Creating Collective Memory Through Israel Education: A Roadmap to Success
As eighth graders in their finest conclude their graduation, music comes on, and they rush to hand their diplomas to family and mount the risers that have held so many graduates before them. “Shir Yisraeli” blasts from the speakers, and they sing in Hebrew as they dance with coordinated motions, explaining the song to non-Hebrew-speaking audience members: Despite our diversity, each of us is a song of Israel.
Before the first chorus, their older siblings make their way through the aisles to join them on stage and demonstrate that even in high school or college they have not forgotten the lyrics and movements. Proud parents, grandparents, teachers, board members and friends are on their feet, clapping and singing along with the transliteration and translation on a screen above their heads and in the program in their hands. Younger siblings watch this cacophony of glee in awe and anticipation of their own day.
Such rituals and customs do not materialize magically; they are the product of deliberate collective memory building around Israel education. Five vital ingredients foster a sense of belonging to the Jewish people, not only through religion, but also through nationhood and connection to the Land and State of Israel:
• They are inclusive of all ages and backgrounds.
• They repeat at key moments of shared joy or trauma, in celebrations and memorials, throughout the year.
• They include shared experiences and visions for Israel and the Jewish nation’s past, present and future.
• They are couched in best practices in Israel education, from deep appreciation of historical context to critical analysis of primary sources. In the graduation example, “Shir Yisraeli” is first taught in a sixth grade Israeli poetry unit about the challenges and successes of waves of immigration (aliyot), the housing crisis and austerity of Israel’s first decade, and the stereotypes and inequalities that each immigrant ethnic group has faced.
• They are immune to changes in administration and faculty, persevering because they retain relevance and meaning for the community and for individual identity.
But collective memory around Israel education involves more than multisensory, habitual experiences, just as memorial services are not enough to learn about the Holocaust and candles, sufganiyot and dreidls are insufficient at Chanukah for remembering Jewish strength, perseverance and continuity in the face of Hellenism and the potential loss of national identity. Good education must take a holistic and systematic approach to culture, community and learning. The following roadmap, with concrete examples based on research and experience, is replicable for schools seeking to cultivate indelible Israel learning opportunities year-round.
Vision, Mission, Values and Beliefs
Key documents that describe who you are, why you exist and what’s important to you should include not only obligatory language about a love of Israel (Ahavat Yisrael), but also operational language that can direct educators to construct learning objectives and can give parents and other stakeholders a window into Israel learning. Too many teachers understand teaching a love for Israel as presenting only positive aspects of Israel to create a mythical ideal rather than a nuanced approach to the challenges of a modern Jewish democracy yearning for final borders and normalized relations with its neighbors. Critical graduates call this the “falafel approach” and feel it leaves them unprepared for meaningful conversations on campus, with some claiming that teachers “lied to them” Don’t teach about the heroes of Israel; leaders and trailblazers are real people with faults. Do describe the Israel-related content and skills your graduates will possess.
Operational language about Israel education sets a tone for your school culture and can help attract and retain highly qualified teachers. For example, all faculty, not just Judaics teachers, should know they are expected to integrate Israel into all subjects where appropriate and applicable, including science, social studies and literature. The benefits of an interdisciplinary approach to education are well documented, yet most day schools relegate Israel education to a sliver of Judaic studies or Hebrew classes Interdisciplinary instruction fosters advances in cognitive ability and helps students recognize bias, think critically, tolerate ambiguity and appreciate ethical concerns). Significant learning takes place when teachers incorporate a range of skills from different subjects, not only about the content, but also about the process of learning how to learn.
Curricula should reflect the real world, which is complex and not organized into neat subject areas. Most students’ Hebrew ability levels do not enable them to access primary source documents and historical artifacts to analyze Israel’s history, politics, economy and culture, nor is such understanding the goal), so good Israel education cannot take place solely in Hebrew lessons.
There also should be an explicit expectation that teachers check their political biases at the threshold of the classroom to serve as facilitators of critical thinking instead of influencers and that they help learners become critical consumers of information and bias Such language in your documents can spill into hiring interviews, professional development opportunities and daily best practices that create safe spaces for learners. Too many teachers feel free to share polemics and impose their political leanings on students but can’t be fired because they have been at the school so long that their classes have become institutions and collective memories of their own. Great education is about establishing norms of critical thinking; courageous leadership empowers great teaching when key documents reflect these practices, when messages are consistently communicated and when the community sees the values in day-to-day practices.
Operational language in key documents should be examined with faculty annually and their implications reviewed for initiatives. This habit ensures collective understandings and agreements for the role of Israel education in the school culture. Teacher-led Israel committees, peer observations of Israel lessons and Israel book clubs ensure continuity and cultivate shared ownership while modeling lifelong learning.
