Our Sages say that God sends the cure before the affliction. And we are witnessing that today with respect to the education of new immigrant Jewish children from France.
The Shuvu Orthodox school system created a quarter century ago for new immigrants from the former Soviet Union is today proving itself as the best possible solution for many French-speaking children from traditional homes.
Shuvu had its beginnings in an impassioned speech delivered by the late Rabbi Avraham Pam at the 1989 convention of Agudat Yisrael of America, in which he called upon American Orthodoxy to take responsibility for providing a Jewish education for hundreds of thousands of immigrant children arriving from the FSU.
Rabbi Pam had intended to speak about business ethics, but when Rabbi Avraham Yosef Leizerson from Hinuch Atzma’i gave him a dramatic report about the Jewish children arriving from the FSU, he realized that was the call of the hour. Rabbi Pam remained fully involved in Shuvu, even being brought from the hospital in an ambulance for one parlor meeting, until his death in 2001.
Shuvu’s immediate task was figuring out how a religious school system could attract students from a population cut off from any possibility of a Jewish education for 70 years. The first answer was by providing a superior secular education.
Shuvu schools start computer training and English in earlier grades than the state system, and cover, on average, 20 to 25 percent more math material per age (with correspondingly excellent results in the Math Olympiad).
Shuvu has signed up to institute the Mofet enriched science and math curriculum (developed by Russian-speaking immigrants) in all its junior high schools and high schools next year.
All this is expensive. Shuvu has to raise $6 million in private contributions per year.
The second attraction was offering a level of school discipline and decorum much closer to what the new immigrants were used to in the FSU. In a survey of Shuvu parents, most of whom had previous experience with the state school system, 84% said there was less violence in their Shuvu school; 80% that the cultural level was higher; and 70% that the decorum was higher. And most remarkably, at a time when Israeli students expressed the lowest levels of educational satisfaction of 28 industrialized nations, 84% of parents described their children as enjoying school a lot or very much.
AT FIRST glance, the immigrant population from the FSU and the French immigrants of today could not be farther apart. Most of the immigrants from the FSU (with the exception of some from the Muslim republics) had little or no Jewish background, as the Soviets made a concerted effort to wipe out religious life. The French immigrants, by contrast, are largely traditional. To date, most of the new immigrant French children have been sent to state religious schools, which vary widely in quality.
Yet the Shuvu model of enriched Jewish studies and superior secular studies has proven adaptable to the French children as well. Shuvu’s Netanya school has absorbed 160 French-speaking children and expects to enroll another 60 to 90 by the opening of the new school year.
That is probably the largest number of French-speaking children enrolled in any Israeli school.
Shuvu’s excellent secular studies are a draw even for some new immigrants who would describe themselves as haredi. Apart from some parts of the hassidic world, there is no tradition of de-emphasizing secular studies especially pre-high school, among haredim living outside Israel. In fact, last year I was told about a group of haredi olim from Argentina who returned to Argentina in frustration at not being able to find a suitable school system for their children.
Approximately 40% of the Shuvu pupils from Russian-speaking families are being raised by single parents. The rate is much lower among French-speaking families. Still many of the husbands among the French olim have been unable to find employment in Israel comparable to what they had in France, and as a consequence continue to commute back to France. Shuvu’s experience in dealing with children from single-parent homes has helped it provide assistance for those with a father who is frequently absent.
Few French rabbis have made aliya along with their congregants, as they have seen their primary responsibility to those still remaining in France. As a consequence, many of the new immigrants lack the degree of rabbinic guidance that they formerly had.
Typically, Shuvu schools have made a great effort to involve parents as well as children, and in nine of the 18 cities in which Shuvu operates, including Netanya, there is a school rabbi who works with the families of pupils as well, giving classes, creating Shabbatonim, and instituting Shabbat eve programming with parents. That model is now being successfully jiggered to serve the French-speaking families as well.
But Shuvu’s greatest asset – and equally applicable to all its students – is the dedication of its staff. Prof. Tamar Horowitz of Bar-Ilan University has described the teacher accountability in Shuvu as the highest in Israel. The Bais Yaakov-trained teachers may not have B.A. degrees but their commitment to their students is immediately obvious to any visitor to a Shuvu school.
I was once introduced to a father of three girls in one of the haredi-affiliated school systems. He began our conversation by asking me if I was familiar with the community of Tzoran. I replied that I was, and had even written a number of columns for this paper in 1998, when the opening of a one-room schoolhouse for 25 first-graders in a religious setting in Tzoran provoked weeks of angry demonstrations. The terrified first-graders had to walk a daily gauntlet of screaming demonstrators, a number of them accompanied by large, barking dogs.
It was now a few years later, and the father told me he had been the organizer of those demonstrations. But at some point over those weeks, he had asked himself whom he would like to educate his daughters. And he concluded that he could not do better than the young Bais Yaakov products from Bnei Brak so calmly leading their six-year-old charges past a mob.
From my many visits to Shuvu schools over the years, I knew exactly what he was talking about.
Today, a quarter of Shuvu’s 6,000 pupils are from native Israeli families, and the organization has a new name Chazon Avraham, the vision of Avraham.
Rabbi Pam’s original vision has been fulfilled in ways that even he could never have foreseen.
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in
The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.