When it comes to Israel, love is not all you need

When it comes to Israel, love is not all you need

Day schools expose students to complexities

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Students at Golda Och Academy in West Orange celebrate Israel.  Photo courtesy GOA
Students at Golda Och Academy in West Orange celebrate Israel. Photo courtesy GOA

During her freshman year at Rutgers University, Emily Binstein, 18, of Metuchen signed up for a women and gender studies course. She was surprised to find in two of the readings descriptions of Israel as an apartheid state. In one of them, she said, the claim “had nothing to do with the rest of the article; it was just thrown in.”

She eventually succeeded in getting the article jettisoned from the reading list. A second article included similar claims but the arguments it included were “more complex,” Binstein said, and that article remains assigned reading. 

When she saw those descriptions, she told NJJN, she could not “sit still and let it pass.” Even though she felt no one else in the class was bothered by the reference, Binstein said, she “needed to speak up.”

She addressed the class regarding her offense to the articles — expecting a backlash — but none came. Her fellow classmates “just accepted” her talk, she said.

Binstein, a graduate of Golda Och Academy (GOA), the Conservative day school in West Orange, wondered: If students had argued with her, would she have been prepared with a response? Would she have been armed with the facts to take on negative narratives about settlements, the plight of Palestinian refugees, atrocities committed during Israel’s War of Independence, or human rights abuses?

She thinks so, but, she acknowledged, she wishes there had been a greater number of history of Israel courses throughout the GOA high school curriculum. She took just one such class in her senior year before heading to Israel.

Emily Binstein in Israel during her senior year at Golda Och Academy. Now a rising sophomore at Rutgers, she said she knew she “would need to defend Israel” on campus. Photo courtesy Emily Binstein

Jewish day schools have long taught students to love Israel, to develop an emotional connection to the land and its people. But in the last decade or so, educators have begun to recognize the need to present to students a more nuanced, reality-based portrait of Israel as an imperfect place with an imperfect history rather than a picture-perfect, flawless ideal. In this way, it is thought, students can develop a mature and comprehensive love for the Jewish state and be armed with knowledge and facts to confront anti-Israel hostility on college campuses.

“The big, big question is how to teach Israel’s complexity and at the same time instill a sense among Jews in America that they can constructively engage with Israel,” said Rabbi Reuven Greenvald, director of Israel engagement at the Union for Reform Judaism.

Experts fear that if students who lack a multi-faceted understanding of the country first hear specious arguments on campus, such as challenges to Israel’s legitimacy, the result could be disillusionment and perhaps enmity toward Israel.

“Will we lose the faith of our kids if the first time they are exposed to even outrageous claims…, and certainly other claims about the Palestinian narrative, is on campus?” asked Yossi Prager, executive director for North America at the Avi Chai Foundation.

Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, head of school at the Modern Orthodox
Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School (JKHA/RKYHS) in Livingston, is attuned to this possibility. “Having a one-sided narrative leaves students unprepared and confused when they get to campus,” he said.

Both GOA and JKHA/RKYHS recognize that a love for the mythologized and idealized Israel no longer serves students well.

GOA, often cited as a model for its sophisticated Israel education curriculum, offers a multi-layered program that focuses on informal practices designed to create deep, personal connections to Israel, but also includes some formal class learning.

The personal connections come in the lower grades primarily through rishonim, or young Israeli emissaries, who come to the United States following their army service. The high school curriculum includes Israel trips that bookend the experience, one in ninth grade, the other encompassing the last three months of senior year.

Aaron Massoth, a graduate of Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, at a StandWithUs retreat. “I’m giving kids a reason to love Israel,” he said about his role as an Israel advocate on the SUNY Albany campus. Photo courtesy StandWithUs

Spending time with Israeli peers from the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ’s partnership community in Merchavim is also built into the program. The Israelis are hosted by GOA families here in New Jersey, and GOA kids spend time with them during their two trips to Israel.

The school also offers everything from Israel clubs to a Hebrew-language curriculum that includes Israeli culture. And it boasts Rabbi Meirav Kallush, director of Israel education, whose administration-level position is dedicated solely to instruction about the Jewish state.

While in Israel during their senior year, GOA students — in addition to hiking, touring, and taking seminars — meet people across the spectrum: religious and non-religious, West Bank settlers and Palestinian Arabs, Christians and other minorities.

“I don’t believe we need to protect the State of Israel; I believe the State of Israel can do that by itself,” said Kallush. “We want students hugging and embracing and wrestling with and challenging Israel.”

