Teaching Israel after the war: How the recent conflict in Gaza affects lesson plans

In the social studies class she teaches at a Jewish day school in Foster City, Rebecca Fisher recently brought up the subject of media bias.

To illustrate the topic, she showed her eighth-graders Internet news articles about Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s incursion into Gaza that took place this past summer.

“I used an example from Al Jazeera [which falsely said] every death in Gaza was a civilian death,” said Fisher, who teaches middle-schoolers at Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School. “I had them circle different words and underline the bias they felt was there. I loved the conversation that was happening in the room. The majority were extremely engaged.”

This was Israel education in real time — and similar scenes have been playing out at Jewish day schools across the country.

Locally, one agency in particular has been helping to re-shape Jewish day schools’ curricula in this regard: Jewish LearningWorks, an S.F.-based nonprofit formerly called the Bureau of Jewish Education.

Chip Edelsberg

In anticipation of a 2014-15 school year fraught with anxiety over how to teach kids about the Israel-Hamas war — and about Israel in general, in the wake of the war — JLW jumped into action late in the summer and organized several educators-only workshops.

The gatherings helped teachers and administrators at Jewish day schools figure out how to best approach the subject of Israel. And in conjunction with that, JLW also launched a Web page titled “Israel-Gaza Conflict Resources,” a compendium of helpful materials for teachers.

Ilan Vitemberg, director of JLW’s Israel Education Initiative, worked with other JLW employees on the workshops and resources, including executive director David Waksberg and Israel arts and culture specialist Vavi Toran.

They felt that for Jewish day school students to understand the conflict, their teachers first had to process their own feelings about it: Did they have anxiety about Israelis coming under attack? How did they feel about the heavily anti-Israel reaction to the war here and abroad?

“It was clear we needed to create a safe space to talk,” Vitemberg said of the idea for the workshops.

Dan Finkel

Launched in early July, Operation Protective Edge lasted 50 days, and the war claimed the lives of 72 Israelis and around 2,000 Palestinians. The conflict brought a deluge of rockets onto Israeli cities, shut down Ben Gurion Airport for a day and triggered worldwide protests against Israel, some of them outwardly anti-Semitic.

Vitemberg was in his native Israel when hostilities erupted. He remembers it as a surreal experience — replete with incoming rockets, the sounding of air-raid sirens and racing into bomb shelters — but one during which Israelis came together.

He also remembers wondering how he and his Bay Area colleagues would deal with the aftermath this fall, back in the classroom.

With the war still raging, JLW quickly organized four regional workshops for educators, each drawing around 20 attendees. Participants came from a range of Jewish day schools: Wornick in Foster City, Gideon Hausner in Palo Alto, Contra Costa in Lafayette and Brandeis Hillel (both San Francisco and Marin campuses), as well as several synagogue schools. The goal was to review the facts of the war, then give participants a chance to voice their thoughts.

They were asked to write mini-essays about how the war affected them, then share their feelings in small groups. “I was very impressed,” Vitemberg recalled. “The discussions were very deep, very honest and very respectful.”

Ilan Vitemberg

“It was the right thing to do,” Dan Finkel, principal of Judaic studies at Wornick, said of the workshops.

Noting that members of the Wornick school family (staff, students and parents) were among the thousands who hid in Israeli bomb shelters as rockets fell, Finkel said, “[The war] was very emotional for many faculty members, especially Israelis who have families there. We ask educators to check emotions at the door when they go into a classroom. [And] if they’re not going to make it a political soapbox, then they need something to stand on when they teach this.”

Finkel said as a result of the JLW workshop and online resources, he and his colleagues developed an official school position on the war. Its three points are mourning the loss of human life, supporting Israel’s right to protect its borders and citizens, and calling for peace between Israel and its neighbors.

He also said that discussing the war, especially with older students in grades five through eight, requires an environment that places a high value on diversity of thought — one in which students feel safe about expressing their opinions about Israel, or asking any kind of question.

This matters, educators say, because some students are troubled by the civilian death toll in Gaza during the war. Students need to know it’s OK to express sympathy for Palestinians and still stand with Israel. They need to know it’s OK to question Israel’s actions.

Ora Gittelson-David teaches Jewish studies at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto. She teaches eighth-graders, who are better equipped than younger kids to wrestle with the war and the serious issues surrounding it — and to have real opinions about Israel.

