by David Waksberg and Chip Edelsberg

In December, 2010, a teenager inadvertently sparked a forest fire on Mt. Carmel, near Haifa, Israel. The blaze persisted for 4 days and claimed 44 lives. It was the worst forest fire in Israeli history and became known as Ason haKarmel (The Carmel Disaster).

Before the flames had been extinguished on Mt. Carmel, a 1st grade student walked into the office of Dr. Barbara Gereboff, Head of the Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City, California. “We need to do something,” the first grade student told his principal; “we need to help our friends in Haifa.”

The fundraising drive sparked by this 1st grader’s concern provided some financial aid to the Yemin Orde children’s village in the path of the fire.

What drove this six year old to instigate this relief effort? What was occurring in the classroom that led this child to understand the impact of the fire, to feel a strong connection to events occurring 10,000 miles away, and to feel compelled to take action?

Responding to studies indicating that young American Jewish students were growing more “distant” from Israel than previous generations, the Jim Joseph Foundation funded a pilot project to substantially improve Israel education in eleven Northern California Jewish day schools. The initiative was led and designed by Jewish LearningWorks (the central agency for Jewish education in San Francisco), in collaboration with the Foundation, the iCenter, and with the eleven participating schools. After four years, we learned a great deal about how to develop effective Israel education in day schools, and how to create conditions that lead to a six year old hearing about a fire on Mount Carmel and responding – “what can I do to help?”

The initiative sought measurable outcomes in student learning, in knowledge and skills of teachers, in the development of formalized Israel curricula in the schools, and in strengthening the communal educational infrastructure supporting Israel education – in this instance in the central agency for Jewish education.

The initiative took on its own brand – it was named BASIS (pronounced Bah-sees) – an acronym that worked in both English and Hebrew (Bay Area Schools Israel Synergy and Batei Sefer Yisrael-San Francisco). The effort was systemic and holistic – it addressed Israel education in the context of an over-arching school community, touching several different inter-related academic, social, and structural aspects of the school community. Thus, while the initiative focused on Israel, which is generally situated within a Jewish studies framework, every stakeholder group of the school community became involved in some way, including general studies faculty, administration, the Board, parents, and, of course, students.

During the course of the initiative, a model emerged – a framework of essential and symbiotic strategies that other communities can implement. These included:

  • Establish and articulate a vision for Israel education, consistent with the school’s values, that can serve as a foundation for the educational work that follows, and that has “buy-in” from key stakeholder groups;
  • Develop an Israel curriculum based on that vision (in other words, a formalized educational plan for Israel education);
  • Develop teacher knowledge and skills, in both content and pedagogy;
  • Offer a menu of creative, and dynamic educational strategies that empower educators with effective methods and tools to teach Israel – in both formal and informal settings;
  • Create a cohort – a community of schools and educators invested in Israel education – that can support and learn from one another;
  • Invest in a communal infrastructure that can lead such an initiative and provide expertise, technical support, and cohesion to support and sustain the work in the schools.

The Foundation not only supported the implementation of this effort, but additional work to reflect on and document lessons learned. Too often, such projects miss this important step and, as a result, opportunities for such learning are lost. Creating (and supporting) opportunities for practitioners to reflect on their experience and in so doing, advance the field ought to become standard practice. The investment in that documentation effort, a small percentage of the overall cost of the project, helped to magnify and distribute the program’s impact beyond the schools themselves. And by developing documentation that is accessible to other communities throughout the country, the BASIS model will continue to support long-term outcomes. One can find the documentation here, in what is, arguably, the most extensively documented initiative of its kind on the Internet.

Among the key lessons learned:

  • Clarity about the goals of Israel educationPerhaps as a side-effect of political conditions, we observe occasional confusion between Israel education and Israel advocacy. We subscribe to a functional definition of Israel education articulated by Bethamie Horowitz – to enable the learner to construct a personal and meaningful relationship with Israel that is integral to her Jewish identity. It is important for educators to distinguish this from activities such as training young people to advocate on behalf of Israel, or developing a more positive image of Israel.
  • Rigor and diversityResearchers have observed Israel educational programs in many schools that are informal and ad hoc. One would not take such an approach to, say, geometry. There is educational benefit to treating Israel education as a “field” – with the academic rigor that accompanies it. That means that it is organized in an intentional and appropriate fashion (spiraled multi-grade curricula) and that teachers have attained a necessary level of proficiency.We’ve also seen that Israel education can fixate on “the conflict.” Diverse learners can connect with Israel in diverse ways. Successful Israel curricula weave a tapestry of history, thought, politics, current events, culture, geography, music, literature, and poetry – offering myriad educational platforms and channels of connection.
  • Integrate informal encounters with formal learningMany educators, most notably the iCenter, have described the importance of people- to-people encounters as an integral component of Israel education. Our experience has reinforced this understanding. Many schools participated in “school-twinning” in which deep personal and institutional relationships were established among students, teachers, school leaders, and parents. These encounters emerged as important educational experiences for teachers, students, and families. The twinnings strengthened other aspects of the schools’ educational programs.We also found that the educational value of informal experiences was intensified when they were effectively integrated with classroom learning. In other words – informal experiences, including travel, were curricularized and planned with the same rigor and in harmony with educational outcomes, enduring understandings, essential questions, as the rest of the curricula.

These and many other lessons – about Israel education practice, about in-school structures and processes, and about project design and management – can all be found in greater detail at the website.

Not surprisingly, we learned as much from our mistakes as we did from our successes.

As with any rigorous academic program, cognitive educational outcomes can and must be measured. Strengthening student knowledge was an important outcome. Equally as important was that students establish a personal connection with Israel – which offers them a lens through which to interpret and understand that knowledge, and in which academic information is contextualized and, frankly, matters.

Thus, it is understandable how a six year old student living in Foster City, California hears about a fire on Mount Carmel – knows where Mount Carmel is in relation to Haifa, understands the impact this fire may have on his friends in Haifa and, as a function of the personal relationship he has developed with Israel, is motivated to do something about it.

This is Israel education that works.

David Waksberg is CEO of Jewish LearningWorks. Chip Edelsberg is executive director of the Jim Joseph Foundation.

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