This week on Café Oleh, we sit down with two of our favorite bloggers and aliya-moms, Jen Maidenberg and KJ Hannah Greenberg, to ask them about their children''s experiences transitioning into the Israeli classroom. If you''re considering aliya or actively planning your family''s move to Israel, read on to plan your children''s most seamless integration into their new school communities.
How old were your children when you first enrolled them in their new Israeli schools following aliya?
BH, they were, respectively, 14, 12, 10, and nearly 8
Our oldest son transitioned into Kitah Bet, mid-year following our aliya in January.
What kind of steps did you take to prepare your children for integrating them into the Israeli classroom?
We paid a large sum to an “educational consulting organization,” whose name I’ve since forgotten, to have one of their representatives attend school interviews with me (my Hebrew, at the time, was nonexistent), to supply tutors for all of our children, to help my family with our first round of textbook purchases, and more.
Although I shudder when I think about the amount of money we gave for paid services, I do not consider that my family members were fryers; neither my husband nor I had adequate Hebrew. Neither of us had ever lived in Israel (in fact, my partner had never visited here before our pilot trip and I had only been here once before that time). We had no idea where to begin, or how to follow-up, the process of placing our children in appropriate schools.
We visited the school in advance of our aliya, toured the facility, and met with the principal. Our son started going to school only a few hours each day for the first week. We drove him there and picked him up.
How were your children accepted into their new schools, classrooms and communities?
My daughters fared better than did my sons. In part, the girls acquired more Hebrew (all of my children learned Hebrew, in their schools, in the States) more quickly than did their brothers. As well, they developed friendships sooner than did their brothers. BH, one completed a wonderful sherut leumi year at a very special spiritual institution and is now double majoring in English and in Tenach at a religious girls’ college. The other, BH, is still in a religious girls’ high school and has had her uniqueness validated through an external megama, an off campus major, in prelaw. Most importantly, my daughters successfully networked and are, today, b''ayin tova, surrounded by friends.
In contrast, one of my sons jumped among schools, finally landing in an English-speaking yeshiva. Today, he is in a Hebrew-speaking, Israeli-student focused hesder program. His path just took time. My other son had a poorer result, being significantly scarred by administrators and teachers who wouldn’t or couldn’t provide enough resources for him as a struggling oleh. Today, he is in an alternative school. His path is yet undetermined.
We feel so very fortunate that our son''s transition into school was fairly smooth. We attribute this to a mixture of luck and effort: Our son happens to be the kind of kid that handles transitions well and makes friends easily.
We were most concerned about language acquisition since he had no Hebrew at all before our aliya. But the regional school he attends is made up of kids from small communities in the North, and the staff that we''ve interacted we''re all warm and welcoming.
What accounted for major adjustment difficulties? How long did it take for them to feel relatively comfortable and welcomed into their new classrooms?
I think girls both mature and acculturate differently than do boys. The worst peer-related harm than came to my daughters was being, in one case, objectified, that is, initially made into a classroom pet, and, in the other, being coerced by peers to identify either as a chutznik or as an Israeli. The former was, over time, accepted by her peers and was even appreciated for her willingness to share her academic strengths. The latter, bravely, refused to give up either portion of her identity and wound up teaching her friends how to build bridges. Both succeed with Hashem’s help.
The boys, as dictated by local social norms, had harsher experiences than did the girls. Physicality was very much part of their initial school adjustments. Although both had trained in martial arts, my husband and I had prohibited, for a long time, their responding to physical provocations by physical means. Per my older son, after almost two years of unrelenting harassment, we talked with his Rosh yeshiva and with our rav, and, finally, granted him permission to “hit back.” Instantly, the physical taunting stopped. Per my younger son, who was in the early years of elementary school, since the physical provocation came largely and literally at the hands of his teachers, we were stymied as to how to respond.
The biggest issue was learning Hebrew. It took a little while for our son to start getting the private Hebrew lessons as olim are entitled, because he matriculated in the middle of the year and the lessons weren''t budgeted for ahead of time. But he had a really committed teacher who took time from her schedule to work closely with him. His biggest upset came from feeling like he wasn''t one of the top students, the way he was in his American class. This was frustrating for him, but he has made significant progress in only 18 months.
As a parent, my biggest frustration comes from the fact that it doesn''t seem as if children understand the boundaries between student and teacher. I don''t see that there is much of a programmatic structure to support the idea of respecting adults, and of mutual respect, in general.
On a more positive note, can you share some of your more pleasant surprises about the Israeli school system? (I don''t mean to spoon feed you your answers, but nice stories about school culture and community, the differences between Israeli children and American children, a Jewish presence in the schools, teacher-student relationships would be ideal here).
In a phrase, “sabra fruit.” More than sharing their lunches, their class notes, or their hugs, Israeli kids will—without stopping to reflect—share their hearts and homes with their friends. When my older son says he’s heading, with a school friend, for some yeshuv in the hills, to feast on BBQ, in honor of a state holiday, I trust that his friend’s parents will use their guns and dogs, if necessary, to protect him alongside their own offspring. When my younger son attends an after school play date, similarly, I know that his pals’games, snacks, older siblings, and more, will be made fully accessible to him. My girls come home with stories about friends whom they “have to help,” whether “help” means extra visits to those gals’ homes to provide hizak, organizing peer encouragement or tutoring for those gals, or bringing those girls to our home for tomato rice soup or a sleepover. In Israel, an “ahi,”is a brother, is more than an acquaintance, is part of our extended family. Friends are family.
The thing I love most about our experience in the Israel school system is the idea of "chevre." I like that Israeli schools work to nurture binds between children from a young age.
Any words of advice for families who are planning on aliya? (Words of wisdom you''d like to share, what you wish you''d known, what you wish you''d done differently?)
Relative to many Anglo communities, there is more violence, more poverty, and more death, from war, among young people, here. However, there is also less superficiality, less prejudice, and less social manipulation, here. There is also more Torah study, here.
Your kids will likely struggle to find their niche. Yet, once they’ve made their place, they will be tighter with their peers than could be possible in any other venue.
My advice is to learn as much about the school as possible before deciding where you will live. The happier your children will be the happier you will be. It''s often difficult to spend time researching your educational options in advance when the aliya process itself is so overwhelming. Our plan, which worked well for us, was to make sure the school our children would go to had a loving, warm environment that would make their transition as smooth as possible. We also made sure there would be olim services. This is key. Make sure your kid''s school has a plan for your child.
Also, good to remember that schools can be changed once the kids are settled. Israel actually has a lot more alternative education options than I ever thought before making Aliya -- I don''t think I had the energy to research these options in advance, while navigating the sea of information new olim already have to deal with, like housing, work, bureaucratic details and ulpan.