‘Not Your Grandfather’s Jewish History’

Students in Jacobs’ class are eager and prepared for the tough questions.

In a Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School Spanish classroom, surrounded by biographical posters of cultural luminaries from Picasso to Rita Hayworth, Phil Jacobs’ class of seniors took an open-note quiz on Aliyah Bet, the second of the great Ashkenazi Jewish migrations to what was then Palestine in the 1930s and ’40s. The questions ranged from bluntly factual, checking to see if the assigned reading had been, ahem, read (“What was the original name of the Exodus in 1947?”) to conceptual questions that required brief answers (“Why were the British so intent on keeping the Jews out of Palestine?”).

Following the quiz, the subject of the day’s class was Israel’s declaration of independence. The class of 14 was broken up into groups, and representatives of each group read sections of the declaration aloud from laminated placards, along with a few contextual notes. At the conclusion, Jacobs posed some difficult questions.

On Israel, after the Holocaust: “Should Israel have a moral or ethical obligation to help people who are in similar situations?”

On declaring independence, knowing that it would trigger a war: “Would you have made that same decision if you knew that people could die?”

And the big one: “Has Israel lived up to its declaration?”

These sorts of questions, which go beyond the mythic “miracle in the desert” representation of Israel that was ubiquitous in mainstream Jewish day schools in the past, are now becoming the norm in some Baltimore day schools. Questions about and episodes in Israeli history that may have once been skipped over are now being embraced as teachers seek to prepare their students for their post-day school lives, especially as they enter into college. Though this may not be the case in every school, for some Israeli history teachers in the Baltimore area, it’s a new day in Israel education.

In Phil Jacobs’ senior class, students learn about Palestinian narratives regarding Israel.


Increasingly, teachers like Jacobs are talking to their students about the difference between historical fact and narrative; whereas teachers once in their position may have just popped in a VCR tape of dancing kibbutzniks, in 2018, they’re teaching their students about evaluating the quality of the information sources they’re learning from.

Jacobs realized that students were leaving school having been barely exposed to narratives of history that countered the ones that they learned about from their families and Israel advocacy groups. When it came to discussing the concept of the occupation of the West Bank, Jacobs said, there was a time when if he brought it up in class he would’ve been looked at as “a Martian.”

Now? “We don’t circumvent the big gorilla,” he said. “We talk about it.”

For Jacobs, like the other teachers that spoke with the JT, teaching counternarratives is not a matter of personal politics, but rather of their students understanding the value of hearing multiple perspectives and strengthening their own abilities as critical thinkers. Jacobs now teaches his students that for Palestinians, the declaration of the Israeli state was considered a “catastrophe” — “Nakba,” as it’s called in Arabic. But rather than have them encounter that term in an off-putting, unfamiliar way, Jacobs aims to give his students a baseline familiarity with the idea.

“I want them to hear it in my room,” he said.

Ellen Friedman, a longtime middle school Judaics teacher at Krieger Schechter Day School, had a different experience when she went off to college. She encountered a student who had spent his previous semester studying in Lebanon, and was astounded to hear invective directed against Israel. She had never heard anything like that in her life.

“I don’t want my students to ever be in that position,” she said.

Today, Friedman does all she can to incorporate a broad range of perspectives into her curriculum. Students learn about Deir Yassin, a massacre of Palestinian civilians by Jewish militia members in 1946, and the eighth-graders debate the ethics of the Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary group that fought for Israeli independence and was considered extreme by many of its peers.

“We don’t circumvent the big gorilla,” he said. “We talk about it.” — Phil Jacobs

“We want our students to come away with a love of Israel, but we can’t ignore the fact that there’s a lot of criticism,” Friedman said. “We know that our students, who have very sheltered lives … may not encounter criticism of Israel until they get to college. I don’t want my students to encounter a proponent of the BDS movement and be taken by surprise.

“I don’t want them to say, ‘Oh, they never taught us that at Schechter.’”

Aaron Bregman, head of the history department at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, echoed Friedman’s view that students should first encounter difficult issues in the classroom (he too has his students discuss the tactics of the Irgun). Bregman also just sees this as good academic practice. “My first job is as a history teacher,” he said. “And I feel like students need to get all the different viewpoints, all the different ideas, and then they should walk away having their own concept or understanding of what they want to take away from that.”

“I feel like I was taught much more of an idealized Israel,” said Erica Allen, also a middle school Judaics teacher at KSDS, and herself a graduate of day school. “You love Israel, Israel is right, Israel is always, always doing what’s best, and I think I try and teach more of a realistic picture of the country.”

She stresses the importance of balance, especially for middle schoolers, teaching them about tensions in Israeli history but not to such a degree that it overwhelms ahavas Yisrael, love for Israel. “It’s a Jewish value,” Allen said, “but love and what relationships are can mean different things to different people.”

