Israel — no longer just a word in textbooks here

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When Debby Arzt-Mor went to Israel last summer, she met an Israeli colleague who would help her bring a bit of Israel back to her classroom.

The Israeli woman facilitates a program for Israelis of Ethiopian descent, introducing them to the physical landscape of the country, through the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

Arzt-Mor, a teacher at Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco, is now in touch weekly with her Israeli counterpart. Her students log onto a Web site where they communicate with the Israeli children, with both teachers standing in to translate when need be.

Arzt-Mor is just one teacher in the Bay Area who is taking part in the Living Bridge Project, sponsored by the Israel Education Initiative.

A joint program of the Bureau of Jewish Education and the Israel Center of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the Israel Education Initiative (IEI) is finding new ways to bring Israel into U.S. classrooms.

“We wanted to provide our children with an experience of Israel that was not just looking at pictures or learning from a textbook,” said Arzt-Mor. “We felt that teaching Israel was really creating contact between people.”

The initiative grew out of the recognition by educators that no one knew how to “teach Israel” anymore.

“To many people, Israel was the intifada, and people didn’t know what to do with it,” said Vavi Toran, director of the project. “Any time you touch Israel, it meant the conflict.”

This has happened for a number of reasons, Toran said. “Kids are not going to Israel on community trips anymore,” said the native Israeli. “The fact that we’re in a generation so removed from the Holocaust and pre-state Israel makes people feel less connected.”

Many parents and teachers also have also not been.

The goal of the project is nothing short of reforming the way Israel is taught in schools.

“There is an age-old question whether Israel should be a topic like math: Is it a separate subject that you study, or is it something you have to integrate with the rest?”

Under the integrative model, for example, when students are studying literature, they would read Hebrew literature in translation. When studying history, they would have a unit on Israeli history.

The project has spread throughout the Bay Area, with specially trained teachers like Arzt-Mor linking up with a host of programs in Israel. For example, a BJE teen group is discussing art projects with its counterparts at the Israeli-Arab Coexistence Center, Givat Haviva. And classes at San Rafael’s Congregation Rodef Sholom and San Francisco’s Or Shalom Jewish Community are talking about b’nai mitzvah preparations with teens at Afula High School.

In another project of the IEI, students learn Israeli songs and lyrics as a way to gain insight into the country. So when Israeli pop star Idan Reichel was here, he visited Brandeis Hillel, where some students had learned his songs in advance of his visit.

“Those kinds of things really bring Israel into our community,” said Arzt-Mor. “We’re not here just trying to counter the negative stuff.”

What’s being done on this front in the Bay Area is part of a much larger effort taking place nationwide.

In 2003, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Davidi Gilo sponsored a study on how Israel was being taught around the country. The study showed that the longer the intifada continued the more educators shied away from teaching about Israel. As a result, students were becoming less and less engaged with the Jewish state.

To combat this, the North American Coalition for Israel Education was founded, as a partnership between the Jewish Agency for Israel and American Jewish organizations. San Francisco has been one pilot city where this partnership has been at work, with the IEI.

The next step, locally, will be to take some non-Jewish teachers at Jewish day schools to Israel.

“There are some teachers who have taught at Jewish schools for years,” said Toran. “So we are planning a trip for them that will address the fact that there are different narratives in the Israel story. Ideally every educator in a Jewish school should have gone to Israel.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."