national curriculum for how any teacher, let alone a non-Jewish teacher, should teach Israel to three to five year olds. In reality, many Jewish and non-Jewish teachers learn about Israel along with their students, often at a level that is developmentally appropriate for three year olds rather than adults.

As a teacher in Jewish early-childhood settings for over six years, I observed implementation of a wide variety of Israel curriculum. This experience inspired me to write my masters project about Israel education at a typical synagogue-based early-childhood program in Los Angeles. I interviewed 21 educators across a span of religious and ethnic backgrounds, including over a third non-Jews. Teachers were asked about their initial exposure to Israel, how they teach Israel in their classroom, and how they use Hebrew in their curriculum.

I found that Jewish and non-Jewish teachers spoke about Israel using different language. Jewish teachers who had spent time in Israel said they want children to feel at home in Israel, just as it was for them as Jewish adults. They shared stories of Shabbat experiences and of time spent with family; they reminisced about the food. Non-Jewish teachers, who hadn’t been to Israel, talked about how they want their students to know that Israel is a special place, a holy place. Unlike Jewish teachers, they associated Israel primarily with religion. One non-Jewish teacher even described how desperately she wanted to go to the Kotel to put her own note in the wall to connect to God. How teachers frame their goals for Israel education ultimately results in the variances in how the students will learn about the subject. While one classroom learns about Israel as something that could be their homeland, another learns about it as a place of religion and holiness.

Another finding of this case study was that Israel curriculum primarily focused around Yom Ha’atzmaut, which results in Israel being thought of as a holiday, rather than a culture or society. The curriculum focuses on key sights of Israel, including the Kotel, Dead Sea, and Tel Aviv beach. Children create flags and wear blue and white. Although this is a fun way to celebrate Israel, it focuses on sights rather than culture. And it raises a question: how would Israel would be woven into early-childhood curriculum if Yom Ha’atzmaut was in the summer when pre-school wasn’t in session? In order to lay a foundation of Israel as a modern living culture, teachers need to understand how to weave Israel into their curriculum throughout the year in a developmentally appropriate way.

Israel education for our youngest learners ought to be just as emergent as the education we create for our secular subjects of education throughout the year. As part of a child-centered early-childhood philosophy, teachers can learn how Israel relates to their secular units. When they are learning about transportation, children could explore what Israeli buses look like, and each student could receive their own RavKav (transportation pass). When learning of animals and science, students could learn about animals native to Israel or inventions and scientific discoveries originating in Israel. The possibilities are endless and can be based on students’ identified interests. By integrating Israel in a child-centered approach, Israel would become a multi-dimensional culture that is as dynamic as the one in which they live.

This type of integrated education would require a deeper level of Israel education for our teachers as they begin to lay a foundation for Israel as a place that is not just special, but also ordinary. Jewish early-childhood centers have the power to inspire lifelong relationships with Israel. In order to maximize this opportunity, the Jewish community should provide pre-school teachers with an Israel trip so they can be inspired to teach passionately about the Jewish homeland. If this is unfeasible, then rabbis and educators should provide safe spaces to have in-depth adult-level Israel education and discussion. When we elevate early-childhood educators’ knowledge about Israel, Israel has the power to become a real and dynamic society, rather than a once-a-year holiday. Having a relationship with Israel has become a cornerstone of the American Jewish experience; it is time that we invest in our teachers so that they can develop a more sophisticated relationship with Israel, laying a foundation for students’ relationship with Israel to exist beyond one day a year.

Sasha Kopp is completing the Joint Maters Program at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles with degrees in Jewish Education and Jewish Nonprofit Management. She will also be receiving a concentration in Israel education from the iCenter.