Let Me Count the Ways: Connecting with Israel

by Carol Oseran Starin and Idie Benjamin

We who work in the American Jewish community believe that it is possible to have a vibrant, committed Judaism here. A strong connection to Israel is crucial to creating that community. Israel is the historic and eternal homeland of the Jewish people. Connection to Israel deepens our Jewish identity on every level. As educators, we must make sure that our students and their families are deeply connected to Israel in intelligent and authentic ways. They must know Israel and care about Israel — not just when Israel needs our support but every day in as many ways as possible.

Here are 3 important kinds of connections:

1. Connect yourself. You must be knowledgeable for your own sake. You must know Israel and be connected yourself. You may teach second graders, but you must have an adult understanding of Israel. You may not be teaching the “History of Israel” course, but you must know all 4000 plus years of Jewish history. You must know the politics, geography, ecology, culture, etc. of Israel. You must know what is happening in Israel right now (and on days when Israel is not on MSNBC and CNN). Take a course, read a book, check the news on line with the Jerusalem Post (jpost.com) and HaAretz (haaretz.com). Use the web for yourself and for the classes you teach.

You must be knowledgeable for the sake of your students. Now more than ever, you must be prepared to answer questions that your students have about Israel. Facts and information given in age appropriate ways will help even the youngest students to be less fearful and more connected.

2. Connect your school. Israel needs to be an important component of the curriculum. Your school needs a well-thought out spiraling curriculum. The BIG QUESTION—what should a child know at what age? There are some very good materials available from publishers. What this can lead to, unfortunately, is the third graders and the fifth graders having an Israel course while Israel is not “taught” in the other years. Everyone should be involved in Israel learning of some kind each year.

3. Connect your students in large and small ways.

Here is a list of ideas and strategies from our “5 Things Advisory Group.”

