How to engage your students for Yom Haatzmaut and Yom Hazikaron

How are YOU (yeah, I’m talking to you) going to commemorate Yom Hazikaron and celebrate Yom Haatzmaut this year?

As Jewish educators, we take on many challenges in our teaching. Morality colliding with the Bible? No problem! Reconciling any given social issue with the Torah? We’ve got it covered. Exploring the legacy of Biblical heroes who are far from perfect and make mistakes? Game on!

But for all of our accomplishments in the classroom, for all of these challenges that we are willing to take on, what I keep on hearing is that there is one subject that is so difficult that many educators and rabbis avoid it altogether. 

Israel has become so politicized, so weaponized by the right and the left, that many educators understandably have a “fight or flight” response.

Plus, with so much to cover in the curriculum, many rabbinical seminaries and Jewish educational institutions don’t prioritize Zionism and Israeli history compared to other subjects. This creates the perfect storm — the subject of Israel is so politicized that many of us don’t want to go there, and we might not feel we were trained to teach it.

That is why Unpacked for Educators exists. Our goal is to empower Jewish educators and rabbis regardless of background to be able to facilitate meaningful, transformative conversations about Judaism and Israel. We create resources so that you feel confident bringing the most controversial topics in Israeli history and current events into your classroom.

For Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) and Yom Haatzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day), we suggest five practical classroom strategies that you can integrate into your teaching below. We hope that these strategies will help you engage your students in conversations about Israel this week.

As I often say, good Israel education needs both celebration and exploration. There are times when we ought to simply appreciate the miracle that a Jewish state exists and everything Israel has accomplished in 74 years. We should help our students understand how Israel is the realization of a 2,000-year dream and why the Jewish state was (and is) needed.

The revival of the Hebrew language, the opportunity for the Jewish people to govern ourselves, the return of the Jewish people to history as subjects and not objects, and the realization of creating a more self-confident Jew are achievements that every Jewish person can take pride in and celebrate.

At the same time, we also need to give our students freedom to explore the complex issues of Israeli history in an intellectually honest way. Celebrating both the sublime and romantic aspects of Israeli history as well as exploring some of the unsavory and challenging aspects is what can provide a young person with a long-lasting and realistic relationship with Israel.

We CAN walk and chew gum at the same time. 

Let’s remember this as we engage our students in the themes of Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut and in our Israel education all year round.

Best,

Noam

Yom Hazikaron: Why it matters

Israel has fought six wars with neighboring Arab countries, confronted two Palestinian intifadas, and endured numerous terror attacks since its establishment in 1948, including repeated terror attacks in recent weeks that have left 15 dead. In this reality, to defend the Jewish state against these prolonged threats, the majority of Israelis serve in the army.

However, this comes with an enormous price. This Yom Hazikaron, Israel remembers nearly 24,000 fallen soldiers and more than 4,000 victims of terror. Both numbers date back to 1860, before the state was founded. Additionally, more than 36,000 Israelis have been physically wounded during their military service.

Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) is a day to remember Israel’s fallen soldiers (including those who lost their lives in the War of Independence and all who were killed while serving in Israel’s armed forces), as well as all Israeli victims of terrorism.

In Israel on Yom Hazikaron, shops, restaurants and movie theaters are closed, while radio and television stations air stories about Israel’s wars, stories of terror victims and their families, and other programming that conveys the somber mood of the day.

Like on Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), a siren blares twice during the day and the entire country comes to a standstill. People stand out of respect for those who sacrificed their lives to defend Israel and all lives lost by terror.

There are many ceremonies held throughout the day, beginning with one at the Kotel (Western Wall) and concluding with a national ceremony at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl, where many of Israel’s leaders and fallen soldiers are buried.

Yom Haatzmaut: Why it matters

Immediately after Yom Hazikaron ends, Yom Haatzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day) begins. Typically, in other countries, the Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and the Independence Day occur on two separate days of the year. So why is it that, in Israel, Independence Day begins the moment that Memorial Day ends?

“The State of Israel wouldn’t be able to celebrate its existence if it weren’t for those who gave their lives for it,” the IDF explains. “We wouldn’t be able to have one of those days without the other one. We honor their memory and everything they fought for, so that today, we can celebrate our independence.”

The official “switch” from Yom Hazikaron to Yom Haatzmaut takes place at the military ceremony on Mount Herzl a few minutes after sundown, when the Israeli flag is raised from half staff to the top of the pole. 

This is followed by a torch lighting (hadlakat masuot) ceremony, in which 12 torches are lit symbolizing the 12 tribes of Israel by people who have made outstanding contributions to society. The ceremony also includes music, dances, parades and fireworks.

In addition to the official ceremonies, Israelis celebrate Yom Haatzmaut by attending public shows across the country with leading Israeli singers and fireworks. The streets in the area are closed and Israelis sing and dance in the streets.

Diversity of perspectives: 5 ways to celebrate with your students

So, how can you engage your students in meaningful conversations and fun activities for the holidays? Here are five easy ways to bring themes from Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut into your classroom using Unpacked for Educators’ content and resources:

1. Play Israel Pursuit, our global trivia challenge.

Looking for a fun way to engage your students in Israeli culture and history while connecting them to thousands of their peers around the world? This Yom Haatzmaut, sign up your school for our global Israel trivia challenge, “Israel Pursuit.”

Regional winners will compete in a live, online, celebrity-studded final tournament for epic prizes. The program is simple to implement and it’s easy to sign up, but act quickly — the deadline for students to play the regional game is May 5th.

