Leo Baeck adopts more Israel-centric curriculum

Eric Petersiel

Toronto’s Leo Baeck Day School is prompting its students and staff to become more educated about contemporary Israel in an ongoing effort to have them engage more personally with the Jewish state.

Head of school Eric Petersiel told The CJN that a re-tooling of Leo Baeck’s program of “Israel engagement” has been in progress for nearly two years.

“We recognized a while ago that one of the reasons people choose our school is a commitment to the State of Israel. And we wanted to make sure it was being presented in a meaningful, realistic modern manner,” he said.

Petersiel said the move to make become more focused on modern-day Israel involved a methodical process.

He said staff had been assigned to study the school’s existing policies and practices relating to Israel, then presented their findings to their colleagues over the course of two PD days, one last June and another this past November.

Leo Baeck aims to present Israel from a modern, progressive point of view, warts and all. Petersiel said. This is being done in order to allow students to wrestle with complex issues about Israeli society and politics so they are better prepared to defend the country when they leave the Jewish school system.

It’s a skill that has been lacking, he said, noting that for years, Jewish day school graduates have felt unprepared to tackle issues such as “Israeli Apartheid Week” or the boycott and divestment movement once they get to university.

To that end, the new plan to teach about contemporary Israeli culture demands that school staff be able to speak openly about their own preconceived notions and understanding of Israel.

“Our responsibility is to teach students how to evaluate a variety of opinions and then make their own. So we thought it was important for staff to investigate their own biases first so they can have that conversation with students,” Petersiel said.

Like their counterparts at many Jewish day schools, Leo Baeck’s staff and students have adopted the “hugging and wrestling” model of relating to Israel.

The term, used as part of the overall teaching philosophy on understanding modern Israel, refers to loving Israel as a Zionist while at the same time being unafraid to be critical when warranted.

“In some cases, Israel is a blind spot for Zionist institutions,” he said. “[Often] people are simply taught ‘You’re going to love Israel’ and that’s not a realistic way to understand it.

“We have a responsibility to give kids critical skills and say to them ‘Here are all the different ways certain people look at tough issues like Israel, and you have to know that your job as a modern Jew in the modern world is to winnow those opinions down and come up with your own meaningful understanding of the complex issues,” he said.

Petersiel noted said it’s almost impossible for a 12- or 13-year-old to adopt an “adult-level” opinion of Israel all at once.

“It takes a lifetime to sort through. It takes a lifetime to develop those skills. But we’re very comfortable now in giving our students a deeper understanding and the skills with which to make those decisions.”

Supplementing the school’s teachings on Israel are also live examples of contemporary Israeli society: young emissaries from the Holy Land who interact directly with students and staff.

These youths, called shinshinim (emissaries), are a part of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Makom Young Emissary Program.

The project was started nearly four years ago to help local Jewish young people get a sense of what their peers in Israel feel, think and do.

As the flagship program of federation’s nascent Israel engagement committee, it brings pre-army Israelis to Toronto “to provide a living bridge between Israel and Toronto,” according to the committee.

It’s also partly funded by the Jewish Agency for Israel.

The program has grown since 2007 from two shinshinim to more than 20 emissaries who participate in numerous schools and affiliated synagogues, as well as summer camps in and around Toronto and North America.

They can also be found at Bialik Hebrew Day School, Robbins Hebrew Academy, Paul Penna Downtown Jewish Day School and Associated Hebrew Schools, among others.

Emissaries are billeted at host family homes during their stays in Toronto.

This year, Leo Baeck hosted four shinshinim – two on each of its campuses – and their presence, Petersiel said, is “invaluable for our students to understand that Israel is a real, meaningful place. There are issues of enlisting in the army and what that means for these kids. It’s a very impactful experience for all these kids.”

The Leo Baeck shinshinim this year were Or Shalem, Mai Levi, Michal Cohen, and Ariel Levy. In a joint letter to The CJN, they expressed their gratitude for their time in Toronto and noted how important they felt it was to impact students in the Diaspora.

“We come with the goal of bringing the real Israel, the Israel of today, to the students at our schools, congregants in our synagogues, and young people at our youth movements and summer camps. We came here expecting to give, but we are amazed at how much we have received and grown as well,” they wrote.

“We live with families from our school and synagogue, and it’s been so wonderful to live with such committed, hospitable, and proudly Reform and Zionist families. Our host families become our families, staying up late to chat, giving us support and advice, cooking shakshuka, and listening to Israeli radio or Hebrew music with us. Being embraced by such warm and welcoming families and building relationships with new moms, dads, sisters, brothers, bubbies, and zaides, is one of the most meaningful parts of our year here.”

One of the ways Leo Baeck and the Young Emissary Program ensure that students understand the realities of Israel is by re-introducing the previous year’s shinshinim to students by way of live video chat from their Israel Defence Forces barracks dressed in their military uniforms.

“Our kids say, ‘This is the person that hung around and joked and laughed with me last year and taught me about Israel, and now they’re there offering their lives to support the State of Israel.’ It’s a very powerful experience,” Petersiel said.

While the program has had an impact on students, Petersiel said he wasn’t sure how long Leo Baeck can afford to keep it running, as it’s increasingly expensive to maintain.

“It’s a huge investment by our school. We’re committed to it and believe it’s incredibly valuable, but it’s hard” to finance, he said. “What I hope is that community donors realize the significance of it and find a way to fund what may be the most meaningful, realistic connection for our students to ensure Israel is a real part of their lives.”

Petersiel said even though the cost of the program is shared between the school and federation, Leo Baeck’s costs for it have risen continuously since its inception.