Voices from the Field: Day School Israel Trips


Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School

Interviewer: Dr. Zachary Lasker is director of Education Projects for the Melton Research Center for Jewish Education and The Davidson School of JTS.



 Interviewees: Tzivia Garfinkel is head of Judaic Studies at Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School in Chicago, and Rabbi Harry Pell is rabbi-in-residence at Solomon Schechter School of Westchester in Westchester County, New York. 

Jewish day school trips to Israel have the potential to deeply enhance the quality of Israel education for both students and faculty. This is in addition to many other ways that Israel can be incorporated into day school curricula and programmatic initiatives. 

In 2009, the AVI CHAI Foundation commissioned a report titled "Israel Education in North American Day Schools: A Systems Analysis and Some Strategies for Change." In it, a set of researchers explored how to create a systematic, age-appropriate, and compelling approach to Israel education. The report rested on a set of core assumptions that Israel education nurtures:

  1. An appreciation of Israel's central place in Judaism and Jewish life 
  2. An understanding of the origins of the State of Israel and its contemporary reality
  3. Meaningful lifelong relationships with the State and people of Israel

At the time of publication, the researchers felt that few schools actually were reaching their full potential, including the integration of a trip to Israel. With the field evolving at a pace more rapid than ever, I interviewed two day school educators who oversee Israel trips to understand their current design.

The basics:

   Solomon Schechter School of Westchester
Westchester County, New York
Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School (BZAEDS)
Chicago, Illinois
Educator Rabbi Harry Pell, Rabbi-in-Residence Tzivia Garfinkel, Head of Judaic Studies
Students Grades K–12
Student Population: 825

Grades PreK–8
Student Population: 540

Grade of Trip Grade 12 (also runs a trip for grade 8) Grade 8
Length Eight Weeks Two Weeks
Timing Spring Semester After Pesah for National Holidays
Attendance Full Class Full Class
Staff School coordinator; school faculty (rotates throughout trip); trip coordinator/educator through the Fuchsberg Center in Israel; staff of Israel-based counselors School coordinator; general and Judaic studies teachers; trip coordinator; and staff from Ramah Programs in Israel
School Affiliation Schechter Day School Network (Conservative) RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network (Nondenominational)


Dr. Zachary Lasker, The Davidson School: What is the purpose of your schools' tiyul (trip) to Israel?

Tzivia Garfinkel, BZAEDS: Our eighth-grade tiyul began in 1996, and although the journey has changed in a variety of ways, the purpose has not. We want our students to form a personal attachment to Israel and grapple with fitting Israel into their evolving sense of Jewish identity. Throughout eighth grade students journal on issues of Jewish identity, [and] the experience in Israel has a serious impact on their growing Jewish self-understanding.

Rabbi Harry Pell, Solomon Schechter School of Westchester: Thinking of our tiyulim in both 8th and 12th grades—but primarily of the net effect at the end of the students' high school careers—I want my students to enter into a lifelong relationship with Israel, and the senior experience to be the "date" when they realize that Israel is "the one." That relationship can go in many different directions. A minority will make aliyah or serve in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces], many will make Israel a place of regular travel and commitment. Hopefully, all will feel a sense of connection and interconnected responsibility with Israel as part of the Jewish lives they lead and homes they create, regardless of where they choose to spend their lives and build their homes. At the end of the journey, more than anything, I want them to think about when they will next be back in Israel. 

ZL: Can you share one activity that helps you achieve these goals?

TG: Living in the Judean desert for a couple of days brings the kids to the land itself—away from shops, away from modernity, and into a space that invites active reflection. Their encounters with various strata of Jewish history throughout the trip deepen their sense of the continuity of Israel at the core of the Jewish people. There is also the "unplanned curriculum" of the trip, when kids engage with their teachers (and madrichim [counselors]) and have important conversations with them about ultimate questions. These conversations often help us reach our goals. We choose the school staff for the experience very carefully, with a variety of faculty members from general and Jewish studies.

HP: In addition to activities that help create this connection, even more important are the people. Our lead educator, Nahum Binder, together with the madrichim and educators he hires, creates the lens through which the students see Israel. They hike, they tour, they meet with everyone from Haredim to Ethiopians; Israeli Arabs to high-tech-startup CEOs. All this is done through a framework created by staff and role models who constantly challenge the students to think about their connection to Israel. I believe it is the people, more than the activities, that help us reach our goals.

ZL: In what way do you think your students struggle to connect to Israel? How does your tiyul help them in these areas?   

TG: Our students are very conscious of the challenges that exist within the Israel of 2014. In eighth grade, they take the course World Issues, which focuses on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and in Israel, they often witness moments that make them wonder about fairness and justice. As young American teens, their tendency is to side with the perceived underdog. They are cautious about being "brainwashed" about Israel. We build opportunities into the trip to see initiatives that seek to foster healthy side-by-side living and coexistence. I think this is unique for an eighth grade trip, as the kids are still pretty young to grapple with this issue. But, since our kids generally do not go on to Jewish high schools, we feel it is important to ground them and arm them to deal with challenges when they go on to the world of secular high schools.

