Israeli Inspired Jewish Education in America

Tarbuton’s dance group performs at Israel Festival; courtesy.
Tarbuton’s dance group performs at Israel Festival; courtesy.

By Jennie Starr

My childhood was filled with Israeli food and music on Shabbat, outdoor planting and hiking (Tu b’shevat), building (Sukkot), and bonfires (Lag Baomer). These experiences with my Israeli-American family were vibrant, hands-on, and often outdoors and they made for an informal Jewish education that was deeply meaningful, memorable and connected to Israel. We were not religious, but we celebrated the way many families did in Israel, and in doing so it connected us to our roots, family and Israel year-round. A movement of Israeli-American educators and a powerhouse funder, the Israeli-American Council, are building Jewish educational programs that capture the magic of these childhood experiences engaging both American and Israeli families and infusing American Jewish education with positive Israel education and meaningful Israel connection. These programs deliver value, raising the bar in Hebrew language education, educating about Judaism and providing an Israeli oriented supplement for families in congregational and Day School programs too. The programs appeal to locals who are thirsty for new options, disrupting what has been called a waning Jewish supplementary education landscape and city by city they are revitalizing communities.

Filling the Void With Israel Education

Israeli cultural, Hebrew literacy and Israel education programs have gained a foothold with families who seek cultural ways to engage in Jewish life and authentic ways to build Israel connections. Looking to JDATA, a Brandeis University program that provides census information about Jewish schools in North America, a 2013 Israeli-American Council study, the 2013 PEW report on American Jewry, and research by the Reut Institute, we learn that neither American nor Israeli families enroll en masse in Jewish schools but both are enthusiastic about Jewish life through culture. We also learn that Israelis seek strong Hebrew literacy programs to maintain identity in 2nd and 3rd generations and that while significant numbers of Americans visit Israel at least once in their life and they have emotional attachment to Israel, they are Hebrew illiterate with over 80% lacking Hebrew skills. The shared interest for Israeli cultural and Hebrew literacy programs make these programs an appealing option for Americans and Israelis and the fact that the programs cultivate community; i.e. informal circles of friends with whom to celebrate holidays and deeper Jewish learning experiences year round is an added bonus. In addition, Hebrew plays, cultural clubs highlighting Israeli literature and film and speakers on current events engage parents and grandparents. Collaborations with Synagogues, Day Schools and other Jewish organizations bridge the Israeli and American communities actively engaging Israelis; importantly not in isolation, but integrated with American Jewish friends in the community.

San Diego Case Study

Tarbuton opened its doors ten years ago and helped form both an Israeli Scouts (Tzofim) youth group as well as a Hebrew Language Charter School four years ago. In San Diego, where only 8% of Jewish children are estimated to enroll in Jewish schools, Israeli cultural and Hebrew literacy programs have proven to be a compelling cultural alternative and/or supplement to congregational programs and a valuable means of building positive Israel connections. Appealing to both Israeli and American Jews, with some programs in Hebrew and some in English, families are attracted to Hebrew language immersive techniques and the emphasis on culture rather than religious dogma and prayer. Many families combine Tarbuton Jewish enrichment with other programs creating winning combinations for Jewish identity building, Israel connection and Jewish life. For example, students attending a Hebrew language charter school can add the Tarbuton Kesher program for Jewish enrichment. Mexican-Americans and Israeli-Americans combine Tarbuton enrichment with “the Ken” Maccabi and Tzofim youth group activities respectively. There are also families that enroll in traditional congregational schools and add on Tarbuton Hebrew literacy programs.

Funding and Continuity for Jewish Education Programs

Many agencies for Jewish education and JESNA, the Jewish Education Service of North America, have closed and a dwindling number of cities have local foundations that support K-8 Jewish education though Jewish educational programs require student tuition subsidies and ongoing operating support to be successful. The IAC, however, not only seeds Israeli culture and Hebrew literacy programs for preschool and K-8 in the U.S., they incent the creation of regional councils encouraging local donors to take ownership to sustain the programs long term. The end result is a new breed of programs nationwide such as Keshet and KeshetTot plus funding of new initiatives at local fixtures like Tarbuton, Yisralink in Chicago, and the Israeli Complimentary School of Boston that have been servicing their communities for more than a decade but continue to innovate. The Community Foundation for Jewish Education of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago (CFJE) recently researched and reported on dynamic new options in Jewish education and among the programs highlighted were two IAC grant recipients; Tarbuton and Gan Gani in Chicago. Next steps could be for local American and Israeli-American donors to step up and match IAC grant dollars for these programs. Local donors could provide the much needed funds to cover tuition subsidies for parents to keep programs affordable while IAC continues to fund quality program development and investment in staffing and professional development.

The IAC describes their success as a movement, and a movement it is indeed. There have been convenings in year’s past, notably 2011’s World Council of Israeli Abroad sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Toronto which gathered representatives from Israeli organizations in Chicago, San Diego, Winnipeg, Toronto, Vancouver, London, Melbourne, Budapest and Berlin. However rapid engagement and growth fueled by the IAC’s efforts to date led to the IAC’s second annual conference in 2015 in which 1300 American, European and Canadian Israeli organizational representatives engaged in panel discussions, shared exhibits and networked for three days. Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer speaking of the rising involvement of Israeli-Americans in Jewish life at the conference stated, “the IAC represents a powerful idea whose time has come. While others only talked, the IAC acted.” Fueled by an IAC that values education, Israeli-Americans have been inspired to build programs that their local institutions did not and they are educating American Jews too.

Jennie Starr is the CEO/Founder of the Tarbuton. The Tarbuton is supported by the Leichtag Foundation and the Israeli-American Council. Founded in 2006, the community programs focus on Modern Hebrew and Israeli culture to educate the next generation and build Israel connection for both Israelis and Americans of all ages.