Introducing more nuance into Israel studies

Introducing more nuance into Israel studies

Jersey educators travel with Prizmah to evaluate post-October 7 changes

The Prizmah mission group is in Sderot, where the battle at the Sderot police station left just one wall of the structure standing. The mural behind the group shows a tranquil community. The Torah scroll symbolizes Simchat Torah, which fell on October 7. The Torah was painted over 10 bullet holes that symbolize the 10 lives lost in that battle.
The Prizmah mission group is in Sderot, where the battle at the Sderot police station left just one wall of the structure standing. The mural behind the group shows a tranquil community. The Torah scroll symbolizes Simchat Torah, which fell on October 7. The Torah was painted over 10 bullet holes that symbolize the 10 lives lost in that battle.

Two MetroWest-area educators were part of a March mission to Israel sponsored by Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools to understand how the catastrophic events of October 7 could or should impact Israel and Zionism education in North American Jewish day schools and other educational settings.

Henny Bochner, director of educational advancement at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston, and Noa Kolomer, Israel and Jewish educator at the Upper School of the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, were among participants who bore witness to the events and aftermath of the Hamas attacks and met with Israeli educators, journalists, and thought leaders.

The mission was offered by Prizmah in collaboration with the Jewish Education Project, the iCenter for Israel Education, and the Jewish Agency for Israel, and funded in part by the Jim Joseph Foundation.

Marc Wolf is Prizmah’s chief program and strategy officer. “We were all grateful for this opportunity to bring colleagues together who think deeply about Israel education in our schools,” he said. We heard inspirational and heartbreaking stories, we were moved by both the people and places we encountered, and now we look forward to how this experience can make Israel education even more meaningful in Jewish day schools across North America.”

Ms. Bochner, who is working toward a doctorate in education from Yeshiva University and is in her 12th year at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School, teaches courses, including Jewish history, with a particular focus on the State of Israel.

“I’ve been working on the RKYHS Israel curriculum for years, with a focus on providing students with a sturdy foundation of knowledge that would support a lifetime of engagement with Israel,” she said.

“Specifically, RKYHS has been committed to teaching about Israel in a nuanced way, with the hope that students will graduate not just loving Israel but being able to engage in difficult conversations about Israeli society, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the geopolitical realities of the broader Middle East,” she continued.

“After October 7, it was immediately obvious that so much had changed, and that the job of educators would be to help our students make sense of this new reality. For weeks, I felt that it would be hard for me to do that fully without seeing the reality in Israel firsthand. Being able to bear witness to the horrors, to see how Israeli society is moving through the trauma, and to learn from the incredible educators on this trip are all opportunities I am incredibly grateful for.”

Henny Bochner of JKHA

She said that she came home with takeaway messages regarding Jewish/Israeli resilience, the U.S.-Israel relationship, and the critical role educators play.

In terms of resilience, she said, “The people we encountered are processing their trauma in different ways, but the national spirit is clearly committed to coming back, to rising from the ashes. Over the course of the trip, we had a lot of nuanced conversations about resilience, and how resilience doesn’t mean denying the pain and trauma. Although there can be a tendency to give priority to stories of resistance or survival, our group of educators really highlighted the need to make space for the more difficult emotions.”

These conversations will inform the RKYHS approach this year to Yom Hazikaron — Israeli Memorial Day — and Yom Ha’atzmaut — Israel Independence Day — she added, “but also how we should be teaching about the events of October 7 in general.”

Ms. Bochner said mission participants heard over and over, in different contexts, how much the relationship between Israel and the diaspora matters.

“From exchange programs between American and Israeli schools, to renewing our commitment to learning about each other’s communities, the people we spoke to kept reminding us that in these difficult times, we really need to support each other.”

During a period of increasing antisemitism in the United States, she said, “a stronger connection to Israel and Israelis is very empowering to my students, and we will keep prioritizing opportunities for my students to deepen their pre-existing love and connection to the land of Israel.”

Ms. Bochner learned that many Israeli educators are helping their students, and society in general, move forward from the trauma of 10/7.

“In Ofakim, we met with a principal and her teachers who are empowering their students to process what happened by taking visitors around the sites of the massacre, opening the door to emotional and necessary conversations.

Noa Kolomer (in maroon slacks) of GOA with the Prizmah mission in Israel. The group is in Gefen, a neighborhood in the city of Ofakim, where high school students have created a tour as part of their grieving and healing.

