Towards a Vision of Educational Re-engagement with Israel in Day Schools

by: Daniel J. Margolis*

Dr. Daniel J. Margolis has been the Executive Director of the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Boston since 1983.

Israel and Core Jewish Identity – Changing Realities

Israel is a central component of our Jewish identity. It is not, however, all there is to one’s Jewishness. For too long, much of our collective, civil, political and communal Jewishness has been predicated on our relationship to Israel. Though we hope and pray daily that it were otherwise, we know that too often our sense of Israel is defined in reaction to an ongoing, recurring set of crises –real, horrific, irrational, and tragic – alternating with periods of “paternalism” towards Israel. Thus, by adopting these governing metaphors, Israel has become the essence of our Jewish communal activity.

However, when we define our relationship only through crisis, to keep up the momentum we frequently expand the definition and call for intensive responses to other “crises” – of economic or political survival, media or religious discrimination – many real, some exaggerated. In doing so, American Jewish leaders, abetted by Israeli counterparts, have created our own matzav (situation) of educational credibility which has made it extremely difficult to educate succeeding generations about Israel as she actually is and as she evolves – how and why to love, support, defend, and, yes, critique her.

There are ramifications of this assertion in Israel herself today. As the State moves from Zionism to post-Zionism, confronting social, economic, military, and cultural challenges that might undo other young polities, Israelis are also struggling with issues of their own identity – Zionist, Israeli, Jewish, none of the above. At the same time, they are trying to redefine their understanding of and relationship to the Diaspora, in a process that began, for many, with a stance of negating the value of the Diaspora (shelilat haGolah), moving to rejection of American paternalism (ha-dod mei-America), now to searching for meaningful and mutual partnerships with global Jewish communities.

But, whether in Israel or in Diaspora Jewish communities, if we teach only Israel, we will not succeed in “making” our students or families whole Jews or whole persons. Even Birthright Israel, from research 5 and more years out, loses much of its immediate, enormous, positive influence on the hearts and minds of the young Jewish alumni, and very little has emerged to recapture that enthusiasm. Clearly, we need a more complete, nuanced, and coherent ideological and pedagogical core if we are to design a responsible and successful curricular vision.

Sounds obvious? Possibly. But making it happen is neither obvious nor easy.

Why? First, because we begin from a complex, virtually unique value statement: The Jewish people is a covenanted nation, linked to each other and bound to our Creator through texts and teaching, vision and values. This commitment to a future of promise has been sorely tested in the recent past. World over, Jews face severe challenges – erosion of affiliation, in-marriage and literacy; questions about whether we have the communal imagination and will to develop educational, cultural and religious innovations to sustain the quality of successful initiatives and efforts, find and retain qualified educators, and develop the financial resources to support all this.

No less, we have serious questions about our deeper commitment to the centrality of Israel in our lives, beyond crisis support. Even in Israel. The mythic, romantic, Zionist/socialist Israel is no longer; neither is Israel as the “poor immigrant cousin.” The old metaphors no longer obtain.

Instead, we confront a place where (almost) universal, dangerous national service vies with the most avid child-centeredness of any contemporary society in the world – where “milk and honey” have been replaced by computer chip and chutzpah. Neither defenseless nor quaint, no longer a country uniquely characterized as an idealized expression of Biblical and rabbinic texts and values, Israel today is rich in her modernity, diversity, and complexity.

Western and Levantine, socially progressive and religiously conservative, technologically advanced and anchored in antiquity, a theo/democracy struggling to remain – simultaneously and equitably – democratic, civil, and Jewish. Is Israel a naively benevolent, peace-seeking, transitional occupier or class-divided, oppressive, permanent imperialist?

Israel Presents Challenges to Jews’ Commitments – Is There a Role for Education?

We are not suggesting simply to ignore the old “myths” about Israel (the halutz, kibbutz, singing and dancing around the campfire, even the camel at “Israel Day”). It is good to retain core myths –whether biblical, historical, or political. But old myths, either taken as unchallenged “fact” or modified in the light of new research or contemporary reality, block evolving understanding that today’s students must have.

Two realities have come together in the last few years that provide the impetus for us to re-engage with Israel education in new ways in our day schools:

First, the Intifada, Iraq and Iran conflicts, and initial separation from the West Bank and Gaza have heightened the importance for all American Jews to have more basic knowledge of, greater concern for, and commitment to Israel. This awareness presents a dilemma: as Israel becomes more central to our communal lives and identity (and less in our educational and spiritual “lives”), the contradictions it poses for us (particularly against an inadequate knowledge base) highlight more of the divisions within the community, even leading to internal political polarization. Some local rabbis have noted that they do not preach about Israel as much as they’d like for fear that it will create divisiveness within their congregations.

