Along with the foundation of reading, writing, and arithmetic — plus science, technology, engineering, and more advanced mathematics — today’s Jewish students need a good grounding in Israeli history and current events, because inevitably they will face anti-Israel hostility when they get to college.
A lot of effort is put into training North American high school students in Israel advocacy, a good and useful skill. But it does not necessarily give them a firm grasp of the nuances from all sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
That is why Teaneck’s Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls participated last year in the 14-school pilot of a digital Israel-education project, the Partner-School Program, launched by the Unpacked for Educators division of the Jerusalem-based OpenDor Media nonprofit organization.
Offered to Ma’ayanot seniors as part of an elective course, the collection of videos, films, and other educational material will be available again this year as Ma’ayanot joins 50 schools from seven countries in the 2020-2021 Partner-School Program.
The first-of-its-kind interdenominational program is being implemented in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, South Africa, Israel, Hungary, and Australia. In New Jersey, it will be offered at Ma’ayanot, Golda Och Academy in West Orange, and the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston. (Ma’ayanot and Kushner are Orthodox schools; Golda Och is Conservative.)
“It was helpful, as we were looking for an organization to help us meet our goals for Israel education,” Sarah Gordon, Ma’ayanot’s director of Israel guidance and experiential education, said. “We believe strong Israel education is the best way to prepare students for the future.
“We appreciated the videos; they provided a wealth of information about historical events and narratives on all sides. They are engaging, students like them, and they help summarize a lot of information and lead to a lot of interesting discussions.”
Among the segments that led to the liveliest conversations were those on refugees, on the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, and how Golda Meir handled — or mishandled — the intelligence that reached Israel’s leaders before the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Avi Posen, Unpacked for Educators’ assistant director, said that the donor-supported free content aims to “educate, entertain, and engage” students.
“We do our best to cover controversial content in a responsible and nuanced way,” Mr. Posen said. “There are a lot of issues Jewish schools avoid covering because they don’t know how to cover them without being biased or turning off students. By presenting Palestinian perspectives and views from the Israeli left, right, and center, we give them the opportunity to think by asking the right questions.”
With a master’s degree in Jewish education from Yeshiva University, Mr. Posen has worked as a Judaic studies teacher, Hillel director, and Jewish camp director.
“Having taught Israel advocacy, I know that students hate being told what to think. If they feel they are being presented the facts and the bigger picture, they take more ownership of it and feel more engaged,” he said.
“We don’t care what their political opinions are, but we care that they have an opinion.”
He noted that he and OpenDor Media Senior Vice President Noam Weissman never discuss their own political views as they work together on researching and developing content, all produced in-house.
“We’re not doing Israel studies or advocacy; we’re doing Israel education,” he emphasized. “We’re using the highest quality pedagogical principles in how we teach about Israel by engaging in the content, stories, and issues in a real way. We want this to be inclusive and not coming from a particular perspective.”
Both the educators and the students were surveyed after the pilot to determine its impact and how it could be improved.
“The Unpacked series and materials have really helped me learn about Israel and its history in an interesting and easy way,” commented one student at the Weber School in Atlanta. “As someone who loves Israel and always wants to continue to learn about its history, the Unpacked videos are something I continue to use and watch. They are easy to understand, relatively quick and convenient, and give a great diversity of topics.”
Although the Partner-School Program was conceived well before the pandemic, its web-based content turned out to be perfectly compatible with the current situation. “It’s already synchronous and online so it fits with remote education,” Ms. Gordon said. “I assigned students videos to watch as an introduction to class discussions or projects.”
The content was compelling, no matter how much each student already knew about the topics, she said. “I would say half the kids come in with a lot of background information while the others have less. We don’t want to be repetitive for those who know. This provides a new way for them to think about a topic while bringing in the students who might not have had that information before.”
Educators participating in the program receive access to 75 videos and supporting educational resources, Kahoot quizzes, discussion questions, reflection questions, and experiential learning activities, as well as professional development, networking, and expert support. They get tips on how to model healthy debate with presenters on opposite sides of the political spectrum, and how to engage with difficult or controversial subjects.
“Through this partnership program, we are also promoting collaboration, connection, and community — three things that are more important than ever in the current climate,” Dr. Weissman said.
Mr. Posen notes that the concept of partnering Israeli and diaspora schools is not new, “but as far as we know this is the first time a partner-school program is reaching a massive international network in seven different countries, all able to share and collaborate and create content together based off the nuanced content on Israeli history, politics, and modern society that we provide for free.
“As a teacher until last year, I never participated in a program where I could be on a call with someone from Budapest, Kiryat Shmona, and New York at the same time,” he added. “The Unpacked for Educators program really shrinks the world of Jewish education and inspires educators to spread the word.”
The full program is available only to participating schools, but Mr. Posen said that “hundreds of other schools use our resources on a daily basis,” and Unpacked for Educators has heard from schools in Europe and South America that are interested in having the content translated.
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