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We Made It In America: Israel in the Jewish Day School

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It began on Friday mornings with glasses of grape juice.

Voluminous gulps of violet liquid filled plastic cups to the brim, teetering at the edge of overflowing. It was as if Kedem was the official sponsor of my elementary school education.

After wiping the excess drink crust off our voracious lips, we gathered as a class to sing traditional and modern Israeli songs, a hodgepodge of melodies assembled by visiting instructors from the Jewish state. Each year brought a young, ripe face plucked from the treasure of the Middle East, a glimmering slit of land to which I and every other Jew belonged.

These teachers, often in their early to mid-twenties, would cover a variety of subjects ranging from Hebrew grammar to Torah studies and a multitude of seemingly homogenous things in between. They always seemed to have guitars.

And on these grape-juice filled Fridays, we'd sing and dance in the confines of a small room on the first floor of what was then called Yavneh Day School in Cincinnati, Ohio. In these moments of fructose-induced bliss, our small gathering could be mistaken for any number of other Shabbat celebrations in Eastern Standard Time. With the music of Israel as our guide -- not to mention an Israeli guide in the flesh -- we were introduced to the culture of our predecessors in an innocuous and revelatory way.

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, an online resource devoted to compiling information and data sponsored by the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, there are at least 188 Jewish schools in the United States. Census data compiled in 2012 by the Avi Chai Foundation indicated that over 83,000 students were enrolled in Jewish elementary and secondary schools during the 2011-2012 school year. This marked a 0.3 percent decrease from enrollment the previous year. This stability suggests that the preconceived notions about the decline in enrollment since 2009, prompted by the recession, are not entirely true. Jewish parents are still interested in investing in Jewish education and there are more options than ever to do so.

It is standard operating procedure for Hebrew day schools to incorporate the study of Israel into their curriculum, often infusing different elements of the country's history and culture into traditional American standard classes. A social studies class, for instance, may have a specific part of its semester devoted to the establishment of the Jewish state.

But the creation of this curriculum, which in large part deviates from the norm that public schools offer, has faced scrutiny in the past and is frequently subject to the whims and predilections of respective administrators.

"The State of Israel in American Jewish education is moribund," Dr. Barry Chazan, Director of the Master of Arts in Jewish Professional Studies Program at the Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership once wrote. "The reason for the lack of influence is that, after almost 50 years, American Jewish education still hasn't ... figured out what to teach about Israel, how to teach it, and most important, why to teach it."

Nearly twenty years later, prominent educators in the field of Jewish learning would beg to differ, claiming that their curriculum strategies are beneficial to the Jewish community.

"My goal as an educator is for Israel to matter to the Jewish students," David Waksberg, CEO of Jewish LearningWorks said. "It's my goal for them to feel that this is important to them. Because I think Israel is important to the Jewish people and so it is an important part of Jewish education."

Jewish LearningWorks, which is based out of San Francisco, works directly with Jewish educators to improve and strengthen curriculum for elementary school students all the way up to adult learners.

Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City, California is one of many that have undergone curriculum guidance from Waksberg's organization as part of the Bay Area Israel Education Project (BASIS).

The school updated its fourth grade curriculum, as part of BASIS, to integrate the study of Israel with that of California. One of their examples of linking the two disparate subject matters is the comparison between John Muir's battle to preserve Yosemite Valley with Theodor Herzl's efforts to plant trees in Israel. In the mathematics unit for the same grade, students created a series of questions comparing the population demographics of Israel and California.

This approach to integrated curriculum may quell a potential critique of Hebrew day school that the inclusion of classes pertaining to Israel may take away from time devoted to American core subject areas.

The voices that are loudest against Israeli or Israeli-affiliated educational institutions often direct their attacks at the country's political actions, many of which have drawn the ire of international human rights organizations. The American Studies Association's boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions has dominated the headlines as of late. But American day school educators say they are careful to not conflate cultural connections to Israel with one-sided political approbations.

"There's a range of viewpoints [about Israel] among our students and we certainly encourage that honest dialogue and discussion," Rabbi Barry Kislowicz, the head of Cleveland Fuchs Mizrachi School said. "But they do tend to fall within a range that's not hitting any kind of extreme view point."

The Fuchs Mizrachi School is different than the aforementioned Wornick Jewish Day School, as it labels itself as Orthodox Jewish and Religious Zionist. In pre-nursery and kindergarten classes, the school hopes to get its students to "develop a love for Torah, mitzvot, the Jewish people and Medinat Yisrael." There is also a strict dress code which requires boys to wear tzitzit -- a kind of religious set of knotted threads -- unless playing sports.

Schools like Fuchs Mizrachi, which label themselves as Zionist, face an additional level of skepticism and adversity from organizations such as the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, who did respond to a request for comment for this article.

But the distinction between Fuchs Mizrachi and Wornick speaks to the lack of standardized Hebrew elementary school education in the United States. The specialization of these individual institutions allows parents to make informed decisions as to how important the establishment of a connection with Israel is to their children. But statistically speaking, students are far more likely to experience attachment with Israel if they enroll in Jewish institutions. For instance, 63 percent of students who graduate from a Jewish high school are inclined to travel to Israel. The last decade of American Jewish education has taken a stronger turn towards encouraging and preserving a connection to the state of Israel and the proverbial proof is in the pudding. A recent Pew survey showed that about 70 percent of American Jews feel some connection to Israel, a number that has remained fairly consistent for the past decade bolstered by the continuity of Jewish institutions.

Even when Jewish schools encourage intellectual discourse about the politics and culture of Israel, as many do, there is an implicit understanding that the education is going to veer towards the encouragement of American Jewish support of the nation. In recent years, as new curriculums emerge to target both anti-Israel sentiments and perpetuate a level of engagement between American Jewish students and the politicized sliver of land in the Middle East, it has become more apparent than ever that establishing these ties is of great importance to educators.

My school, which is now called Rockwern Academy, by no means labels itself as an inherently Zionist institution. That isn't to say that Israel didn't pervade every nook and cranny and fall from each drop of grape juice. But as Jewish educators continue to lead this minimal flock into a future filled with ties to the land of Milk and Honey, they assert the notion that unanimous support is a troublesome path on which to tread.

"Blind following doesn't even work with a love interest," Jerry Isaak-Shapiro, head of the Agnon School which shares a parking lot with Fuchs Mizraki, said. "It does maybe at the beginning but once you put your love interest on a pedestal and don't see faults, sooner or later you will see faults and then everything comes crashing. So, the same thing with Israel. To only ask 'is it right or wrong?' is foolish."

Educators may not want their students to follow blindly, but it seems they'd prefer if they followed nonetheless. Israel is in every glass of cold grape juice.