Undoubtedly, this communal tension contributes to the decline in personal commitment to Israel and its becoming less central in our personal and spiritual lives. Across the American Jewish community most Jews are concerned about Israel’s existence, but for younger Jews, the sense of attachment is more fragile than it is with older age groups (see article on page ???). Today, support for the state among American Jews seems to be weaker than it has ever been since its founding.

Steven M. Cohen and Arnold Eisen (2000) surveyed “moderately affiliated Jews” who were members of Jewish institutions (synagogue, JCC or other group) but were not “as involved, learned or pious as the most highly engaged 20-25% of American Jews.” The 1997 survey showed that although two thirds of respondents thought Israel was very or extremely important to their “sense of being Jewish,” less than a third felt very or extremely attached to Israel. Most regarded support for Israel as a desirable or essential part of being a good Jew, but fewer regarded visiting Israel as desirable or essential. When compared to other characteristics associated with being a good Jew, those relating to Israel were of less consequence.

Half of Cohen and Eisen’s subjects thought Israel was critical to sustaining a Jewish life, yet 64% had never been to Israel, 21% had been to Israel once and only15% had been two or more times. They conclude, “Israel is not central to who American Jews are as Jews – and so the need to visit it or learn about it or wrestle with its importance to the Jewish people is far from pressing.”

Bethamie Horowitz (2000) surveyed 1425 Jews living in the metropolitan New York area who identified themselves as Jewish but included a wide range of degrees of Jewish engagement. She found “supporting Israel” a “less personally meaningful component of American Jewish identity than, for example, the Holocaust.” “Supporting Israel” ranked close to the bottom among the items she called “meanings associated with being Jewish.”

There is confusion among American Jews. We feel caught, conflicted about how to relate to such a place. How can we understand her and be committed to her while possibly disapproving of some of her actions? How do we support Israel while (mistakenly) seeing her as the cause for increased anti-Semitism around the world?

The second reality, revealed in both national and local research, is the lack of basic knowledge, concern and commitment about Israel among a disturbingly large portion of the Jewish population in America. Confounding also are recent estimates that at least half of all Jewish educators have never been to Israel!

Changing Israeli Realities and Jewish Education

These data explain why our communities are as conflicted and diverse in their opinions about Israel as they are. We know that there is a strong correlation between an early experience in Israel and adult involvement in Jewish life, but we also know that virtually every American visitor to Israel (and 100% of repeat visitors) had some formal Jewish education experience. There has to be a strong correlation between the two.

Thus, an analysis of the research suggests that Israel experiences as a teen or undergraduate – not alone, but in conjunction with ongoing academic study and other informal activities (camp, youth group, etc.) through high school and beyond – appear to be a formative component in strengthening adult Jewish identity and in promoting community involvement, in addition to establishing a long term adult relationship with Israel. These, then, should be foundations upon which day schools should design and implement their Israel curricula, formal and informal.

There are other confirmations of the impact of Jewish schooling and informal programs on long-term commitments to Israel, but there are also many questions about why Jewish educators have not “exploited” the power of academic and informal Israel experiences more systematically in their curricular designs.

Sales, Koren and Shevitz (2000) reported on the attitudes of Boston area Jewish parents with children in the 5th or 8th grades in congregations with full-time family educators in 1998-99. Sixty-four percent thought “keeping informed about Jewish or Israel-related current events” was very or extremely important to them, but only 36% considered it very or extremely important to “have a connection” to Israel. As educators, we asked ourselves how both disappointing and surprising this was in light of the fact that only 4% of family education programming in those congregations at that time was aimed at conveying anything about Israel.

Koren and Miller-Jacobs (2002) reported on interviews conducted with 13 schools (5 day schools, 7 congregational schools and one communal school, representing over 1/3 of all enrolled students in greater Boston) to find out how Israel was being taught. They found no unanimity around goals and objectives for teaching about Israel. Though all schools desired both cognitive and affective outcomes, they were teaching Israel as a separate content area rather than integrating it with other aspects of the Judaic curriculum. Further, School Heads expressed a great need for high quality curriculum materials. Family and adult learning opportunities about Israel were, for most part, not available. This, despite the fact that the Boston BJE has produced a proven, multi-grade Israel curriculum with a defined ideology, scope, and sequence.

