Students arrive at a school in central Jerusalem, on April 15, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Students arrive at a school in central Jerusalem, on April 15, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
'Adults need to help kids take actions that redirect emotions'

Dilemmas abound as school system works to help students process Oct. 7 and horrors of war

The Israel-Hamas conflict has taken up nearly the entire school year, which finishes at the end of next month, but some educators see an opportunity to ‘reset’ the education system

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

Students arrive at a school in central Jerusalem, on April 15, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While preparing her students for an exhibit of their work at their religious high school for girls earlier this year, art teacher Leah Gottlieb immediately ran into an issue: The theme was the Israel-Hamas war and the events of October 7, and several of the students had created works with graphic, visceral scenes or emotionally intense imagery.

“A lot of students took it more conceptually and others took it more literally. In the end, some of the pieces were violent. It brought up a lot. It’s not a neutral topic like a landscape,” Gottlieb told The Times of Israel.

After consultations with the director of the art department, the principal and school therapists, it was decided to go ahead with the exhibit but place the more challenging pieces in a specially designated area. This allowed all the students to “have their voice” while simultaneously noting the difficult nature of some of the works. It was the right solution, Gottlieb said.

Similar dilemmas have become commonplace in Israeli schools this year, as teachers and administrators have had to come to grips with running an educational system in wartime. Issues around the October 7 massacre and ongoing conflict in Gaza have made their way into nearly every aspect of the school experience across all grade levels. The system has been dealing with traumatized pupils, many teachers and parents have been called away for reserve IDF duty, and whole communities have been displaced from their homes in southern and northern Israel.

Everyone has been affected by this “very complicated” period of “collective trauma,” said Einav Luke, head of Psychology and Counseling Services at the Education Ministry. “In emergency situations, adults need to help the children take actions that redirect emotions, giving them a feeling that they are helping the situation.”

What this has meant in practice is allowing individual schools and teachers leeway in addressing these complexities in the classroom, with the goal of students feeling they are doing something about the situation but not getting overwhelmed, she said. This can mean addressing the war in history and literature classes or organizing students around volunteer efforts, but allowing more neutral subjects, such as mathematics, to remain unaffected by discussions of the war.

An art piece showing IDF soldiers alongside superheroes, from a display at Ulpanit Elisheva girls high-school in Pardes Hannah-Karkur. (courtesy)

“We think we need to give a range of activities and see what is important and possible for each child. An assignment to write about the situation can be negative for one child but can empower another. Therefore, the teachers, working with the counselors, need to see what is best. A lot of sensitivity and caution is needed,” Luke said.

Mixed results

That sensitivity seemed to be lacking in the case of Shachar Larry’s 13-year-old daughter, who attends a secular school in Kfar Saba. At one point, after he noticed that she was acting depressed, Larry related, his daughter showed him a writing assignment she had done about October 7.

The idea was to write an article about October 7, but from the perspective of a historian 50 years in the future, he said.

“Basically the teacher gave 8th graders, with internet access, the task of creating a timeline for October 7. She wrote about the rapes, the murders, the babies… it’s beyond crazy. I was horrified,” said Larry.

There is a price in the “overall exposure” to traumatic events and content, said Larry, adding that in his opinion, the school assignment pushed his daughter over the edge into depression.

“It’s just horrible and heart-wrenching. And unfortunately, when I learned about it, it was already done. I don’t think the teacher meant any harm, but they needed to be more responsible,” he said.

Larry said he approached the Education Ministry’s psychological services about the incident, and it was agreed the assignment was “a mistake in judgment,” but the matter wasn’t pursued further.

Student access to traumatic content has been a concern of parents and educators since the beginning of the conflict, but for art teacher Gottlieb, the war “wasn’t being discussed so much at school.” Holding an art show was a chance for students to both wrestle with “the seismic shift going on in the country” and process what they might have been exposed to in the media.

Gottlieb teaches at Ulpanit Elisheva, a religious girls’ school in the northern town of Pardes Hannah-Karkur, which is far from both Gaza and the Lebanese border.

“It’s a quiet part of the country and the school hasn’t been so affected. No [rocket] sirens… We went back to school almost immediately after October 7. Of course, there are kids whose fathers are on reserve duty, or in Gaza, but most of their exposure is from the internet,” Gottlieb said.

She said that the essence of the project was “making a space for the kids to fill with their voices. A lot of parents said it was beautiful that they had a place to do this, and some of them cried when they saw the works.”

A school on a war footing

Other schools are much more directly affected, even if they are also far from the front lines. At Ohel Shiloh, a boys’ elementary school in the largely religious West Bank settlement of Shiloh, principal Rafael Maaman said nearly every facet of the school has been affected by the war.

“Needless to say, it’s a big influence on us. More than 50 percent of the parents have been in reserve duty, and a lot of the teachers. The teachers return from Gaza and then go back again, and the students ask them about it,” Maaman said.

