Web Exclusive: My Zionism – An Evolving Engaging Curriculum

by: Drora Arussy*

Drora Arussy, EdD is Hebrew Language Coordinator for Jewish Educational Services of United Jewish Appeal of Northern New Jersey and adjunct professor of Jewish studies at Drew University.

From the time they enter the day school system, our students are exposed to Israel both as a modern state and as part of Jewish history. Although different elementary and middle schools experience varying levels of success engaging the students in an appreciation for the modern state as it is steeped in our history and religion, we have found that many students feel as though they have had Israel shoved down their throats and they feel no connection to it. By the time they reach high school they view Israel as a few nice stories with no practical relevance to their lives. At best there are those who acknowledge Israel as part of our past and as a place to support, much as any needy institution. It will take courage, commitment, and a bit of risk to overhaul the current middle and high school Zionism.

The last high school at which we taught, the Hebrew department took upon ourselves to institute a Zionism and Israel curriculum. We fully integrated those studies into Hebrew language instruction as culture and topics for language usage, and the main goal was to engage the students in activities that would make the information relevant and engaging. The desired goals focused on engagement and internalization rather than details and dates.

Within this context, it was important that each teacher “own” his/her classes and teach the materials in a way that could transmit the deep connections between the Jewish people and Israel. It was also imperative that the students appreciate Israel as the past present and future home of the Jewish people – a homeland in the modern world.

Since, the key to any internalization process is experiential learning, students needed to be exposed to various ideas, concepts and activities that allowed them to understand and relate to the many facets of Israel. The more the students were exposed to experiences, culture, and yes, facts, the more they would connect to the country, and the richer any Israel experiences would be. This included mock-trials of Etzel members, a review of HaDag Nahash’s The Sticker Song, personal reflective interpretations of the declaration of independence, giggling at old documentary footage, etc. The more varied and lively the curriculum, the more the students would be engaged.

How do you gauge success of such a curriculum? How do you know if the students have really internalized and learned something? Active research is the method employed here. To this end, we present three anecdotes that can be used to express the validity of this approach.

  1. In remedial Hebrew, we instituted “Zionism Wednesdays.” Every week we would take a break from our formal Hebrew language study and discuss Israel When I walked in you would often hear a resounding chorus of “Zionism Wednesday!”
  2. In tenth grade about half of the students went to Israel on a school program. We received numerous comments from staff members that our students were relating stories and places to what we had discussed in our Hebrew classes.
  3. At a newly formed Zionism club, the leader decided to show the students how much they were out of touch. He began, “how many of you have heard of Dov Gruner?” Well, his plan to shock them failed. About ¾ of the hands went up with the students saying that they had done a mock trial with him and described Gruner’s activities.

With this in mind, we would like to share some of our keys to structuring a customized successful curriculum.


  • First, we strategized about the key issues to be taught. We decided that Zionism could be broken down into three main time periods: religious pre-political Zionism, the introduction of political Zionism through 1947, and the current State of Israel. As religious Zionism raised philosophical issues and was a much more academic pursuit, we decided that although it was chronologically out of order, we would wait until the eleventh grade to incorporate the more difficult and esoteric concepts. First, students needed to have a firm foundation of what Israel is and how it came to be, only then could we begin to discuss the more difficult and contentious topics.
  • It was agreed that all seniors should take the advocacy high school curriculum created by the David Project as a culmination of the other studies. This curriculum is comprehensive, inclusive, interactive, and may be adapted to particular teachers and classes.
  • Key topics were chosen using Israeli and American texts and the expertise of Israel consultants. Topics were then formed into cohesive theme-based units each containing at least one media based item (web-quest, video, song, photos, etc.), key personalities associated with that theme, and an interactive assessment or activity.


It was important that there be a balance between the structure, outline, personal passions, and ownership. It was imperative that teachers and students alike develop a sense of connection and ownership of the material. Therefore, teachers were given the option of teaching the units in blocks or once a week. Teachers were also encouraged to bring and share curricular materials. Materials were translated back and forth between English and Hebrew as the level of the class demanded. Assessments were adapted to fit teaching styles as well as differentiated within classrooms based on different levels of comprehension, commitment and background as relates to Israel.

Assessments and activities were designed to allow for the students to feel a sense of ownership as well. For example, they created a mock trial for Dov Gruner, taught each other about the various aliyot through Power Point presentations, and wrote historical fiction stories. All of these helped them own the material and feel as if they had been a part of the choosing and learning process.

Another program was Holocaust through art, an integrative unit of art and Zionism in which students received and brought to class picture postcards drawn by people in the Holocaust. A discussion on art, suffering and escape ensued. Once the students were drawn in, they thirsted for stories, people and related events, including the concept of mishoah litekumah. They were looking forward to finding out more.