The BJE Curriculum is a systematic exploration of major “content” elements of Israel education, because the history of Zionism, the geography, culture, and history of the State are no longer found in the core curriculum of most of our Jewish schools. There is also an ongoing decline in the emphasis given to Hebrew language in many schools, another indicator of the gradual weakening of our educational attachment and commitment to Israel. It is our contention that the erosion in levels and quality of Jews’ support for Israel is rooted, at least in part, in this move away from these topics in the Jewish school curriculum, and even youth group and summer camp programs, compared to the picture only a decade or two earlier.

The Need: Articulating an Educational Ideology and Vision of Israel

Though Israel lies at the heart of our liturgy and textual foundations, the commitment to Israel most of us hold is highly personal. And we have not translated that personal commitment into a professional one in our schools. As individuals, lay or professional leaders, we need to begin the process of articulating our stance with an exploration of personal ties to Israel. We should intensify our study of sources, learn, anew, Israel’s story and history, and consider the ways in which both educators and young people might engage with Israel as part of a fundamental process of thinking about what it means to be Jewish in the modern world.

In order to re-engage with Israel, Jewish education leaders need to develop a new vision of Israel, a new ideological starting point. We and our communities should re-examine our ideological commitments, how we, in all our diversity, understand and relate to the basic Jewish core texts and ideas that put Zion and Israel – land and people – at the center of our tradition and history. A necessary center, yes, but still an insufficient one to define us as complete Jews. We will each understand these root sources differently and relate to contemporary Israel differently, but from that re-examination, a new, contemporary articulation of our stances will emerge; new visions will, in turn, direct us to more effective educational encounters with Israel in both academic and non-formal settings. And these new generative ideas and foundations must be accompanied by new understandings, teaching approaches and materials.

Going from the personal, each school and community should develop for itself a clear statement of its commitment to Israel, a comprehensive ideology that places today’s Israel in the center of our Jewish lives, minds, hearts and institutional cores. Scholars, educators, rabbis, and lay leaders should be engaged to further this process, at the end of which the institution should be able to answer, for example: Is Israel our homeland? A refuge? A grand experiment? The fulfillment of God’s promise? The beginning of our deliverance? The third Commonwealth?

Clearly, there will be a variety of ideological positions about Israel, each evolving from different starting points – theological, denominational, political, personal. Eisen and Rosenak (1997) offer five commonplaces about Israel from the perspectives of Israeli and North American Jews. Each category is a trigger to developing a more comprehensive ideological position. Towvim (1993) provides similar “main ideas” as the organizing themes of the BJE curriculum series, The Israel Connection.This healthy diversity can give rise to a broad continuum of varied, but legitimate and authentic educational approaches and materials.

Education Prepares for Advocacy; It is Not Advocacy

Even though an educational approach is a long-term effort, with results and outcomes apparent only at some future time, we must remain true to the education process and our educational objectives. Educating day school children and adults about Israel is not the same as training them to be advocates for her. We don’t deny that we must be better prepared to explain and defend Israel on the campus, the street, and in the media. We must not abandon or neglect our responsibility to “be there” for Israel when she is in need. However, it is our position that a comprehensive, inquiry-based education is the best foundation for effective advocacy.


Our effort should focus on Israel’s striving for peace and normalcy, striving to actualize Judaism’s emphasis on equity (Tzedek) in the modern, real world. “Normalizing” American Jews’ relationships with Israel will mean creating learning opportunities and personal Israel experiences that are in and of themselves, “normal”. Learning about Israel as she is, “warts” and all; building personal connections with Israelis because we have something in common with them and because they could be our friends, not only our “family”! Doctors with doctors; joggers with joggers; rock music “groupies” with fellow fans.

The P2K “sister city” concept, where it is working well, achieves this, and more can be done with educational partnerships, at the school-to-school and professional levels. There are outstanding examples of day schools that have designed their Israel curriculum thoughtfully, deepening the students’ experiences – through content and activities – over several successive years, and not only focusing on the “Jewish” angles, but on several aspects of both American and Israeli life that relate to children’s interests and needs, including science, arts and culture, and sports.

Which brings me to the issue of reciprocation and mutuality. Is this proposal simply the same old paternalism in post-Zionist dress?

