Israel Independence Day at 65: Programs foster Israel education in North America

By Alina Dain Sharon/JNS.org

During the Six Day War, when famous Israeli spy Eli Cohen worked for the Mossad in Syria, he suggested that Syrian soldiers plant eucalyptus trees near army fortifications in the Golan Heights. He told Syrian officials this would make Israel think the area was unfortified and would help Syrian soldiers stationed there survive the heat. Shortly after, he conveyed the locations of the trees to Israeli officials, helping the Israeli army know exactly where the Syrian bunkers were.

Click photo to download. Caption: An "Israel Throughout The Year" program educational booklet. JNS.org looked at programs fostering Israel education in North America for Israel Independence Day. Credit: Lookstein Center.

The eucalyptus tree tale is just one of the many stories that are the focus of a new curriculum developed by Bar-Ilan University’s Lookstein Center for Jewish Education, with support from Dr. Shmuel and Evelyn Katz from Bal Harbour, Fla. As the 65th Israel Independence Day approaches, JNS.org takes a look at two recently launched programs, the Lookstein Center’s “Israel Throughout The Year” and the Israel Institute in Washington, DC, both of which work to educate and engage scholarship about Israel.

“I think there is a negative prejudice and attitude towards Israel in the press and in the universities,” Rabbi Yonah Fuld, educational director of the Lookstein Center School of Education at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan, told JNS.org. Five years ago, the Lookstein Center “set out to create a curriculum” about Israeli history meant to be “charming and enticing” for North American Jewish school children up to middle school, according to Fuld. For this purpose, the center created “Israel Throughout The Year.”

In this program, 32 booklets target 1st through 8th grade. For every grade there are four booklets. Each booklet contains four lessons and is dedicated to one holiday, Tu B’Shvat (the New Year for trees), Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day), Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day), or the 10th of Tevet fast day.

The booklets include “challenging and exciting activities” that are not intended to function as traditional homework assignments or exams, but instead as “pleasant learning,” Fuld said. “Everything is there, a teacher simply has to read what’s there and adapt it,” he added. Schools in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, California, Texas, Michigan, North Carolina, and other states have signed up to use the booklets.

In Riverdale, NY, SAR Academy Principal Rabbi Binyamin Krauss told Israel National News in February that the school “is delighted with the new Israel curriculum developed by the Lookstein Center.”

“Connecting our students to Israel is central to the mission of our school,” Krauss said. “This spiraled program fosters and deepens that connection through engaging discussions, important facts put into context, creative activities, and descriptive pictures and graphics.”

The program does acknowledge Palestinian claims in the 8th grade booklet. Fuld told JNS.org the Lookstein Center “tried as much as possible to be as fair as possible, to say what the issues are,” but that the goal of the initiative is to teach Jewish kids “Ahavat Zion” (love of Israel), and it wasn’t not possible to be completely “values free.” Also, the center “tried not to take a religious stand one way or the other” through the program, Fuld said.

The Lookstein project’s booklets focus on historical figures like Eli Cohen with “interesting and age appropriate details about the people being featured,” Fuld said, including Israeli prime ministers Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon, the poet Rachel, Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel Natan Sharansky, Astronaut Ilan Ramon, and others.

While the Lookstein program is focused on children, the Washington, DC-based Israel Institute focuses on offering and helping with “all kinds of opportunities for scholars,” Executive Director Ariel Ilan Roth told JNS.org. The program offers doctoral and post-doctoral fellowships on a topic related to Israel, scholarships to the University of Haifa and Tel Aviv University’s English-language Israel Studies programs, and research grants on topics such as Israeli history, politics, economics and law.

Click photo to download. Caption: Itamar Rabinovich, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and president of Tel Aviv University, is heading the new Israel Institute. JNS.org looked at programs fosterin Israel education in North America for Israel Independence Day. Credit: Courtesy Israel Institute.


Launched at the end of 2012 and initially funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the institute officially rolled out its programs in late February this year. Itamar Rabinovich, who served as Israeli ambassador to the United States and as Israel’s chief negotiator with Syria under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s government, is the institute’s president. 

Jewish philanthropic organizations such as the Schusterman Foundation have attempted to positively shape the discourse on Israel by promoting Israel Studies programs as an alternative to Middle East Studies at American universities. The Israel Institute is “strongly focused on planning and facilitating with universities” and “will take an overview [of Israel Studies] and will work with practically everybody in the field,” Rabinovich told JNS.org in February.

“Our goal is to spread the knowledge of Israel Studies, we don’t do advocacy,” Rabinovich said. “We are about building Israeli studies centers everywhere. We don’t think politics should be brought into the academy.” The Israel Institute “opposes efforts to “politicize anything that has to do with Israel,” Rabinovich added, explaining his belief that “people can be critical of certain policies, but the Jewish people are entitled to their own national ideology (Zionism).”

In October 2013, the Israel Institute is organizing a conference on Israel Studies, and is already working to link the Jewish and Israel studies programs of American and Israeli universities. Beyond North America, the institute is also planning to bring Chinese scholars to Israel this summer with the goal of increased collaboration between Chinese and Israeli universities. Project organizers also plan to send Israeli professors to Oxford University and the University of Munich in the next academic year.

“It is our task to develop Chinese-Israeli academic relations,” Rabinovich said in February. “We want to help create a cadre of Israel experts in China. China is becoming an increasingly important global power. Our task is to help people in China learn Hebrew and understand the complexities of Israel.”

The Israel Institute also took over the existing Schusterman Visiting Artists Program, which brings Israeli artists to North America for residencies at universities, museums and other cultural institutions.

With its goals of supporting and promoting research and scholarship in Israel around the world and matching scholars interested in Israel and policy with relevant think tanks, the Israel Institute fulfills a “a growing appetite for knowledge about Israel beyond the news of the day, and the Institute is responding with scholarship, teaching and research,” University of California President Mark G. Yudof said in a statement.

For the Lookstein Center’s “Israel Throughout The Year” program, the goal is simpler.

“Whatever we talk about the child will hopefully say, ‘Wow, I want to know more’ or ‘wow, I want to see that place,’” Fuld told JNS.org.

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Posted on April 4, 2013 and filed under Israel, Features.