NEW YORK, April 17 (JTA) -- At Temple Kol Ami in suburban Detroit, Hebrew school students marked Israel's Independence Day by sending e-mail messages of support to Israeli soldiers and climbing on an enormous map of Israel to learn about the Jewish state's history and geography.
At Kehillah Community Synagogue in Berkeley, Calif., students attached notes hoping for peace to a poster of the Western Wall.
And in Denver, where most congregations usually skip the community Israel events and do their own thing, there has been a groundswell of support for the community-wide parade, slated for Sunday, to show solidarity with Israel.
With Israel's Independence Day, which was celebrated on Wednesday, coming on the heels of seemingly-nonstop suicide bombings and a major military offensive, American religious schools found themselves scrambling to figure out the appropriate way to observe the holiday.
"A key question at this time has been -- are we truly in the mood to celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut," said Deborah Price, executive director of the Jewish Education Association of MetroWest, N.J., using the Hebrew name for Independence Day.
"There's less falafel and Jaffa orange-type celebrations going on. The mood is far more serious, the intent and the feeling of the programs does seem to be far more intense," Price said.
But Independence Day hasn't been the only challenge Israel has presented.
All year, but particularly in recent weeks, congregational schools have struggled to figure out how best to teach about the embattled Jewish state.
While Israel and Zionism have long been staples of most supplemental school curricula, these institutions only have a few hours a week to teach a multitude of subjects, ranging from Hebrew to Bible.
For some, the history and politics of modern Israel fell on the back burner until recently.
Israel-related sessions at last summer's Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education conference were far outnumbered by sessions on such topics as Torah, pedagogy and Jewish environmental education.
Steven Glickman, principal of the Community High School for Jewish Studies in Denver, said that many of his students start high school not knowing basic information about Israel, such as where the West Bank is or what the 1948 War of Independence was all about.
Most educators say Israel and Zionism are on their curriculum, but that Israel's complicated history can be difficult to explain to young children, particularly in short lessons.
Elissa Berg, education and youth director of Adat Shalom Synagogue in suburban Detroit, said her school offers an elective on the Israeli-Arab conflict to teens, and all seventh graders study modern Israeli history.
"But to be perfectly honest, I don't think we do it justice." she said.
"I'm not sure we get into the detail we might, but I'm also not sure seventh graders have the historical perspective to do that."
In recent months, Israel has moved closer to center stage at many schools.
Several communities have recently taken steps to improve Israel education.
This spring Baltimore Hebrew University for the first time offered a professional development course for teachers on how to bring Israel into the classroom.
Team-taught by an education professor and a political science professor, the course combines content with brainstorming sessions on how to make the content accessible to children of different ages.
In teaching about the current situation, one teacher showed students a film clip profiling a teen-age girl in Jerusalem talking about how her day-to-day life has been affected by the fear of terrorism.
Another designed a board game in which players move around a map of Israel and answer questions about life there.
Hana Bor, the education professor co-teaching the course, said the course is not just focused on the current crisis, but about teaching about Israel in general.
Without fostering a student connection to Israel, students "wouldn't care less about the crisis," she said. "We don't want to teach only the negative."
Both the Jewish Education Service of North America, working with the federation system's United Jewish Communities, and CAJE have circulated curricular materials with suggestions on teaching about Israel, terrorism and the current situation.
The Jewish Education Center of Cleveland put together "Israel Now: A Solidarity Response Curriculum," which has been circulated nationally through JESNA and the UJC and focuses on several key ideas.
Among them: that Israel is a "special place" for Jews worldwide, that Jews need to stand by it in crisis and that it is "important to be 'critical consumers' of the media, carefully evaluating the veracity and slant of the news about Israel."
In addition, JESNA, the Jewish Agency and several other national players convened 40 educators -- half from Israel and half from North America -- in February to brainstorm how Israel education can be improved in the Diaspora, not only in congregational schools, but also in day schools and informal education.
"We've had these discussions on and off for years, because we have always felt we're not doing a very good job of teaching Israel, but the crisis heightened the issue," said Steven Kraus, JESNA's director of school support and development.
Many schools are spending more time teaching Israel than they used to.
Susan Wyner, education director at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, a large Conservative synagogue in suburban Cleveland, said, "I don't think there's any question that we're talking about Israel more than we might normally if things weren't so fired up there."
Wyner said she has added prayers for peace and prayers for Israel to the junior congregation liturgy and asked her teachers to teach about the Six- Day War so that students can better understand current debates over whether Israel should withdraw to its pre-1967 borders.
Other schools say they have also added more geography lessons, regular singing of Hatikva, Israel's national anthem, and prayers for Israel.
Educators report that students, still reeling from the sudden lack of security from Sept. 11, are worried about Israel and terrorism, and want to know if criticisms of Israel they hear from classmates or from talking heads on CNN are true.
Adat Shalom's Berg said her teachers tell the students "if someone challenges them in school with something that throws them, instead of getting thrown, it's okay to say, 'I don't know, I'm not an expert on this issue but I'll go home and ask my parents or my religious school teacher or rabbi and come back with an answer.' "
Students seem to vary a lot in their knowledge and interest in Israel.
Carol Morris, a teacher at Congregation Emanuel, a Reform temple in Denver, said she has noticed an increased level of awareness about Israel in recent years.
When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995, "the kids were shocked and all that, but it took them a while to get a sense of who he was because they didn't remember what they learned" about Israeli politics and history in previous grades, Morris said.
"Now, you mention the names -- Arafat, Sharon -- they seem to be more aware of what's going on. They're aware of the news. They listen to it more. I think Sept. 11 did a lot of that."
However, at Berkeley's Kehilla Community Synagogue, some students "are very aware of what's going on in the world and others are very focused on their own environments -- how much homework they have, when's the next baseball game," said Sandra Razieli, a sixth grade teacher.
The synagogue identifies as Renewal, a grass-roots movement that seeks to combine some of the spiritual vitality of Chasidic Judaism with the liberal philosophy that Judaism is an evolving religious civilization.
Judi Wisch, education director for Beit Ahavah Community School, a "brand-new" Reform temple in Northhampton, Mass., said many of the families there don't feel very strong connections to Israel.
"I did a survey at the beginning of the year of what they want taught and Israel was way at the bottom," she said.
"I don't think it's changed," Wisch said. "I think people who have Israel low on the priority list, when a situation like this happens, I think they pay even less attention."
For Wisch and for the teachers at Kehilla, a congregation that caters to a primarily left-wing membership, teaching about Israel has been especially difficult because they don't want to teach that Israel's actions are always right.
Both schools have tried to spend some class time talking about the Palestinian desire for a state and the fact that many innocent Palestinians, as well as Israelis, are being killed.
Baltimore Hebrew University's Bor, said that she has been trying to help the teachers avoid being too political, while also instilling a love for Israel.
"We don't want to do propaganda," Bor said. "We want to do teaching. We want the children to love Israel and understand it, but we also want them to understand the issues."
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