The Human Spirit: In defense of Israeli children

Challenging Leah Bieler’s op-ed condemning Israeli children and their upbringing .

By
August 29, 2013 11:27
Kids ride scooters on Yom Kippur

Kids ride scooters on Yom Kippur 390. (photo credit: Darren Whiteside/Reuters)

 
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Leah Bieler’s condemnation of Israeli children and their upbringing in these pages cannot go unchallenged.

For those who missed the invective rationalizing “Why I (still) haven’t made aliya” (August 15), Bieler, who lives in Fairfield County, Connecticut, says it’s not the comforts of home like Trader Joe’s and Ziploc bags, nor the complications of earning a living, but the ill-bred Israeli youngsters who make it impossible for her to move here. She can’t protect her children, whom she calls “her most precious possessions,” from Israeli kids. In her judgment, these aggressive and unrestrained Israelis will “grow up with few tools to respond to conflicts other than intimidation or a fist. There is no question that children who grow up with the kind of stressful learning environment learn less in school than their safer peers.”

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Fairfield County does, of course, include Newtown, Connecticut, where the horrendous Sandy Hook school massacre took place last December.

I grew up in Connecticut, too. I made aliya the week after graduating from college, and have had the privilege, together with my husband Gerald Schroeder, of bringing up our five children here. Thankfully, they are all parents themselves, so I can look back with some perspective.

As part of my husband’s work, we twice spent a year in the Boston area.

The children were very young the first time; our oldest was three. In the office of the upscale Jewish nursery school where we had signed him up long distance, I met the father of D, who was in the same class. We had come for different reasons. Our family was staying in a hotel room. It was cold and raining.

I wondered if anyone connected with the school who lived nearby might offer Shabbat hospitality for one of the meals. We were willing, also, to pay. The principal shook her head. Try the synagogue.



We already had.

D’s father had been called into the principal because of his child’s so-called violent behavior. He’d swung the hammer in the carpentry corner, and his parents had been warned that he needed to shape up. Other children were afraid to play with him and the school discouraged them from visiting.

On Monday, we met D’s mother. They weren’t Shabbat observant and kosher like most of the other parents in the nursery school, she explained, so she couldn’t invite us for a Shabbat meal.

But she’d love to host us midweek. Did we know why her son had been called in? she asked. If so, would we still want to come? I can remember my exact words: “My children are from Israel. They know how to deal with conflict.”

No one will argue that the Israeli environment, with fewer teachers, counselors and lifeguards on duty, is rowdier than the American, but somehow, early on, children do learn to stick up for themselves. The children ours encountered in the US often sublimated their aggressiveness in maliciousness – outright or subtle comments or body language. There’s an American Jewish children’s book called Speak Up, Tommy about an Israeli kid in America suffering from teasing from his fellow students. He only gains respect when a police dog trained in Israel understands commands only from him. I can’t read the book aloud because it’s so painful – a lot more so than a few schoolyard scratches.

When we’re a richer, safer country, please God, we’ll be able to provide small classrooms with much more individualized attention for our children. In the meantime, our schools are no frills.

There are certain compensations. Our children have devoted friends – people who will put them up, lend them money, provide support through thick and thin. Our children were reading the Bible in the original Hebrew by first grade. The chronic argumentativeness of the Israeli environment, it turns out, produces a questioning attitude that is prized among scholars and scientists.

The son who was classmates with D in nursery school was sought by America’s top universities when he completed his Israeli education to be part of inventive scientific teams. He chose MIT, and then had to expose his own Sabra sons to the new schools in America.

They are deeply grateful for the opportunities they had and the spectacular community they belonged to, but all in all, they’re glad to be back home.

The difficulties of moving here are real and needn’t be waved away. It’s easy to trade the good kosher shopping of Trader Joe’s for a supermarket that will have yahrzeit candles prominently displayed so you don’t forget them for Shavuot, and where they announce on the loudspeaker that Minha is being held in the vegetable storeroom. But having your children taking on the responsibility for the security of the State of Israel in the army (what Bieler calls “many years spent with our hearts stuck perpetually in our throats” doesn’t quite cover it) is tough. And true, the average synagogue member isn’t even thinking about women’s access to public participation, let alone providing an egalitarian service.

However, high-level Jewish learning opportunities for women (Bieler’s field is rabbinics) proliferate here. Shabbat dinner invitations are ubiquitous.

The egalitarian synagogues that do exist are often the result of efforts by American immigrants or their Sabra offspring.

That’s what you can do after serving the internship that’s called being an oleh hadash, a new and elevated immigrant.

Despite the cracks about being an American – which don’t go away, not for us, nor for Moroccans or Russians – we are delighted when tourists choose Israel. But with all due respect, even those who speak Hebrew and come often have elected not to be a part of building Israeli society from the inside.

As one of my daughters, a child psychologist who was offended by Bieler’s op-ed piece, said, “In America, the chances of you having an impact on society are small. In Israel, we’re all striving to make this a better society and even a small number of activists can make a difference.” That daughter, by the way, was recruited to bring Israeli Judaism and customs to Berkeley, California, for a year.

Speaking of customs, the difference for Jews in the Diaspora and Israel isn’t, as Bieler implies, just minhag hamakom, a question of local custom.

It’s about whether you have a marrow- deep commitment to building the Jewish state or not.

Eating shakshuka and listening to Army Radio – proof Bieler offers of her identification with Israel – is a good start. But the newest program on Galgalatz is called “The Israel Story.” If Bieler wants her children to be part of that, she’ll have to give up the “buffer zone of an ocean” that separates them from the plot.

The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.

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