Even at GOA, which receives visitors from other schools sent to learn from their program — it is acknowledged that there is room for improvement. “When our students get to Israel, we feel they know less about practical historical events that have an impact today,” acknowledged Kallush. She said that going forward, she wants to ensure that students like Binstein are taught the facts they need to be able to defend Israel confidently.

To that end, GOA is now working on developing a formal Israel history course for its 12th-grade curriculum, which will have students studying, among other materials, primary sources.

Israel education starts early at local schools, where students get familiar with the country through maps and often with rishonim — young Israeli emissaries — leading the sessions. Photo courtesy GOA

“It’s so much more powerful to say, ‘I know something because I saw the document,’ rather than ‘because my Hebrew teacher said so,’” said Tal Grinfas-David, day school education specialist at the Center for Israel Education, an Atlanta-based clearinghouse for best practices in Israel education, which also offers training and curricula and which provided a grant to GOA to write the curriculum.

JKHA/RKYHS is also focused on presenting a fuller reality of Israel to its students. About four years ago, the yeshiva revamped its senior-year curriculum to better prepare students for campus life, according to Rubin. They added a mandatory Israel history class that covers the Enlightenment in Europe, the development of Zionism from the Dreyfus affair to the Balfour Declaration, the post-World War I San Remo conference in 1920, the establishment of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and the significance of the Holocaust on Israeli history — although Rubin is quick to point out that students learn that the Holocaust “is not the underlying philosophy of Zionism nor should it be the justification for the State of Israel.”

“Our ongoing philosophy is that Israel advocacy begins with Israel education,” said Rubin. That means students “need to understand history, the development of Zionism through the decades, and have a real picture of the conflict” between Israel and its neighbors and within its borders.

The high school offers an optional trip to Poland and Holocaust sites that culminates in several days in Israel, but no other trip to Israel — often considered a linchpin of Israel education — is offered. But it’s critical for the school to provide that experience, said Rubin, because, he pointed out, over 70 percent of RKYHS graduates take a gap year in Israel — with a significant number serving in the IDF — and numerous students participate in high school trips to Israel organized by such teen groups as Bnei Akiva.

Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School juniors and staff members visit the Kotel in Jerusalem after a trip to Holocaust sites in Poland. Photo courtesy RKYHS

The high school offers a monthly speakers’ program addressing a variety of topics, including Israel, from different perspectives. Although it stops short of inviting anyone advocating BDS or violence against Israel, it has had some surprising guests, including Peter Beinart — a Jewish-American journalist who opposes Israeli government policies that he feels are at odds with liberal ideals — and the president of Ameinu, whose catchphrase is “Liberal Values: Progressive Israel.”

Aaron Massoth of West Orange, a 2015 RKYHS graduate now studying at State University of New York at Albany, said that when he arrived on campus, he was surprised to encounter more apathy than political activism. But he took on the role of advocate with fellow students anyway.

“I’m giving kids a reason to love Israel,” he said. “It’s a unique opportunity to create strong Israeli support from kids who are uninformed.” There is a darker side to his work, he added, in that sometimes what he’s doing is “stop kids from hating Israel,” he said.

Yoni Wechsler, 19, of North Brunswick, a rising sophomore at Ohio State University, said he felt prepared to face the challenges that confronted him during his freshman year of college. The 2017 GOA graduate experienced his share of anti-Israel sentiment last year, facing a BDS vote, debates with peers over Israel, and flyers that appeared overnight all over campus advertising a fake course purportedly teaching about how Israel commits hate crimes. In each case, he took up the role of advocate.

What Wechsler singled out as the most useful moment in his high school education was a conversation during the final months of his senior year in Israel about what students would likely encounter upon arriving on a college campus and how to respond. “It was really eye-opening,” he said. For the most part, he said, it was his experiences in Israel that have enabled him to advocate for the state. He credits “being in the country and getting a firsthand look at the negative things and talking about it,” including going “to the border with Gaza and … Hebron and a couple of settlements.

“Seeing the positive and the negative things and understanding where it all comes from — having a grasp of both sides — that is the most beneficial,” he said.

“Hearts and Minds,” a 2014 study by Avi Chai about Israel education, pointed out that while there are standard curricula for other areas of Jewish education, like Hebrew language and Tanach, “no cohesive curriculum exists for Israel Education.” The study suggests that this is “an area of potential investment” for funders.

In any case, as day schools continue to struggle with presenting Israel’s complexity while instilling a love for the country in its students, another crop of alumni will head to college campuses, and only time will tell how prepared they are to face the challenges there.

Binstein, for her part, said that even before she arrived on campus, she knew she would have to take on the role of advocate. “I knew I would need to go out and defend Israel,” she said. “I knew what was coming.”

But she is still trying to get the second article off that class reading list.

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