Bialik High School in Montreal is introducing what its creator says may be the first formal course on Israel conducted entirely in Hebrew at a Jewish day school.
“To my knowledge, it is unique in North America,” said veteran Jewish educator Shimshon Hamerman. “Sure, Israel is taught across all disciplines – in Bible, celebrations and trip – it permeates the curriculum, but Israel is not taught as Israel in a separate, structured course.”
The course, which he was commissioned by Bialik to design in consultation with the school’s teachers, is mandatory this year in grades 7-9 and replaces the former Hebrew studies class.
In a Hebrew that should be manageable for students at this age at Bialik, the texts Hamerman has written tell the history of Zionism from the 1880s, through to the creation of the state and up to the present day.
The emphasis is on why Israel was established, the connection between Jews and the land, and the bond between the state and the Diaspora.
But, he stresses, this is not a dry history lesson or political indoctrination, nor is it the traditional way of teaching the Hebrew language. “This is about educating the heart and mind,” Hamerman said.
The course also explores the culture and achievements of the Israeli people. Learning through songs is an important element. For example, the students will learn the distinct songs of the first, second and third waves of pre-state immigration, and what they tell us about the motivations of olim.
They will learn the meaning of Israel’s touchstones: the flag, the emblem, the anthem. “It’s all-encompassing. It’s not only about politics and wars … the subtext is national identity,” explained Hamerman.
Co-head of school Avi Satov said there has been a demand from parents and students for more substantial study of Israel and Zionism. While Israel already infused school life, this course represents a significant advancement in formal education on the subject, he said.
Previously, Israel was brought into Hebrew studies only in Grade 9, as “a piece” of the curriculum. “Israel is now fully integrated,” Satov said.
Students are still learning Hebrew grammar, just “not by rote, but rather in a functional way, the emphasis is on conversation and to daily life,” said Anat Toledano, the school’s head of Jewish studies.
The new course does not duplicate, but instead complements, what is covered in Jewish history, she said.
The new course is given twice a week in 70-minute classes. Jewish history is still taught – in English or French – as well as Tanakh, which involves the ancient language.
Altogether, Jewish studies accounts for about a quarter of the school day. Yiddish is no longer a course at Bialik, although it makes an appearance in Jewish history and there is a Yiddish choir, Satov said. Yiddish will continue to be taught at the elementary school, JPPS.
Hamerman, who’s been working as an independent consultant since retiring as executive director of the Bronfman Jewish Education Centre, was previously associated with Solomon Schechter Academy for 33 years, serving for a majority of that time as its principal or head of school.
“Traditionally, Jewish children in day schools have learned they should celebrate Israel’s Independence Day and cry on its memorial day, without much understanding of why,” he said.
The texts are illustrated with portraits of Israel’s presidents, prime ministers and chiefs of defence staff, maps and photos, including pictures of recent terrorist attacks.
The kids will have an opportunity to voice their opinions, including on current issues in Israel like the Arab-Israel conflict or the status of non-Orthodoxy, the educators say. They can, for instance, examine and discuss original documents, such as relevant United Nations resolutions and Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
To my knowledge, it is unique in North America.
– Shimshon Hamerman
“The idea is not to preach to them,” said Hamerman.
The language of the texts is at a level the kids should be able to grasp, with more complex words translated and the dots for vowels included to make reading easier.
While clearly Zionist, Satov said the course does not send the message that aliyah is the only future for Jews and, in fact, recognizes the validity of the Diaspora.
In creating the curriculum, Hamerman and Toledano took advantage of the pedagogical resources that the Chicago-based iCenter for Israel Education makes available. The iCenter believes that learning about Israel should begin at the earliest possible age. Hamerman has also been connected with the Center for Israel Education, which is affiliated with Emory University in Atlanta.
Satov said preparing senior students for what they will encounter at college with regard to Israel has become increasingly important.
He believes the new Israel curriculum has been a factor in the increased enrolment. Bialik currently has 358 students, which is up from 322 last year.