by David Waksberg and Chip Edelsberg
Originally printed in eJewishPhilanthropy.com
In December, 2010, a teenager inadvertently sparked a forest fire on Mt. Carmel, near Haifa, Israel. The blaze persisted for 4 days and claimed 44 lives. It was the worst forest fire in Israeli history and became known as Ason haKarmel (The Carmel Disaster).
Before the flames had been extinguished on Mt. Carmel, a 1st grade student walked into the office of Dr. Barbara Gereboff, Head of the Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City, California. “We need to do something,” the first grade student told his principal; “we need to help our friends in Haifa.”
The fundraising drive sparked by this 1st grader’s concern provided some financial aid to the Yemin Orde children’s village in the path of the fire.
What drove this six year old to instigate this relief effort? What was occurring in the classroom that led this child to understand the impact of the fire, to feel a strong connection to events occurring 10,000 miles away, and to feel compelled to take action?
Responding to studies indicating that young American Jewish students were growing more “distant” from Israel than previous generations, the Jim Joseph Foundation funded a pilot project to substantially improve Israel education in eleven Northern California Jewish day schools. The initiative was led and designed by Jewish LearningWorks (the central agency for Jewish education in San Francisco), in collaboration with the Foundation, the iCenter, and with the eleven participating schools. After four years, we learned a great deal about how to develop effective Israel education in day schools, and how to create conditions that lead to a six year old hearing about a fire on Mount Carmel and responding – “what can I do to help?”
The initiative sought measurable outcomes in student learning, in knowledge and skills of teachers, in the development of formalized Israel curricula in the schools, and in strengthening the communal educational infrastructure supporting Israel education – in this instance in the central agency for Jewish education.
The initiative took on its own brand – it was named BASIS (pronounced Bah-sees) – an acronym that worked in both English and Hebrew (Bay Area Schools Israel Synergy and Batei Sefer Yisrael-San Francisco). The effort was systemic and holistic – it addressed Israel education in the context of an over-arching school community, touching several different inter-related academic, social, and structural aspects of the school community. Thus, while the initiative focused on Israel, which is generally situated within a Jewish studies framework, every stakeholder group of the school community became involved in some way, including general studies faculty, administration, the Board, parents, and, of course, students.
During the course of the initiative, a model emerged – a framework of essential and symbiotic strategies that other communities can implement. These included:
- Establish and articulate a vision for Israel education, consistent with the school’s values, that can serve as a foundation for the educational work that follows, and that has “buy-in” from key stakeholder groups;
- Develop an Israel curriculum based on that vision (in other words, a formalized educational plan for Israel education);
- Develop teacher knowledge and skills, in both content and pedagogy;
- Offer a menu of creative, and dynamic educational strategies that empower educators with effective methods and tools to teach Israel – in both formal and informal settings;
- Create a cohort – a community of schools and educators invested in Israel education – that can support and learn from one another;
- Invest in a communal infrastructure that can lead such an initiative and provide expertise, technical support, and cohesion to support and sustain the work in the schools.
The Foundation not only supported the implementation of this effort, but additional work to reflect on and document lessons learned. Too often, such projects miss this important step and, as a result, opportunities for such learning are lost. Creating (and supporting) opportunities for practitioners to reflect on their experience and in so doing, advance the field ought to become standard practice. The investment in that documentation effort, a small percentage of the overall cost of the project, helped to magnify and distribute the program’s impact beyond the schools themselves. And by developing documentation that is accessible to other communities throughout the country, the BASIS model will continue to support long-term outcomes. One can find the documentation here, in what is, arguably, the most extensively documented initiative of its kind on the Internet.
By David Waksberg
We tend to label ourselves and one another. So-and-so is secular, and that guy is observant. This one is Reform and she’s an environmentalist. And so on. There is no end to the labels and distinctions.
But when the Torah was given on Mount Sinai – an event commemorated on Shavuot and one at which, according to tradition, we were all present – there’s no record of labels. We were all the children of Israel and the Torah was given to us all.
Receiving the Torah, as Vavi Toran writes in our blog , is a daily practice for many observant Jews. Increasingly, others are getting into the act – understanding that Torah and Jewish learning are our birthright.
Shavuot – zman matan haTorah - the Time of the Giving of the Torah - has emerged as a festival of Jewish learning. Jews around the world gather to study together, recreating the experience Shavuot commemorates - the experience of the children of Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai.
Across Northern California, Jews will gather for Tikkuney leyl Shavuot – Shavuot study sessions, where all are welcome.
My most powerful and meaningful learning has often happened in the wee hours of the night on Shavuot – when defenses are down and small groups of Jews – with different backgrounds (and no labels) sit and study together and grapple with our tradition and how it relates to our own lives. If you’ve never participated in one, perhaps this is the year for you to begin and join with other Jews who will feel as if we ourselves are receiving the Torah for the first time at the foot of Mount Sinai.
Because today, no less than on that day, the Torah belongs to us all.
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