Ruti Cohen, a home-room teacher in Ulpanat Tzvia Sdot Negev and a mother of six-year-old quadruplets, usually arrives on the first day of school smartly dressed, her arms laden with treats to help her 12th-grade pupils start the year on a positive note.
This year she left her Jerusalem hotel room at 6:30 a.m. for the two-hour drive to the high school, located near Netivot. Entering her classroom empty-handed, wearing a simple skirt and orange T-shirt, she sat her students down and explained that things would be a little different this year.
Says Cohen, "It was very important for me to be there to welcome my class on their first day, even though I couldn't do so in the way I would like. I explained to them that I was living temporarily in Jerusalem and it would be very difficult for me to travel every day to the school, so I would not be able to begin teaching them yet, but I would be happy to receive their phone calls whenever they want to discuss something with me. Twelfth grade is a very sensitive time in a young person's life and I have always made it clear that I am there for my pupils."
Seated in the lobby of the Jerusalem Gate Hotel on Monday morning, Cohen was occupied collecting letters from her fellow evacuated teachers of Gush Katif asking the Education Ministry to reconsider a decision that they return to work by the end of the month or forfeit their month's salary and benefits.
"If there would only be an appropriate caravan for me to move to tomorrow together with Neveh Dekalim, I would be happy to start teaching immediately," says Cohen, who wants it made perfectly clear that she has never sought favors and is not trying to shirk her duty, but simply has no ability to change her situation, "The state took away my home and placed me in this hotel hours away from my school. The state provided me with no solutions. The state is now accusing me of not teaching my pupils, but the state has not made it possible for me to do so!
"I am torn between my pupils and my four young sons in first grade, but every parent will understand that I have to give priority to my own children, who have no one else," she says.
Cohen, who had no home supplies to send her son back with to his Yeshiva high school dormitory and whose husband, Eitan, is an army sapper from a Gush Katif unit that has just been disbanded, says, "To give an idea of the government's lack of planning for us when we packed our car to leave Neveh Dekalim, we had no idea where we would be sent. We had tents and sleeping bags in the trunk. Just two hours before we were expelled, we heard we had a hotel room and switched the tent gear for bags of clothes. We walked into this hotel with nothing but our children in our arms and those bags in the trunk. We were told to pack for a week but we've been here for a month now, with no end in sight.
"A hotel is nice for a vacation but it is not a place for a family to live. I cannot leave my children unattended here while I go off to work two hours away in another city. The other day I was in a meeting, and though I informed my sons beforehand, one of them couldn't find me. When I came out he ran crying and said, 'Don't you know that you are all we have left from Neveh Dekalim? We need you here!'"
MORDECHAI SAMET, Jerusalem Chair of the Israel Teacher's Union, agrees with Cohen. On Sunday night, he "met with thirty school principals, teachers and kindergarten teachers who are struggling to cope with their own personal crises, and it is impossible to return them to school system right now." Samet sees the attempt to force the teachers to return to work prematurely as detrimental to the pupils.
"The teaching profession demands a lot of emotional strength and enthusiasm," he says. "We expect our teachers to enter their classrooms with smiles on their faces; to be calm and understanding; and to give the pupils a feeling of security. How can we send a teacher who has no home and doesn't know where she will be in two weeks, who lacks even a quiet corner to prepare for class and has none of her most basic teaching materials whose children are still traumatized from the evacuation back into the classroom?
"These teachers should be given a paid leave of absence until they have moved into their temporary homes. Until that time, they should not be asked to return to work for the benefit of the pupils, the teachers and their families."
Cohen gives credit to her school for its support through this difficult period.
"My colleagues have been absolutely wonderful," she says enthusiastically. "We have a significant number of teachers from Gush Katif and before the expulsion, the rest of the staff agreed that they would substitute for us if the worst happened and we were temporarily unable to teach so that we could keep our jobs. But no one dreamed that it would take months. My principal, Rabbi Ronnie Kleinwald, is teaching my class himself, but he has many other responsibilities. He should not have to carry this extra burden. The government made this mess and it should provide solutions for my students and me."
Zion Shabbat, director of human resources in teaching at the Education Ministry, met with the evacuees at the Jerusalem Gate Hotel on Wednesday. He assured them they would all receive their salaries for September, but could not offer any solution for the following month.
According to Cohen, Shabbat was understanding but left many questions unanswered.
"He said that the ministry had assumed we would have moved to our temporary caravans by October, so they hadn't planned for a lengthier break," she recounts. "But they are a government ministry. Shouldn't they speak with the Disengagement Authority to find out when we will really be able to return to work?"
Ifat Lippner, Education Ministry Southern Region spokesperson, confirmed Cohen's understanding of the situation, adding, "The ministry views the teachers' absence not as a vacation but due to circumstances beyond their control. We have not received any official requests yet, but will be happy to review any we receive."
Cohen plans to move to Nitzan, a 35-minute drive from Netivot. But the caravans will not be ready for at least six weeks if not a few months. And until she sees her sons secure in home and school, she says, she will not leave them. "Particularly after the trauma they have gone through, they are very sensitive."
To illustrate her point, she tells the story of her sons returning to the hotel from school last Friday very excited. One of them said, "Mom, you don't have to worry any more. The teacher said that on Monday we will receive our dream home."
"Only when I saw their permission slip did I realize that they had misunderstood their teacher, who had announced a class trip to Beit Halomotai ["House of My Dreams" a children's amusement park in Givat Brenner]," she says. "I had to break it to them that we weren't moving out yet. They were extremely disappointed, though I assured them that it would be a special treat anyway. Then, on Sunday, the trip was cancelled! Today, the only thing I can teach my children is that a home is not a physical thing, but rather wherever our loving family is here for one another."