Jewish Journal


May 23, 2002

Israel in the Classroom

Teachers are using creativity to help students understand the situation in the Holy Land.


"Before [the crisis], our approach to teaching Israel was just positive and idealistic. It was all about kibbutzim and how Israel is so beautiful and we all want to go there," said Ellen Goldberg, the principal of Temple Isaiah Religious School. "We want [the children] to love Israel, but they hear people saying that people are doing bad things there. We have to find way to make them care about it and love it anyway so they will have that connection."

While the war in the Middle East continues, teaching Jewish children about the historical and current significance of Israel proves to be a challenge for religious schools and day schools alike. The dilemma has forced educators to find creative ways to help students understand and appreciate the Jewish homeland. In Judaic studies programs in Los Angeles, teachers have risen to the challenge.

At Temple Isaiah, fourth- and fifth-graders participated in debates on how to solve the crisis in Israel and wrote letters to Israeli soldiers. They also raised money to purchase an ambulance and medical equipment for Magen David Adom (Israel's National Emergency Service). Goldberg believes that the key to teaching students about Israel is staying informed. "You don't really know what's happening in children's minds, but you do need to be prepared for anything they ask, so one of my roles is to give them as much information as possible," she explained.

Goldberg stays in close contact with the Bureau of Jewish Education for new developments. "We want [students] to have the facts as opposed to rumors," she said.

At Valley Beth Shalom Harold M. Schulweis Day School in Encino, fundraising efforts for Israel are both educational and helpful in providing a sense of community. In December, students, parents and congregants worked together to raise money to buy an ambulance for Magen David Adom. On the fourth night of Chanukah, the Student Council encouraged the day school students to ask their parents to donate money for the cause in lieu of giving gifts. The vehicle was delivered to the school playground during a Yom HaAtzmaut celebration. "I think what's unique to our school this year is how we have celebrated Israel in light of what's going on," said Tamar Raff, director of studies-Judaic at Valley Beth Shalom.

In addition, Rabbi Edward Feinstein spoke to the students about the difficulties of making peace. "He challenged the kids to go home and the next time they got in a fight with a sibling, to say they were sorry, instead of trying to figure out who was right or wrong," Raff said. "A couple kids came back and said that the rest of the family went into shock!" she said laughing, but pointed out that the exercise helped children to understand the Middle East crisis.

Fourth-grade students created an Israel museum, collecting items from home, including books, coins, postcards, toys and pictures. All of the students, from kindergarten through sixth-grade, visited the display. "[We want] our children to feel like Israel is our country. Not a place to visit, like France, but ours," Raff said.

At Maimonides Academy, an Orthodox day school in Los Angeles, Rabbi Karmi Gross strives to find the balance between sharing the harsh reality and focusing on the positive. "The fear is that if we build up how dangerous the situation is and relay every single incident, the students will think Israel is a dangerous place to go. We don't want to overdo the danger, but we want students to feel very connected with what's going on," Gross said.

Through Project Kesher, the school has adopted a family that lost a loved one in a suicide bombing. In addition to raising money for the family, students also write letters to the children in the family. "[The experience] is making it personal for them since it's something that's happening very far away," Gross said. "[The situation] is something we care deeply about, but we also tell our students that Israel's a thriving, beautiful country and children play in the streets every day just like you do."

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