“In Tel Aviv, in Hostage Square, we heard from Reuma Aroussi, whose son, Lior, was murdered on 10/7, and whose daughter, Gali, was taken hostage. Gali thankfully came home in the last round of hostage releases. A woman who turned out to be Gali’s faculty adviser spoke briefly about Gali’s integration into her new school. It was a stark reminder that the stories of October 7 are ongoing, and that educators are playing a huge role in helping children through.”

Ms. Bochner said she was reminded of her own responsibility as an educator.

“I am so lucky to work in a school that is consistently committed to supporting our students, whether academically or social-emotionally,” she said. “In a post-October 7 world, our students, and alumni, need so much extra support, and I returned from Israel feeling so grateful that I am in a position to make a difference.

“Whether it’s reaching out to alumni to support them while their campuses are a hotbed of anti-Israel sentiment, helping my current students learn about Israel in a way that empowers them to continue engaging with it, or crafting programming that allows our school to connect to Israel, my job offers so many opportunities to make a difference.

“In a world where it’s easy to feel helpless in the face of the evil we’ve encountered, I’m endlessly grateful for this.”

Ms. Kolomer, who is Israeli, said she had planned to fly to Israel in March to spend time with her family and with Golda Och Academy’s seniors, who had arrived in February for their annual three-and-a-half-month trip.

“The majority of my immediate family is in Israel,” she said. “Two of my brothers were called up for reserve duty on October 7, my youngest brother was actively serving in Gaza for four months. I was desperate to be with my family.

“Once I saw that Prizmah delegation dates coincided with my trip, I knew I had to add it to my itinerary, even at the expense of precious time with my family. I thought it was important to be in Israel and discuss what happened and the ongoing aftermath not only in a personal framing or a localized school prism, but through a wider lens of Israel education at Jewish day schools.”

Ms. Kolomer has worked in Israel education for 20 years but is in her first year at GOA.

“As I’m new in this setting, it was an opportunity to network as well as be part of a deeper conversation with colleagues who are also asking similar questions, such as where do we go from here in Israel education broadly, and more specifically, how are we talking/educating about October 7 and the aftermath both in Israel and in our own communities?”

Ms. Kolomer said she has long been advocating for a shift in how schools “do” Israel education, and the atrocities of October 7 strengthened her conviction.

She believes there’s a need to shift the focus and resources from college campuses to elementary and middle schools, to articulate a new goal beyond advocacy on college campuses, to build a curriculum that introduces a nuanced dialogue from elementary school on, and to think critically about who is teaching this curriculum. “It is hard to introduce nuance to Israel education in our schools now if we haven’t created a basis for it,” she said.

Other insights she gleaned from the trip: “Israelis in the U.S. experienced October 7 differently than non-Israeli Jews in the U.S., a new generation is going through a watershed moment in the relationship between Israelis and non-Israeli Jews, and we must put aside our own needs and desires and think honestly on the needs of our students.”

The Prizmah Israel Educators Mission was one of 13 trips this spring made possible by the Jewish Education Project and the iCenter. Those trips brought about 300 educators and other leaders to Israel.

After returning home, participants are expected to remain in contact with their new network of peers, sharing best practices, new lessons, and other educational resources, and meeting periodically.

One of the trip’s sponsoring organizations, the iCenter for Israel Education, recently released a comprehensive report based on interviews with 43 Israel education leaders and professionals, reviews of research and impact studies, and website reviews of organizations involved in Israel education. The report was commissioned with funding from the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies.

Key findings:

• Israel education is increasingly viewed as a vital part of any Jewish education endeavor. There is a growing belief that connection to Israel is a critical part of Jewish identity formation.

• The field of Israel education in North America is thriving. An increasing number of organizations provide Israel education and have access to an increased amount and quality of materials and professional development.

• More and more people are providing Israel education, thought leadership, and social influence. Frontline educators have increasing knowledge, skill, and confidence in Israel education.

• Many educational institutions have a dedicated Israel education teacher or director. Israel education is incorporated into preschools, K-12 classrooms, colleges/universities, summer camps, synagogues, and other settings.

• Nearly all Israel travel experiences include meaningful and engaging programming to promote a sense of belonging to Israel and to see connection to Israel as part of the participant’s Jewish identity. The number of travel experience organizations has grown and has attracted a more diverse set of travelers. Participation is strongest among Jewish teens and young adults.

The report noted that over the past decade, the Israel education field has developed certifications, master classes, master’s degrees, and advanced learning opportunities with increasing numbers of participating educators and students.

Israel travel experiences, the report said, “play a transformative role in engaging future Israel educators.”

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