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Teenage rites of passage in North America might mean bar and bat mitzvah, getting a driver’s license, graduating from high school or going to college. In Israel a core rite of passage happens in 10th grade when students receive their teudat zehut identity card. Up until now there has never been any particular way of marking this milestone. That’s where TALI stepped in, creating a course for 10th graders, “From Identity Card to Identity Consciousness,” grounded in Jewish texts and taking TALI’s signature mission of enriching Israeli-Jewish identity to teenagers. Pluralistic, creative Jewish Studies are now available to high school students across Israel. During the 2018-19 academic year, four schools took part in the full pilot program with a total of 900 students. In 2019-2020 1500 students from 12 schools are participating.
Approximately 60% of Jewish teenagers in Israel attend secular public high schools. Most of these schools lack a substantive Jewish Studies curriculum. Further, many issues related to Jewish identity in Israel are never engaged in the classroom, primarily due to teachers’ lack of training and resources. The result is a shallow understanding and command of Jewish history, identity, and culture, often leading to apathy, and a narrow view of Judaism as a fundamentalist religion. There are 500 secular public high schools in Israel. Fewer than 20% of these schools offer a serious Jewish Studies program on a matriculation level. Out of 60,000 10th graders in secular schools, less than 3% (1,500) take five units of Jewish Studies required for matriculation. Something has gone wrong – clearly, Jewish Studies are not taught in a way that is relevant to Israeli teenagers today. Indeed, if a school even has Jewish Studies courses they are often obtuse, rarely integrating the students’ own identities and experiences into the learning.
In 10th grade, Israeli students not only receive their national IDs but also start their IDF draft process.
TALI has developed and begun implementing program with the objective of syncing these two critical moments in the lives of Israeli teens. The program encompasses a curriculum and experiential retreats that engage 10th graders in an exploration of their identity, presenting and, hopefully, instilling in them an appreciation for their Jewish and Israeli identity. The program is co-funded by TALI fundraising, in particular the participation of a lead donor, Israel’s Ministry of Education, and participation fees from the schools.
The curriculum is comprised of 25 weekly two-hour meetings over an entire school year. Students focus on three circles of identity: personal, Jewish, and Israeli. They engage with two fundamental questions: “Who am I?” and “Who are we?” Each unit in the curriculum begins with a trigger film, posing a salient issue in their lives within the larger context of Jewish identity. The curriculum offers multidisciplinary lenses of classical and modern Jewish literature, film, music and art to awaken awareness and class discussion. Topic discussions typically begin with the student’s own personal and family world and expand outwards to show them how national processes take the same path and engage similar questions as those faced by individuals and families.
The overarching theme of the year is, “What does it mean to be Israeli/Jewish and what overlap or balance should there be between Judaism and Israeli identity? Is Judaism consistent with democracy or in tension?” Students examine the culture around them as a response to events in Jewish and Israeli history. They explore Jewish models of justice, responsibility, and balancing competing values.
The year culminates with each group doing a research project investigating these questions in the army, the public space, etc. They research the positions of the media, the Knesset and the public and create a presentation in a medium of their choice presenting their findings as well as their personal opinions and reasons.
The following curriculum excerpt is a typical unit incorporating video, art and ancient and modern texts. Students are asked to work together, write creatively and engage seriously with each topic.
Unit 4: Authority and Laws, Who Decides for Me?
Part 1: The Individual Perspective
Students are presented with a picture and asked: “In what areas of life do you feel free?”
Students examine a text by British philosopher Isaiah Berlin and think about a typical day. Make two lists. One column lists things which they decide. The other column things that are decided for them.
To explore the idea of authority within school, students watch a YouTube poetry slam with the tag line “I’m sick of talking about education” by Yuval Shaked as part of a national poetry slam video project. Students are then asked to create their own poetry slam dealing with the topic of how they relate to authority.
Students watch a video introduction to the Jerusalem Democratic School, an alternative school where students have complete responsibility for their own education. The school is run as a direct democracy where staff and students are nearly equal. What happens when you have complete freedom over what to learn?
Students position themselves in a spectrum: What things do I want to decide myself? What am I okay with having decided for me?
Part 2: The Jewish Perspective
Students examine texts from the Bible that discuss Torah as divine authority. Students use various Jewish texts including: a poem by Zelda, the Talmudic story “It is not in the heavens.” about Achnai’s oven and contemporary artist Ari Alon’s graphic novel and video: Rabbinic Jew v. Sovereign Jew.
Students interview three people in their community and find out their perspective on religious authority.
A video slideshow introduces different perspectives on the Torah’s authority.
Part 3: The Israeli Perspective
Using Talmudic texts Students explore: Why do we need laws in Israel? What would happen if we didn’t have laws? What happens when civil law comes into conflict with religious law? Students discuss the ‘Supermarket Law’ (a controversy over whether all markets in Israel needed to close on Shabbat) and the conflict between the president of Israel’s Supreme Court and a religious member of the Knesset. How did communal needs come into play?
Students discuss authority when it is in tension with ethics. They continue the discussion exploring the biblical story of the midwives Shifra and Puah who defied Pharoah. They discuss modern examples like the El AL pilots who refused to fly planes that were deporting African asylum seekers.
How might the concept of authority discussed in this unit be represented in the end of course ceremony when students receive their identity cards?