HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Foundation for the Future: The Eighth Grade Israel Experience
Although an eighth grade trip to Israel encompasses a few short weeks at the end of a student’s day school career, the planning begins many months before and the lessons learned will reverberate for many years to come. The foundation begins with the school culture, which reflects the strong ties we are building to the history, people, and culture of Israel.
In Jewish History in seventh grade our students study the Holocaust and in eighth grade the focus is on the history of Israel leading up to modern day events. Our goal is to inculcate a love of our Jewish homeland, the culture and the people while at the same time exploring the challenges Israel faces. Students visit Israeli newspaper websites such as Haaretz, Maariv, and Yediot Acharonot and explore current events in Israel. We are currently looking into developing a pen-pal relationship with a school in Israel.
As part of the application process all students write an essay about why they want to go to Israel, what they hope to learn, see and experience. The parents write an essay about why they are sending their child and what they hope their child will gain from the experience.
Throughout the two-week journey in Israel, students keep a journal with sections on history, roots, friendships, and reflections. Students receive a rubric for how they will be graded on their journals and they are required to write everyday. Faculty members on the trip monitor journal entries. Students use free time in the evening and on the bus to write their reflections and once they are back in school students use their journals, photos and other mementos as a springboard for future written assignments.
Each day in Israel, students are given a focus question or an assignment. For example, on a visit to the Israel Museum students were told to choose an object that was meaningful for them. Students had to sketch the object, write a brief description and explain the meaning of the object. When they returned to school, students used their notes to write an essay for their Language Arts class.
In Israel, our students commit themselves to a community service project with their peers in their sister city in Israel, Kiryat Malachi. Through the program Partnership 2000 (P2K) founded in 1994 by the Jewish Agency, United Jewish Communities, and Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal, communities in Israel are matched up with sister cities around the world. Through P2K, communities have the opportunity to connect and interpersonal relationships develop between the youth from both countries. In past years we have spent Shabbos in Kiryat Malachi and our students have stayed with host families who warmly welcomed them into their homes. Next year we will plan a community service project for all students to participate in together.
Upon returning from Israel, the eighth graders host a Q & A session with the younger students in the school to talk about the trip. They highlight their favorite parts of the trip and present the student and parent body with a PowerPoint presentation of their experiences. The students are required to give at least one presentation to the community about their experience in Israel. In the past students have spoken at their synagogue over Shabbos and at a pre-Selichos service. Our students also have taken a leadership role in the planning of the Yom Ha’atzmaut program in the school.
As we prepared for the trip to Israel, some people questioned whether students were socially and emotionally ready for this trip in eighth grade. They thought that perhaps a trip in tenth grade or senior year of high school might have a greater impact. Others felt that two weeks was not enough time and that it was a “better investment” to send kids to Israel in the summer when they could stay for a longer period of time. In my experience, the eighth grade trip has been invaluable for my students, all of whom go on to attend a public high school. In eighth grade students are on the cusp of exploring the new worlds that will open for them in high school, they are learning more about themselves each day and developing their identity. Helping students to forge a strong connection to Israel in eighth grade increases the chances that students will nurture a commitment in the future. When they are in high school and their friends are deciding what to do in the summer of their sophomore year, students who have already had a positive experience in Israel might be more likely to seek out another opportunity to visit their homeland. While in Israel many students commented that they “can’t wait to come back in high school.”
True growth occurs when we move slightly out of our comfort zone and one student, who was nervous about going to Israel, wrote in her journal, “This trip has really showed me who I am. I feel that I have grown a lot during this trip. I have learned who true friends really are and how to handle myself in different situations. It was a wonderful experience and I would definitely do it again.”
In his article From T-Shirts to Peak Experiences: Teens, the Israel Trip and Jewish Identity, Samuel C. Heilman concludes that “it remains for those who have sent them [teens] to help each of them to transform all this into something that becomes absorbed by them, that leads them to the sure knowledge that they have in Israel and among their fellow Jews found out who they are and where they belong” (249). The Israel Experience does not signal the end of a day school career, but rather the beginning of a lifetime commitment for students to their Jewish heritage, Israel and the Jewish community. It is our job as educators not only to provide our students with the opportunity to explore their homeland at this crucial period, but to ensure the continuity for these students in the years to come.
Source: Abiding Challenges: Research Perspectives in Jewish Education edited Yisrael Rich and Michael Rosenak, London and Tel Aviv: Freund, 1999.
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