The Challenge of Israel Education

Our challenge as a Jewish educational institution of children between the ages of 2 and 13, is to put the joy of Israel in the hearts and minds of our students and not the fear. 
25 years ago, I experienced a Megillat Esther reading like none before and none since. I was studying in Israel for the year and friends from my yeshiva who used to visit a blind man who lived in the Shaarei Chesed neighborhood of Jerusalem, asked if I'd help make a minyan for megillah reading at this person's home. He was known as "Moshe Ha'Iver (Moshe the Blind Man)," an extraordinary man whom I later started visiting regularly, but this story isn't about him. The story is about Yehudah, the reader of the Megillah, whom I had never met before. He didn't just read with precision. He didn't just read with feeling. He read as if he was in a one-man show on Broadway. He acted everything out. He read each character's lines in a distinct voice, even going falsetto to impersonate Queen Esther. The crescendo was when he came to the words, "V'nahafoch hu," (and everything turned out the opposite of what Haman had wanted), he actually stood on his head. It was mesmerizing and entertaining and exciting beyond belief. Years later, Yehuda's brother, Yitz, married my cousin. They moved to Efrat and Yitz built an emergency trauma center that services the Israeli and Arab populations in the Gush/Efrat area. Yehuda and Yitz's father was the long-time dean of the Be'er Sheva medical school.
And most recently, only a few weeks ago, Yehudah, the mesmerizing megillah reader for Moshe Ha’Iver and his minyan, was the victim of an assassination attempt outside the Begin Center where he had just delivered a lecture. Yes, that person.
You all know the story but you didn't hear about it from me or from anyone at WDS. You haven't heard much from us over the last few weeks about the tragic events that Israel has endured. There are good and bad reasons for that silence. First, you don't need us to be your news service. Second, you don't need us to be your Israel analysts. There are many more worthy sources of that. Third, it's hard - not impossible - to present thoughtful ideas on events in Israel without any trace of politics and, in my opinion, a day school and its leadership should stay far away from that arena lest use political considerations in choosing a school. And fourth, our challenge as a Jewish educational institution of children between the ages of 2 and 13, is to put the joy of Israel in the hearts and minds of our students and not the fear. There will be plenty of time for the fear.
And yet the reality is that our brothers and sisters, our people, are suffering and when we effectively ignore another person's suffering, we gradually become desensitized. And that's the exact opposite of what we are trying to do. Our ultimate goal is that when anyone suffers anywhere, we feel that pain, even in the remote, idyllic confines of Westchester Day School.
So we can't be silent anymore, not in words nor in deeds. But what should we say and what should we do? How do we focus in on these specific incidents but keep the lens wide enough not to lose the panorama of the modern State of Israel and its divine origins? How do we honor the memories of the fallen rabbis, how do we comfort the families of the victims, how do we learn lessons from these tragedies while also celebrating the miracles of Israel?
One of the ways to start is not by shrinking from the challenge but by acknowledging and embracing it. Many of our students have been saying Tehilim and tefilot all week long but today our activities have been kicked into high gear. Along the colorful wall of the lunchroom, huge rolls of paper were put up on top of which were the headings, “Ani Ohev et Yisrael Ki…” and “We stand with Israel Because…”. Underneath, our students decorated the wall with messages in magic markers. They weren’t told what to write. It came from the heart. With meaningful, energetic music accompanying them, the kids created a brilliant mural of their positive thoughts about Israel. There is a brief video capturing the experience on our facebook page and a picture collage in Menschen It as the Picture of the Week. As far as I’m concerned, in light of the magnitude of the situation, this activity has been the highlight of the year so far. I want to thank Shir Rand, our Bnei Akiva Shlicha, and Rabbi Daniel Schwechter, our Student Activities Coordinator for their efforts on this project.
As another step in the direction of rising to the challenge of Israel education, you will find a list of questions at the end of this email that could be used at the Shabbat table with your children. They are designed to be thought-provoking conversation starters with no right or wrong answers. Feel free to ask follow-up or other questions. I thank our teachers throughout the grades for providing the questions.
We will also be planning an Israel evening for parents and children. Please look out for the save-the-date.
Dr. Danny Gordis, in his prescient presentation at our Open House Kickoff, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Israel,” implored us to integrate the rich Israeli history, literature and legacy into our curricula, not only because of its educational value but also so that the dominant images of Israel aren’t carnage and grief but rather heroism, creativity, the vibrancy of Torah and the celebration of life.
It seems like lately those images are getting harder and harder to put into perspective. Our goal is to paint a picture with bright and dull colors and not to gloss over any of it but rather to relate to both appropriately.
While we pray to God that we have seen the last of the tragedies, we also pray for the ability to educate our children and families in a way that honors the memory of those who have perished and the lives of those who live on.
May this truly be a Shabbat shalom for us and the people of Israel,
Rabbi Lookstein
Questions for Shabbat Discussions: 

Early Childhood:
1.     What is the holiest city in Israel?
2.     What is the holiest place to pray in Israel?
3.     If you have been to Israel, what was the most fun part of your trip? If you haven't been to Israel what do you want to see or do when you go?
4.     What do you think Israel looks like? 
Elementary School:
1.     Why is the location of Eretz Yisrael important?   
2.     In which Parasha did G-d promise Avraham the land of Yisrael? 
3.     Why is Israel so important to us even though we live in America? 
4.     How do we begin each school day that reflects our connection to Eretz Yisrael?
5.     What does the word Hatikvah mean? 
6.     What is our hope? 
7.     How is Yehoshua and conquering the land connected to Avraham Avinu?
8.     "Mi Shemamin Lo Mefached": if we have full belief and therefore we are not afraid, as a family, how do we show our support for Israel?
Middle School:
1.     If prayer is a personal thing, why pray in public, in a synagogue?
2.     Why do we pray facing Israel? 
3.     Do prayers said in Israel really "get to G-d" faster? Or, do prayers said in America really first need to travel to Israel before they can go up?
4.     Is the goal for all Jews to live in Israel?
5.     Which is more important the land of Israel or peace?
6.     What are the values that Israel should live by?
7.     What is the best part about Israel: the history, culture, the people or the food?
8.     What is Israel's greatest export?

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Mamaroneck, NY 10543

Who We Are

Westchester Day School is a Modern Orthodox, co-educational, dual-curriculum, toddler to 8th grade Jewish school that inspires and educates our students in their own way to value menschlichkeit, mitzvot, and lifelong learning.