HP: I think that my students come into the experience with a sense of Israel as a utopia, and while it is easy to daven (pray) about a utopia, it isn't easy to fall in love with one; especially given the fact that Israel isn't one—it is a real country with real challenges and problems like any other. The difference is, as the Jewish homeland, it is also the students' country, and thus its challenges are also theirs to address and work through. That evolution from seeing Israel as a utopia at a distance to a reality you are responsible for can be a struggle for anyone to accept, but I think our tiyul helps students embrace this deepening relationship by virtue of its extended two-month time frame and its regular pauses for reflection and processing.

ZL: How does the tiyul connect to the full day school experiences you are providing the learners?  

TG: All of the kids see the tiyul as the culminating experience of all their years at BZAEDS. They often begin reminiscing about things they've learned from the time they were little while on the trip. They love to use their Hebrew. They are amazed to actually be in places they studied about in Tanakh or in Jewish history. They love observing Yom Hazikkaron (State of Israel Memorial Day) and celebrating Yom Ha'atzma'ut in the only place in the world that these are national holidays. They are used to being a minority. They love to breathe in the atmosphere of a world in which they live as part of the Jewish majority. They return home fuller and with a sense of shleymut (wholeness) that goes beyond what we could accomplish in our classrooms. 

HP: Put simply, our tiyul is a capstone experience. It doesn't simply connect to all of the other experiences in my students' day school careers—it brings them together and culminates them. All of the Tanakh they studied and the history they appreciated; the critical thinking in math, science, and Talmud; the appreciation of literature and language in both Hebrew and English; and especially their prior Israel travel in eighth grade comes together for them as an integrated application of all that they have learned.

ZL: What outcomes do you see from the tiyul?  

TG: In general, Israel is a greater part of the BZAEDS community consciousness than it used to be. Whereas, in the early years of the trip, each eighth grader was often the first member of his or her family to travel to Israel, we now have many families for whom Israel has become a family destination long before eighth grade. Long-term relationships develop with Israeli teens who are part of an annual exchange program here in Chicago, and they become family relationships, and last well beyond eighth grade. Kids feel connected to Israel in ways that they didn't expect. Perhaps one of the unexpected outcomes is that teachers who have traveled on tiyul with the eighth graders have come to know, value, and love Israel in new ways too. This has had a really positive impact on our school community.  

HP: Statistically speaking, we see the students rating their connection to Israel as stronger than before the tiyul. Their projections of themselves as being involved and taking Jewish leadership roles on their college campuses have significantly strengthened. Anecdotally, the students come home telling us about a feeling of belonging that they didn't necessarily expect, but which they intend to continue to explore.  

ZL: What challenges—educationally speaking—do you face in designing and running the trip? In what way would you like to see your trip evolve?

TG: I find that, each year, I test what we've done in the past to see if it holds up to scrutiny and if it truly contributes to the students' connection and attachment to Israel. Finding the best ways to observe Shabbat with an increasingly diverse community presents an opportunity year after year. I would love to see the trip be longer, so we could ease into different places and spend more time learning Israel more authentically.  

HP: The greatest challenge remains the cost of running this trip and of ensuring its accessibility to families regardless of their ability to pay. Our preoccupation with the cost takes energy away from the effort to make the trip even better so that it has a greater impact. I love that Jewish philanthropists across the country have seen the value of a 10-day Israel experience as helping to keep Jewish young adults connected to Judaism. I would love to see a similar national initiative that recognizes the even greater power of day school generally, as well as long-term Israel experiences specifically during the formative years of high school, in creating the Jewish leaders and Israel advocates of the next generation.

TG: I also find it critically important that each student has a special moment; a moment that touches him or her and is remembered with goose bumps, a smile, and maybe even a teary eye. I personally have one each year, and it often catches me by surprise.

Dr. Zachary Lasker is director of Education Projects for the Melton Research Center for Jewish Education and the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.  

Rabbi Harry Pell is currently rabbi-in-residence, teacher of Talmud, and chair of the Judaic Studies department in the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester's high school division in Hartsdale, New York. In July 2014, he will assume the role of associate head of school. He was ordained in The Rabbinical School of JTS in 2005, and earned a master's degree in Jewish Education from The Davidson School in 2006. He is now a fellow in the Day School Leadership Training Institute of The Davidson School.   

Tzivia Garfinkel is head of Jewish Studies at the Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School in Chicago, Illinois. Previously, she was the lower school learning center director and middle school principal at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Metropolitan Chicago in Northbrook, Illinois. She was part of The Davidson School's Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks Project Cohort VII.