New School Program Will Bring Young Israelis Closer to Judaism

'Israeli Jewish Culture' program is the first part of a wider process initiated by Education Minister Naftali Bennett to strengthen Jewish culture within schools and outside them.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaking at a meeting, February 16, 2016.
Moti Milrod

The Education Ministry plans to announce a new curriculum for state secular schools that will expand the study of Jewish subjects in grades 1 to 9, Haaretz has learned.

Titled “Israeli Jewish Culture,” the program will replace the Jewish Heritage and Culture program currently taught in grades 5 to 8. It is the first part of a wider process initiated by Education Minister Naftali Bennett to strengthen Jewish culture within schools and outside them.

The new program, which was drawn up by a special committee appointed by Bennett’s predecessor, Shay Piron, will be presented to the public shortly. Its objective is to bring pupils closer to Judaism at a young age.

In addition to changing and expanding the formal curriculum, the ministry is also formulating an experiential program to accompany the curriculum, comprising tours, hikes, and special events. The intention is to put together a Jewish culture basket containing a variety of programs that principals can choose from.

The ministry is also examining what kind of incentives it can offer to schools to deal further with Jewish history, figures from Jewish and Zionist history and Jewish holidays.

Defined as multidisciplinary, the new curriculum will expose pupils to the Jewish bookshelf, Jewish and humanistic democratic values, and encourage them to feel at home with Jewish culture. Children will study the Jewish calendar and life cycle, the traditions of various Jewish communities, Israel and the Diaspora and Jewish peoplehood.

For example, second-graders will study stories of the Jewish sages and respect for parents, while fifth-graders will study the Zionist connection to the Land of Israel, stories of early pioneers and the Law of Return, and will be encouraged to visit Zionist heritage and memorial sites.

Texts will include Ethics of the Fathers, the weekly Torah portion and the prayer book, as well as poetry and literary works. Figures the pupils will study include Theodor Herzl, Rachel the poetess, Henrietta Szold, Janusz Korczak, Jacqueline Kahanoff, Eliahu Eliachar, Hanna Szenes, and Esther Moyal.

The program also offers other options for experiential learning, including a debate on topics from the Mishna, a tikkun olam (repairing the world) exhibit, in which each pupil chooses an issue that needs improving and presents it, and hikes and tours linked to social service in the community. The ministry is also drawing up an informal program for strengthening Israeli and Jewish identity in the community, through activities in conjunction with various nonprofit associations.

Those familiar with the program say it reflects a pluralistic approach and sources from various streams of Judaism were consulted to ensure that a balance was maintained.

Israel’s education ministers have been trying to revamp the teaching of Jewish identity and heritage in secular schools for over a decade. In 2003, Education Minister Limor Livnat introduced the 100 basic concepts of Zionism and Jewish heritage as a central platform for strengthening the study of Jewish heritage, Zionism and democracy for grades 7 to 9. Pupils were tested on the concepts in the Meitzav achievement tests. Critics said the program promoted rote learning of concepts without context, and that the concepts themselves were politically tendentious.

Shortly after entering the ministry, the Labor Party’s Yuli Tamir cancelled Livnat’s program and in 2008 announced a new curriculum written by a committee headed by Prof. Avi Sagi. The program, which was allocated two weekly hours in grades 7 and 8, called on every school to choose from among seven topics relating to social and community issues, Zionism, the State of Israel and the “cycle of the year.”

The committee specifically stated that “no specific canon, like the Bible or the Talmud, should get preferential treatment.” The program was implemented as a pilot in a small number of schools, but never caught on.

The next minister, Gideon Sa’ar, with the help of a committee headed by Prof. Binyamin Ish Shalom, introduced a curriculum for grades 6 to 9 on Jewish culture, the Jewish calendar and “The Jewish people’s link to the Land of Israel.” Pupils were required to learn the weekly Torah portion in grade 6, the prayer book in grade 7, Ethics of the Fathers in eighth grade and Herzl’s “Altneuland” in ninth grade. Pupils also took trips to biblical sites like the City of David, Hebron, and Tel Shilo.