Voices from the Field
We asked several kindergarten kids what a Shofar sounds like. Here's the adorable response...
“…Israel…serves as glue holding [Jewish day] school communities together.”
This is a significant finding of a recent AVI CHAI-sponsored study, Hearts and Minds: Israel in North American Jewish Day Schools by Pomson, Wertheimer and Hacohen-Wolf. According to the study, while day schools and day school parents may differ on religious practices, all agree that a positive view of and connection with Israel is critical.
So what happens at times like the one we are in now, when it is not clear how to talk about Israel so that the glue stays nice and sticky? How do Jewish day schools engage in conversation and learning around Israel at frightening and precarious time such as this?
Jewish day schools are made up of multiple populations. When considering how to talk about Israel, day school leaders must take into account multiple constituencies: students, faculty and staff, parents and board members, to name a few. Each constituency brings different needs and concerns to the table. Below are some suggestions for how to teach and engage in conversation about Israel during this difficult and sad period focusing on three groups: faculty and staff, students and parents.
Faculty and staff:
Every time we take a plane ride we are told that in an emergency the adults are told to put on their oxygen masks firsts and only then should they see to those of the nearby children. This instruction is also true for talking about Israel at times like these. We cannot expect teachers to teach about ha-matzav if they have not had the chance to discuss and process what is happening for them (i.e. donning their own Israel oxygen mask). And, of course, each teacher and staff person brings his or her own story and relationship with Israel to the conversation, stories and relationships that are often deeply personal and emotional (particularly now).
David Bryfman, in his recent article, Educators are real people too (July 18, 2004), underscores the importance of educators recognizing that they need time to process the personal impact of what is happening and to understand their own responses before going into the classroom. He poses some questions that might frame a conversation for faculty and staff:
- When was the first time in your life that you thought about the situation in the Israel?
- How do you keep informed about the situation in Israel in a way that advances your thinking?
- What are some of your life experiences that have challenged the way you think and feel about the situation in Israel?
- When you contemplate the situation in Israel today, how do you feel and what do you think?
Bryfman cautions us to ensure that clear ground-rules are in place in order to create a safe environment in which participants can express their thoughts, concerns and feelings. This conversation might end with faculty dividing into smaller groups to discuss ways to engage their students in learning and talking about Israel and the current situation. (I purposely separated “Israel” and “the current situation” because it may not always be appropriate to discuss ha-matzav, particularly with very young children). If the situation in Israel continues, these conversations may need to be of a more ongoing nature, perhaps shorter or in the form of a check-in.
As is true with faculty and staff, we know that students are not a monolithic group. In considering how to bring the current crisis in Israel to students we must think carefully about the specific students with whom we work. Like any tricky topic, we must take into account developmental needs, what students know or don’t know and, most importantly, their questions (which are most likely quite different from our questions as adults).
Again, two recent posts can be most instructive when considering engaging students in conversation and learning about the crisis.
Natalie Blitt in her article Talking to your children about the situation (July 30, 2014) suggests a number of guidelines that are true for all ages but pertain especially for younger children:
- Listen closely for what is worrying them, don’t overlay adult fears and concerns onto theirs
- Be precise in providing as much information about what is really happening while controlling what they see and hear (don’t over-share)
- Be a model of caring and action, to figure out how they can support Israelis, whether they be friends, families or strangers. Action is empowering and can help mitigate fear and worry.
- Reassure them that the people they may know are unharmed and nothing will happen here in North America.
And I would add one more: focus on the wonderful and normal aspects of Israel that continue to exist, even during difficult times.
Israel: Not a time for zealotry or shyness with children written by Cyd Weissman (July 28, 2014) reinforces Blitt’s suggestions and provides additional tips for working with older students. She encourages educators not to shy away from the more difficult ethical questions raised while at the same time not trying to provide pat answers to these questions. Older students also need an opportunity to closely examine in a well-guided fashion what they are seeing in the media and to distinguish fact from opinion or, in some cases, to understand that we don’t have all the facts and so must suspend judgment for the time being.
Josh Feigelson (July 29, 2014) provides a framework of inquiry for both study and conversation among older students (and adults, for that matter):
- Clarifying Questions (i.e., What do we know? What do we think we know?)
- Interpretive Questions (i.e., What is the meaning of what we know? What story do we tell about what we know?)
- Reflective Questions: (e.g., How do we feel--about our knowledge, our stories, the world, and ourselves?)
I have pointed to the main ideas highlighted in each of the three articles mentioned here. Each of them is chock-full of additional insights and suggestions for engaging with students about the current situation and can be accessed at The iCenter website.
Parents are both teachers and students. They are often the recipients of the most complicated and heartfelt questions from their children and, at the same time, are trying to process their own fears and responses to the situation.
We suggest several avenues to support parents during this time:
- Share this and the articles and resources mentioned here on a continual basis. The school is a trusted partner in raising their children and resources coming from the school will also most likely be considered particularly trustworthy and valuable. At the same time, keeping the communication steady means sending out articles or information in small doses so as not to overwhelm.
