Hearts and Minds: Israel in North American Jewish Day Schools

Apr. 27, 2014

Source: AVI CHAI Foundation


Sixty-five years after its establishment, Israel remains a central feature of Jewish educational programing in North America, perhaps nowhere more ubiquitously and intensively than in Jewish day schools. Anyone visiting such schools cannot but be struck by the omnipresent physical reminders of Israel, daily messages about Israel and the many special programs convened to memorialize or celebrate developments in Israel. Given the omnipresence of Israel in so many Jewish day schools and the self-declared mission of most schools to foster an attachment to Israel, this project has sought to take the measure of Israel education by investigating the so-called inputs, outputs and outcomes of day school Israel education.

The project’s guiding questions were:

  • What do schools and teachers seek to impart to students about Israel?
  • What do schools actually communicate to their students?
  • What do students take away from their educational experiences?

In order to answer these and other questions, a research team triangulated data from three primary sources gathered during the 2012-13 school year.

  • We asked each of the 95 schools that participated in our project to answer questions about their practices in the area of Israel education. Members of the research team then visited over a dozen of those schools and observed a number of school trips to Israel to gather qualitative data on how and when material about Israel is taught.
  • Some 350 teachers identified by their schools as involved with Israel education were surveyed about what it is they do in this area and how they perceive the efficacy of their work.
  • The project also surveyed students themselves to learn how they think about Israel, how confident they feel in talking about it, which aspects of Israel resonate the most and the least with them, and how Israel fits into their larger worldview as citizens of the U.S. or Canada and as Jews. In total, we surveyed 4030 middle and upper school students in day schools.

    Five Key Findings:

  • Not only is Israel education rarely contested in day schools, Israel actually serves as glue holding school communities together. Particularly in schools outside of the Orthodox sector, Israel is the single most important Jewish common denominator binding school families together.
  • Israel educators fall into two categories: slightly over two thirds see their role as what we describe as Exemplars: they believe Israel education is best done by sharing something of themselves with students. Slightly under one-third of teachers, by contrast, encourage their students to learn about Israel through inquiry and study; we call these teachers Explorers. Both types of teachers are found in every day school sector, regardless of denominational affiliation. This last finding constitutes both an opportunity and a challenge: it suggests that there is great potential for professional development across denominational lines; it suggests also that all schools should be alert to how diverse the experience of Israel education is in their classrooms.
  • Students’ connection to Israel grows from their relationship to the Jewish people. Nurturing connections between students and Jews around the world contributes to their connection to Israel. Put differently, the road toward engagement with Israel runs through students’ relationships to other Jewish collectives, wherever they are found.
  • When parents model engagement with Jewish communal life, even when they are not specifically active in pro-Israel work, students are more likely to feel strongly connected to Israel. The involvement of parents with Jewish communal life is a stronger predictor of student connection to Israel than whether a student has been on a trip to Israel.
  • Day school students are not all the same. In schools of every sector, a significant minority — between a quarter and a half — are relatively detached from Jewish life and especially from Israel. Schools can have their greatest impact on Israel engagement if they build connections with these detached students. While the more engaged students benefit from the school’s reinforcement of commitments absorbed in the home, the less engaged students can have their negative perceptions of Israel converted into positive ones if the school creates a culture that is connected to contemporary Israel.

See the full report here.

Updated: May. 07, 2014


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