The 60 or so first-grade boys in identical vests printed with lions and the Ten Commandments scramble onto the stage in the auditorium of the Horev Elementary School in Jerusalem. Among them is my grandson, smiling, his face flushed with excitement.
A highlight of first grade in nearly every Israeli religious school is the mesibat Humash, the celebration of receiving a Hebrew Bible, not just for the bookshelf but personal copies for the pupils to read, study and guide their lives.
Both as a parent and a grandparent, I have found this a thrilling ritual. In amazement, I favorably compare reading and discussing Abraham and Sarah in the original and ancient text with my own first grade in Connecticut, where we read about Dick, Jane, Sally and Spot, sometimes called “the dullest family on earth.”
Sitting with my daughter, a graduate of Horev Elementary School and today both an accomplished professional and an observant Jew, there’s an extra element of satisfaction with the path my husband and I, then still newcomers and unfamiliar with the nuances of the Israeli school system, chose for our children.
Among the grandparents in the audience are familiar faces, people of our vintage from America or England who moved here when we did. That was the same wave of aliyah that brought Miriam and Yona Baumel, who arrived from Brooklyn with their three children. The youngest, named Zachary, was 10. Was there one of us in the audience looking at those beautiful first-grade boys at the beginning of their life journeys who wasn’t thinking of Zachary Baumel, whose journey had ended with burial in Jerusalem less than a day earlier?
Growing up Israeli has so many elements that make us proud, but there is also the danger, which never completely goes away.
The Horev School was founded in 1934 by immigrants who came from Germany. Six of the seven founding members had PhDs, and in 1938, six of the nine-member executive had PhDs. They had high academic aspirations for the next generation, based on the philosophy of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-88) and his interpretation of “Torah im derech eretz.” He believed that post-emancipation concepts like brotherhood and secular studies should be fused with serious and devoted Torah education, not separate parallel tracts. In Israel, they would add their love of the land.
The first-grade teachers still go by their first names, teacher Esti and teacher Tovi. How do these women get these antsy six-year olds to sit still and learn their alef-bet? Add to that the unenviable job of preparing these boys for their public performance – half a year ago they were mere kindergartners.
Their show expresses the school values. The first skit includes a portable Mount Sinai, otherwise called Horev. In another, the boys are selling vegetables in an outdoor market, making sure that scales and measures are honest. Others are dressed for business, carrying cellphones and arguing for ethical practice. The last group of first-graders have stuck on beards and carry canes. One pushes a walker, which reminds me of a scene in the Broadway production The Producers. The message? What good is Torah education if you haven’t internalized respect for the elderly?
The speaker representing the parents is lawyer Momo Medved, also a Horev graduate. His twin sons are in Esti’s and Tovi’s first-grade classes. He, too, stresses that what you learn in class isn’t theoretical. You have to make it part of your everyday life.
Respect goes beyond the classroom and caring about people like ourselves. Respect must be extended to the whole neighborhood and beyond, says principal Rabbi Michael Reichel.
I THINK of the first time I met Miriam and the late Yona Baumel. I was interviewing families of our Israeli MIAs, going from home to home. I met parents and siblings, living with double-edged hope and the fear that their loved ones were alive and helpless, suffering, enslaved and tortured. It was the saddest article I’ve ever written. Yona took me aside to say that he was nearly certain Zach was alive. He spent the rest of his life trying to find his boy and advocating for him.
In truth, we never forgot Zachary Baumel. On the day of Zach’s burial, 37 years after the ill-fated Battle of Sultan Yacoub in Lebanon, Jerusalem traffic was blocked by Israelis headed home to watch the funeral broadcast on national television. While the funeral went on, the roads in my Jerusalem neighborhood were deserted, as a nation paid homage to its son.
Like Zachary Baumel, our two sons served in combat units in Lebanon. They’re in their 40s and both still doing reserve duty. My husband was in Lebanon at the time of the battle that took Zach. Yes, we bring up our children in Israel, inculcating values of national service, trying not to think of the potential danger. How else can we go on?
I push away those thoughts to enjoy the ceremony. The children, including my grandson, of course, have acquitted themselves admirably. Each beaming first-grader is called up to get his personal Five Books of Moses and a handshake. They hold their books high, and sweetly sing: “Torat Hashem temima” (God’s instruction is pure). They, too, are innocent and pure.
And then, Reichel asks everyone to stand, and says what is on everyone’s minds.
“In addition to the general meaning of ‘Torah will come forth from Zion, and God’s word from Jerusalem,’ the return of Zachary Baumel makes ‘Hatikva’ so much more meaningful.”
So together, the first-graders, parents, teachers and grandparents sing “Hatikva” because it is our beloved anthem and to honor the return of Zachary Baumel, an Israeli home at last.The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is
A Daughter of Many Mothers.
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