Values in Tension: Israel Education at a U.S. Jewish Day School

Sep. 04, 2011

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 77, Issue 3, pages 239-265


The Naphtali Herz Imber Jewish Day School proudly proclaimed its commitment to Israel, yet many of its students experienced profound ambivalence toward the Jewish State. Why? The school was committed to a series of contradictory values which surfaced in its approach to Israel education. This article outlines three distinct yet interrelated tensions: tensions between an open exchange of ideas and a non-debatable loyalty to Israel; between pluralism and Zionism; and between inclusivity and expertise. It demonstrates how American Jewish students—when confronted with values in tension—struggled to make sense of Israel and their relationship to it.


The article concludes:

"Despite the best intentions of its educators, the Naphtali Herz Imber Jewish Day School failed at the very thing it promised to do: foster serious learning about Israel. This was the unintended result of a series of contradictions embedded in the school's structure and mission. The school—like so many settings in the United States where American Jews learn about Israel—clung tenaciously to sets of values that sat in tension with one another: encouraging independent thought and a collective love of Israel; Zionism and Jewish pluralism; expertise and inclusion. These values form the foundation of much of Jewish schooling in the contemporary United States. Indeed, they are the very raison d'être of Jewish community day schools, which are—by design—supposed to foster open questioning and commitment to Jewish life, teach how to love Israel and how to embrace difference within the Jewish community, and provide a model for excellence and for egalitarian participation in the Jewish world. These commitments are the unique promises of the Jewish community day school, yet they are also its liability. For schools like Imber are constantly caught between conflicting principles, unwilling to abandon and unable to reconcile their most cherished beliefs. The result is a school incapable of enacting the very values it holds most dear.


Israel is, and will likely continue to be, a central aspect of contemporary Jewish life and a focal point for Jewish education in the Diaspora. But the settings in which American Jewish youth learn about Israel—day schools and supplementary schools, youth groups and campus Hillels, synagogues and camps—must find new strategies for helping their students think critically about the Jewish state and their connection to it. This is a major task, but it is not a project of curriculum creation, for Israel educational programs already abound (Pomson et al., 2009; Chazan, 2004). Certainly Jewish educational institutions must take a careful look at the substance of their Israel curricula—whether the information that is being taught about Israel is nuanced, thoughtful, and appropriately complex—but even more pressing, these institutions must begin to acknowledge and explicitly address the competing claims they make of students and teachers. For, as the cautionary tale of the Naphtali Herz Imber Jewish Day School shows, even a school that is committed to a substantive and meaningful rendering of Israel education may be thwarted in its attempt unless it can address the larger context of multiple, at time conflicting, values that exist within Jewish schools and the American Jewish community writ large.


To succeed in this endeavor, Jewish schools must hire or train adults who have a deep knowledge of Israeli history and politics and who can help students navigate the complex messages that American Jewish youth receive about Israel. Yet for this to happen, Jewish schools must move away from the model in which they expect all teachers to be Israel educators and move toward establishing a group of highly trained professionals. Pomson et al. (2009) explain: Israel education is a multi-dimensional activity that straddles the formal and informal curriculum; it calls for work with teachers and with a battery of external providers; it requires organizational skills and educational ones too; and it is often conducted in more than one language. There are very few individuals who have mastered all of these skills … [and] there is currently no path of professional learning or experience into this specialized work. Nor is there any professional framework that is specifically dedicated to supporting and developing those who hold such responsibilities (pp. 14–15).


Jewish schools need a cadre of teachers and teacher educators explicitly trained to do this work and respected for their professional expertise. That several graduate programs in Jewish education have begun to offer concentrations in Israel Education is a hopeful sign; other institutions should follow suit. Jewish schools, camps, and other settings that teach American Jewish youth about Israel must increasingly entrust the task of Israel education to those trained with particular pedagogical expertise in the teaching of Israel—an act that will require relinquishing some input from community members and Israel experts who are not educators, but one which will lend a gravitas much needed in Israel education. For only with an increased professionalization of the field will Jewish educational institutions be able to teach students what they hope to: how to love Israel while simultaneously thinking carefully and critically about it. And only then will today's American Jewish youth truly engage with Israel and the hope of its national anthem: ayin l'tziyon tzofiya. Their eyes will turn once again toward Zion." 

Updated: Sep. 27, 2011