Facets of Israel

Issues can arise when teaching about the modern state of Israel along with the land of ancient Israel. Some schools separate the ancient and the modern into different courses, while others teach them in conjunction with one another. Similarly, for Uri Rabinowitz, a middle school Mishnah teacher at Ohr Chadash Academy, there is the tension between the state of Israel and the halachic state that he teaches his students.

A Torah Institute graduate, Rabinowitz finds it difficult to separate these Israels for himself, let alone for his students. “On one hand we say it’s the land of our destiny, all the way from our avot,” he said. “And then, you have to consider how many of the mitzvot are only able to be fulfilled in Israel.” Part of his job comes down to trying to explore with his students why, how and even if the state of Israel can be considered separately from the land of Israel, the milk-and-honey homeland of the Torah.

It’s confusing, but worth the effort, he says — even though Israel isn’t a perfect halachic state, “as a point of Jewish identity, it’s huge.”

Like other teachers, Rabinowitz will sometimes address Israeli current events in his class, but he doesn’t see it as central to his job. When he does, he tries to keep to certain standards. “We try to look at this as Torah people,” he said, “and I explain to the best of my understanding what a Torah outlook would be.”

Ellen Friedman sees it a little differently. She teaches Israel as a continuous line from the days of the Davidic kingdom to the first Zionist congress in Basel. Part of the reason she does this is in anticipation of her eighth-graders’ class trip to Israel, the culminating experience of their year. For her, it’s not just a matter of rote memorization that her students learn about, say, the subtleties of ancient Israeli architecture. She wants her students to return from their trip connecting the ancient and the modern. She loves getting emails from her students that read like, “Morah Friedman, we spotted this or that, and our tour guide was impressed that we know that!”

Phil Jacobs feels the same way. To hear from students that they saw a subject of classroom conversation with their own eyes is a delight. “That really gives me a lot of nachas,” he said.

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions

Tal Grinfas-David is the day school education specialist at the Atlanta-based nonpartisan Center for Israel Education. A former day school principal, Epstein now consults with day schools across the country on strengthening their Israel education. The mere fact that many Baltimore schools teach modern Israeli history gives them a leg up on most day schools, she says, as many across the country leave it out of their curricula entirely. The value in teaching the subject comes partially in how it prepares students to approach BDS.

BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel calls for economic consequences for human rights violations committed by the Israeli government. Critics argue that the movement, which began in 2005, is riddled with anti-Semitism, and that the main charge of the group — that the laws of Israel governing Palestinians constitute apartheid or something like it — is ludicrous. Still, it persists on some college campuses and in some far-left circles.

That, Grinfas-David says, is why it’s important for students to go into college with an understanding of those charges, and how to meet them with a wealth of knowledge to draw from in defense. “These kids need context and perspective,” she said. “When the legitimacy and the need of the state of Israel comes up or is questioned by others, it’s very important that they are secure in their own understanding before they engage with other perspectives.”

“It became apparent that whoa, this isn’t going away,” said Ellen Friedman, referring to the movement, “and this is something that we need to address in some way.”

Friedman is not the only one who noticed. Large Jewish organizations, Grinfas-David says, have spent the last decade creating curricula and material for day school teachers specifically designed to combat what students might hear from future college classmates.

Rabbi Marc Wolf is vice president of field advancement and advocacy at Prizmah, an umbrella organization of day school networks that studies and makes recommendations to day schools. He agreed with Grinfas-David on BDS. “I have seen that as a motivating factor for a number of the Jewish organizations that are interested in putting content out there to be able to be used to help frame the conversation about the modern state of Israel,” he said. “I think a lot of them are driven by concern for what students are going to encounter on campus.”

Contrasting Values

For some students, Erica Allen noted, the contrast between the liberal values they learned at home — support for gay marriage, mixed seating in services and acceptance of non-Orthodox conversions — and what they learn when they step off the plane in Israel can be confusing.

“We value egalitarianism in this school,” Allen said, “and then the kids go to Israel in eighth grade, and they separate men and women at the Western Wall, which is a place our kids have always looked toward with great anticipation … and it’s like, ‘Oh, this is a little different from the values that we pray with every day at school.’”

Phil Jacobs’ senior class, which also makes an Israel trip, had similar discussions about Israeli approval of President Donald Trump and the tensions between Israeli and Diaspora Jews. Still, he says, they have to have these conversations because their ability to talk about tough subjects is invaluable.

“They come away with these tools in their tool kit,” Jacobs said.

A Wider Perspective

Among this cross-section of teachers — male, female, Orthodox, conservative — there is a consensus that the way Israel is taught in schools has changed, although universal conclusions cannot be drawn from this small group of educators. And whether or not these changes have the intended effect of teaching both ahavas Yisrael and the importance of balancing that with a wider perspective remains to be seen.

But, as Phil Jacobs said, one thing is clear.

“This isn’t your grandfather’s Jewish history anymore.”

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