In the 1990s thousands of new immigrants, many without a Jewish education, arrived in Israel from the former Soviet Union. Concerned that their children would not fit in, a group of these immigrants living in Ashkelon appealed to their municipality's education director, Moshe Yanai, for help.
Yanai contacted Derek Perlman, the current director of Yahalom, and the seeds of a new organization were planted. An acronym for "children and parents learn," Yahalom provides opportunities for parents and children to study Jewish and Israeli-based value oriented topics. In 1992, Yahalom launched its first pilot program in Ashkelon schools.
Every six weeks, parents and children would meet for a focused study session on a topic students were learning about in school. For example, if the child were studying about Abraham for a month, Yahalom would teach about Abraham's trek to Canaan from his home in Aram Naharayim. Of the 800 participants in the pilot program, 80 were native Israelis. "We realized that not only the 720 Russians, but also the Israelis got a lot out of the program," says Perlman.
With work, TV, school and the computer, parents and children often operate on different tracks. "According to a study by the Emek Yizre'el College [conducted by professor of behavioral sciences, Amos Rolider], Israeli parents directly interact with their children 14 minutes a day," Perlman explains. "We take the classical commandment of 'Thou shall tell thy son,' and apply it to the modern world. We strengthen family links through strengthening Jewish identities."
"The goal of Yahalom is to create the scene for proper and variable parent-child experiences," says Shoshi Peretz, Yahalom's director of public relations and fundraising.
"Schools have more potential than any other body in Israel to have a Jewish life," adds Perlman.
Yahalom's largest program, with 26,000 annual participants, features a roundtable parents-children study session about Jewish and Israeli identity, covering such topics as respecting parents, children's rights and Jewish names. The sessions take place every two weeks for two hours at the schools.
"We identify the needs of the school, and we create a unique program which depends on the population and the type of teachers in the school," says Aya Shachar, a Yahalom instructor at the Rokach School in Tel Aviv and the Zevulun Hammer School in Lod.
During Hanukka, for example, the Yahalom curriculum at the Hammer school pivots around the theme of light, combining Jewish thought with practical lessons on road safety. Students study Rabbi Kook's concept that "every person has their own light," and that they need to kindle it and light the world with it. In parallel, they learn about traffic lights, and the need for car lights in the dark. In addition, the parents and children remember to light Hanukka candles.
"At the end of the year, we have what we call 'A Whole School Activity' where all of the students, teachers and parents concentrate on one topic," says Shachar.
"In general, the Rokach School has a focus on the environment," she continues. "So, in the 'A Whole School Activity,' we learned from the Midrash Rabba [a commentary on the Bible] that God said, 'All that I created, I created for you, and pay attention that you don't destroy my world.'"
Then, Shachar explains, there are stations with games, music and activities designed for each grade. When the bell rings, parents and children move to the next station, and together learn or create projects - such as paper recycling containers. To conclude, there is the performance by the children for the parents, about the environment.
Yahalom's summer camp has seen similar success. "You see your child differently, more like an independent human being. It is fulfilling and fun - watching them communicating, and joking around with other kids, no matter how old they are," says Tami Hasson-Avin , who took part this year in Yahalom's four-day sleep-away summer camp for families, based in Jerusalem.
"It's something different," she says. "It's learning together, but not for any test. It's not business, you can't measure how much your relationship with your children has improved. I have two boys here, 12 and 14. They didn't ask for TV or the computer [while at the camp]."
"You don't manage to get bored," says educator Gillah Dinner. "Neither the kids, nor the parents. The kids learn without resistance.
"They [Yahalom] spent a lot of time constructing this whole project," she adds. "They made the connection to the nation, and Jerusalem...and they didn't give lectures - everything is very experiential."
On their first day, participants got a feel for Jerusalem and its history, walking through the Old City to the Western Wall, and later to the Knesset. "At the Knesset, we went to see the menora. Every family got two cards with pictures of two people, which we needed to find on the menora. Ours was David and Goliath. And we needed to find the connection between them," she continues. "There are trips, but it is not a vacation - it is like an educational vacation."
Dinner's husband Meir was reluctant to attend the camp, but was pleasantly surprised by what it offered. "This trip is not like our usual family trips with our jeep. We would have seen the menora, and the Kotel and the Knesset, but at the menora we wouldn't have paid attention to all of the carvings," he says. "We got explanations, but we didn't just listen. We needed to present our findings to the other families in our group."
He adds, "On Mount Herzl, all of the parents got resources and did a show about Herzl for the kids. The children were very interested. Also, a kid who sees his father acting as Herzl among other actors makes the kid very proud of his father, who is being so active."
Parents weren't alone in their satisfaction. "I enjoyed most the High Court and the Knesset. Things that we would see on TV, we saw with our own eyes. Like the judges," says seventh-grader Eli Orliov. "We practiced group cooperation. I think I got better with this whole cooperating deal."
"It's fun that they [my parents] are here - I talk to them more," says sixth grader Tal Dinner.
"We know that the camp has a different program for second-year participants, and we know that we will come," say Gillah and Meir Dinner in unison.
Hasson-Avin says that the Dinner's desire to return to the camp for a second summer is typical of participants. "I don't know anyone who was in the program last year who didn't want to come to the second year."
As the expenses of the camp, programs, and hiring staff are high, Yahalom is thankful for the sponsorship of the Avi Chai Foundation. According to Perlman, Yahalom is Avi Chai's flagship program.
In addition to the year-round program at schools, and the summer camp - which had 400 participants this year, and 1,200 as an emergency camp for families from the North during last summer's war - Yahalom also trains teachers to run the programs independently. So far, Yahalom has trained 1,500 teachers at 70 schools.
In addition to working with schools, Yahalom has a bimonthly program called "A Family Community Learning" which operates in various communities.
Over the years, Yahalom has reached 180,000 people with its programs. Still, Perlman wishes to expand Yahalom's influence. "My vision for Yahalom," he says, "is within two to three years to get 100,000 participants per year."
Peretz, befitting her role as director of public relations, is even more ambitious. "We [Yahalom] should go out to the Diaspora and help fight assimilation."