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(photo credit: Courtesy)
A significant effort is underway within the Education Ministry to develop a curriculum about Diaspora Jewry that would help to increase awareness among schoolchildren about the larger Jewish world, ministry officials told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
"The ministry has dealt with this question from many different perspectives," said Moshe Zaafrani who as national inspector for the heritage of Jewish communities in the Education Ministry is responsible for the inclusion of issues related to Jewish heritage and the Diaspora in the curriculum of the state educational system.
Teach about Diaspora
According to Zaafrani, the ministry has been developing a comprehensive curriculum on the Diaspora for over two years, and had already created pilot programs that were running in many schools throughout the country.
Zaafrani's comments came following criticism leveled at the ministry during a Knesset Education Committee meeting on Wednesday morning in which the American Jewish Committee expert on intra-Jewish education, Rabbi Edward Rettig, presented the findings of an AJC-sponsored study indicating that fewer than 14 percent of Israeli schools had taught anything about the American Jewish community during the past three years.
"When 70% of American Jewish young people no longer see caring about Israel as a core component of their identity and 85% of schools in Israel don't expose their children to knowledge about American Jewry, we must realize that we've already slipped quite far down the slope," Rettig told the Post on Wednesday, warning of a scenario in which Israeli and American Jews "will wake up one morning to find they have nothing to talk about."
Among the chief critics of the lack of studies on the Jewish world was committee chairman MK Michael Melchior (Labor). "The danger is tremendous," he told educators and ministry representatives who were invited to the committee meeting, noting that as the example of the birthright project has shown, "the trend is reversible."
For Melchior, time is of the essence. Another year of pilot programs, he said, "only created another class that knew nothing of the Jewish world."
The regulations on inserting new content into the educational system's curriculum, he added, were actually preventing the curriculum from being implemented.
Dr. Motti Shalem, director of the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, told the committee that "the ministry doesn't have the [bureaucratic] mechanism with which to insert" studies on the Jewish world into the curriculum. "It's not part of citizenship studies, and not really history." Therefore, he counseled, "the ministry should create a new mechanism."
"There is awareness of the problem in the ministry," Zaafrani responded. "Pilot programs are already in place."
Ministry officials pointed to several examples of these programs, including pen-pal projects and the recent establishment of a youth newspaper to be co-edited by an Israeli and an US Jewish 11th-grader.
For Melchior and Rettig, the problem went deeper than the number of programs dealing with the issue.
"The two communities are developing very different ways of being Jewish that often seem mutually unintelligible," Rettig said. "We're reaching a point at which the two centers of the Jewish world won't understand each other."
In Israel, Melchior believes, "The core of the problem is Israel's unwillingness to deal with its Jewish identity," Melchior told the Post following the committee meeting.
"Since the establishment of the state," Israel's Jewish identity was a victim of the "religious-secular divide." Now, however, "we're discovering that when you take Judaism out of the system, nothing connects Jews here and Jews in the rest of the world."
At that point, "the relationship [between the two communities] is no longer a given." The education committee, Melchior promised, would publicly "urge, critique and praise" Education Ministry actions until the ministry committed itself to the issue.
"There is no ideological argument [between us]," he emphasized, "they just have to go out and get it done."