Study of American Jews making its way into Israeli schools

History matriculation now includes unit on US Jewry’s contribution to the Jewish people after the Holocaust.

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-graderspreparing for the national history matriculation exam this year for thefirst time were required to study a unit on American Jewry’scontribution to the Jewish people after the Holocaust.
Orna Katz-Atar, a high school history teacher who drew up the newcurriculum for the Education Ministry, said that plans were under wayto introduce a new unit on Israel and the Diaspora, with a focus onAmerican 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 betweenAmerican Jews and their Israeli counterparts, Israelis’ unfamiliaritywith Diaspora Jewry is a subject of concern in America. This lack offamiliarity only exacerbates tensions over divisive Israel-Diasporaissues, such as the debate over who is a Jew. There is a feeling thatmembers of the world’s two largest Jewish populations know less abouteach other with each passing generation.
Until this year, when and if the subject of American Jewry was taughtat all in Israeli schools, it was usually within the context of thegreat wave of Jewish migration in the 19th century, the life of Jews inAmerica between the world wars, and what American Jews did to try tohelp their brethren during the Holocaust.
Policy-makers feared that “showing a successful Diaspora mightencourage emigration,” Gross said. “Another problem has been how thereligious schools would teach about Reform or Conservative Judaism, andhow the topic might hurt the Zionist agenda.”
A report by the American Jewish Committee in 2005 found that only 14percent of Israeli teachers surveyed said they had taught about Reformor Conservative Judaism in their schools in the previous three years.
While Israeli students are beginning now to study more about AmericanJewry, the focus remains on American Jews’ connection to Israelihistory. In preparation for the history matriculation exam, Israelistudents are taught about the aid American Jews provided at postwarDisplaced Persons camps, and the role American Jews played in helpinglobby the White House to support the state’s creation.
“I tell my students all the time that we and the American Jews arebrothers,” Katz-Atar said. “It’s important that students understandthat we did not do everything alone, that the Zionist project wasassisted 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 coursecalled “Friends Across the Sea” as part of a pilot program initiated bythe Education Ministry, the TALI educational fund and the Jewish Agencyfor Israel.
In this new curriculum, students learn about the various Jewishreligious denominations, the challenges of Jewish continuity, andDiaspora concerns over intermarriage. A section on Jewish feminismincludes the emergence of female rabbis.
The program’s backers want to bring the curriculum to public schoolsacross Israel – and to translate it into English for study in AmericanJewish schools and into other languages for other Diaspora communities.
“I think it’s a result of changes in 1990s, when increasing numbers ofIsraelis encountered the Jewish American community through organizeddelegations,” said Varda Rafael, an educator who helped coordinate theproject. They “realized we can learn from each other – not copy eachother, 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 notto be with us, but if they want to support us financially orpolitically that’s great,” he said. “But now there is the sense thatmaybe there is a need for greater Jewish pluralism in Israel.”
Israelis unhappy with the Orthodox monopoly on religious matters arebeginning to look to American Jews for direction, Gross noted.
But among the general population, most Israelis seem to have little orno concept about the lives of their American Jewish counterparts.
Yisrael Wolman, in a scouring op-ed last month in YediotAharonot, mocked his fellow Israelis for being apatheticabout American Jews.
“The American Jewish leadership is aging and is frightened by surveysof assimilation and low birth rates and is putting most energies intostrengthening its own community,” Wolman wrote, “but this does not meana parallel blind identification with Israel. The tragedy is that forthe average Israeli, it is as interesting as last year’s snowfall. Tensof thousands of Israelis fly to America each year to have a great timein Times Square, gamble in Las Vegas or hang out in Disney World. Howmany of them have visited a single Jewish institution or have met withAmerican Jews of their own age?”
Rabbi Ed Rettig, acting director of the American Jewish Committee inIsrael, says that American Jews do almost as bad a job of educatingtheir children about Israel as Israel does in educating their youthabout 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 passionateadvocacy within the American Jewish system, people whose own childrenwe are sometimes disallowing as Jews,” he said. “We are smacking aroundthe people who love us most.”
Shlomi Ravid, co-director of the Jewish Peoplehood Hub, a start-up thatseeks to be a clearinghouse for “peoplehood” issues, says there is onekey question.
“Are we a people who has a state, or a state that has a people?” heasked. “I would say for most Israelis it’s all about Israel, and theJewish people are supposed to be source of personnel, support andfunding. There is a loss of a sense that the real client here is theJewish people, and the state is a very important expression of theagenda of the people, but it’s not the soul. That Jewish life mattersand is important everywhere it exists.”