Teaching Israel

Merav Possick teaches a class at H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy. Possick and her husband, Chaim, came to St. Louis as shlichim (Hebrew for ‘emissaries’) with Torah Mitzion Kollel. They lead educational programs for children, teens and adults designed to build connections with and understanding of Israel.

BY DAVID BAUGHER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

There are snacks. There is in-flight entertainment. There are even flight attendants. But as any seasoned traveler can tell you the destination is what matters in the end – perhaps all the more so when you lack a plane.

“We have a very smooth takeoff and landing,” jokes Debbie Morosohk. “They don’t even notice it.”

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That’s because the “aircraft” is Congregation Temple Israel’s chapel and the destination is a virtual visit to Israel, a two-hour family program that allows fourth graders at the synagogue’s religious school to experience the Jewish State without ever leaving the homey confines of Creve Coeur. Children are able to learn about the Mideast nation and walk a large floor map rented from the Central Agency for Jewish Education, while matching various locations with those shown on postcards. Morosohk, who heads the temple’s school, said it’s one of TI’s most popular educational efforts.

It’s far from the only one, however. In fact, all across the St. Louis area, congregations, day schools, teachers and other institutions are trying to find ways to make Israel accessible to a rising generation of young St. Louis Jews who have often never visited the land so integral to their Judaic identity. Often, the goal, as with TI’s program, is to nurture a strong enough connection that the final result will be more than just a virtual visit.

“I think it’s important to involve the parents and families in the process and encourage them to send their kids to Israel ultimately,” Morosohk said.

Bringing Israel to St. Louis

TI’s family-centric approach isn’t limited to imaginary plane rides. It also shows through in another experiential learning project in which eighth graders and their parents role play the positions of families from the past who face a variety of challenges as they try to make aliyah. Some act the part of 19th century Russian immigrants, while others play German refugees from the Nazi era or Ethiopians escaping Africa during the 1980s. The idea is to build a shared sense of history among the participants.

“They all have the same issue,” Morosohk said. “Ultimately, they need to get a visa and get to Israel.”

They aren’t alone. Ironically, the game is something of a metaphor for a situation with which many St. Louis Jewish institutions are all too familiar. Finding innovative ways to get to Israel is a challenge faced by area organizations which are frequently caught between the desire to educate on the Jewish State and the impracticality of actually sending students there. Virtual trips have become a common solution.

“We’ll actually have a tour guide who will lead us from place to place and explain about the different values of each place and the people who live there,” said Merav Possick of the Torah MiTzion Kollel, which runs Yachad, a program that will allow children to experience theMideast nation through a series of booth stations. “They’re going to be visiting different cities, meeting different people and bringing the history of those areas alive and through that get to know Israel.”

The April 20 Yachad, meant to coincide with Yom Ha’atzmaut, is expected to attract some 400 kindergarten through eighth-grade children from three local day schools.

“We believe in being very true and authentic with the kids,” Possick said. “We want them to see authentic examples of what Israelis are.”

That’s easy enough for Possick. She and her husband, Chaim, are both American-born Israelis who have lived in the Jewish State most of their lives. Presently they, their three children and another couple, Assaf and Gilat Gastfraind, are living in St. Louis to operate the kollel. The Possicks are halfway through their three-year stay.

“I’m bringing Israel with me,” Merav said. “I feel like I’m an island of Israel in St. Louis. We tell everyone that. If anyone wants a taste of Israel, that’s what we’re here for.”

They get more than a taste at Torah MiTzion, which, in addition to Yachad, runs a variety of programs emphasizing a Zionist approach to education, including the Bnei Akiva Shabbat youth program for children through the eighth grade; the Ulpan, a four-level Hebrew school for adults and children headed by Gilat Gastfraind; and the Derech Eretz summer day camp, which enrolls about 100 students a year through 10th grade and boosts a native Hebrew-speaking senior staff.

But perhaps best known in the community is the Sherut Leumi program, which features two native Israeli high school girls, Sara Kampler and Tova Maymon, who tour the area visiting day schools and religious educational programs at synagogues in order to teach about their homeland. Sherut leumi means “national service.”

“These are girls who worked in Israel at a school and were found very talented,” Possick said. “They’ve always been involved with youth groups and have a knack for educating and they’re good with kids. They were chosen to come abroad and bring Israel to the community.”

Making the trip

While Torah MiTzion brings Israel to the community, others work to bring the community to Israel, often one class at a time. For much of the past decade, Solomon Schechter Day School has taken its eighth graders on a two-week field trip to the Jewish State. Susan Low, upper school director at SSDS said the experience is a good one for students since it truly brings their homeland alive.

“It’s one of the first experiences that the students from 8th grade are going to have,” she said. “It won’t be their last. They’ll go in high school. They’ll go in college and they’ll have that connection. Whether they choose to live in Israel as adults or they choose to support it from outside.”

But the event is more than just a field trip. Education and preparation are extensive. Low has been working with students on the David Project, a comprehensive curriculum created by the Boston-based David Project Center for Jewish Leadership that deals with the geography and history as well as Biblical and modern thought on the State of Israel.

“It educates students about the connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel throughout history and the centrality of Israel to the Jewish people as reflected in Jewish culture, religion and identity,” she said. “The emphasis is to teach students when they get out in the world and when people challenge them as to the Jewish people’s right to the Land of Israel, they have facts that they can use to explain why we’ve always been connected to it.”

