Take a Trip to Israel — In the Classroom

It used to be that the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth (USY) sent around 1,000 kids to Israel each summer. They toured, they worked, they celebrated, they met Israelis — and they came back energized to make Israel central to their lives.

Then came the second intifada, and the following summer USY sent only 200 members to Israel — part of a nationwide collapse in the number of American Jewish teens who traveled with youth groups to Israel.

While teens are heading back to Israel in larger numbers this summer — USY has about 500 signed up — the sudden crumbling of a cornerstone of education about Israel was a wake-up call to Jewish educators. They realized they needed to pack the same impact of a life-changing trip to Israel into classes held here, but the existing curricula about Israel were typically scant, weak and outdated.

The Los Angeles Jewish community responded to the challenge, with creative, more intensive programming and curricula surrounding Israel, making Los Angeles a national model for how to rethink and energize Israel education.

“Israel has become part of the culture of our school, part of what we do every day, not just part of the curriculum,” said Tamar Raff, Judaic studies director for the day school at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS), a Conservative congregation in Encino.

VBS is one of 14 Los Angeles Hebrew schools and day schools paired with a public school in Tel Aviv through the Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, an initiative involving schools, organizations and municipal leaders in collaborative programming. In addition to developing personal ties with Israelis, the schools have radically ramped up their Israel curricula, and so have other schools. A Bureau of Jewish Education program offers a four-semester course for teachers on how to become Israel specialists at their schools. Two emissaries from Israel, sent to The Federation by the Jewish Agency for Israel, an Israeli organization that develops connections to Jewish communities around the world, have brought a view of modern Israel to local schools. Many schools also host “Bat Ami girls” — Israeli women who fulfill national service duty by doing Israel-related programming at schools abroad.

Until this sea change, much of the education about Israel had become cursory and predictable — falafel and blue and white on Yom HaAtzmaut, not much in the curriculum. While many day schools inspired their students with Israel programming, the majority of Jewish kids in Jewish settings were not getting a solid education on Israel. And a good number of schools still shy away from engaging what they perceive as a politically volatile subject.

The problem extends back at least to the 1970s, when Jews focused, for example, on setting up Holocaust chairs, but not Israel chairs, at universities, said Kenneth Stein, director of the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel at Emory University in Atlanta.

Throughout the ’90s, the attention of American Jewry drifted toward skyrocketing intermarriage rates and a younger generation uninspired by organized Jewish life. With the peace process in full swing, Americans had taken a step back from Israel.

Then came the intifada, which jolted the community.

“The intifada forced us to look at our own curriculum and we realized it was not as good as we thought it was, and we had better do a better job,” Stein said.

For Jewish educators, more was at stake than a well-rounded cultural experience.

Jewish teens, after arriving in college, found themselves ill-equipped to engage in discourse with non-Jewish students who threw out facts and figures about Middle East history. The simplified picture of Israel that dominated pre-college education left Jewish students at an intellectual disadvantage if, when they get to college, it is the first time they hear that Muslims and Christians also live in Israel and also consider it holy. Or when they were confronted with seemingly one-sided accounts of Israel’s history, without knowing another side.

“At the end of the day just a small group of university students are active and knowledgeable about Israel, and that is a huge source of concern,” said Tzvi Vapni, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles. “The people who are going to run the country in the next 10 to 15 years will be products of the environment in universities today.”

But merely teaching Israel advocacy as an alternative to the status quo had limitations.

“We went from cultural programming at United Synagogue Youth to programming about the Israeli army and the intifada and Palestinians,” said Aaren Alpert, who at the beginning of the intifada was Israel affairs vice president for the Western region of USY. “We brought in speakers when we used to bring in bands or do cultural dancing. On the one hand it ended up giving kids some sort of intellectual ownership of what was going on. On the other hand a lot of kids lost the core of why they were supposed to love Israel.”