Teachers incorporating the summer war in Gaza into their lesson plans include photo/rcw jewish day school

So Gittelson-David organized a “mini-encounter session” during the second week of school at which she asked students several questions: Have recent events affected you in any way, and if so, how? Do you have questions about the Gaza-Israel conflict? How have events affected your classmates?

“What came out the most,” she said, “was personal concern about family and friends in Israel.”

According to Gittelson-David, up to a third of Hausner students have at least one Israeli parent or are Israeli themselves.

The staff and student body at Wornick also include Israelis, said Fisher, so this war was personal for many of the students.

“A lot had just come back [from Israel],” she said. “We wondered if we should proceed with business as usual or talk about the war on the first day. All of us chose to fit it in naturally [as the weeks progressed]. Starting the year with that would send the wrong message. We want students to feel comfortable.”

The JLW team wanted to make sure these Jewish educators had quality resources at their fingertips if and when they brought up the war in class.

JLW’s “Israel and Gaza Conflict” resources Web page includes links to essays, articles and blog posts about the war, some expressing diverging political opinions. There’s a section titled “Helping educators understand and cope with the issues” that includes links to more than a dozen articles and essays, and another titled “How to talk to children about violence and crisis” with about 10 links.

Esther Rubin and Ora Gittleson-David of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto photo/rcw jewish day school

There’s even a link to a controversial segment of “The Daily Show” in which host Jon Stewart castigates those in the pro-Israel camp who, he says, forbid criticism of Israel.

Many of the resources come from the iCenter for Israel Education, a Chicago-based nonprofit that is a national hub for Israel education. The iCenter develops Israel-centric curriculum and materials, and offers training and support, for educators in day schools and other settings.

One iCenter link offers strategies for talking to students troubled by the war (“be a model of caring and action, to figure out they can support Israelis”). Another offers Israeli singer Etzion Mayer’s musical tribute to the three Israeli teens kidnapped and murdered in the weeks leading up to the war.

Adam Stewart, who serves as director of education for the iCenter, worked hand-in-hand with Jewish LearningWorks in compiling the resources.

“There was a need,” Stewart said. “What we see now is a blossoming of the field of Israel education with a strong network of educators sharing best practices. Jewish LearningWorks has been at the forefront. The net result is teachers are able to approach this subject in a way that is both timely and timeless, in that they deal with issues that are always important to us.”

Esther Rubin, a teacher in her 13th year at Hausner, attended a JLW workshop and found it to be so beneficial that she replicated it for faculty at her school. She said it turned out to be the perfect format for getting staff — which includes many non-Jews — to talk about the war.

Rebecca Fisher of Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City photo/rcw jewish day school

“No matter what side of the conflict you found yourself, it was horrible and traumatic,” Rubin noted, adding that the point of the staff meeting was not to decide who was right or wrong, but to “find empathy between us, so that whatever we’re feeling, we’re respectful.”

The iCenter and Jewish LearningWorks both count on support from the S.F.-based Jim Joseph Foundation, one of the nation’s leading funders of Jewish education programs and institutions.

The foundation’s executive director, Chip Edelsberg, is gratified that JLW, the iCenter and Jewish schools went into rapid-response mode to deal with the war and prepare for classroom discussion of its impact.

“The iCenter means we have a place to go to generate a response to a situation like this,” Edelsberg said. “It is an indicator that the iCenter is becoming a builder of the field of Israel education. Jewish kids in Jewish day school classrooms and their educators are reaping the benefits.”

Bringing quality year-round Israel education to Jewish day schools is  a core concern of Jim Joseph, which funded BASIS, a pilot program instituted by JLW that provided resources, curriculum and teaching materials to area schools. The knowledge gained via the pilot program now is being applied to a second Israel education day school initiative called iNfuse, launched in six day schools around the country and led by the iCenter.

Those sorts of “products” usually require months or even years to produce. That’s what made the fast turnaround of the Gaza war resources remarkable; the JLW site was up within two weeks of the war’s end.

As the immediacy of  the war fades over time, Bay Area Jewish day school students will come to think of Operation Protective Edge more as history rather than current affairs. But the war was a milestone in Israeli history, one they will need to study.

For that, they have a cadre of dedicated teachers and Jewish LearningWorks to help them.

“They are a treasure to this community, especially the community of teachers in the Bay Area,” Rubin said of the JLW. “They have such a wealth of information, and are willing to share it. They are go-to people about Israel.”


on the cover

Teachers Rebecca Fisher (left) of Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City and Esther Rubin of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at