Reflections from an Israeli educator in an American Jewish day school

A map of Israel hangs in my Jewish Studies classroom at Perelman Jewish Day School in suburban Philadelphia. But it is not an ordinary map. Touch it and you will find its peaks and valleys. Scan the QR codes dotting the landscape and discover what it looks like from an airplane, listen to the national anthem, or explore a tikkun olam project.

I have worked in education for 22 years, mostly in Israel, teaching high school students and at-risk youth. But when I came to the US three years ago as a shaliach (Israeli emissary), I met with Perelman administrators and knew I had found a home away from home in the school and community. Then, on October 7th, everything changed and I immediately made plans to return home to serve my country. The decision to return to Israel on the first possible flight and be alongside my unit is a decision I will be proud of for the rest of my life.

My identity as an educator is intertwined with my role as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Over the last several months, I have juggled them both through two tours of duty. My experience as an officer during this war has impacted my teaching, and being a part of the American Jewish community has impacted me as an Israeli educator. From the start, I felt it was my responsibility to share what I could with my 2nd-grade students, where appropriate, to help them make sense of these trying times.

Learning brotherhood

Once I decided to return to Israel to join my unit, I had to tell Perelman’s administration about my decision. The Head of School made it crystal clear: I had their support. It was not just the school’s administration either; I was moved by the solidarity I felt from Perelman parents, faculty, and staff, the Philadelphia Jewish community, and the American Jewish community at large.

Although I came to the US to teach, I have also been a student. To see people here — many of whom have never lived in Israel — in tears after October 7th has introduced me to a kind of kinship I didn’t know before. When I return to teaching in Israel, I will be enriched by what I’ve learned.

In Israel, at times we take our immersive Jewish existence for granted. Most of the people around us are Jewish, we live by the Jewish calendar, and the rhythm of our everyday lives is filled with Jewish holidays, customs, and traditions. Here in the US, Jewish life is a choice. And in an environment where there are many other options, as educators, we have a responsibility to make a Jewish identity worth choosing.

This is why Jewish day schools are so important — they provide students with immersive Jewish experiences that help each child build a strong Jewish identity and an indelible connection to Israel.  It takes hard work and tremendous effort to ensure this endeavor is successful. It takes creative and talented educators, dedicated parents, and generous philanthropists. And it requires the power of community. When I return to Israel after my shlichut (emissary service), this is what I will bring with me: A rich Jewish life is not a given, but rather a choice that demands time, resources, and courage.

Teaching the whole picture

The attacks of October 7th were horrific and war is frightening. But in a way, this period has had two faces. For all the horror, grief, and mourning inflicted on Israel on October 7th, we have seen tremendous strength, heroism, and unity in the State of Israel and the entire Jewish world. Overnight, following these surprise, brutal attacks, people from around the world dropped everything to volunteer, support, and come together. In so many ways, this is a story of optimism.

The map that hangs in my classroom is interactive for a reason: I want the children to experience Israel as a place of life, happiness, and hope. I want them to feel the uniqueness of this country as the only Jewish homeland. Above all, I want them to feel it and know it is theirs.

Children are brutally honest — they say what is on their minds. As an operation officer in a combat battalion, I have heard questions from my students like, “Where did you sleep at night? Did you take a shower? Have you been in danger?” Navigating the answers requires care.

So I tell them about my pillow. Stationed along the northern border of Israel, camped in the forest, we slept with our shoes on, our sleeping bags caked with mud. When a shipment of new pillows arrived, mine became my treasure. Every night, I removed it gently from its plastic bag and when I laid my head down, it transported me to a different world. I tell my students how rich that pillow made me feel — a lesson in being happy with what you have.

My main mission in the US is to teach my students that being Jewish is fun, joyful, and meaningful. Israel is not some faraway land, but a part of our identity. And when I return home — to Israel — at the end of the academic year, I will take with me their support, courage, and the choice they make every single day to live Jewish lives that make all of us proud.

About the Author
David Kanotopsky is an Israeli World Zionist Organization 'Shaliach' and a Jewish Studies Teacher at Perelman Jewish Day School. He is also a combat Major in the Israel Defense Forces.
Related Topics
Related Posts