THIS STORY IS PART OF MOMENT'S MULTI-ISSUE EXPLORATION INTO THE ISRAEL AND AMERICAN JEWISH DIVIDE.
When I was in fourth grade, the night before Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel's Independence Day, my classmates and I gathered in the cafeteria of my Jewish day school and were handed a laminated map of Israel, a carton of ice cream and sundae toppings. We were told to use the ingredients to decorate the map--chocolate ice cream for the Negev, vanilla for the center of the country and Hershey's Kisses for major cities. Years later, I discovered this was actually an activity in many day school and after-school curricula. The idea, I assume, was rooted in the Talmudic recommendation of putting honey on Hebrew letters when teaching children to read, so their learning would always be associated with sweetness. Similarly, we would always associate Israel with store-brand chocolate and vanilla ice cream.
To a certain extent, it worked. My classmates and I at my 1990s Modern Orthodox day school felt a strong connection to Israel throughout our school years; some lived there for a time, and some even made aliyah. Of course this wasn't just the ice cream. It was the Israeli maps and posters decorating every hallway, the celebrating and commemorating of important Israeli events throughout the year and the requirement to take "Zionism" for one semester in ninth grade. The unspoken goal was that we would graduate with ahavat yisrael, or "love of Israel," as we went on to the next stage of our lives.
My experience is not necessarily representative; day school students are a small sliver of American Jewish children. Other Jewish children and young adults learn about Israel in their Sunday schools, youth group chapters or summer camps. Wherever they are, Jewish educational programs, formal or informal, make love of Israel a priority and a key part of Jewish identity. Nevertheless, there are growing reports--both anecdotal and from studies, such as the 2013 Pew survey--that younger Jews do not share the same commitment to Israel as previous generations do. "Just preparing people to love Israel doesn't seem sufficient anymore," says Bethamie Horowitz, co-director of the Ph.D. program in education and Jewish studies at New York University.
Some young adults are satisfied with what they learned about Israel, but others are not. This past September, IfNot-Now, an anti-occupation group made up mostly of Jewish millennials, launched a campaign to collect and share stories from peers who believe that their Jewish educational institutions never taught them the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Using the hashtag #YouNeverToldMe, one graduate of Solomon Schechter, the Conservative movement's day school network, wrote, "Going to college and learning about the occupation for the first time made me reflect back on my 11 years of Jewish education with sadness and anger, realizing that our Israel education had been misleading and one-sided." Another, who was a product of the United Synagogue Youth movement, wrote, "I grew up attending trips to Israel sponsored by Jewish institutions such as my day school, my summer camp and my youth group. In general, on all of these trips, I learned that to love Israel was to defend it at all costs."
Over the past 15 years, a cottage industry has sprung up of Israel education nonprofits and organizations, funded by anxious philanthropists concerned about the next generation's connection to Israel. Their efforts have only become more urgent as the gap between Israel and American Jewry has continued to widen. These groups have attempted to professionalize the field of "Israel" by developing teacher certifications and degree programs, creating curricula and even inventing a new vocabulary. Each one has a different theory about what should be taught and how to approach Israel's political, religious and social successes--and challenges, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Orthodox monopoly on religion. The goal, for better or worse, remains the same as when I was making my ice cream map: to create a lasting and emotional connection between young Jews and the State of Israel. As one survey on Israel in North American Jewish day schools called it, Israel education is "work on the heart."