American Jewish Children’s Thoughts and Feelings About the Jewish State: Laying the Groundwork for a Developmental Approach to Israel Education

Apr. 26, 2016

Source: Contemporary Jewry


This study presents the first longitudinal data on American Jewish children’s thoughts and feelings about Israel, highlighting children’s development between kindergarten and second grade. Drawing upon interviews and photo and music elicitation exercises with Jewish elementary school students, the research examines both children’s conceptual understandings of Israel—what they imagine it to be—and their feelings toward Israel. The research finds that throughout the early elementary grades, children think of Israel as a place where both good and bad can happen—a duality that remains relatively stable over time. Yet their feelings about Israel change over time, as consistently happy emotions give way to a wider range of affective responses to Israel, including worry, fear, and sadness. This manuscript examines both children’s static conceptions of Israel and their changing feelings about the Jewish state, addressing the implications of these findings for elementary school Israel education and Jewish communal policy toward youth engagement with Israel.

Data used in this inquiry come from The Children’s Learning About Israel Project, a longitudinal study of American Jewish elementary school students. The project began tracking a group of children enrolled in Jewish day schools when the participants were in kindergarten (2012–2013 school year), and it has continued to follow them every year since to ascertain how the children understand and relate to the State of Israel.

Participants were recruited from the kindergarten classes of three Jewish day schools in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Day schools provided a relatively stable enrollment for the study, allowing us to return year after year to work with the same group of students. The particular schools were selected because they cater to different segments of the Jewish community. The goal was to enlist a set of participants that varied in their Jewish practices and affiliations, as well as in their experiences and relationships to Israel. Thus, the schools represent different religious denominations within American Judaism: one is Reform, one is Conservative, and one is a non-denominational community school. The ethnic background of the schools’ typical families also varies: One has a large Persian - Jewish population, one has predominantly children of Ashkenazic descent, and one serves a large number of Israeli expatriate families. Of the 35 children enrolled in the project, 26 participated in the research in all three years of the study to date: kindergarten, first grade, and second grade. This group of 26—which was comprised of 16 girls and 10 boys from a variety of Jewish backgrounds—is the focus of the current study.

This manuscript is based on the subset of our research that we held constant over time. All of the questions and prompts we explore in this paper are ones that we asked the children in the spring of their kindergarten year, again in the spring of first grade, and once again in the spring of second grade, as much as possible holding constant the language and the order of our questions. These questions and prompts took two forms: semi-structured interviews, and photo and music elicitation exercises.

From the Conclusion:

This research has implications not only for Jewish educators, but also for larger Jewish communal policy, for, in an attempt to shore up American Jewish commitment to Israel, vast sums of money have been poured into supporting research and programs intended to connect American Jewish young adults to Israel. Recognizing that meaningful connections to Israel can be formed before the Birthright years, there has been a recent push to bring (or reinstate) quality Israel educational programming—and the funding that would support it—to a younger teenage audience. Yet Jewish youth form, and grapple with, their initial connections and feelings toward Israel well before the teenage years. In fact, children as young as 6, 7, and 8 years of age can feel invested in Israel even as they are fully cognizant that it is an imperfect place. Given that this kind of complexity is not the province of teenagers or young adults alone, younger children—and the educators who teach them—merit greater attention in the allocation of communal funding. Resources must be invested into developing curricula and programs attuned to both the cognitive and the emotional needs of young children.

Additional research is needed to illuminate the ways in which American Jewish children experience Israel and Israel education. Work must be done to continue to track children’s developmental trajectories over time, and also to examine the ways in which their educational environments impact both their cognitive understandings of, and their emotional reactions to, Israel. Little is known, for example, about how trips to Israel or person-to-person mifgashim (encounters) with Israelis—often viewed as staples of Israel education for teens and young adults—impact the cognitive or emotional lives of younger children. Similarly, it is not yet known the ways and extent to which different Jewish influences on children’s lives—including schools, camps, synagogues, and families—impact children’s understanding of life in Israel, or their feelings about it. Without this knowledge, Jewish communal policymakers and Jewish educators have only a partial understanding of how to best educate American Jewish youth about Israel, and help them to form a strong connection.

In the meantime, a developmental approach to Israel education necessitates tuning into the emotional range of young children, and providing coaching for their emotional needs. It requires not only building children’s understanding of Israel, but also supporting children’s emotional journeys as they grapple with the gap between what Israel is and what it can be. It demands that wrestling with Israel become the hallmark not of the teenage years, but of the entire trajectory of a youngster’s Jewish education. And it suggests that children must not be led down a path of feeling only unmitigated happiness and pride about Israel, but rather guided toward experiencing and expressing whatever emotions they feel. Just as Israel itself is complex, developing, and ever unfolding, so, too, are children. The American Jewish community must provide its children with the opportunity to develop a discerning, evolving, and ongoing relationship with Israel.

Updated: May. 04, 2016