Walking the Walk: Valuing Israel Education

[In a new series honoring Israel’s 70th anniversary, Jerusalem U invites you to dream big dreams, ask difficult questions, learn things you never knew and engage with our growing Israel education community.

Between now and Yom Ha’atzmaut veteran Israel educators will share blog posts focusing on Israel education. Join us as we celebrate Israel’s anniversary with complex conversations and community building!]

By Noam Weissman

In one of my first years in Jewish education, a local administrator in a school that defines itself as Zionist challenged and chided me for the decision to recite Hallel (a Thanksgiving prayer) on Yom Ha’atzmaut. Frustrated and with a hint of condescension and disappointment, he said to me, “Come on, Noam. Even Rav Kook did not say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut. Why do you feel the need to?” Without hesitation, but with some bewilderment, I looked up at him and said, “Rav Kook passed away in 1935. The State of Israel was established in 1948. Of course, he did not say Hallel. He was not alive!” While some may laugh at this story and others may consider it apocryphal (I wish it were), there is something alarming here. Although I am confident most school educators and administrators would know a basic chronology of Israeli history, would our students?

Many students and parents love to define themselves as Zionists. They sing and dance on Yom Ha’atzmaut, and they carry posters against a nuclear Iran when a protest is called for by community leaders. I believe those moments matter so much. Yet, to what extent does our community really know about Israel? This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. While I am not obsessed with dates or the specific number of UN resolutions, I am concerned with the lack of knowledge. How can we foster a mature love for Zionism if our students cannot determine if the War of Independence was in 1948 or 1967, if they are unaware of the core themes of the Declaration of Independence, if they have never heard of Deir Yassin, if they cannot list early Zionist thinkers? How can our students represent Zionism if they don’t know what Zionism represents?

In the world of education, there are many who have been arguing against the primacy of acquiring knowledge, suggesting that anyone can just Google information in 2018. There is some truth to that. In fact, in my dissertation on Israel Education, I focused more on the importance of identity development, reflection and metacognition. Yet, I also believe that while knowledge without conviction is ineffective and to an extent pointless; conviction without knowledge is simply dangerous.

Jewish Days Schools, Hebrew Schools and camps face the daunting task of choosing what to teach. Whenever I think about the issue of “deciding,” I am reminded that the shoresh (root) of the word “decide” is “deci,” which, in latin, means to cut off. Notwithstanding how challenging it is, making decisions, ipso facto, means deciding NOT to do something else. But, if one’s mission statement describes the school and camp as Zionist, it needs to mean something more than dancing on the streets of Yom Ha’atzmaut. It means making the difficult choice of carving space to teach Zionism, religious Zionism, its history, its issues, its meaning, its implications in depth. It means learning about the richness of modern Israel and the complexities of having a modern, democratic Jewish state. It means ensuring faculty and counselors can spend time in Israel, and spend precious professional development dollars. It means encouraging the year in Israel after high school and sending them to Zionist institutions. It means ensuring our students fall in love with Israel, experience Israel and feel an unbridled connection to the land and the people. It means doing the things we say we are doing. It means cutting something else off to make this choice.

Every institution needs to make a choice – choosing to invest time learning about Israel is worth the return. By making the decision to teach about Israel, we are deciding to provide our students with a healthy educational and religious diet. Let’s make Yom Ha’atzmaut the anniversary, but in between the annual celebration, let’s also make sure our students develop a deep, mature, knowledgeable and enduring love for Israel.

Noam Weissman is founder, director of LaHav.