Teamwork produces winning model for Israel education

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In December 2010, a teenager sparked a forest fire on Mount Carmel, near Haifa. The blaze persisted for four days and claimed 44 lives. It was the worst forest fire in Israeli history and became known as Ason haKarmel (the Carmel Disaster).

Before the flames had been extinguished, a first-grade student walked into the office of Barbara Gereboff, head of the Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City. “We need to do something,” the young student told his principal. “We need to help our friends in Haifa.”

The fundraising drive sparked by this first-grader’s concern provided some financial aid to a school in the path of the blaze.

What drove this 6-year-old to instigate this relief effort? What was occurring in the classroom that led this child to understand the impact of the fire, to feel a strong connection to events occurring 10,000 miles away, and to feel compelled to take action?

Research indicates that Israel plays a strong role in Jewish-identity formation among American Jews. Responding to studies indicating that young American Jewish students are growing more “distant” from Israel than previous generations, the Jim Joseph Foundation funded a pilot project to improve Israel education substantially in 11 Northern California Jewish day schools.

The initiative was led and designed by Jewish LearningWorks in collaboration with the foundation, the iCenter and the participating schools. After four years, we learned a great deal about how to develop effective Israel education in day schools and how to create conditions that would lead a 6-year-old hearing about a fire on Mount Carmel to respond “What can I do to help?”

The initiative took on its own brand, BASIS (pronounced “bah-sees”), an acronym that worked in both English and Hebrew (Bay Area Schools Israel Synergy and Batei Sefer Yisrael-San Francisco). The project developed Israel curricula in the schools, addressing Israel education in numerous ways by touching on interrelated academic, social and structural aspects of the school community. It also tracked improvements in student learning and in the knowledge and skills of teachers.

For example, Israel-related themes were interlaced with general studies subjects, such as social studies, where students looked at citizenship and immigration issues in Israel and California, and compared John Muir’s efforts to preserve California wilderness with Herzl’s struggle to reclaim land in Palestine at the same time.

In science, animal and plant species indigenous to the Holy Land (and mentioned in the Bible) were studied. In math, Bay Area students solved problems collaboratively with peers in twinned schools in Israel and practiced math and graphing skills in researching comparative population, demographic, geographic and economic statistics between California and Israel.

Israel, normally a Jewish studies subject, thus found its way into many aspects of school life, involving faculty, administrators, board members, parents and, of course, students.

During the course of the initiative, we learned what works: Establish a vision for Israel education consistent with the school’s values; create an Israel curriculum based on that vision; introduce creative educational strategies inside and outside the classroom; strengthen the proficiency of Israel educators; create a cohort — a community of schools and educators invested in Israel education — that can support and learn from one another; and develop the communal infrastructure to lead and sustain such an initiative.

The foundation also supported additional efforts to evaluate, reflect on and document lessons learned. Too often, such projects miss this important step and lose opportunities for shared learning.

This documentation — a small percentage of the project’s cost and, arguably, the most extensively documented initiative of its kind on the Internet — can be found at  Communities throughout the country can implement their own BASIS, learning from our mistakes and successes.

Strengthening knowledge about Israel was an important outcome. Students were given a lens through which to interpret and understand this knowledge, and to contextualize the academic information so it mattered, thus facilitating personal connections with Israel.

So it is understandable how a 6-year-old student living in San Mateo could have heard about a fire on Mount Carmel, know where it was in relation to Haifa, understand the impact this fire would have on his friends at Reali School and, as a function of the personal relationship he had developed with Israel, be motivated to do something about it.

This is Israel education that works.

David Waksberg is CEO of Jewish LearningWorks. Chip Edelsberg is executive director of the Jim Joseph Foundation.