A decade ago, the field of Israel education didn’t really exist in the United States.

A 2003 study found that when it came to teaching about Modern Israel in schools, camps, synagogues and youth groups, there was no conceptual framework, no standards of practice, no professional development, and educators felt unequipped to handle the material.

Since then there have been dramatic improvements. According to a new study, Israel education has emerged as a more defined discipline, though there is still some fuzziness around the goals of making Israel an integral part of young people’s Jewish identity.

These issues came to the fore at a one-day conference held here recently to release and discuss the findings of a 40-page report commissioned by the iCenter, a national organization seeking to “advance excellence and innovation” in Israel education, founded in 2008 by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Jim Joseph Foundation. The program was also sponsored by the Avi Chai Foundation and The Marcus Foundation.

An impressive array of more than 80 educators, funders and other interested parties were in attendance, signaling that the philanthropic leadership of the community seems poised to make Israel education an urgent priority.

Lisa Eisen, national director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, opened the program by asserting that now was the time to make Israel education a key element in “forging a sense of global Jewish peoplehood.” She called for investment in the field and the creation of a bold action plan to change the landscape of Jewish life so that young Jews will have a “nuanced understanding of and meaningful personal connections to Israel.”

That action plan is part of the study, “Mapping the Landscape: The Emerging Field of Israel Education,” sponsored by the iCenter.

Several leading educators who took part in the study summarized its methodology, findings and ambitious goals, which include ensuring that by the end of this decade, 20,000 Jewish teens will travel to Israel each year (approximately double the current number); there will be meaningful interactions between most North American and Israeli youth; there will be 1,000 certified and employed Israel educators; and twice as many students as now will have a basic knowledge of Modern Hebrew.

Another key goal was that by 2020, bar and bat mitzvah students, as well as Jewish educators, in North America “will be able to articulate how Israel is a part of his or her Jewish story.”

That benign objective was questioned by some at roundtable discussions that followed the presentations, and there were those who felt the term “Israel education” deliberately had been left vague and open to interpretation.

“What do we mean by Israel education?” more than a few asked.

It’s no secret that there has been a great deal of contentiousness among educators as to how to teach Israel as a subject, reflecting the strong feelings and deep left-right divide in our community over the politics and policies of the Jewish state.

A 2011 study, “Defining Israel Education,” by social psychologist Bethamie Horowitz, notes that 12 of the 15 organizations in the U.S. founded since 2000 “to address what and how younger American Jews should be learning about Israel” focus on advocacy training, primarily in response to the second intifada.

(One of them is Write On For Israel, a project to train select high school students to be leading advocates for Israel on campus. It was founded by The Jewish Week and funded by the Avi Chai Foundation, and it was in my role as founding chair of Write On that I was invited to the iCenter program.)

In recent years there has been a call from some communal leaders to concentrate on a more holistic approach to Israel rather than the narrower and more political advocacy aspect.

Acknowledging the charged atmosphere in the field, Anne Lanski, executive director of the iCenter, told me that one of the primary goals of her organization is “to find the common language for the Jewish educational community to speak with and understand each other,” and the group’s new study is an attempt to do that, as was the conference.

But Mark Charendoff, former CEO of the Jewish Funders Network and now president of the Maimonides Fund (and a member of The Jewish Week board), is concerned that the emphasis on finding common language avoids difficult but necessary decision-making. He says that “in addition to raising the level of Israel education, we need a parallel discussion on what the content of that education should be.”

Charendoff adds that wanting more young people engaged in Israel “is a very easy prescription until we’re faced with the consequences of that engagement.” As an attendee at the iCenter conference he noted, “I’m sure that room would empty out fairly quickly as decisions are made on what is successful and what isn’t.”

Another critique is that the new study’s stated goal — having young people be able to articulate how Israel is part of one’s Jewish story — is, according to one educator, “incredibly values-neutral.”

Would funders and the mainstream community be pleased if, for instance, young products of new Israel education efforts described their Jewish story as one highly critical of Israeli government policy?

That would be acceptable for Bethamie Horowitz, whose 2011 study emphasizes the importance of the learner’s personal relationship with the Jewish state in addition to specific content. She maintains that even a critical attitude toward Israel is better than non-engagement.

“It would be a huge mistake,” she says, if the Jewish community insists on a particular political line that young people come away with. “You can bring a horse to water, but you still have to let the horse drink,” she notes. “It’s not up to us” what young people conclude about Israel.

She said she feels strongly as a psychologist that regardless of the desire of communal leaders or funders to promote positive feelings about Israel, it is “psychologically troublesome” to force young people to “tow a line,” especially at an age when they are trying to develop an independent voice.

Horowitz agrees with the iCenter’s approach of working with children from the age of 3 and up in developing a wide range of personal relationships with Israel and Israelis so that by the time a youngster reaches adolescence, he or she has a strong emotional attachment to the Jewish state.

She says the shift from “teaching about Israel” to describing the work as “Israel education” is “significant,” indicating “the emergence of an effort to deeply and explicitly weave present-day Israel into the enterprise of American Jewish education.”

Anne Lanski puts it simply: “When Israel becomes ‘we’ instead of ‘they’ to young American Jews,” the effort will have succeeded.

Surely the earlier that Israel can be introduced into young people’s lives, at home as well as in school, at camp, etc., the more likely it will become part of and not separate from their Jewish identity.

As Lanski says, each of us in growing up reaches an age when “you realize your family is not perfect, but you love them because they’re your family.”

That’s how the products of Israel education should feel about the Jewish state and its people.

E-mail: Gary@jewishweek.org