One of the things that I have often found is that teachers want the students to appreciate what the teachers themselves know and love. It is important that no philosophical curriculum, as is a study of Zionism and Israel, be stagnant. New songs, video and topics must be introduced. A comparison between Subliminal’s Hatikva (a few years old already) and the original or between the post-’67 songs and the second Lebanon war songs helps the students understand the changes in Israel’s society. At one point students asked me if they could upload some of the songs we were bringing in – they wanted to listen to Israeli music and try to understand it. For one particularly weak and disconnected class, this developed into a final project. They each chose a song or modern Israeli art piece that they particularly liked, and analyzed it for context and content in Hebrew!

One of the things that surprised us was the students’ interest in original movie or film footage. There was quite a bit of snickering at the quality, but the details that the students observed and remembered was worthwhile. When the students saw Allenby walking into Jerusalem, no matter how involved or uninvolved they had been in the past, all eyes were focusing on the bouncy grainy image. They had been drawn in previously, had seen parts of PBS’ The Fifty Years War and now were seeing the actual event. It made it that much more real.

Another strategy was to have modern concepts be examined through Israeli literature. For example, Tapuhim min Hamidbar, by Savion Libricht, together with the Maale student film, Shabbat Mother is something that students can relate to – parents and their children, religion and lack of religion. Or Derekh Haruah together with the Maale film Amod Noah as a discussion about parent/child expectations and serving in the army. Taharut Sehiya is a great trigger for the Arab/Israeli conflict today – teachers chose their own songs that best supported the various opinions.

These are concepts that we all struggle with and when seen in Israeli society cause Israel to be much more real and relevant. It is important that our students not see Israel as a distant charity case, but as a modern western democracy in the context of our Jewish Zionist heritage. Using modern television clips like those from Arutz 2’s Eretz Nehederet, modern literature and short films like those from Maale, make Israel a living, modern, relevant entity.

Current Affairs

An important element is to continue the conversations and topics begun in class into other venues, whether cross-curricular or extra-curricular. We ran a very successful Hebrew newspaper that came out approximately four times a year. Each issue would have current events from Israel, current events from school and an editorial. For two years we had students committed to a column of Israel history in every issue. Another student added sports from Israel and the States. The success of the newspaper hung on the ownership of the students, as the editors and those that gathered the articles researched the information and created the topics.

Some classes had students presenting an article from an Israeli newspaper once a week. At times the students were asked to own the classroom in a literal sense, and one student a week would prepare a lesson based on the newspaper article. Also, at least once a week a student would present the news from Israel immediately following tefillah in the morning. Israel became a natural part of the day. Students were sharing what motivated and influenced them. Gone was the feeling of Israel as oppressive. This was expressed clearly in that the staff of our newspaper doubled every year.

The Evolutionary Process

It was important that the curriculum continually evolve. Some of the unique angles of our curriculum included the modern songs, connection to the materials, and customization of the curriculum to the various levels and interests. Some classes loved the old footage from Amud HaEsh and some preferred an analysis of a text. Bringing song, video and student-created materials into the fold helps the students internalize the Zionist message and find a personal connection. We constantly keep updated with trends in Israel, asking Israeli teens for songs and Internet sites that they may enjoy, and thereby update our curriculum and repertoire.

When we teach Zionism, we are instilling an emotion and connection as much as we are teaching facts. It is important for our students not only to know who Dreyfus, Herzl, Rav Kook, Rav Kalischer, Rachel and Ben-Gurion were and in which eras they lived, but they must develop a relationship with the founders. Students who go to Israel should relate to the places that they have learned about, and feel as if they have been there before. Making this generation Israel literate is important, and that literacy becomes much more effective and student motivated once they feel an intimacy.

On a Personal Note

If this is going to work we are going to have to be willing to make mistakes, look a bit foolish, and put ourselves out there. It is a world of marketing, one in which there are many competing forces for our students’ attention, and we need to find the right mix of materials, communication vehicles, and strategies that will encourage students to learn, grow and become active. Sharing, discussing and updating got us to a great place in the Zionism curriculum with great success. It is up to all of us in our individual schools to take it to the next level- don’t be afraid to expose your passions and connections. Be engaged and the students will follow!

Postscript: Online Resources

Popular Israeli culture often parallels American culture and has been a venue to encourage students to connect with Israel. The key is to use meaningful items from pop culture. www.keshet-tv.co.il offers some spoofs on Israeli culture and politics that are quite useful.

For modern songs it is best to consult with teens in Israel and will try to download or buy discs upon their recommendations. For example, Subliminal and HaDag Nahash have some politically relevant songs, David D’Or has philosophical underpinnings that can be compared to such songs such as ani mavtiah lakh. Lyrics to songs can be found at www.mp3music.co.il/lyrics/.

*My thanks to Gilat Katz for her input

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