My colleague (really chevruta) Michael Unterberg, in a previous post, argued that we need a new model for Jewish education. The main thrust of his argument is: “The problem may be that we have been educating our youth to be practitioners of Judaism. And well we should. But we can’t afford for that to come at the expense of teaching them to be active and involved citizens of the Jewish Nation.” His suggested solution is that we should be approaching Jewish education from a social studies model. He states, “Essentially I am arguing that Israel education cannot remain exclusively within the province of religious education. It must be part of the civics education of any young Jew. This “social studies approach” would use “elements from disciplines as varied as economics, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, and sociology.”  

According to Mike, the social studies approach would also effectively address some of the biggest challenges in Israel education:

“Social studies teachers don’t worry if their students can be patriotic and still think critically about the complexities of their countries. American teachers don’t fear self bias towards America, any more than they eschew complexity. They just teach about their country and what it means to be good citizens.”

This model would enable teachers to address some of the more difficult issues facing the Jewish state, such as Israel-Palestinian conflict, the religious tensions in Israel etc. No longer would educators need to fear that students would develop a negative opinion of Israel.

I think Mike is onto something. The buzz is growing. More and more teachers, educators, students and funders are realizing that serious change is needed in Jewish education, specifically in how it relates to Israel education. The social studies approach is a novel idea. However, there are some serious challenges to this approach, which need to be addressed.

First and foremost of those challenges can be found in Mike’s own words, “Life in the states provided a backdrop of cultural support for my civic passion, but school provided the core.” Even for the most engaged students, those in Jewish Day Schools, their civic life is America. That’s not going to change for the foreseeable future. This whole approach is running counter to institutionalized Diaspora Jewish education, which for the better part of two thousand years has clothed Jewish identity in religious symbols, ritual and language. It has not, particularly, used the framework of nationalism. It’s one thing to transform modern Jewish identity in the State of Israel, where students live the civic life as a member of the Jewish nation. Is it even possible to transfer that to the Diaspora?   

For example, Israel’s political system is very complicated. As we all know, good education is not just in the classroom. It works best when it is reinforced by outside experiences. (i.e. “the backdrop of cultural support.”) Israelis, like all citizens in their own country, learn the intricacies of the political system more by living the election seasons, than through the civics classes required in high school. How can we properly engage Diaspora Jews? Should they get a vote?  How about the mock election which many schools run during Israel election season? Do they instill a sense of belonging, or of learning about a foreign country’s political system? I have found that, at best, most students have a very superficial understanding of how Israel works and do not feel invested in it.

History poses yet another problem. It’s a critical part of any social studies curriculum. All history is complicated, but comparatively speaking American history is pretty straight forward. It spans  only a few hundred years, one continent, and one civil war. In a social studies curriculum for the Jewish Nation, where do we start? What do we include? Even more difficult, what do we exclude? Four thousand years, literally encompassing the whole globe, civil wars, persecution, expulsions, rebirth etc…we’ve got it all. And that’s the challenge. It’s so overwhelming. Could we reasonably construct a curriculum that would educate, engage and instill a sense of commitment to the Jewish People?

Who is going to teach this subject? Are there educators in America who are knowledgeable enough to teach such a broad range of subjects?  Or, alternatively, are we talented enough, committed enough, and open enough to create a multidisciplinary integrated curriculum that covers the years of formal education? Are we ready to actually engage in a real Israel education? Surely, talking about trees on Tu b’Shvat isn’t enough.

The above arguments are not meant to dissuade us from Mike’s Social Studies model for Jewish Education. Mike is definitely on the right track. Therefore, in order to deepen the conversation, I think it is necessary to identify the challenges. What do you think are the solutions?