October 26, 2000
A Lesson Plan From Israel
At local day schools, teachers and students discuss the Mideast conflict.
In our hardwired global village, the old curse "May you live in interesting times," has particular resonance. For local educators, the recent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians have made these past few weeks interesting times indeed. As events continue to unfold thousands of miles away, the conflict has been an ongoing topic in Southern California's Jewish day schools.
Many day school families have strong familial ties in Israel. Yet even for the majority that don't, there is anxiety and concern about the violence. Most schools have addressed the conflict within their regular programs. After all, among day schools, Jewish history and modern Israel are part of the standard curriculum. The headlines have now made that curriculum come alive in an urgent and disturbing way, sparking discussion and impromptu "teaching moments" in a variety of settings.
"We've brought the discussion to the students," said Joseph Hakimi, Judaic studies and middle school director at the Westside's Sinai Akiba Academy. "Our focus was twofold: Understanding the conflict is the first goal. That includes understanding the Palestinians' position, which really involves putting themselves in the shoes of the other side. I told the eighth-grade students, 'Think as a Palestinian and then express and defend your position in this conflict.' Then I told them to do the same, taking a position as a Jew and Israeli. The reason we do that is that we believe that in order to ever achieve any sort of peace, we need to understand the position of the other side. If this model was taught in Palestinian schools, we believe there would be less hate and more progress," Hakimi said.
At Adat Ari El, a kindergarten-sixth grade day school in North Hollywood, students and teachers are also discussing the moral and political dimensions behind the headlines.
The conflict is treated as both a topical event and as a religious and historical challenge for the Jewish people. "In class," said principal Lana Marcus, "our staff is discussing the events with the kids in an age-appropriate manner. And at our regular Thursday minyan, we set aside a special time to pray for peace in the Middle East. At our Friday assembly, we lowered the flags in the yard."
"In other words," Marcus continued, "we're really incorporating it into what we regularly do at this point." In the aftermath of reports that two Israeli reserve soldiers were murdered in Ramallah, Adat Ari El's fifth-grade students began writing letters of condolence and support to the victims' families.
In a less formal context, Haim Linder, Adat Ari El's Israeli-born head of physical education, has been bombarded with questions from the kids since they returned to school after Yom Kippur.
During gym class, Linder said, "the kids would ask me, 'Did you see what's going on?' They really wanted my take on it. I thought it would be an appropriate time to clarify some of the issues in an age-appropriate way. I asked them what they knew and what they would do themselves to resolve the conflict, and we discussed it a little bit. One second grader said he was concerned because 'all the Arabs are killing the Jews.' I tried to correct that misconception. When the older grades would come to class and want to talk about it, our conversation was a little more complex, and we talked briefly about the different factions within the PLO and in Israel itself."
Like other Jewish day schools, Adat Ari El has extensive security measures in place that didn't need to exist 10 or 15 years ago. Since the violence broke out in Israel, several parents have called the school expressing anxiety, Marcus said, adding that in this instance, it seems to be Israeli-born parents who are doing most of the calling.
At Heschel West, the Agoura satellite campus of Heschel-Northridge where students range from preschool age to eighth grade, informal discussion time has been dominated lately by news from the Middle East. According to the school's Judaic studies coordinator, Rivka Ben Daniel, "We make recordings of the news broadcasts or bring in articles and discuss what is going on. The students are very, very curious. They ask a lot of questions. They are really disturbed by the news and want to know that Israel will be okay. The upper grades," Ben Daniel said, "really want to initiate discussion, and they are all very supportive of Israel." She also said that Heschel students have begun writing to the families of Israelis wounded or killed in the conflict.
Farther south, in the newer suburbs surrounding Mission Viejo in Orange County, Jewish day school students and teachers are also exploring the implications of the conflict. Eve Fein, the principal at Morasha Jewish Day School, said, "Our fifth- and sixth-grade students are now in a current events national competition, which we took first place in last year. So in their current events studies, they are learning about the situation, but it's really part of the program. It also has been mentioned during our prayers."
The students "are learning about the situation as a topical issue and also from a Jewish perspective," Fein said, "and I do think there's a distinction. One is the purely political approach of what is going on in the world of current events. The other is the Jewish view, which is a little more complicated. We always told the kids that Israel is holy to us. Once you explore that subject, you get into how there is a competing connection to the land. We teach them that it is also sacred to the Muslim world, and that leads us to a discussion of competing rights and values. We end up exploring the very complex idea that this is a place that is sacred to both sides."
At Milken Community High School, the clash between Israelis and Palestinians has been received as anything but a remote news story. Partly, it's due to Milken's unique exchange program. At present, 22 Israeli exchange students are spending three months in L.A., each assigned to a Milken family. When the three months come to a close, the program does a flip: the Israelis go back home and the Milken students who hosted them go to Israel to stay for three months with the families of their new Israeli friends. Among families on both sides, the end result is a tight web of interrelationships that span generations and cultures.
Milken teacher Yoav Ben Horin heads up the exchange program. "There is very intense bonding from all perspectives," he said, "Not just the kids, but the parents as well. The Israeli kids, by and large, and particularly the ones we select, are very alert and aware. They're well-informed about what is going on in the world. But as things escalated, and they were in touch with their families, understandably, some became more anxious, and all of them very concerned. There were some tears and some huddling together, and a need for more reassurance, but there was also a sense that they were not entirely out of touch. They were in touch with their parents, and in this school and community setting they were not out of touch, either. There is a yearning for home at a time like this, but not a desire to get on a plane and go home. They have succeeded in staying on an even keel."
Despite their concern about the ongoing conflict, none of the American students scheduled to go to Israel next expressed any ambivalence about the trip, Ben Horin said. "The only concern I've heard among them is a worry that this would affect their program - modify it or postpone or cancel it. I have not heard any second thoughts. I think what is really remarkable in all this is how reasonable everyone has been so far - the parents, the kids and the exchange students."