This past year, I was posed with a challenge to teach Israel to fourth graders. I thought to myself, “I’m more than qualified to do this. After all, I lived there for a year.” However, I would soon discover that creating a relatable experience of Israel for my students was difficult. I wanted to bestow upon them the relationship I have with the country after my HUC-JIR Year-In-Israel, but I knew I couldn’t delve into all the facets of Israel’s existence.
The biggest obstacle facing me, I felt, was bringing my students to the conclusion that what they do affects Israel, and what Israel does affects them. I wanted them to get a sense that Jews in Israel really are no different than Jews in, say, Blue Ash, Ohio. I wanted them to care about Israel and its inhabitants.
Anne Lanski, Executive Director of The iCenter in Chicago, differentiates “Israel Education” from “Teaching Israel” by describing “Teaching Israel” as transmitting facts and information, while “Israel Education” is helping to foster a real relationship with Israel. For example, I could give dates and locations from the Israeli War of Independence, and the students would learn about Israel. On the other hand, I could focus on one family and describe their struggle so the students understood what that family went through.
This method of relaying Israel is not an apologist agenda…quite the contrary, in fact. If I have a deep relationship with the United States, am I automatically an apologist for the country? No. I can be a patriot while questioning the actions of my nation and its leaders. The same goes for Israel. I can feel that Israel is my second home while criticizing some of its actions. As a Jew, I still feel it is my responsibility to speak up and tell the leadership in Israel how the Jewish homeland should act.
It is not enough to teach our students that Israel (as I feel I was taught) is full of happy farmers dancing in circles. We must teach the complexity of Israel’s society. Complexity is the mantra of Gil Troy, a Zionist activist and writer. He believes that the only way to help our students create a long-lasting, deep, and complex relationship with Israel is to teach its complexity. As opposed to describing Israel as a land of peace, and Jewish homeland, Gil’s philosophy would be to describe Israel as a place where many different peoples and ethnicities work together to try and achieve peace.
So this past year, I taught complexity. I told my students that, yes, we Jews are all responsible for one another, but we can criticize each other’s actions.
To stress Israel’s complexity, I created an activity to accompany the special elections held by Israel this past year. First, I assigned an ingredient for making ice cream to each student. Every ingredient had a point value. Some ingredients, such as milk, were more desirable, so they had a higher number of points. Next, I informed the students that they were to create a “coalition” to make the best ice cream flavor possible. A winning flavor would have at least sixty-one points.
Once the activity was finished, I revealed to the students how the Israeli government works in a similar way to form the best coalition possible with the parties available. I further explained how the Knesset worked and, as I did, I was able to relate every new point to the ice cream flavor activity. For example, when I shared that Bibi Netanyahu had pulled out of his coalition, I was able to remind the students that one of their peers, who had had a very desirable ingredient, had decided not to join any coalition. His decision ultimately meant that no one won the activity. As I explained, that’s politics.
I feel my students came away from this year with a fuller picture of Israel. They came to appreciate its geography, demography, and history. They learned to relate with its pluses and minuses. Most importantly, they realized they can have their say in the future of our homeland. They now know that they can make an impact in Israel’s future, just as Israel can help to shape theirs.
Adam Bellows spent his TJF fellowship at Isaac M. Wise Temple in Cincinnati, where he taught fifth grade Hebrew and fourth grade Israel curriculum.