(July 22, 2013 / JNS) “In a beautiful valley, among vineyards and fields, there stood a tower with five floors. Who lived in the tower? On the first floor lived a fat hen. All day long she is at home, lolling in her bed. She is so fat, she can hardly walk.”
So begins the English translation of Israeli writer Lea Goldberg’s famous children’s story “A Flat for Rent” (Dira Lehaskir). Over the past few years, children at the Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto, Calif., have used puppets in an educational game acting out the story in Hebrew and English as part of BASIS, a four-year Israel education initiative piloted in the Bay Area by Jewish LearningWorks (formerly the San Francisco Bureau of Jewish Education) and the iCenter, a national center supporting Israel education.
“Studies have indicated that young American Jews have grown more distant from Israel. Israel has become less salient in the lives and identities of many American Jews, and we actually believe that Israel is important in Jewish identity formation in the 21 century. We began to explore how to improve the connection with and understanding of Israel among young students in the Bay Area, and we started an intiative with the Jewish Community Federation called the Israel Education Initiative, [which] was to do just that, and out of that initiative grew [BASIS],” David Waksberg, chief executive officer of Jewish LearningWorks, told JNS.org.
BASIS received $7 million from San Francisco’s Jim Joseph Foundation, and 11 Bay Area Jewish day schools, from Sacramento to San Jose, participated. Each school used experts and resources provided by BASIS to integrate Israel education uniquely into its own curriculum.
“Our goal was always to enrich, deepen, broaden Israel education throughout the grades, throughout the disciplines in our respective schools, in order for our students to feel a stronger connection to Israel,” Esther Rubin, the Gideon Hausner school’s BASIS Coordinator, told JNS.org.
“Each school has a different a vision, each school has a different population…we had a lot of autonomy,” Rubin said. “We focused on developing more in the area of the history and the development of the modern state of Israel.”
The intiative officially ended in April 2012, though some schools have continued funding BASIS projects from their own budgets. A BASIS evaluation by SRI International in April 2011 showed that 44 percent of teachers surveyed reported being involved or very involved in at least one of six BASIS activities.
Ninety-one percent of surveyed teachers also reported medium or high support for teaching about Israel among their faculty, and those specifically involved with BASIS reported even more support. BASIS educators also reported more access to teaching materials about Israel. Twenty-three percent of teachers reported that parent support for Israel education has increased since the fall of 2008.
According to Chip Edelsberg, executive director of the Jim Joseph Foundation, while it may be presumed that Jewish day schools include quality Israel education in their curriculums, Israel education hasn’t been systematically planned and little funding has been set aside at schools to train educators specifically on how to teach about Israel.
But thanks to the BASIS project, “virtually all of that has been achieved in most of the schools whereby there is evidence that Israel education has become a part of the teaching and learning experience,” Edelsberg said.
At the Gideon Hausner school in Palo Alto, the program enabled the school to work with international curriculum specialists, analyze existing curriculums, and map out how to amend the teaching of every grade to reflect a newly defined vision statement.
The statement, which the school called “enduring understandings,” included several major values: “Israel is both an ancient spiritual Jewish homeland… and a modern democratic state,” “Hebrew proficiency is essential to fully engage with Israeli culture,” “Feeling invested in the unfolding narrative of Israel and demonstrating responsibility for Israel’s future is an essential part of a Jewish identity,” and more.
Before BASIS was implemented, Israel education in most schools was relegated to Hebrew and Jewish studies teachers, Rubin said. With the program, the Gideon Hausner school was able to create a more interactive Israel education curriculum, she said. For example, when Gideon Hausner teachers visit Israel, they travel on an itinerary on which “every day someone from that group [is] engaged in a place in Israel or with a person in Israel that [is] going to help inform their teaching.”
The school also began to think of its annual student trips to Israel as more than just an end-of-year activity, but as the culmination of a year-long Israel study from different perspectives. For instance, English teachers began including translated Hebrew literature into their curriculums, and students were encouraged to fundraise for Israeli non-profits.
The school also “twinned” with an Israeli school in Zichron Yaakov, Hachita, exchanging students and teachers between Israel and the U.S. for joint training and hospitality experiences, and engaging in joint student projects. In one assignment, students from both schools were asked to interview relatives and compile their family histories. These reports were then shared between both schools.
Kids at both schools “plotted on the map where people came from and talked about the immigration paths that were different for the people that live in Israel now and the people that came to the U.S,” Rubin said.
“Our cornerstone of our BASIS experiences has been the twinning,” Rubin added, saying “it had a really strong effect.” Now, Rubin sees many kids from the school travel to Israel with their families and visit Hachita on their own.
“These kids feel that they have a personal connection that they never would have had,” and they “see Israel totally differently” because they get to interact with kids their own age, she said.
The April 2011 BASIS evaluation report also showed that after a year of the program, students were more likely to report a strong connection to Israelis—a number that increased from 32 percent before the survey to 36 percent after the survey. Seventy-one percent of students reported having a friend in Israel, up from 60 percent before the survey.
Overall, students reported communicating much more with Israelis and particpating more in Israel-focused activities.
According to Waksberg, Jewish LearningWorks has been in discussion with iCenter, the Jim Joseph Foundation, and other day school supporters regarding how other schools and communities can implement BASIS.
Jewish LearningWorks and the Jim Joseph Foundation recently launched a new educational website, BASISIsraeleducation.org, which documents the project’s model of tools and techniques. Both organizations hope this website can help facilitate the implementation of BASIS outside the Bay Area.
“One of the reasons we put up the website was to enable educators to glean what they can of value there and implement it in their own schools,” said Jewish LearningWorks’s Waksberg.
The new online toolkit allows “individual schools or consortias of schools to adapt” the program, with the goal of ultimately lowering costs for each individual community.
“What we learn, we share,” the Jim Joseph Foundation’s Edelsberg said.