Want to make Israel engaging and exciting? Give your students 3D glasses.

In honor of Israel’s 60th birthday (and the upcoming publication of Artzeinu: An Israel Encounter) we’re going to be taking some space in the TAPBB to talk about some real Israel issues. This is the second in a series of essays about how Israel fits into the school curriculum.

by Joel Lurie Grishaver

walkinginjlem.jpgThis week, we’re announcing the publication of a new kind of Israel textbook, Artzeinu: An Israel Encounter.

We’re proud of it because it’s beautiful, filled with gorgeous pictures of eretz Yisrael and amazing maps drawn by a master cartographer. We’re also proud of the activities in the book, and of its ease of use.

But we’re most proud of the fact that it presents a three-dimensional look at Israel.

Recently, I wrote about teaching the “real” Israel with an Israel curriculum that has to do two things. First it has to model love for Israel through the way it covers the subject. This is not a social studies text; it is a family history. Second, one must admit that Israel struggles with problems.

Teaching the real Israel is challenge enough. But we also deal with another problem. How do we make Israel—a country thousands of miles away and a world apart from our North American Jewish selves—engaging, interesting, and exciting for our students?

For ten year olds, “land of the Bible” is not a selling point. “Where the Rabbis who wrote the Talmud lived” is worse. They don’t know or admire halutzim. Any war where Israel was glorious and heroic dates back to the time of the Neanderthals. Our students have been well inoculated against Holocaust guilt. Going to Auschwitz and then to Yom ha-Atzmaut with a group can still make an onsite impact, but in the classroom the line from barbed wire to the good ship Exodus to the Western Wall is harder to draw.

Only two things work: real people and compelling stories.

Israel can no longer be taught as a place. There are two many adventure destinations out there to visit already. Gross national product is not interesting, and Israel is just another place on the map when compared to Nepal, Buenos Aires, and Monte Carlo.

And as I said in the last TAPBB article, students either will strongly feel the pull of Israel, or not feel it at all. That depends on their parent’s politics and affiliations. Love for Israel can’t be commanded, it must be built.

Two things build strong connection: stories and people. You have to get close to “the stones with the human heart” in the right context for the stones to do it. Pictures of stones have less of a chance.

We know that taking people to Israel usually does the job. It may be something in the falafel oil or the men and women in unform that do the trick. In any case it is some mystery factor that we try to replicate in our own “pretend” tours to Israel.

But almost always something is missing. Writing a note and placing it in a stacked cardboard box model Kotel comes close, but just doesn’t do it. This is not to say that we shouldn’t take the model airplane ride, stamp the passport, find the ancient pot in the sandbox, and walk the masking tape snake path that leads to the falafel station.

These are perfectly good activities. They should be done, but if we don’t establish a three-dimensional reality to Israel, they come off as real as childish retelling of Bible stories. Reality can come through films, visitors, and artifacts. It come through testimony and stories. But most of all it comes through a narrative that becomes part of our students lives.

Most Israel teaching before high school involves one form or another of a trip to Israel. That makes developmental sense because history is not really developmentally appropriate. The question is, “What is the nature of that visit?” Simply put, is it postcards or moments? Postcards show you places and things, come with captions, and mean much more to the person who has been than to the person being shown. Moments dig into the heart. But how do you create a narrative? How do you create a moment?

Let’s face the facts. The best Israel teacher is someone who has been there and who is a great communicator. If we could clone great Israel teachers, the job would be easy. The job would also be easy if we could simply teleport all our students and their families to Israel. Though many synagogues offer excellent—and well attended—family Israel trips, the fact remains that only a small percentage of our students have ever been to Israel.

So the real questions are, How do we turn an ok teacher who has never been there into a great Israel teacher? and How can we bring an impacting and engaging Israel experience to children who’ve never visited?

The answer is still stories and personalities. We need to meet diverse Israelis, from Sefardim to Druze, from American Olim to Israeli Arabs. Real life sells the country. So do three-dimensional moments in the lives of heros.

Knowing that first Tel Aviv Mayor, Meir Dizengoff’s name turned into a verb for “hanging out” is a great factoid. Knowing that Yigael Yadin bought a Dead Sea scroll from an ad in the Wall Street Journal is another. It is the kind of thing you learn by actually going to Israel. So is the fact that the Arab town of Sakhnin has a great soccer team. Watching all of Israel watch the moment when Gal Friedman, wrapped in an Israeli flag, listening to Hatikvah, accepted the gold medal at the Olympics for wind surfing is another of these memories. Meeting “Captain Compost” at Kibbutz Lotan reveals a whole set of truths about reclaiming the Negev. He shows the truth that halutzim are still there today, just like in the time of the poetess Rachel (who has another great story to hear.)

The truth is that an Israel curriculum must create Israel memories the same way an actual trip does. Mentioning that there are dolphins in Elat or that the Arab quarter has the church of the Holy Sepulchre doesn’t do. Knowing that one Arab family has held the keys to the place for hundreds of years because the various Christian sects can’t agree on who should have control does a better job… There’s something or students can sink their teeth into. What we need are memories that can be retained and enjoyed.

A text book is not as good as a trip. At best it is a simulated trip. We have already agreed that simulations aren’t always effective. In writing Artzeinu: An Israel Encounter we have worked hard to introduce people, both modern and historical, and we have gone out of our way to tell stories that are rich in memorable detail and which beg to be remembered. We have struggled to make the book much more than a collection of postcards (though it has great pictures), but rather a series of moments. The first reading of the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, listening to Eleazar Ben Yair’s final speech at Masada, using brackish water for agriculture in the Negev, and watching the sunset and the Shabbat Queen arrive in Tzfat are a small part of our list.

The book ends with “Israel and You” as students use the internet and other tools to make the day to day realities of Israel real. This book was written with two goals, goals which every Israel curriculum needs to include. (1) Israel is a real place you can visit. (2) Going to Israel would be great.

Making Israel feel great is the challenge we have taken on.