The goal isn’t to train students in point-by-point rebuttals to criticism of Israel, said Bruce Powell, head of school at New Jewish Community High School in West Hills. Powell believes in teaching the whole story.

“We make a distinction between Israel education and Israel activism,” said Powell, whose school devotes 12th-grade history classes to 20th-century Jewish history. “We feel that the most effective way to create students who are powerful and intellectual advocates for Israel is to educate them fully about Israel.”

His curriculum on the subject is literally in development; the 3-year-old school will graduate its first senior class next year.

The shift to an up-to-date, nuanced view of Israel was long in coming, but welcome to Israelis such as Hagar Shoham-Marko, an emissary from the Jewish Agency for Israel. She wants to take Americans where Israelis have already gone — to an Israel education beyond the mythology of early Zionism, where everything was black and white and where Israel is idealized. She wants kids to connect with the living reality of Israel today, where the push for high-tech is as real as political discord, where nightclubs are as much a part of teens’ lives as the army.

In Los Angeles, Shoham-Marko works with the partnership program and the Bureau of Jewish Education, visiting local schools as well as training teachers. One of her lesson plans teaches about Israel through song — she explores social and political context through the Zionist songs from the early 20th century, the anthems of independence, the protest lyrics of the ’70s and the hip-hop of today.

“Israel is no longer oranges and camels and kibbutzim,” Shoham-Marko said. “Israel is a modern Western society with a lot of challenges and a lot of dilemmas.”

Giving American Jews a more simplistic picture would not be “doing justice for them.”

The Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, already in place since 1997, has lent itself well to reimagining education about Israel.

“It wasn’t easy to get people interested in this idea at first, because the Los Angeles Jewish community wasn’t focused on Israel,” said Lois Weinsaft, vice president for international planning at The Jewish Federation.

Today, the partnership with Tel Aviv includes a cultural exchange between museum heads in Los Angeles and Tel Aviv; collaboration between municipal leaders on issues such as poverty and emergency management; and a partnership between Jewish Family Service and Tel Aviv’s social-service agencies.

The centerpiece of the partnership is the “twinnings” of American and Israeli schools that now touch 5,000 children in the Los Angeles area. The programs usually involve joint curricula and one-on-one pairings of students who communicate through e-mail, video conferencing and joint assignments.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles provides about $50,000 per year for each twinning. Federation professionals also administer the partnership, and the Federation funds a yearly joint seminar for Israeli and American school administrators and teachers. Schools and parents contribute to the cost of trips and other expenses.

These days, morning assembly at VBS brings announcements of local news and events at David Bloch Elementary in Tel Aviv; current events in Israel have suddenly become personal to the students in Los Angeles. The schools have parallel Rosh Chodesh (celebration of the new month) and havdalah assemblies and share a weekly Torah portion curriculum — quite a reach for the secular Tel Avivians.

Some schools had canceled or modified their trips to Israel at the height of the intifada, but many kept going. Now all the trips are back on, and they are attached to a robust curriculum meant to reach students who aren’t part of the delegations.

This week, a planeload of sixth graders and parents from Pressman Academy and Sinai Akiba arrived in Israel to meet up with kids at sister schools in Tel Aviv. Just before Passover, 14 kids from Bloch Elementary School in Tel Aviv spent 10 days in Encino at the Harold M. Schulweis Valley Beth Shalom Day School.

Because the children are so young, the entire family gets involved. School families host delegation members, and families on vacation in Israel often visit the school or a buddy family.

On a recent sunny day at VBS, two sixth-grade girls — one an L.A. student, the other a visiting Israeli — walked with their arms in a friendly tangle, leaning on each other as they traced a wavy path toward class.

They met face to face just a few days before, but because their connection had been building over a year, they became fast friends.

The hope is that there also will be the forging of a bond with Israel.

“Before, a lot of what we were teaching was about the mitzvah project that would go toward Israel,” said Sheva Locke, head of school at VBS. “Now it’s a question of what does Israel mean to me and what is my place and my connection on a very personal level.”