2. Use these videos to engage your students in Israeli history and culture:

Use the following videos and the accompanying resources to explore the themes of the holidays with your students:

Why I am a Zionist— Watch this video of Professor Gil Troy’s essay from 20 years ago, “Why I am a Zionist,” revisited and updated for today. Then, using the accompanying resources, ask your students to respond to Gil Troy’s vision of Zionism, reflect on their own relationship with Israel and explore what Zionism means to them.

How Israel reshaped Jewish culture— Many Americans define their Judaism culturally rather than religiously. But with different versions of “Jewish culture” in Israel and the U.S., what does the term even mean? Watch this video to explore whether there is such a thing as Jewish culture and how the Israeli and American versions developed in parallel to each other.

Who are Israelis, really? — One of the most common misconceptions about Israel is that it’s made up of white, European Jews. But in reality, the majority of Israel’s Jewish population is non-Ashkenazi (including Sephardic, Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jews), and 20% of Israeli citizens are Arabs. Use this video to introduce your students to the culturally diverse faces of Israel.

Is there a truly Israeli food? — Hummus, falafel, shawarma and shakshuka…Israeli food may be delicious, but it is a lot more interesting than that. Watch this video with your students to explore the diverse origins of Israeli food, whether there is any authentically “Israeli” food, and what this says about Israeli culture and Jewish history.

HaLamed Heh: The 35 soldiers who never returned home— During Israel’s War of Independence, under cover of night, 35 young Jewish men set out to deliver supplies to the people in the cut-off Etzion Bloc, south of Jerusalem. Tragically, they were discovered en route and massacred by local Arab villagers. For Yom Hazikaron, watch this video to hear the dramatic story of the “Lamed Heh,” the convoy of 35.

3. Have a podcast listening party.

Have your students listened to our podcast, “Unpacking Israeli History”? Join Dr. Noam Weissman as he goes behind the scenes of Israeli history and dives deep into the wild, fascinating and complicated stories of Israel. Each episode tells a nuanced story so your students hear multiple points of view. 

For Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut, listen to the episode on the Hatikvah, Hebrew language or the Mossad with your students, then engage them in discussion using the accompanying prompts (for the Mossad episode, use the discussion questions below). Plus, be sure to check out Season 3 of “Unpacking Israeli History” with educational resources coming soon!

  • Watch our video about the Mossad and utilize the accompanying educational resources.
  • Which assassination story was most surprising and why?
  • As the only Jewish state in the world, Israel has taken upon itself the role of “defender of the Jewish people.” Do you think that Israel is responsible for the security of Jews worldwide?
  • Of the following objectives of the Mossad, which do you think is most important and why?
    • Neutralize military threats to the state of Israel
    • Bring justice to those who have harmed the Jewish people
    • Gather intelligence
    • Retaliate against the perpetrators of terror
    • Help Jewish refugees reach the land of Israel

4. Screen a film in your class or school:

After showing your students any of the following films, use the accompanying educator’s guide to facilitate a discussion:

Beneath the Helmet: From High School to the Home Front — What is it like to grow up in Israel and serve as an elite paratrooper in the IDF? Watch this powerful coming-of-age story highlighting five young Israeli high school graduates who are drafted into the army. The film follows the soldiers from their basic training until their release into the home front, showing the human side of Israel’s military.

When the Smoke Clears: A Story of Brotherhood, Resilience and Hope — Watch the inspiring stories of three young Israeli war veterans whose battle experiences leave them with life-altering mental and physical wounds. When all seems lost, a revolutionary idea gives them the hope, courage and community to survive. Working together, they learn to face their obstacles and discover that they might have more to offer than ever before.

Hummus! The Movie— Secret recipes, a Guinness World Record and the power of hummus to bring Muslims, Christians and Jews together…Beyond arguments over who makes the best hummus and even beyond religious and political divides, this feel-good film showcases the personal stories of the colorful men and women who simply live their lives and love their hummus.

5. Ritualize these holidays with your students.

On Yom HaZikaron, think of different ways that your school can model the avirah (atmosphere) in Israel on this day. You could play the sound of a siren over the loudspeaker and ask students and teachers to stop what they are doing and stand in solidarity, just like Israelis do.

You could also play sad Israeli songs over the speaker system (try this playlist for Yom Hazikaron), or show video tributes of fallen Israeli soldiers and terror victims on screens around the building.

Have students transform your physical space by posting pictures and bios of fallen soldiers around the building (your students can find a fallen hero to honor using the “Yizkareim: Honor Israel’s Fallen” search tool). Or, set up whiteboards with open questions about Yom Hazikaron where students can write their answers and respond to their peers.

Here are a few suggested questions for the whiteboard activity: 

  • Should we commemorate Yom Hazikaron outside of Israel? 
  • Who is a Jewish hero you look up to? 
  • What do you think motivates someone to join the IDF when they don’t live in Israel? 

Engaging alumni or faculty who have served in the IDF in a panel discussion can help students relate to the modern challenges of Israeli soldiers. This type of program can also be paired with a viewing of “Beneath the Helmet” or “When the Smoke Clears.”

On Yom Haatzmaut, try to capture the celebratory atmosphere and ruach (energy) of the day, with programming that highlights Israel’s unique character and challenges. 

You can eat falafel and blue and white cookies for lunch with your students, plus add meaningful programming to parallel what goes on in Israel on that day. For example, take your students on a hike, just like many Israelis go hiking on Yom Haatzmaut.

Organize a “Beit Kafe” (Coffee Shop) where students watch different Unpacked videos at stations, discussing questions related to each video, while enjoying “ice cafe” and other Israeli treats (use the suggested videos and accompanying prompts above). 

Use Zoom to connect with alumni from your school living in Israel who can answer student questions about what it’s like to make aliyah or serve in the IDF.

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