Nurturing connections between Israel and young Jews in the Diaspora can take many forms. An Avi Chai Foundation report, released this month, suggests that affiliation with Israel can come from Israel-related curriculums in Jewish day schools, but it is just as likely to come from a more generalized – and positive – affiliation with the Jewish people.
The report, titled Hearts and Minds: Israel in North American Jewish Day Schools, suggests that affiliation with Israel results from a much wider range of educational approaches than what we generally define as “advocacy.” While Israel is an important “glue” that helps bind Jewish students together (outside the Orthodox school sector, it is the most important glue), affiliation with Israel comes more from affiliation with Jewish peoplehood than vice versa, apparently. More than this, students are most likely to demonstrate connections to Israel if their parents demonstrate connections to the Jewish community. Seeing parents involved in (even non-Israel-specific) Jewish community activities can build a young person’s affiliation with Jewish life and, by extension, the Jewish state.
Interviewing almost 100 day school teachers and thousands of students, the three authors found that the role model of engaged Jewish parents is as likely to drive children to feel connection to Israel as is a trip to that country. For kids without Jewishly engaged parents, day school is the next most important factor in building affinity.
Importantly, the study indicates that frankly addressing the complexities of Israeli history and current affairs does not diminish the positive associations students hold. This is an important finding and should be recognized and remembered. Younger students may tend to associate with Israel in symbolic ways – as a somewhat abstract entity – while older students tend to have a better understanding of day-to-day life in the country and the realities of Israel’s place its region and the world. At a younger age, in other words, kids are taught to affiliate with Israel through their hearts. As they mature, students are taught to engage with their minds. This is fair. We do not expect younger children to assimilate the level of nuance and complexity we demand of high schoolers. This may also be a lesson many older Jews could learn. Too often, we find (adult) Diaspora Jews discussing, arguing and debating Israel-related issues with perhaps too much heart and not enough head.
By and large, it seems, our day schools are doing a good job at the significant task of affiliating young Jewish people with the Jewish homeland. In fact, as parents, teachers and as a community, we may be doing it in ways we do not even understand, simply by demonstrating the importance of connecting with other Jews as individuals and as a collective.
A piece of general advice useful to parents is also appropriate on the specific matter of raising kids who share our emotional and cognitive connection to the Jewish state: kids may not always listen, but they’re always watching.