Federation project helps educators teach about Israel

For the past 10 years, the Holy Land Democracy Project, sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, has been taking educators from Catholic, charter and Protestant high schools throughout the Los Angeles region to Israel. While there, teachers and members of the group see, firsthand, what the country is  really like, so they can share the message with their students. “We bring an understanding of Israel to now over 30,000 students across Los Angeles,” said Hal Greenwald, this year’s group’s rabbi. “We’re achieving an understanding [of Israel] and advocacy in pockets of the city that are hard to get to otherwise, which is really valuable.”

When teachers return to Los Angeles, they share with their students what they experienced, via a five-lesson course called “The Many Faces of Israel.” At the end, students participate in a contest that includes poetry, art and essay categories, so the students can express what they’ve learned. 

On Nov. 10, the program’s annual awards ceremony was held at Pico Union Project, an interfaith center that opened this year just west of downtown’s Staples Center. The event honored the winning students as well as their parents and the educators, and all those involved. 

The first-, second- and third-place winners in each category received Israel Bonds. Travis Talcott, a senior at Bishop Montgomery High School, a Catholic school in Torrance, won a $500 bond for his first-place essay. The program, and the essay he wrote, “made me a lot more aware of the issues and problems in Israel and the general life there. It really awakened me. I talked about how everything I knew up to then was mostly wrong,” Talcott said.

Christina Hanna, a junior at Glendale High School, won first place in the poetry contest for a piece about the Jewish struggle. She said she learned in her government class that “Israel originally belonged to the Jewish people. Through many wars and fights, it was taken away from them, and it was finally returned, but people are still angry about it.” 

Poems, essays, drawings, sculptures and paintings by winners and honorable mentions all were on display at the ceremony. First prize for art went to Veronika Gorchkova of La Sierra High School in Riverside for her depiction of a religious Catholic woman, a Muslim woman and an Orthodox Jew. Also on display were sketches of Israeli soldiers and Magen Davids, along with sculptures of the Western Wall, the Temple Mount and a menorah.

The event also featured speeches by Dr. Daniel Lieber, chair and founder of the Holy Land Democracy Project, a blessing by Craig Taubman, leader of Pico Union Project, a musical performance by Stuart K. Robinson, and a speech by Catherine Schneider, the Federation’s senior vice president of community engagement, which oversees the project.   

“It’s a win for the Jewish community because we have the opportunity to build relationships throughout the city of Los Angeles,” Schneider said. “We share some of the things that we love most, especially that Israel is a modern democratic state. It’s a win for these schools because it gives them the opportunity to learn about world governments and multiculturalism. Some of our charter school teachers love giving students access to something totally beyond what they live and see every day.”

Volunteer Dennis Gura said the trips take teachers to educational institutions, the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and a kibbutz, where they talk to members about the establishment of the Jewish state. “The Catholic and Evangelical teachers have a different map of the country than we do,” he said. “Devout Christians have a particular map in their head based on the Gospels, and we have a Zionist and biblical map. We compare and overlap. We see serious differences, which we acknowledge, and real commonalities in historical background. That experience is deeply gratifying and greatly enriching.”

The teachers’ backgrounds vary. Some are religious studies teachers from the Catholic and Protestant schools, while public and charter schools send history, government and social studies teachers. John Fitzsimons, a Bishop Montgomery educator who has been participating since 2004, has been to Israel four times. “There’s a lot of misinformation in the media, and even my most educated kids really don’t know anything about Israel,” he said. “As a Catholic school, it’s a big deal for us to have better relations with the Jewish community.”

“I was blown away,” Greenwald said of the submissions. “The students only take a five-lesson course, and they observe so much.”