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Back to School | Kids making connections with Israel in the classroom

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“In a beautiful valley, among vineyards and fields, there stood a tower with five floors. Who lived in the tower? On the first floor lived a fat hen. All day long she is at home, lolling in her bed. She is so fat, she can hardly walk.” 

So begins the English translation of Israeli writer Lea Goldberg’s endearing children’s story, “A Flat for Rent” (“Dira Lehaskir”). Over the past few years, children at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto have used puppets to act out the book in Hebrew and English as part of BASIS, a four-year Israel education initiative piloted in the Bay Area by Jewish LearningWorks (formerly the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education) and the iCenter, a national center supporting Israel education.

“Studies have indicated that young American Jews have grown more distant from Israel,” said David Waksberg, chief executive officer of Jewish LearningWorks. “Israel has become less salient in the lives and identities of many American Jews, and we actually believe that Israel is important in Jewish identity formation in the 21 century.

Teachers from Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto and the Hachita school in Israel collaborate on art. photo/courtesy of gideon hausner jewish day school

“We began to explore how to improve the connection with and understanding of Israel among young students in the Bay Area, and we started an intiative with the [S.F.-based] Jewish Community Federation, called the Israel Education Initiative, to do just that.” BASIS grew out of that initiative, receiving $7 million from San Francisco’s Jim Joseph Foundation.

Eleven area Jewish day schools from San Jose to Sacramento participated. Each school used experts and resources provided by BASIS to integrate Israel education uniquely into its own curriculum.

“Our goal was always to enrich, deepen and broaden Israel education throughout the grades, throughout the disciplines in our respective schools, in order for our students to feel a stronger connection to Israel,” said Esther Rubin, Hausner’s BASIS coordinator.

“Each school has a different vision, each school has a different population … We had a lot of autonomy,” Rubin said. “We focused on developing more in the area of the history and the development of the modern state of Israel.”

The intiative ended in April 2012, though some schools have continued funding BASIS projects from their own budgets. A BASIS evaluation by SRI International in April 2011 showed that 44 percent of teachers surveyed reported being involved or very involved in at least one of six BASIS activities.

Ninety-one percent of surveyed teachers also reported medium or high support for teaching about Israel among their faculty. BASIS educators also found more access to teaching materials about Israel. Twenty-three percent of teachers reported that parent support for Israel education has increased since the fall of 2008.

Israeli educator Micha Balf meets with Irit Kuba, principal of Judaic studies at Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School, in 2011. photo/steve maller

Chip Edelsberg, executive director of the S.F.-based  Jim Joseph Foundation, said that while it may be presumed that Jewish day schools include quality Israel education in their curriculums, Israel education hasn’t been systematically planned, and little funding has been set aside at schools to train educators specifically on how to teach about Israel.

But thanks to BASIS, “virtually all of that has been achieved in most of the [participating] schools.”

Before BASIS was implemented, Israel education in most schools was relegated to Hebrew and Jewish studies teachers, Rubin said. But with the program, Hausner was able to create a more interactive Israel education curriculum. For example, when teachers visit Israel, they travel on an itinerary in which “every day someone from that group [is] engaged in a place in Israel or with a person in Israel that [is] going to help inform their teaching.”

The school also began to think of its annual student trips to Israel as more than just an end-of-year activity, but rather the culmination of a yearlong Israel study from different perspectives. English teachers began including translated Hebrew literature into their curriculums and students were encouraged to fundraise for Israeli nonprofits.

Hausner also “twinned” with an Israeli school, Hachita, in Zichron Yaakov, exchanging students and teachers between Israel and the U.S. for joint training and hospitality experiences, and engaging in joint student projects. In one assigment, students from both schools were asked to interview relatives and compile their family histories.

These reports were then shared. Kids at both schools “plotted on the map where people came from and talked about the immigration paths that were different for the people that live in Israel now and the people that came to the U.S.,” Rubin said. Now, Rubin sees many of her students travel to Israel with their families and visit Hachita on their own.

“These kids feel that they have a personal connection that they never would have had,” Rubin said, and they “see Israel totally differently” because they get to interact with kids their own age.

Debby Arzt-Mor, the BASIS coordinator at Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco and San Rafael, said the tenets continue to “impact the creation and delivery of Israel curriculum — in its broadest sense — at BHDS.“

Israel “has become an important part of our entire curriculum. We created learning opportunities in which students and faculty developed relationships with Israel based on deep and meaningful personal experiences.”

The BASIS evaluation report backs that up — showing that after a year of the program, students were more likely to report a strong connection to Israelis. Seventy-one percent of students reported having a friend in Israel, up from 60 percent before the survey.

Overall, students reported communicating much more with Israelis and particpating more in Israel-focused activities.

Waksberg said Jewish LearningWorks has been in discussion with iCenter, the Jim Joseph Foundation and other day school supporters regarding how other schools and communities can implement BASIS as well.

To that end, Jewish LearningWorks and the Jim Joseph Foundation recently launched a new website, BASISIsraeleducation.org, which documents the project’s model of tools and techniques. Both organizations hope the website can help facilitate the implementation of BASIS far beyond the Bay Area.

“One of the reasons we put up the website was to enable educators to glean what they can of value there and implement it in their own schools,” Waksberg said.