Between a quarter and a half of all day school students feel detached from Israel. To fix the problem, it may actually be more helpful for students to see their parents serving on the board of the local JCC than for the family to visit the Jewish State.
That’s how strong a factor role-modeling is in shaping children’s commitment to Jewish life, according to “Hearts and Minds: Israel in North American Jewish Day Schools,” a detailed report released last week by the Avi Chai Foundation.
“Parent connection and involvement in the Jewish community is a stronger predictor of a connection to Israel among teens than if the young people had visited Israel themselves,” according to Alex Pomson, co-author of the report, which found that between half and three-quarters of Jewish day school students are “highly connected and committed” to Israel, especially on the high school level.
With the goal of providing Jewish educators evidence-based research on the effects of Israel education curriculum in their schools, researchers surveyed more than 4,000 students and 350 teachers at 95 day schools across North America. They also gathered qualitative data through observation in several schools and school trips to Israel.
One finding is that “critical thinking about Israel,” which might include the exploration of controversial policies, “is not incompatible with positive engagement” with Jerusalem. And with so much focus on the conflict with the Arabs, “most students are simply not aware of the complexities of Israeli day-to-day life.”
The research found that no matter where day schools are on the Jewish spectrum, they agree on the importance of instilling their students with an affinity with Israel, the report said.
“Rather than serve as a source of divisiveness as it does in some other quarters of American Jewish society, Israel creates a powerful bond within day school communities,” said study co-author Jack Wertheimer in a news release.
But he warned that while inculcating a “strong emotional connection to Israel,” schools need to also “go beyond the heart and cultivate student thinking about the complexities and realities of Israeli life.”
The study also found that if you want to get the next generation invested in Israel, it’s much more important to give them a sense of belonging to the Jewish people than to take them to the Jewish state.
Wertheimer, Alex Pomson and Hagit Hacohen-Wolf found that when students developed personal connections with Jews from anywhere around the world, be it Israel, Argentina or even Los Angeles, they increased their sense of being part of a worldwide community of Jews.
“What we were able to observe is that there’s a fascinating relationship between how students think about and identify with Israel and their connection to the Jewish people around the world,” said Pomson.
When that connection is formed, Israel is no longer seen as “an unusual case or somehow peculiar,” but rather, a collective project of the Jewish people
One counterintuitive finding is that a common practice at Orthodox day schools — offering special prayers for Israel or its victims of terrorism — causes students to see Israel as “a weak, beleaguered, and insecure country.”
Another practice that frequently backfires is teachers’ attempts to share their love of Israel.
“Our sense is that often those teachers try too hard. They teach answers instead of providing opportunities to explore questions. And students kind of resent that,” said Pomson. Instead, he said, let students see the enthusiasm come from classmates and young Israelis.
In writing the report, the authors said they focused on providing facts, rather than recommendations, but some next steps are pretty clear.
“What we do know is that students value opportunities to learn from the young Israelis working in schools. The shlichim or shinshinim — pre- or post-army Israelis — that schools hire are really valued sources of information for students,” said Pomson. “These young people are probably seen as an important counterbalance to the tendency of some teachers to preach a little too much.”