Teaching Who They Are: American-Born Supplementary School Teachers Connections with Israel


Source: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America 


This study sits at the nexus of American-based Israel education, supplementary education in congregational schools, and research on teachers and the beliefs that inform their practice. Focusing on four American-born teachers in two progressive congregational supplementary schools, the study employed three strategies to develop understandings about each teacher’s relationship with Israel: (1) life history, an examination of a teacher’s personal story, situating it within the social, political, cultural context in which the life story takes place; (2) intellectual biography, creating a record of what a teacher knows about an area of content or practice, how she came to know it, and how that shapes her current understanding of that content or practice; and (3) case studies. The blending of these strategies, along with the employment of multiple appropriate methodologies led to the creation of thick profiles of each informant.


Three sets of findings emerged from this study. First, a review of current literature on the philosophical aims of Israel education reveals two camps: the “Relational Approach” to Israel education, which focuses on the formation of the individual’s Jewish identity; and the “Complexify Approach,” which focuses on the formation of bonds between Jews in America and Israel. While the terms “relational” and “complexify” are convenient, as they aid in identifying the voices in the two camps, admittedly, as labels, they are unclear. The distinctions between the two camps are explored in-depth.

Second, this study suggests that teachers’ relationships with Israel may be typologized onto two continuums. The first continuum, Jewish Collective – Jewish Self, pertains to the nature of the individual’s connection to Israel, whether it is informed by feeling part of or obligated to a greater Jewish collective or whether it is seen as having shaped one’s sense of themselves in a deeply personal way. The second continuum, Insider – Outsider, relates to the individual’s self-perception about themselves in relation to the State of Israel and Israelis, and is expressed through asking, “am I an insider or an outsider” in Israel?

The third set of findings suggests that teachers can and do reveal their connections to Israel in the classroom, yet at times they do not. Factors that can either inhibit or enhance a teacher’s ability to share her connections to Israel with her students include: the curriculum and expectations placed upon the teacher vis a vis the implementation of that curriculum; the teacher’s pedagogic skills; and the teacher’s own sense of clarity or confusion about her beliefs about Israel and her connection to it. When we consider these three factors as influences on the teacher’s ability to share herself with her students, we see that sometimes the type of connection shared with the students aligns with her personal conceptualization of said connection to Israel and sometimes the connection shared with the students is different than that personal conceptualization.


This study presents implications for our understanding of the nature of American Jewish relationships with Israel and suggests, as noted above, a typology which provides vocabulary for describing different types of connections with Israel.

This study also has implications for Israel education aims and goals. Most notably, findings from this study suggest that the goal of Israel education should be yediat Yisrael, to know Israel, which in the sense of the Hebrew word yada, implies a personal and intimate connection to something or someone.

Finally, this study suggests that Israel education curricula, teacher selection, and professional development should all be aligned with the school’s goals for the types of connections to Israel it aims to nurture in its students.

The entire dissertation may be accessed here.

Updated: Jul. 21, 2019