By: Lesley Litman
As school leaders and teachers prepare for the new year, many are in the midst of busy planning, of examining their current systems and processes, and of asking big questions. In fact, this is an opportune time for all of us in the field of Jewish education and Israel education to ask some big questions as well: What does it mean to engage in a system-wide process? How does a school go about doing this kind of work? What might it look like for Israel to be fully integrated into school life?
Some answers to the last question above are found within iNfuse, an initiative of The iCenter, which enables Jewish day schools across North America to engage in a system-wide process of “infusing” Israel into all aspects of school life. Over 12 to 18-months, schools seamlessly weave Israel into the experiences of learners, faculty, administration, parents, volunteers and other stakeholders. As in previous cohorts, the third cohort of iNufse schools engages learners from Kindergarten through 12th grade.*
Three overarching elements of the initiative help a school chart its path: conceptual (vision and educational outcomes), aspirational (what does the school need to do in order to build on and enhance current strengths to actualize the vision and outcomes for students?) and tachlis (how can the school accomplish this – what resources, personnel and support are required?). To support their efforts, iNfuse schools have access to a set of online tools, ongoing mentoring from seasoned Israel educators, cutting-edge Israel education resources, professional learning, and a community of schools who care about and engage deeply with Israel.
As one of the leaders of iNfuse, together with my colleagues, I have gleaned many insights from the wisdom of the school leaders with whom we work and from patterns and trends we see across schools. Over time we have learned, for example, that a system-wide or “systemic” initiative (affecting the entire system) is different from one that is “systematic” (consisting of a serious of linear steps). Whereas in its early stages the iNfuse process consisted of a numbered set of “phases” that schools would go through, as we worked with schools, we discovered that each school engaged in the process in a manner (and order) that worked best for its current conditions and reality. As a result, we have begun to use the term “elements” instead of “phases” and have removed all references to a specific order.
This past year, for example, as they planned for Israel’s 70th, some schools chose to engage in the more concrete work of school-wide programming. The tone and texture of this engagement, however, looked different than it might have had the schools not been engaged in an intentional, reflective and systemic Israel education initiative such as iNfuse. For example, instead of a single school-wide celebration around Yom Ha’atzmaut or a grade-based curriculum, one of the iNfuse schools, the Adelson Educational Campus in Las Vegas, engaged all of the school’s populations and frameworks as part of a year-long process of learning and creativity, punctuated with opportunities for professional learning for the entire staff. Students and teachers in all grades, school clubs, early childhood teachers and learners, parents, specialists (arts, music, dance) and others engaged in the creation of a set of 70 windows (based on Chagall’s windows at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem) reflecting 70 facets of Israel, one for each year.
Members of the school’s senior administrative team that oversaw the initiative, together with their iCenter mentor, found that nearly all the elements of the iNfuse process were reflected in their work but in unexpected and organic ways. The team gained insight into the current state of Israel education in the school (in classrooms, the physical plant, after- and all-school programming and more) through engaging with teachers in planning this year-long process. They also learned about and created powerful Israel-focused professional learning experiences led by faculty based on their interests and strengths and gained important insights into how they can weave Israel more fully into the day-to-day experience of the school. Because the elements of the process were clearly articulated and readily accessible, we were able to draw on them at the right time, where they were most salient and impactful.
As we look forward to integrating eight new schools into the iNfuse initiative, we do so with an image of overlapping spheres of activity, conceptualization and planning that feed into each other and lead to each other in unique and surprising ways. Our hope is that this type of systemic work will serve as a model for other areas of learning and school life and that through ongoing learning and reflection we will continue to refine and deepen the work of iNfusing Israel into Jewish day school life.
*iNfuse emerged from a similar initiative of Jewish LearningWorks in the Bay Area which included 11 Jewish day schools.
Lesley Litman, Ed.D. is a consultant to the iCenter overseeing the iNfuse Initiative. She is the Director of the Executive MA program in Jewish Education at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.