The Jews of America may make up the largest Diaspora community, but that does not mean Israeli children learn much about them.
State schools largely stick to Zionist ideology – that all Jews should live in Israel and those who do not at the very least should be actively engaged in helping support the Jewish state. In turn, there is scant study of contemporary Jewish life in America.
“The bottom line is that there is very little taught, if there is anything at all,” said Daniel Gross, a Hebrew University graduate student who has researched the topic.
But there is some change afoot.
Signaling the beginning of a shift in direction, 11th- and 12th-graders
preparing for the national history matriculation exam this year for the
first time were required to study a unit on American Jewry’s
contribution to the Jewish people after the Holocaust.
Orna Katz-Atar, a high school history teacher who drew up the new
curriculum for the Education Ministry, said that plans were under way
to introduce a new unit on Israel and the Diaspora, with a focus on
American Jewry, probably by the fall of 2012.
“We are in the process of building the curriculum, gathering material and teaching the teachers,” Katz-Atar said.
At a time when studies show a declining sense of kinship between
American Jews and their Israeli counterparts, Israelis’ unfamiliarity
with Diaspora Jewry is a subject of concern in America. This lack of
familiarity only exacerbates tensions over divisive Israel-Diaspora
issues, such as the debate over who is a Jew. There is a feeling that
members of the world’s two largest Jewish populations know less about
each other with each passing generation.
Until this year, when and if the subject of American Jewry was taught
at all in Israeli schools, it was usually within the context of the
great wave of Jewish migration in the 19th century, the life of Jews in
America between the world wars, and what American Jews did to try to
help their brethren during the Holocaust.
Policy-makers feared that “showing a successful Diaspora might
encourage emigration,” Gross said. “Another problem has been how the
religious schools would teach about Reform or Conservative Judaism, and
how the topic might hurt the Zionist agenda.”
A report by the American Jewish Committee in 2005 found that only 14
percent of Israeli teachers surveyed said they had taught about Reform
or Conservative Judaism in their schools in the previous three years.
While Israeli students are beginning now to study more about American
Jewry, the focus remains on American Jews’ connection to Israeli
history. In preparation for the history matriculation exam, Israeli
students are taught about the aid American Jews provided at postwar
Displaced Persons camps, and the role American Jews played in helping
lobby the White House to support the state’s creation.
“I tell my students all the time that we and the American Jews are
brothers,” Katz-Atar said. “It’s important that students understand
that we did not do everything alone, that the Zionist project was
assisted by the entire Jewish world.”
One place where Diaspora studies are taught differently is in Modi’in.
For the past five years, seventh-graders have been studying a course
called “Friends Across the Sea” as part of a pilot program initiated by
the Education Ministry, the TALI educational fund and the Jewish Agency
In this new curriculum, students learn about the various Jewish
religious denominations, the challenges of Jewish continuity, and
Diaspora concerns over intermarriage. A section on Jewish feminism
includes the emergence of female rabbis.
The program’s backers want to bring the curriculum to public schools
across Israel – and to translate it into English for study in American
Jewish schools and into other languages for other Diaspora communities.
“I think it’s a result of changes in 1990s, when increasing numbers of
Israelis encountered the Jewish American community through organized
delegations,” said Varda Rafael, an educator who helped coordinate the
project. They “realized we can learn from each other – not copy each
other, but inspire one another.”
Gross says the Israeli perception of American Jewry is changing, at least in academic circles.
“In the past, Israelis would say of American Jewry that they chose not
to be with us, but if they want to support us financially or
politically that’s great,” he said. “But now there is the sense that
maybe there is a need for greater Jewish pluralism in Israel.”
Israelis unhappy with the Orthodox monopoly on religious matters are
beginning to look to American Jews for direction, Gross noted.
But among the general population, most Israelis seem to have little or
no concept about the lives of their American Jewish counterparts.
Yisrael Wolman, in a scouring op-ed last month in Yediot
, mocked his fellow Israelis for being apathetic
about American Jews.
“The American Jewish leadership is aging and is frightened by surveys
of assimilation and low birth rates and is putting most energies into
strengthening its own community,” Wolman wrote, “but this does not mean
a parallel blind identification with Israel. The tragedy is that for
the average Israeli, it is as interesting as last year’s snowfall. Tens
of thousands of Israelis fly to America each year to have a great time
in Times Square, gamble in Las Vegas or hang out in Disney World. How
many of them have visited a single Jewish institution or have met with
American Jews of their own age?”
Rabbi Ed Rettig, acting director of the American Jewish Committee in
Israel, says that American Jews do almost as bad a job of educating
their children about Israel as Israel does in educating their youth
about American Jews.
“We in Israel, by not learning how American Jews think, lose in our capacity to engage in deep dialogue with them,” he said.
Israelis pay for this ignorance, he continued.
“These are the same people from which we are asking for passionate
advocacy within the American Jewish system, people whose own children
we are sometimes disallowing as Jews,” he said. “We are smacking around
the people who love us most.”
Shlomi Ravid, co-director of the Jewish Peoplehood Hub, a start-up that
seeks to be a clearinghouse for “peoplehood” issues, says there is one
“Are we a people who has a state, or a state that has a people?” he
asked. “I would say for most Israelis it’s all about Israel, and the
Jewish people are supposed to be source of personnel, support and
funding. There is a loss of a sense that the real client here is the
Jewish people, and the state is a very important expression of the
agenda of the people, but it’s not the soul. That Jewish life matters
and is important everywhere it exists.”