Day schools as hidden gems

Israel can use some love. It’s not hard to find.

Israel education is about falling in love with Israel. Israel advocacy is about protecting the Israel we love.

Is anyone really shocked that 25% of American Jewish voters and a third of those under age 40 think that Israel is an apartheid state?

Is anyone surprised that in the seven years since the last Pew study, the 2020 study reveals a continued declining sense of connection to Israel among younger Jews, and that of all Jews surveyed, “Caring for Israel” is still in the bottom half of things that they believe are essential to being Jewish?

Over the past 20 years, Jewish organizations and philanthropists have invested heavily in Israel advocacy. Perhaps that is why the rate of Jewish disaffection with Israel is not even higher. Investing more in Israel education might make it lower.

There is a fuzziness along the border between advocacy and education that is often used to make them sound so similar as to avoid clarifying distinctions and setting priorities. While the blurring of the line between advocacy and education might be a function of the overlap between them, they are distinct and should be addressed separately. Unless we address them separately and place a greater emphasis on Israel education, communal momentum will continue to bend towards supporting advocacy, addressing short-term crises and placing in peril the longer-term strategic plan of the Jewish people which includes nurturing an emotional bond with Israel, a lifelong relationship that begins well before and extends far beyond the current primary focus on the college years.

Israel education is about falling in love with Israel. Israel advocacy is about protecting the Israel we love. Our defense of Israel would crumble if our love for Israel is not first grounded. And here is the critical distinction between the two: while falling in love with Israel through education is a process that can thrive on its own, the efficacy of Israel advocacy cannot endure unless it is built upon solid Israel education. That education is the sublime support that maintains our relationship and allows it to grow deeper and wider regardless of the political environment. Focusing on Israel advocacy without the prerequisite long-term commitment to, and preparation of Israel education creates the quiet corrosion that leads to collapse.

SUCCESS IS WHERE PREPARATION AND OPPORTUNITY MEET (Bobby Unser)

John Irving’s memorable characters, Owen Meany and his friend John, demonstrated the value of a lifetime of preparation. They practiced “the shot” repeatedly, a deftly choreographed move they improved over the years, perfecting it, knowing that one day lives would depend on it, and when that day comes the shot had to be flawless.

Preparation saves lives in the real world, too. Many of us were astounded at the dramatically accelerated pace of producing the COVID-19 vaccine. The previous record was four years to beat the mumps, besting the time of other vaccines that took as long as a decade. But scientists have been preparing, studying coronaviruses for decades and practicing with the breakthrough mRNA technology for years, perfecting the shot.

Even our performance of mitzvot may be a multi-generational exercise of preparation. Rabbinic giants like the Ramban and Rashi commented that our purpose in fulfilling mitzvot in the Diaspora is to practice – millions of Jews performing millions of mitzvot over thousands of years – so that we will be ready to fulfill them effortlessly through communal muscle memory upon our historic return to Israel.

In the early 2000’s the second Intifada engulfed Israel in terror and ignited anti-Israel activities on campuses and throughout the world. Dr. Jonathan Woocher, of blessed memory, commented that the Jewish communal responses to these political assaults were wholly inadequate because we squandered the seven years of relative quiet after the first Intifada subsided. We neglected to lay a deep and lasting foundation of Israel education for all ages and throughout our communal infrastructure. We did not prepare adequately. We did not practice the shot.

Today we have brilliant resources to create and to elevate meaningful connections to Israel. Sophisticated initiatives like the iCenter, Hillel’s Inquiry-Centered Model of Israel Education, the Jewish Agency’s Makom, The Center for Israel Education, and others are valuable communal holdings that provide quality Israel education. There is another magnificent asset that brings expertise in Israel education to a wider age range and is easily accessible to Jewish communities throughout the country – the Jewish day school.

A GEM HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT

When the merits of communal investment in Jewish day schools is discussed, the alumni activists and leaders that emerge are often viewed as the “return on Investment,” highlighting the future-value of communal support for day schools. I suggest that when considering the resources for broader and deeper Israel education, day schools are uniquely positioned to provide present-value in the leadership they can offer to the Jewish community beyond those who are engaged in the schools.

For decades, Jewish day schools have been producing deeply rooted Jewish communal citizens with a profound understanding of their unique relationship to the Jewish State and to her people. Day schools understand that, while important, Israel education is not based upon delineating green lines, deciphering peace plans or defining apartheid. Israel education is a continuous, years-long commitment of building new knowledge upon existing knowledge based on foundations of Jewish teaching, tradition, history and culture. And all of this, all the while, is handed over by educators with care and pride. With love. Even while day schools themselves seek to expand Israel education for their own students, they should be viewed and valued as a key resource in the development of community-based Israel education for children, teens and their families in addition to, and as an integral part of any strategy to advance Israel education.

Just as the young Israeli educators we call ShinShinim are often “branded” by a federation and deployed throughout a community, day schools might designate some of their faculty to receive enhanced training from any of the organizations noted above (with particular attention to their non-Israeli faculty to model the connection that all Jews may have with Israel) to complement their current expertise, and then offered as Israel specialists to…

  • Be embedded or on-call to local synagogue, BBYO, JCC and other youth programs, congregational schools and summer camps for ongoing educational experiences as well as to prepare for Israel teen trips.*
  • Provide added value in supporting the teaching and observances of Yom HaZikaron, Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, Yom Yerushalayim, Tu B’Sh’vat and Tisha B’Av as well as insights into how Israelis celebrate holidays that are not traditionally aligned with Israel awareness, like Purim, Tu B’Av, Sukkot and Hanukkah in local Federations, synagogues, JCCs and camps.
  • Provide individual or group learning experiences in synagogues and JCCs working with institutional leadership in developing group experiences for members of any age that might also culminate in an Israel trip.
  • Offer Day School-based year-round or summer enrichment programs as many private schools do, with intensives about various aspects of Israel: music, arts, language, history, archeology, or cuisine.

In all of these or similar efforts, these faculty would be publicly presented as partners from the local Jewish day schools, enhancing the value and the perception of Jewish day schools as a relevant and spectacular Jewish community asset, even among – especially among – communal groups that do not ordinarily interact with the local Jewish day schools.

In addition to all the other elements drawn upon by our communities to advance connections to Israel, day school educators are uniquely positioned to model deep, ongoing, multi-stage engagement in Israel education because their professional practices are drawn from schools. Not programs, initiatives, or projects. Not responses to crises. Their vision is not limited by funding cycles or deadlines day school educators are a methodical, accountable and mission-driven force for the years-long, sustained commitment to teaching, learning, doing. To preparing for life.

To them Israel is not a subject to learn. Israel is not a position to defend. They bring a personal passion about Judaism that elevates Israel to more than a place, more than a country. Israel is a part of them that powers their spirit. 

Judaism has placed our relationship to the land and the people of Israel at the center of our collective being for centuries. Long before Intifadas or BDS, Jewish day schools and their educators embodied and transmitted this commitment. This sense of personal investment – certainly in addition to, but more than facts and figures do – provides a tangible sensation that inspires and motivates their learners to want to learn more. And to do more.

Day schools and their educators can provide the consistency of practice that leads to informed, articulate and skilled performance, perhaps to the perfect shot. More important, they exemplify the every-day encounters that lead to love.

Robert Lichtman is the chief Jewish learning officer at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.