Language, Symbols and Climate
If Israel education is a core value of your school, visitors should feel, see and hear it in the first 10 minutes on campus. Schools should convey that Hebrew is the national language of the Jewish people and that revitalizing Hebrew was not the labor of one man, Eliezer Ben Yehudah, but of a nation seeking to re-establish itself in Eretz Yisrael. Sing the Israeli and US anthems each morning. In hallways and gathering places, post Israeli street signs of Zionist leaders with QR codes that link to their biographies and legacies. Instead of bells at the end of periods, play modern Israeli songs. Showcase student work in both languages on bulletin boards. Greet guests at the front desk in both languages.
Informal spaces also convey the core values of the school. Have students ask Israeli counterparts what games they love at recess and place a gaming station on the blacktop where students can learn the rules of those games. Erect a gaga court and have older students teach younger ones. Play Israeli songs and offer folk dancing. In the school garden, explore Israel’s scientific agricultural approaches, from hydroponic towers to drip irrigation, and plant species grown in Israel. Use the harvest to cook Israeli recipes. In the library, display books about the history, culture, politics, economy, environment and innovation of Israel. In halls, display student artwork inspired by Israeli artists. Ask Israeli delegates (shinshinim) to maintain and rotate the interactive display in a dedicated Israel space. In an environment infused with Israel-rich experiences, students imbibe the value that modern Israel is a part of our collective identity.
Symbols convey collective meaning. For younger learners, go beyond the Israeli flag. Study the symbols of organizations that support social and medical needs. Research images and symbols on Israeli currency. Do projects on the insignias of army branches and divisions that use flora and fauna. Research the symbols of Israeli cities, towns and agricultural settlements. Older students can use the logos of start-up companies to explore how Israeli innovators are solving the problems facing their generation; then they can create their own prototype for a start-up with a mission, vision and symbol or an image that reflects their own identity and connection to Israel.
Sophisticated learners can tie together symbols, places, events and cultural diversity, such as the windmills of Yemin Moshe with settlements outside ancient walls, the lion of Yosef Trumpeldor with the end of World War I, the Bahai Gardens of Haifa with the religious rights of minorities, and Sde Boker with Ben-Gurion’s vision of making the desert bloom. Analyze Zionist posters in context or learn about the many memorials (andarta’ot) in Israel, then select an Israeli person or event to memorialize on campus with a full design proposal.
Rituals, Ceremonies and Norms
The Jewish calendar has maintained our collective memory through centuries of exile and persecution; your school calendar can serve a similar function by including Israel events throughout the year. The Yoms and a maccabiah (Israel-themed color war) are standard; adding Sigd and Mimouna informs diversity. November offers an opportunity to teach about Yitzhak Rabin, the U.N. partition vote of 1947, U.N. Resolution 242 and Sadat’s visit to the Knesset in 1977. This year, look back 30 years to the Persian Gulf War and the Madrid Peace Conference, and consider whether the conditions then and now were ripe for fruitful negotiations. After the Tokyo Olympics, examine Israeli sports and their significance, from the Munich massacre in 1972 to Tal Brody saying “We are on the map” with the 1977 European basketball championship, and from Olympic champions to international soccer feats. Use timelines of Israel to find the events to include each school year.
Don’t be afraid to create Israel-themed events, such as a night of dancing and Israeli wine tasting for parents or a Shark Tank show in which local Israeli business leaders judge student pitches. Add a shiriyah where each grade performs one Israeli song for the school community, based either on a theme, like songs of peace, or an Israeli artist, like Naomi Shemer. Calendar creativity ensures that Israel is taught year-round in meaningful ways and gives everyone at school the planning time for the best outcomes.
Tools, Trips and Storytelling
A good curriculum guide ensures that Israel is taught in each grade, with enough specificity that a new teacher can pick up where the previous left off and with enough spiraling in sophistication to prevent unnecessary repetition or gaping holes. It also communicates to new and prospective parents how you approach Israel studies.
Nothing beats a school trip to Israel as the culmination of years of learning, but lasting memories don’t come from mere tourist trips. Fill each day with activities that connect history, peoplehood and land with individual and collective identity. Just as we yearn to hear from Holocaust survivors while we can, we must hear from Israel’s storytellers about how they experienced key events and each generation must pass on these stories. Schools should cultivate relationships with diverse guest speakers who can share firsthand accounts and can connect Israel experiences to today’s learners. Teaching others helps one become proficient, so have students practice Israel storytelling to younger learners.
Our collective understanding and transmission of Israel’s past help us build a better future for each generation; that is the imperative of veshinantam levanecha and midor ledor. Telling powerful narratives via inaccurate, laden language, or via deliberate omissions of key historical moments threatens to reshape our collective history and memory and is an existential threat to Jewish identity. We must tell our own history with primary sources and build a safe and rich environment for the next generation to become Israel-literate, comfortable with complexity and nuance, and competent to analyze new events and sources.