  • Use Hebrew. It is the language of the Jewish people. Children should hear it as much as possible. All teachers should be able to read Hebrew and to have a few words/phrases they can use. Boker tov, B’vakashah, Todah, Kitah, etc.
  • Make sure you have an Israeli flag in your class. Learning why that flag looks the way it does is a great story.
  • Hang a map of Israel. Beth Huppin suggests that having a map makes it easy to refer to when a Torah lesson mentions a specific place in Israel or when a current event is being discussed. If you find yourself with five minutes of time between lessons, use the map to review places in Israel.
  • Fran Pearlman’s school uses the AdventureLand map of Israel. It’s a 25 foot blow up map that comes with activities for every age. Students can actually stand on the map and “be in a city” or place.
  • Designate part of the bulletin board for Israel news items, photos of Israeli leaders past and present.
  • Connect every subject to Israel. Examples:
    Holidays—How do Israelis celebrate them?
    Prayer—Point out the references to Israel in the tefilot.
    Values—Teach about the mitzvah heroes here and in Israel.
    Ecology—Visit the Israel nature sites.
    Community—Jewish communities from all over the world are in Israel. What are their customs, foods, music, dress, etc?
    American Jewry—Golda Meir, Henrietta Szold, Hadassah, UJC, etc.
    Music and Art—Israeli hip hop and Israeli art and artists
  • Arrange for “pen pals.” Mike Fixler’s classes corresponded with a class from Ra’anana. He says the idea of a Jewish homeland hits “home” even more when the kids have real people they are connecting with.
  • Adopt kids. One of Ira Wise’s classes is adopting two kids at Emunah Afula as pen pals. Students in Kitah Bet and Kitah Zayin will be writing and e-mailing. Emunah Afulah provides both residential and non-residential care to children in at-risk family situations in the north of Israel. This website is the place to find them and Director Shlomo Kessel is the person to contact.
  • Write letters. A ninth grade teacher had his students write to the parents of the kidnapped soldiers. They got red bracelets from Magen David Adom and will use them to raise tzedakah for Israel.
  • Teach Hatikvah. Study the meaning of the words and the history of the song (just google ‘hatikvah’). What were the words prior to 1948? What changed? Why?
  • Read Israeli poetry/stories (Amichai, Agnon, Bialik).
  • Learn about Israel’s agricultural advances and programs, using resources from JNR.
  • Invite Israelis or people that have visited Israel to come to class, show pictures and tell stories.
  • Find one or several good tzedakah organizations—look at http://www.ziv.org—with your class, choose a year-long project.
  • Connect with teachable moments. Marian Gorman suggests that even jewelry provides a connection.
  • “Many of us have jewelry we purchased in Israel. Kids notice what we wear. When they say, isn’t that pretty, I can answer, “I bought that in the Cardo. What a place! Brand new shops carved into the caves directly across from the Western Wall. Do you know that you can still see…” or “Ben Yehudah Street. Do you know who ben Yehudah was?” or “That’s made out of Roman glass.”
  • Create a school wide program. Ira’s school will have an Israel exhibition in March. During the month of January, all teachers will relate Israel to their regular curricular goals. For example, the life-cycle class in 3rd grade might look at weddings in Israel: on Kibbutz, in Tel Aviv and in B’nai Brak; or the 4th grade holiday class might look at holidays through an Israeli lens; Bible class might do some archaeology, etc. Then each class will prepare an exhibit based on what they learned/researched. The Exhibition will be open during school in March and will be featured over a Shabbat as well.
  • Make the collection of money meaningful in age- appropriate ways. The Lokay center at the Leo Baeck School in Haifa is sending money for school supplies to the 30 schools that were damaged. Sharon Morton’s school is collecting $5.00 from every child to fill backpacks for Israeli children (they are sending money-not ‘stuff’ because they want to use Israeli merchants for the products. But saying it fills a backpack is a great connection for the children—and an image they can relate to.
  • In Susan Edelstein’s school the fifth grade is also partnered with the Lokay program. Students write to each other, tell about their families and their daily lives, share their hope and dreams. They will also have at least one videoconference during the year so students can see each other and have a conversation in real time.
  • Rabbi Susie Moskowitz’s school partnered with a school in Israel and did two different projects. For one project students designed identity cards—tehudot zechut together and then filled them out and added digital picture to exchange. Then, the two school exchanged maps marked with place their families came from. Students could compare similarities and differences in countries of origin between Jerusalmites and New York Jews. For the second project students exchanged videos about the life of a 6th grader.
  • Israel was the year-long theme at Pesha Loike’s day school. One piece of the program was a 6 week “tour” of Israel. Each week the entire school “visited” a city in Israel. They had in-class lesson plans and a variety of school wide programs. One of the highlights was the costume parade put on by a different class each week. The class dressed up as residents of the city they were all “visiting.”
  • Check out some of the fine materials on the web. Iris Petroff wrote to share that ARZA has put together a wonderful packet for Reform congregations. Find it here.
  • Also see the excellent curricular pieces from the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland. Find great stuff by clicking here.

Make an “Israel Plan” this year—even if—especially if—it’s not part of your prescribed curriculum. Connect yourself and your students in as many ways as possible.

An insight from Sharon Halper:

Open as many portals to caring for and about Israel that you can.

One person’s Land of refuge is another’s Biblical Promised Land. For every person who dreams of diving in Eilat or camping in the Negev, there is another who sees himself at a Yeshiva overlooking the Kotel. For every science student that admires Israel’s research and loves google.com, there is the news junkie that understand Israel’s place as the only democracy in the Middle East. So, open the doors and teach (at least) 5 Israels!

Thanks to: Idie Benjamin, Iris Petroff, Ira Wise, Shira Raviv Schwartz, Beth Huppin, Sacha Kopin, Sharon Halper, Sharon Morton, Sandi Intraub, Mike Fixler, and Marian Gorman, Fran Pearlman, Rabbi Susie Moskowitz, Pesha Loike, Susan Edelstein.