SSDS student David Selis, 14, certainly sees the value in that. Like other students, the eighth grader has been readying for his trip to Israel later this month by studying a certain area of the country and then doing a presentation on it. He has been focusing on the Old City of Jerusalem, studying the gates and walls as well as Hezekiah’s Tunnel and the Kotel. He also explored the issue of the Women of the Wall, an Israeli advocacy group who are demanding equal treatment in worship at Judaism’s holiest site. Selis even connected some of what he’d learned to lyrics of songs by Hasidic reggae artist Matisyahu for his presentation.

“It’s part of our heritage. You need to be an informed Jew,” he said. “You need to be informed about Israel because there are people who deny the Holocaust and the State of Israel. You need to be able to say, this is what happened and what you are saying is incorrect.”

The real Israel

Some go to Israel, while others recreate it indoors, but one school is building its own Israel experience in the wilderness. Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy does an overnight Hebrew Immersion Camp staged at Shaw Nature Reserve near Gray Summit in nearby Franklin County. The fifth -grade participants must speak Hebrew while going on a night hike and working to create an Israeli flag to raise at the campsite with markers and fabric. Incredibly, the young participants must even assemble their own flag pole from branches found onsite and lashed together with rope.

Cheryl Maayan, head of school at SMDS-RJA called the event “a total Israeli Scouts experience.” Children even learn the names of the proper knots in Hebrew.

“The kids just come out of the experience saying, ‘I never thought I could do it,'” she said. “After studying Hebrew for six years it’s just a culminating experience as they graduate RJA.”

Maayan said the campout really helps to emphasize a connection to both the language and the land.

“A student never has to think of Israel as a political issue,” she said. “They don’t have to decide if they are pro-Israel or anti-Israel. Israel is not a political issue. It’s a country. Part of being Jewish is being a part of Israel.”

That sentiment is evident at Congregation B’nai Amoona as well. Jennifer Newfeld, director of congregational learning, said it’s important for students to decide to engage with Israel in their own way after being fully educated about the nation and the issues which relate to it.

“We want to teach them about the real Israel,” she said. “We don’t want to teach them a mythical version of Israel that when they get there, they find out doesn’t exist.”

That means the curriculum includes not just Tel Aviv and Jerusalem but also non-Jewish cities like Jenin and Gaza. Students are also given a primer on Israel’s neighboring Arab nations. Fifth graders are asked to take up positions in a mock Knesset where they can study and vote on issues. Tenth grade offers a dose of modern Jewish history along with a visit to the United States Holocaust Museum and the Israeli Embassy in Washington D.C. Twelfth graders are shown “Hugging and Wrestling with Israel,” a film that explores the complexity and possible future of the Mideast situation.

Newfeld said this approach helps students to develop a dynamic love for the country on their own terms.

“We had a really good discussion and they were really surprised to find out that Israelis really had a wide spectrum of opinions,” she said.

But children aren’t the only ones who need to build a connection to Israel. Sometimes those who teach them can use a lesson as well. That’s where the Joan Wolchansky comes in.

Since the fall of 2008, Wolchansky of the Central Agency for Jewish Education has spearheaded Israel Fellows, an effort to bring Israel-centered learning to area Jewish educators.

“What I wanted to do was focus on people’s own understanding of the State of Israel,” she said. “My strong feeling is that the more we personally know about Israel, the more connected we are with it. Number one, we have our own personal connection. Number two, we’re able to communicate that to our students whether we’re teaching about Israel or not.”

The program attracted eight people last year. This year, the nine-session course has brought in 13 enrollees. Meanwhile, the original eight have returned, along with six more for a second-year “Israel Fellows 201” class.

Wolchansky has worked to make the classes more about the teachers’ basic connection to Israel than about implementing a specific curriculum.

“What I wanted to create was something special for the Israel Fellows personally so that their knowledge level was enhanced and deepened,” she said, “and so that they would leave each session inspired about Israel and about learning about Israel.”

Val Toskin said the results have certainly worked for her.

“What the program did helped to put everything into a very broad perspective,” said Toskin, a participant who teaches third grade at SMDS-RJA. “The thing that I appreciated the most about it was that the speakers that Joan brought were very honest people who would give us a full picture. It really made me much more confident.”

Toskin, a convert to Judaism, said she originally felt unsure about her Israel knowledge and wanted to brush up her skills for her students. Yet she found that she derived much more from Wolchansky’s course.

“I emailed her after the first year and said thank you,” she said. “I cannot believe the connection I have now in my heart.”

Toskin will visit Israel this summer for the first time, something she hadn’t thought would occur when she started the class. Wolchansky said all of the participants reported some increase in knowledge and connection to Israel.

CAJE also deals with other forms of Israel education. Presently, they are managing Kesher B’Kitah, an international effort through the Jewish Federation’s Partnership 2000 program with schools in the Israeli towns of Yokneam and Megiddo. The project involves a variety of joint endeavors and communications between classrooms thousands of miles apart. United Hebrew Congregation’s 10th grade confirmation class as well as seventh -and-eighth graders from SSDS were able to use Skype, a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) program, to talk to their counterparts at Megiddo High School. Those interactions spawned friendships that have continued via email and social media such as Facebook.

Further, the partnership often means that classes will build connections that go beyond swapping electrons. SSDS students get to communicate with children they will actually meet on their class trip and all the schools exchange projects via snail mail, such as posters or other items that describe themselves. That’s a big plus, Wolchansky said.

“It’s not just symbolic. It’s actual, physical curricular materials that are going back and forth,” she said. “My hope is that as the program develops, we can implement some dual/parallel curricula between classes here in St. Louis and classes in Yokneam-Megiddo … especially in the older grades.”

It’s all part of the bigger picture, Wolchansky said. “I think the more we can talk about and share our love of Israel, the more it benefits them both on the teacher level and the student level.”