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ORT, the nation's largest private educational network, is trying to change what and how Israelis learn about their Jewish heritage.
In 2000, with the support of the UJA-Federation of New York and the Legacy Heritage Fund, ORT established the "Roots of Israel" program to create Jewish studies courses using a unique methodology.
More than 25,000 students have participated in the project.
Spokesman Boaz Greimlsammer of ORT described the context in which Roots of Israel was born.
"The Jewish Federation in New York thought that Israelis didn't have enough Jewish roots," Greimlsammer said on Friday. "It is a very important process, to gives Jewish young people all over the world connections to their past."
"You can understand why they [American Jews] do that [Jewish education] in the USA, but what is interesting here is that this project is in Israel," he said.
Its creators planned for Roots of Israel to have a unique structure, allowing Jews of all backgrounds to find themselves in the curriculum. Instead of starting with a homogeneous syllabus, the process was interactive from the start.
"This evolved with students, teachers and parents," explained Alonit Hassom, the head of ORT Jewish Identity and Cultural Heritages Unit of Israel.Â "They write their own curriculum and they learn together in beit midrash. I believe the approach, the educational approach, is what makes usunique." Each school in the Roots of Israel program has a leading team, consisting of four-six teachers, 10-12 pupils and two parents. The team develops a syllabus that is appropriate for their community and implements the program.
Since students are involved in putting together the courses, they are able to make them interesting, exciting and relevant to their own lives, Hassom said.
Then, guided by the self-molded syllabi, there are at least 30 hours a year of activities aimed at exploring Jewish identity and heritage.
Additionally, there are community batei midrash, in which youngsters and adults study topics such as Jewish society and Jewish holidays four to seven times a year.
The batei midrash program has become extraordinarily popular in the last three years, not only because of its educational value, but also because of the community bonding it engenders.
"I believe that it gives parents and children some background on their own culture and also give them the opportunity to speak together and deal with some very relevant issues to their own lives," Hassom said.
"For instance," she continued, "children and parents talk about their own relationship related to Jewish culture and students come to dinner Friday night with the new things they learned in their beit midrash - things that really excite them."
A fundamental aspect of Roots of Israel is the post-program evaluation, Greimlsammer said. Participants and outside experts evaluate the activities to improve them for the following year.
According to Hassom, educators in Israel has been surprised by the great success of the program.
"They hear about what we are doing. They heard that our approach is very different from what is normal in the education system," she said.
"They heard about the Root of Israel, that it has success and they asked 'Why? Why is the approach successful? What are the doing here? What is so interesting here?'
"Most projects or programs have a curriculum that is very similar; this all comes from another direction," according to Hassom. "It's a social vision that is quickly evolving, and that is why we are having so much success."
The Root of Israel Web site (shorshey.ort.org.il) displays information, activities and links to classroom material and allows users to discuss issues with one another. The site has had more than 150,000 hits.
Both Greimlsammer and Hassom see the project expanding to non-ORT schools across the country.
"We heard that the Israeli government education system also appreciates our work," Hassom said proudly. "We expect to expand it to non-ORT schools, to the greater education system in Israel."
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