Exclusive: Schools ignoring US Jewry

Knesset committees to examine findings of worrying new study.

By ASAF DROR
October 24, 2006 23:56
3 minute read.
tali student 88 298

tali student 88 298. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

A special joint session of the Knesset Education and Immigrant Absorptions committees will meet Wednesday morning to examine the findings of a worrying new study showing that the Israeli educational system virtually ignores American Jewry. The study, titled "Teaching about American Jewry in Israeli Education," was conducted by the Levinsky College of Education in Tel Aviv for the American Jewish Committee, and will be released at the meeting. According to the study's findings, only 13.6 percent of teachers surveyed reported any teaching on American Jewry in their schools in the past three years. Serious deficits were also found in the preparation of study materials. Even when the Ministry of Education put related topics into the matriculation exams, teachers reported that the curriculum was not supported with appropriate teaching material, the study reports. The findings follow the distressing results of last month's "Young Jewish Adults in the United States Today" study, also conducted by the American Jewish Committee, which found that only about a third of American Jewish young adults see caring about Israel as important to their Jewish identities. Among the American study's findings was the "consensus among several studies that Israel is not central to young people's Jewish identity." In 2000, only 33% of New York Jews aged 22 to 52 indicated that "supporting Israel" was related "a lot" to "what being Jewish meant for them." Supporting Israel was ranked 11th in significance on a list of 15 values. "These findings represent a strategic threat for Israel," Rabbi Edward Rettig, the American Jewish Committee's expert on intra-Jewish education and one of the initiators of the study, told The Jerusalem Post. "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 said. "Forty percent of the world's Jews are Americans, while another 40% are Israeli," he explained, calling the two communities "strategically interdependent." Most disturbing for Rettig, the study found very little awareness of the strategic or pan-Jewish aspect of the problem among teachers. Asked if there were plans to bring a curriculum dealing with Diaspora Jewry into the Israeli educational system, Education Ministry Dir.-Gen. Shmuel Abuav told the Post last month that "the agenda here is so crowded that it doesn't leave much ability to deal with issues beyond the boundaries of the state." Yet, for Rettig, that answer is not enough. "On both sides of the ocean, educational administrators say the same thing," he lamented. "In Israel it's the war, the economy, the decline in math skills, etc. In America, it's 'I can barely prepare the kids for the bar mitzvas. How do I teach them about Israel?' The fact is we have no choice. The ability of the world Jewish community to meet the challenges of the 21st century depends critically on the ability of these two Jewish communities to understand each other and coordinate with each other." There are optimistic signs that this phenomenon could change. Eighty-five percent of Israeli teachers think this ought to be taught in the schools, even if only 13.6% of them work in schools where it is actually taught. A quarter of Israeli teachers want to learn more about American Jewry. Half of them want to see more mifgashim, or live meetings, between Israeli and American Jewish youth. "This shows that if there was leadership on this issue in the Ministry of Education, there are numerous teachers out there who would be eager to teach the topic," said Rettig. "Israeli educators need to understand that the challenge of our generation is to enable the next one to build a meaningful and motivating shared transnational Jewish culture." In describing the scenario if the situation isn't changed, Rettig warned, "American Jews, who are more concerned with their inner religious identities, and Israeli Jews, who know almost nothing about American Jewry, will wake up one morning to find they have nothing to talk about. Whether at that stage the two communities will still come to each other's aide is anybody's guess."


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