I suggest that at the heart of the educational estrangement between North American Jews and Israelis is the lingering sense that we are still traveling down a one-way street – Visit Israel. Make aliyah. The Diaspora has no future.

As I alluded to above, it is my conviction that what is true about the North American Jewish identity “scene” is also true – either in the same or similar terms or in mirror image – in Israel. Israel, too, is facing a critical challenge to its national and Jewish identity: a decline in knowledge of and respect for the tradition; a critical shortage of knowledgeable teachers willing and capable of teaching in liberal school settings; a seriously flawed and skewed view of the Diaspora permeated by a simplistic understanding of the Shoah, and a pervasive feeling of being seen either as a “second-class” Jew or a triumphalist, heroic savior of world Jewry.

It has taken nearly sixty years to shake both the North American and Israeli communities from some of these conceptions. There being a more even “playing field” now, on a wide range of issues, we can see how important, useful, and “easy” it may be to re-imagine the relationship between us, redefine and articulate the common ideological foundations we share, and work together towards a generative educational vision with authentic and creative materials and experiences to re-engage with Israel, for our part, and re-engage with world Jewry and Judaism, on the part of Israeli educators.

While we try to gain greater understanding of the complexity of the situation and the diversity of opinions about it, we affirm that in addition to knowing about Israel, our goal is also to ensure that, flowing from that knowledge, every Jew should feel committed to Israel, support her in times of crisis or tragedy in whatever way possible or deemed appropriate; and enable and allow Israel to be a vigorous, vibrant element in our daily lives. However, this educative approach should also result in more of us who feel comfortable with our roots in the prophetic tradition – so we can each inherit the mantle and mandate of our prophets, becoming what Martin Buber calls a “loving critic” of our people, our land, our state – and through that newfound relationship allow ourselves, our communities, our Israel to soar to new heights on the wings of our shared berit and halom – covenant and dream.


Avnery, Judy and Annette Koren, Re-Engagement with Israel through Education: The BJE 2002-2004 Project Final Report, (Boston: Bureau of Jewish Education, 2004).

Cohen, Steven M. and Arnold M. Eisen, The Jew Within (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000).

Eisen, Arnold and Michael Rosenak, Israel in our lives, Teaching Israel: Basic issues and Philosophical Guidelines (Jerusalem: The CRB Foundation, JAFI Department of Jewish and Zionist Education, and JESNA, 1997).

Horowitz, Bethamie, Connections and Journeys: Assessing Critical Opportunities for Enhancing Jewish Identity (New York: UJA-Federation of New York, 2000), pp. 64-70.

Koren, Annette and Sandy Miller-Jacobs Teaching About Israel in Boston Area Jewish Schools: Implications for the Community (Boston: Bureau of Jewish Education, 2002).

Margolis, Daniel J., “Towards a Vision of Educational Re-Engagement with Israel”, in Agenda, (New York: JESNA, 2004).

Margolis, Daniel J., Re-Engagement with Israel, (Boston: Bureau of Jewish Education, 2003).

Margolis, Daniel J. and Naomi Towvim, “A Call for an Educational Re-Engagement with Israel”, in Jewish Education News 25: 1 (New York: CAJE, 2004) , pp. 52-53.

Miller-Jacobs, Sandy and Annette Koren, Teaching About Israel in Boston Area Jewish Schools: Implications for the Community, (Boston: Bureau of Jewish Education, 2002).

Towvim, Naomi, The Teaching of Israel Network,, Are We One? Issues in Israel-Diaspora Relations (High-School-Adult unit of The Israel Connection), based on work by Barry Chazan and others (New York: JESNA, 1993). Distributed by the Boston BJE.

Margolis, Daniel and Shlomo Shimon, Israel in our lives, Teaching Israel: Israel in Bureaus of Jewish Education (Jerusalem:The CRB Foundation, JAFI Department of Jewish and Zionist Education, and JESNA, 1997).

Sales, Amy L., Annette Koren and Susan L. Shevitz Sh’arim: Building Gateways to Jewish Life and Community (Boston: Combined Jewish Philanthropies, 2000), p. 17.

* Portions of this essay have appeared in other documents, published and unpublished. A full list appears at the end. The author is indebted to the Boston BJE staff who helped shaped these ideas during the agency’s 2 year project focused on re-engaging with Israel. In particular, I thank Naomi Towvim, Dr. Annette Koren and Dr. Judy Avnery.

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