Jonathan Muskat
Jonathan Muskat

Teach Zionism as Part of Tefillah, Tanach, Halacha and Jewish History

This past week I sat down with our own Oceanside homegrown talent, Avi Posnick.  Avi is the Northeast and New England Regional Director of StandWithUs, an international Israel education organization that challenges misinformation about Israel and fights antisemitism.  We discussed anti-Israel sentiment and antisemitism that students face on college campuses and high schools and specific strategies that are employed to face these challenges.  In the course of our conversation, Avi spoke about the various public high school internships that are offered to students and other programs in public high schools that are designed to support the mission of the organization.  We then turned our attention to Israel education in Yeshiva high schools.  Avi remarked that there are a few schools that have strong programs that teach Israel advocacy and how to respond to classic arguments that Israel is an apartheid state or that it is engaged in illegal occupation of an oppressed nation; however, most Yeshiva day schools unfortunately do not include this education as part of their curriculum.

I find that it is very difficult to decide what to include in and what to exclude from a Yeshiva high school curriculum.  We want our students to know Gemara really well, along with Tanach, ivrit b’ivrit and Jewish history.  We also want our students to gain some basic literacy in Jewish philosophy, practical halacha and now we also need to teach them about Israel advocacy?  Are there enough hours in the school day to teach this information?  A dual curriculum is challenging enough.  Must we add more work to our already overburdened students by requiring a course on the modern-day Middle East conflict?  Now some of us may respond that, yes, we should add a course on this topic to the Yeshiva day school curriculum.  Every Yeshiva high school graduate must become educated in an in-depth understanding of this conflict so that whenever he or she reads something on social media that is anti-Israel or antisemitic, he or she will know how to respond intelligently and effectively.

However, I think that there is another way to teach the modern-day Middle East conflict, other than a course on Zionism. As educators, we must teach our students more than content.  We must teach them relevance.  Whenever we teach our students anything, we must be able to answer the following question:  Who cares?  Why is this relevant to me?  How will the fact that I know this information help me in life?  The way we engage our students in education is to help them see how what they are learning is personally meaningful and significant to them.  Maybe when we teach our students Tanach, part of our instruction should include more than simply lessons about our relationship with God and Torah values.  Part of our instruction must include an awareness that Israel is all too often accused of being a settler colonialist state with no connection to the land, and that our Tanach expressly rejects that accusation by explicitly connecting our nation and the land of Israel numerous times.  The cities of Elon Moreh, Hebron and Bethel, cities which are part of the so-called “Occupied Territories,”  are actually part of the land promised by God to Avraham Avinu over three thousand and five hundred years ago.  Furthermore, when we study other Jewish subjects, we must also clarify that our religion, language, holidays, rituals, liturgy and even the words “Jew” and “Jewish” all are integrally connected to historical Judea and our collective longing to return to the Land of Israel.  When we study Tefillah, we must emphasize that we have been praying for a return to the Land of Israel for thousands of years.  When we study our holidays, we also must study the agricultural aspect of the holidays connecting them specifically to the Land of Israel.  When we study the halachot of mitzvot ha’teluyot ba’aretz (mitzvot that are connected to the Land of Israel), we must emphasize that the sanctity of the Land of Israel for purposes of terumot, ma’asrot and shemitta is not limited to lands on the western side of the “Green Line.”   When we study Jewish history, we must study it with an awareness of how  our constant connection to and presence in the Land of Israel are relevant to the current Middle East dispute and how the current claims lodged against the State of Israel simply are invalid.

What I am suggesting is that we teach our history, our culture and our tradition in a way that is relevant and that comes alive.  One way to do this is to apply the subject matter to the current Middle East dispute and the anti-Israel sentiment that is based on false claims.  Broadening our Judaic studies in this way can make them more relevant, more exciting and more engaging for our students and it also can transform our students into advocates on behalf of the State of Israel.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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