- Communicate what is happening in class: This is a particularly important time for faculty and administration to be transparent and consistent in letting parents know both the questions their children are asking and how these questions are being addressed. This will enable parents to mirror the language used in school (this does not imply that parents will always agree with what is happening, but at least the nomenclature, concepts and information can be consistent).
- Provide multiple forums for parents to process their feelings and ask questions. This does not necessarily demand that you bring in experts. Rather, using Feigelson’s questioning framework, provide a safe space for parents to clarify, learn and figure out how to engage with their children around this difficult topic. The forums might happen at drop-off time for 45-60 minutes (with coffee, of course) or in an evening. The idea is that multiple opportunities be provided.
In closing, messages of hope and a love of Israel should undergird all we do. In addition to the important articles mentioned above, the iCenter website is filled with links to uplifting music and stories that remind us of Israel’s extraordinary resilience and creativity and of how blessed we are to have a vibrant Jewish state in our time.
Lesley Litman is the Coordinator of the Executive M.A. Program in Jewish Education at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and works with the Experiment in Congregational Education as the coordinator of its Boston-based initiative. She also consults to The iCenter in the area of curriculum design and professional development in Israel education. Lesley served as the Director of Congregational Learning at Temple Israel in Boston. Prior to her work at Temple Israel, she was the Regional Educator for the URJ and the URJ’s national specialist in Hebrew and Day School education and served on the staff of Jewish Day Schools for the 21st Century, a project of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education. Lesley was a founding member of Kibbutz Yahel in the Arava where she was the first treasurer and headed up the kibbutz’s search for an industrial project. She is a doctoral candidate in Jewish education at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
At the end of the day, you don’t know what to say.
I felt that a lot this summer, working at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. I walked around camp in the gorgeous Northwoods of Wisconsin, watching campers playing basketball and singing and trying to convince the swim staff they shouldn’t have to go into the lake because it was too cold.
And watching members of the Israeli mishlachat whispering to one another in private, crying, checking emails, ducking into the few building with computers to check the news.
What do you do when a large part of your staff is in crisis? When they are concerned about their families back home, when many of their friends are still in the army units they so recently left behind? When those friends and relatives are walking into Gaza, when they’re living in the path of missiles?
This is the reality that many camps faced this summer during Operation Protective Edge, as more than a thousand of young Israelis came to the United States and Canada. How can you at the same time care for members of your staff who are hurting, help your American staff connect with their Israeli peers, all while promoting a fun camp experience for all concerned?
It was fascinating to watch Ramah Wisconsin tackle this issue. Conversations were facilitated among the senior staff, among the American staff, among the Israeli staff. Conversations together and separate. Conversations that acted as touchstones: opportunities to take the pulse of what was going on in camp and in the world. Initiatives were created: ways for staff members to get news, ways for campers to hear what’s going on, to process what it means for friends and family, what it means for their homeland.
One of the most incredible moments in this full eight-week (nine if you count staff week!) journey occurred in the middle of the second session. The Rosh Mishlachat convened an informal panel discussion of a half-dozen Israelis late at night, after programming was done for the night. It was a standing-room-only event, people crowding into the staff lounge out of interest and out of respect for their Israeli colleagues.
I assumed I knew what they would say. I’d been following the conflict, I had friends and family who live in Israel, I’d been deluged by a more-than-steady diet of Facebook posts. I figured they’d talk about missing family, being scared, feeling far away.
And they did. But they said far more than that. They talked about worrying about grandparents in Tel Aviv who couldn’t hear the sirens, who couldn’t move anywhere in under 60 seconds. They talked about younger brothers who were autistic, who couldn’t deal with abrupt changes of routines, parents who stopped trying to move them to safety and instead figured that if the bombs came, they’d die together. They talked about how their parents laughed telling this story but it wasn’t funny to them. It made them feel useless, because there was nothing they could do. And they talked about the intense feeling of shame when friends were being injured and killed, when people who’d been in their military units were returning from their oversees post-army trips in order to sit with injured friends in the hospitals. All while they were having a lovely day off in Northern Wisconsin.
There were no questions after the panel, but there was a heavy silence in the room. And then slowly, people got up and started making their way to the Israelis on the panel, and the ones who didn’t speak.
Something broke that night, because it’s not always about knowing what to say. Sometimes it’s just about knowing when to listen.
Natalie comes to the iCenter from The PJ Library®, where she created and led the book and manuscript selection process over the last 5 years. Prior to that, Natalie was the founder of Sippurim: Israel Books for Kids, a nonprofit aimed at developing new books for American children that take place in Israel. While Natalie claims that everything she knows in life she learned as a result of reading children’s books, she does understand that there are many ways to educate and inspire connections. Natalie has a BA from McGill University in Montreal and a Journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax.