A minor flap flared this week over the activities of a religious educational NGO in the state secular school system. The controversy provides us with a fascinating and troubling insight into religious-secular relations in this country.

The Am Yisrael Echad (One People of Israel, www.amisrael1.org) NGO was accused by Haaretz’s education correspondent and then by Jerusalem Post op-ed contributor Susan Hattis Rolef (“The activities of Am Yisrael Echad in secular schools,” March 31) of proffering sex education with a traditional bent in secular high schools. Basing itself on the complaint of a parent, a Haaretz editorial even demanded that the students be “protected” from the NGO’s “religious indoctrination.”

Without knowing a thing about Am Yisrael Echad (AYE) or the actual content of its educational programming, the critics accused the NGO of proselytizing and pushing a worldview that is misogynist and “excludes women from the public sphere.”

None of the over-heated critics bothered to check with the secular school principal involved, or with the school’s extra-curricular activities educational director, to ask why the NGO was hired to offer programming in their classrooms or what they thought of Am Yisrael Echad’s messaging and effectiveness.

Nor did the critics bother to ask themselves why 70 secular principals have, out of free choice, invited this specific NGO into their schools to provide more than 5,000 hours of teaching time. This includes topnotch schools in Ashdod, Kibbutz Kfar Rupin, Kfar Saba, Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, Ness Ziona, Omer, Ra’anana, Rehovot, Rishon Lezion, Rosh Ha’ayin, Tel Aviv, Yavne and more.

Since I have proudly served on the board of Am Yisrael Echad for a dozen years, I’ll tell you why AYE is such a popular choice.

Many secular school educators feel that, despite the religious-secular divide (or because of it!), their students ought to be getting a smidgen of exposure to basic Jewish values and rituals. They know that many of the ills in Israeli society are sourced in a breakdown of values, and are not afraid to admit that Jewish civilization and traditions are part of the answer in repairing our society.

They furthermore know, through 17 years of experience, that Am Yisrael Echad can provide their junior and high school students with informal educational programming in Jewish heritage and Zionist values that is exciting, fun, religiously profound, intellectually rigorous, nonjudgmental and embracing of all Jews.

The success of AYE’s programming is evidenced by the growing demand for its services – demand that percolates naturally by word-of-mouth and comes from involved, discerning and caring secular school principals.

Hattis-Rolef is very, very wrong (and insulting to the principals) when she asserts that “apparently there are headmasters in some secular schools who do not understand the difference” between exposing pupils to tradition and proselytizing, and who “allow NGOs like Am Yisrael Echad to run workshops in their schools with no or little supervision over what they are actually doing.”

That is simply not true at all. It is not a lack of oversight or impairment in their abilities to make value judgments which leads secular principals to allow AYE to reach over 30,000 students every year.

Rather the discerning mind is impressed by AYE educational units on a range of topics such as good citizenship, giving and altruism, personal accountability and the power of forgiveness, leadership, tolerance, acceptance of strangers, teen-adult tensions, personal fulfillment vs communal commitment, social involvement, ethical behavior on social networks, addiction and violence, man and nature, heroism and freedom, decision-making, heroic Jewish figures of the past, the significance of Jewish history and national memory, Jewish holidays, and prayer and individualism.

In each unit, AYE educators show how Jewish sources, texts, philosophies and traditions offer relevant and fascinating perspectives on the societal or moral question under discussion.

AYE runs very popular “Synagogue Days,” in which secular students and their teachers venture (often for the first time in their lives) into a synagogue, to learn about important Jewish traditions and basic concepts of peoplehood.

Thousands also participate in AYE’s early fall “Selichot Tours” of Jerusalem’s Old City and the Western Wall.

And yes, the NGO has an educational unit on “Him and Her” in Jewish tradition. But unlike the raw and explicit “how to” sex education offered in Israeli schools to 15-year-olds, AYE prefers to teach about relationships. AYE’s “Him and Her” seminar focuses on aloneness and companionship, support vs dependency, sensitive vs assertive communications, verbal and physical violence, honesty and respect in love relationships, and the value of commitment.

In doing so, AYE offers students a refreshingly unique perspective on boy-girl relations in the modern world. In fact, AYE was asked to develop this unit by several secular junior and high school principals.

They felt the need to provide students with guidance on male-female teenage relationships, and believed that AYE’s approach of grounding an exploration of this topic in Jewish sources and wisdom would be useful.

The overwrought parent who went screaming to Haaretz about AYE’s “Him and Her” unit complained that, when asked by a student, the facilitator admitted that he indeed was “shomer negiya” – meaning that he abided by the religious prohibition against unmarried boys and girls touching each other. “What does observing negiya have to do with secular children, who are anyway drenched in pornography?” the parent exploded.

To this upset parent I have several responses. First, if that’s the toughest indictment of the AYE program you can come up with – lo nora (that’s not so terrible).

Obviously, the young secular pupil who asked about negiya was interested enough by the discussion of healthy relationships and curious enough about the un-modern religious practice of avoiding negiya to ask for an explanation.

The informal education class was a good place for this to be aired, even though the AYE unit does not at all reference or promote halachic rules of family purity.

Second, how can we ever talk to youth about cultural-religious perspectives different from their own, if not in such an open and adamantly non-proselytizing setting? Nobody was recruiting for religion and nobody was creating an ecstatic environment designed to get kids to drink Orthodox Kool-Aid.

Third, I suggest that this parent take a good look at this week’s newspaper stories about gang rape among students and teen prostitution rings. Perhaps he/she should ask any Israeli family doctor just how many 15-year-old patients are seen a week for contraception and abortion issues. Then, consider again AYE’s classroom discussion on the value of healthy and stable love relationships and the destructive impact of pornography on real relationship- building – a discussion that might also spark curiosity about less teenage touching. Is this really such a bad thing? The mini-storm stirred-up by the uninformed and misplaced attack on Am Yisrael Echad has only increased school interest in the intellectually high-level, broad-minded informal education programs offered by the nonprofit association. Its award-winning work to synthesize tradition with modernity and encourage development of an Israeli society that is more in tune with its roots, and is thus more united – must not be derailed by the fearful and the narrow-minded.

www.davidmweinberg.com

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