Day School Israel Education in the Age of Birthright

January, 2010
In this article, the authors report on a multi-method study which attempted to find answers to the following questions, what are North American Jewish day schools doing when they engage in Israel education, what shapes their practices, and to what ends? Their account is organized around an analytical model that helps distinguish between what they call the vehicles, intensifiers, and conditions of day school Israel education. Their discussion explores the possibility that when it comes to Israel education, schools have shifted from a paradigm of instruction to one of enculturation. This shift, they suggest, is indicative of a generalized anxiety about students' commitments to Israel and about their capacity to advocate for Israel when they “come of age” at university.

Among their conclusions:

"First, in relation to purpose, there is accumulating evidence that across the plurality of liberal and modern-Orthodox schools, Israel education today is designed first and foremost to win over a disinterested and disconnected audience, even if that audience comes from families located close to the core of the affiliated community, as indicated by their readiness to pay many thousands of dollars for their children's Jewish schooling. We wonder, in fact, if families have lost confidence in their capacity to cultivate attachment to Israel and have subcontracted the task to schools.
Second, in relation to practice, the great educational strength of day school education ordinarily comes from its cumulative effect; from the fact that, over time, students are socialized in a covenantal Jewish community and have an opportunity to wrestle with Jewish ideas and concepts. It seems, however, that when it comes to Israel education, many schools depend on vehicles that deliver an instant or exceptional experience. Not surprisingly, they often turn for these things to external or specialist providers more experienced than they in such matters. This model, in form and content, is not unlike that used by Birthright Israel.
Third, in relation to overall balance, in high schools especially, Israel education has become closely associated with Israel advocacy. With schools having been assigned responsibility for cultivating knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors in relation to Israel, the tasks of Israel education have become increasingly focused on preparation for a singular, time-limited performance: advocacy for Israel during the few years that students spend on university campuses.
These three phenomena—in relation to purpose, practice and focus—suggest a field of educational activity lacking in equilibrium and balance, one being pushed and pulled in very particular directions. Our analytical model of Israel education in day schools can serve, we suggest, as a useful tool for practitioners, helping institutions identify the imbalances or lack of coherence in their work, and pointing also to levers for doing things differently. It can help schools see how resources invested in certain intensifiers can have impact across a number of vehicles whereas those resources when invested directly in vehicles can result in highly circumscribed outcomes. For researchers, we hope, it can provide a set of concepts and categories for navigating a field of practice whose complexity often seems to resist systematic investigation. Indeed, it may invite investigation of which specific outcomes are cultivated by which particular elements (or vehicles) of Israel education. Such data can certainly help schools conduct their work in more measured fashion."
Updated: Jun. 20, 2010