The Value of Addressing Hard Topics with Students

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Before getting to our main story, we want to draw your attention to an incredible achievement that came out of Israel last week: the first Israeli spacecraft. Named Beresheet, the $100 million spacecraft launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral on Friday morning and completed its first orbit around the earth on Sunday. The spacecraft, which is imprinted with the words “Am Yisrael Chai” and carries a nano file of a Bible, is set to measure magnetic fields on the moon to help determine how the moon was originally formed. If the craft successfully lands on the moon Israel will be the fourth country to achieve this feat, after Russia, the U.S. and China. As Israel21c affectionately put it, this is “one small step for man, a giant step for the hevre.”

“Rebel Against Low Expectations.”

This is the phrase that kept popping up in my mind on my flight from Montreal to Los Angeles.

This past week, I had the incredible opportunity to present our YouTube material and teach some of our episodes with my colleague Chloe Valdary in Montreal schools across the religious and ethnic spectrum – Bialik, École Maïmonide, Hebrew Academy and Herzliah – as well as college leaders at Marianopolis College who are developing more ways to connect with Israel. In some ways, Montreal felt like a microcosm of Israel – ethnic diversity, ranges of religious observance – and in many ways, a unique place in which the different communities contribute to and benefit from one another without shedding their identity. To me, over the course of Israel’s short history, this is precisely what Israel has become.

In the early years of the State of Israel, the predominantly Ashkenazi leadership was struggling to absorb the hundreds of thousands of Jews who actively chose to come to Israel from Arab lands in North Africa and the Middle East (known as Mizrahim) where they were often persecuted and oppressed, and whom the the Israeli government worked to rescue Just as we at Jerusalem U were presenting a video we are releasing on the Mizrahi music scene and the integration of the Mizrahi community into Israel (look out for that in just a few months), a New York Times article exposing the Yemenite Children Affair broke and Israel’s image feels vulnerable again. Allegations abound about Israeli authorities taking infants from their Mizrahi families in the 1950’s and placing them in Ashkenazi homes, all the while telling their families they had died. To this day, the affair is shrouded in mystery and people are searching for answers. Israelis have been talking about this episode for years and it’s become center-stage for a wider audience with the publication of this article. 

We covered the story a few months back with an eye toward the classroom; the analysis is evergreen and remains ready and relevant to discuss with your students. 

Like the Hassidic tale that teaches us that feathers can’t be stuffed back into a pillow, the “cat’s out of the bag” and there’s no going back.

Regardless of the journalistic reasons behind breaking this story, which is admittedly outside my professional purview, and regardless of your perspectives on the New York Times, we need to remember two things:

  1. The New York Times has a circulation of nearly 3 million on its digital platform.
  2. The New York Times is the second most circulated newspaper in the country.

Put simply, people in the United States, Canada and across the globe are now reading this story.

My wife emailed me the article and in all-caps wrote one word to me: “HELP.”  Immediately, I emailed her our newsletter on the subject from a few months ago, and then we engaged in a conversation about it.

The question can be crystallized in the following way:

Do we want the New York Times to educate our students about the less romantic parts of our history or should we, educators, take on this responsibility?

On my flight back to Los Angeles, I reflected on my conversations with the incredible teachers, principals and students from Montreal, and a few ideas stood out:

  •  One educator shared with me that a primary concern of his was that we cannot continue to raise “ignorant Zionists,” Zionists who “feel, but don’t know.”
  • A different teacher thanked us for “showing the complexity of our story, and helping our students see that grey is a good thing.”

As a former high school principal, I remembered that teenagers can detect “BS” (as students crassly called it) quicker than any of us, and, as one student said to me, “If we can Google a story and we’re not taught about it, then my teacher’s credibility is out the door.”

I understand why we would not want to teach about this story of how the Mizrahi community was sometimes mistreated in Israel during its nascent years.

It is too painful; it’s misunderstood; it’s “airing dirty laundry” as some educators might say; and, frankly, people who disparage the Jewish state use stories like these as ammunition in their delegitimization of Israel.

All of that is true, but here’s my take. REBEL AGAINST LOW EXPECTATIONS. Anyone who has taught a teenager, raised a teenager or was once a teenager knows that establishing one’s own identity is a huge part of these years. Part of identity formation is the appetite we all possess to know our history and our story. We must know about our triumphs as well as our imperfections and challenges; only then can we emerge with a greater and more mature love for ourselves and  the Jewish people.

In the business world, the top CEOs and corporate go-getters don’t say “I can’t” or “it’s too hard.” That sentiment does not exist in their vernacular. We need to inoculate ourselves against the malady of the low expectations.

I believe that we must actively rebel against these low expectations of our students. I have seen time and again how positively students respond to challenges. Forgive the jargon, but it has much to do with the notion of a healthy self-efficacy. When we present our young people with a challenge that is difficult but ultimately within their reach, they derive a tremendous amount of satisfaction from what they do, and their belief in their ability to accomplish difficult tasks.
In terms of Israel education, we need to think aspirationally. We can push our students to have a deep, unconditional and passionate love for Israel, while simultaneously teaching them (in age- appropriate ways) the complex history of our people in modern times.  
So, for this week’s newsletter, please see our previous post on the Yemenite Children Affair as well as our video on the remarkable ways Israel saved Jews around the world. Months before the New York Times article, we covered this story. Our media lab stories are intended to be framed in a way that they are both timely and evergreen with the goal of being helpful, relevant and consistent.  
Help your students by learning with them, guiding them, and discussing with them. At a certain point in their developmental stage, one thing is clear – we cannot ignore our challenging stories, and the good news is that we have practical ways to teach our young people about them and contextualize them.
Encourage your students, have confidence in your students, and let’s make sure we all rebel against low expectations.

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is Senior Vice President at OpenDor Media. He leads the education vision and implementation at OpenDor Media with a special focus on the development of meaningful content and resources for students and educators. He holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design.

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