Illustrative photo of the West Bank settlement of Shiloh, on November 17, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Because the school is in Shiloh, a guarded community with sometimes hostile Palestinian neighbors, and because its Religious Zionist population is heavily represented in important IDF roles, “we feel the war in the moment,” he said.

Most of the boys, despite being far too young, feel ready to go fight in Gaza “tomorrow,” he added, and they see some of their teachers come to school armed due to security concerns in Shiloh.

Every day in Hebrew classes, the students write letters to wounded soldiers, Maaman continued, and the student-produced newsletter is filled with “patriotic content” addressing topics about the war and national resilience. The students have also been part of various volunteer projects, including organizing care packages for soldiers.

In history and geography classes, especially for the older students, teachers have made it a point to teach about the “recent past of Gaza, about Gush Katif, what happened then and how we got to here, now,” Maaman said, referring to the 2005 forcible removal of more than 8,000 Jewish settlers in Gaza and subsequent withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Strip.

This event, deeply traumatic for the Religious Zionist community, is seen by many as a national mistake that paved the way for Hamas to take over Gaza a few years later.

Schools during wartime

The Israel-Hamas war — sparked on October 7 when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists butchered 1,200 people in southern Israel and kidnapped 252 into the Gaza Strip — has taken up essentially the entire school year, which began on September 1.

Immediately after October 7, given the profusion of rocket fire from Gaza and Lebanon combined with the massive call-up of IDF reservists, most schools across Israel were initially closed, with some implementing distance learning. As the war progressed and the IDF was able to neutralize more rocket launchers in Gaza, schools in different locales were able to open again, subject to changing directives from the Home Front Command.

A class held in a temporary school in Eilat, in an undated photo (courtesy Education Ministry)

By late November, most schools were able to fully reopen, except in the areas surrounding Gaza and along the Lebanon border which had been evacuated. These evacuees, estimated at one point to number more than 250,000, were dispersed to hotels and communities around the country, especially in Eilat and the Dead Sea region. In response, the Education Ministry, sometimes working with various organizations, set up a series of temporary educational centers and “pop-up schools” for the more than 50,000 displaced children.

Eventually, most southern residents were permitted to go back home, although not all did, and schools in Sderot were able to formally reopen on March 1, with officials then estimating that around 70 percent of students had returned. Communities evacuated from the north haven’t been allowed to return, and recent reports indicate that the government does not expect this to be possible in the near future.

At the same time, due to the unprecedented call-up of reservists, which included a significant number of teachers and administrators, many schools had to rearrange schedules, subjects and curriculum, even as the ministry expanded psychological and counseling services.

The two-day combo of Memorial Day and Independence Day, solemnly celebrated recently by Israelis, signals the “beginning of the end” of the school year, which finishes at the end of June. During organized Memorial Day events, a special emphasis was placed on honoring those who fell on October 7 or during the subsequent conflict, the ministry said in a statement. Many schools noted their teachers, parents, or graduates who have been killed, or families of students who have been affected.

High school students, along with bereaved families and IDF soldiers, attend a memorial ceremony remembering fallen soldiers, overlooking ancient Gamla and the sea of Galilee in the Golan Heights, on May 13, 2024. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

A new reality

Integrating current events into the curriculum was one of the main topics discussed in several meetings with teachers his department held at the outset of the war, said Dr. Adar Cohen, director of the teachers’ education department at the Seymour Fox School of Education at the Hebrew University.

Dr. Adar Cohen (courtesy/Gilad Bar-Shalev)

“We said that teachers who teach subjects should combine their subject with what is going on. If you are talking about returning the hostages, you can talk about it generally, but you can also take historical or Jewish texts. If you are talking about the heroes of today, you can find something in literature, in the Hebrew Bible, or in history, that also deals with this subject and relates to the present,” Cohen said.

There are three traditional roles for schools, Cohen explained: teaching (knowledge, curriculum), education (behavior, morals, personal development), and treatment (helping students with difficulties and problems).

During this wartime school year, “the balance between these three roles has changed a lot,” Cohen said. At first, in the immediate aftermath of October 7, the focus on “social-emotional learning and treatment was very central,” but then with “the desire to return to a routine, which is very important mentally,” schools shifted to an attempt at teaching normally as best they could, while integrating the new reality into curriculum and projects.

Cohen, who trains teachers, said these current upheavals can “hopefully” be viewed as an opportunity. For the next academic year, “we can’t return to teach just like we did… A lot of questions are coming up about what is really important in education. For example, in the pop-up schools, they came and built schools from one day to the next, and clearly, they can’t do a lot of subjects, which raised the question of what is really important.”

“If I look forward, 10 years ahead, it’s clear that Israeli society needs to have a process of healing, fixing, and dealing with what has happened,” he said, similar to what occurred in the years after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

The educational community will have a central role in dealing with these “deep questions,” Cohen said.

“We have talked for many years about how the Education Ministry needs a reset. The moment the war is over, that’s the time,” said Cohen.

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