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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The last time I saw Mazal Azulai I asked about her son Ezra, who had been a Jewish Dennis the Menace in fourth grade and a vilde haya, a wild animal, in fifth-grade, when he attended a regular government school in Beersheba.
Mazal smiled and said, "Ezra? After I moved him to the Shas school, he became a yo-yo."
Puzzled, I was not certain whether that was praise or denigration. She continued:
"In desperation I moved him to a Shas school in our neighborhood. He did well with the strict discipline, zero tolerance of violence, a dress code, standing for teachers, regular prayer times, a heavy study load, and utter devotion of the staff.
"One day I noticed that as he was doing his homework on the kitchen table he was popping out of his chair every so often. Every time I entered the kitchen he would stand, then sit again. A yo-yo.
"Ezra explained, 'Our teacher said we must stand when a parent or teacher enters the room.'
"He stopped talking back and offered to help me whenever he could," said Mazal.
She was so impressed by Ezra's improved deportment, study skills and newly acquired self-discipline that she enrolled his three sisters in the Shas girls' school, despite the dilapidated structures the city had grudgingly provided them.
Similar decisions by thousands of families in the deprived neighborhoods of big cities and towns on the periphery have changed the face of education for Sephardi children. Encouraged to come on aliya to Israel from Middle Eastern counties in the early decades of the state, huge numbers of Sephardim were shorn not just of their side locks, but also of their traditions.
The more ambitious acceded to the government's incentives to send their children to secular schools. Mazal Azulai sent her four older children to secular schools, where not only did they lose touch with Jewish tradition, they also were left out of the Ashkenazi elite culture; they continued in the cycle of poverty of their parents. Her younger children, who had been enrolled in the government religious streams, found themselves in vastly under-funded schools with under-trained teachers before she moved them to the Shas system.
THE HOPELESSNESS of the Sephardi schoolmates of my children in Beersheba is seared into my memory. I tried to ameliorate their situation by introducing stamp clubs, tennis classes, trips with the Society for the Protection of Nature - all very Ashkenazi, middle-class activities that did not resonate with the background of these children and had no impact. I concluded that the problem was unsolvable.
Then in the 1980s and 1990s Shas came on the scene and took children off the streets. Overcoming every possible obstacle local and national governments could throw at them, young rabbis and their wives established kindergartens in hundreds of neighborhoods and welcomed all - religious, traditional, secular. In the caravans they used for schools, they restored pride in Sephardi customs and instituted a long school day that kept the children busy with religious and secular studies.
The discipline inherent in a strictly religious life style enabled the youth to thrive. This is not surprising because only when given limits can human nature be channeled into productive avenues. This concept is reflected in one of the names of the Creator: Shadai.
Rabbi S. R. Hirsch comments that in this Name is the Hebrew word indicating limits: dai. The Lord, who is unlimited, places limits on man through a system of study and mitzvot.
On three issues of national import, Shas has been surprisingly moderate. With respect to the army, almost every single Shas MK in the past two decades has served in the army, as can be ascertained by checking the Knesset Web site.
WHEN I visited the Shas boys' school in Hadera recently, a tank-top-clad mother of a prospective pupil was asking the principal whether her son could serve in the army after graduating. He answered, "When your son graduates he can defer service for a while and continue in a yeshiva if he wants, or he can go directly into the army. One thing is certain: In the army he won't be in the "yaldei Raful" remedial program for illiterate soldiers."
Fifteen years ago I asked a teacher who taught the yaldei Raful whether it was true that 90% of the boys in that program were Sephardim. She said, "No, it's more like 99 percent."
Since then this has completely changed for the better, largely due to the efforts of the Shas movement. For this reason alone Shas would get my vote, even though I have no children in their schools.
The Beit Margolit girls' elementary school in Netanya is a typical example of the transformation wrought by Shas. Located in mobile classrooms with leaky roofs, an atmosphere of calm, purposefulness and cheerfulness is pervasive.
I was shown the students' scores on the national Meitzav achievement test. The school scored much above average in mathematics, Hebrew reading and writing, and English reading. Only in one category, English writing, was their score just at the national average.
As I walked through the school, I saw one class reciting morning prayers, jaunty sailor berets perched on their heads. Another class was working on a science experiment; a third was preparing book reports in English.
A SECOND area of moderation and openness is the attitude to higher education. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the founder of Shas, has given full backing to his daughter's Herculean efforts to establish a college. Adina Bar-Shalom started the Haredi College in Jerusalem five years ago to enable haredi Beit Yaakov graduates to obtain fully recognized academic degrees in several professions.
This year several men's classes opened in separate quarters. The college is for all haredi subgroups - 55 percent of the students are Ashkenazim.
The third area where Shas exhibits its moderation is in its attitude to the state and Zionism. When Rabbi Yosef addressed girls at the college recently, he was asked two questions by a skeptical non-religious visitor: whether Shas was a passing phenomenon, and about their attitude to Zionism.
Yosef responded that he did not found Shas as an ephemeral political party, but as a means to restore Jewish education to every child in Israel, so that no child would grow up not knowing Shema Yisrael.
Regarding Zionism, Rabbi Yosef reminded the questioner that Orthodox Jews say thrice daily, in the Amida prayer, "We shall turn our eyes to Zion," - "and we don't just say it, we mean it and live it."
On the geopolitical issue of settlements, borders, and relations with our neighbors, Shas is centrist and pragmatic rather than ideological.
There are aspects of Shas that are problematic.
Some of the MKs have not lived up to the high ideals the movement espouses. It is not sufficient to shrug this off by saying that almost all political parties fall short of ideal fiscal comportment (don't we all?). However, the steps the party head, Eli Yishai, has taken to improve in this area are reassuring.
Meanwhile, what about Ezra Azulai, the yo-yo? After his studies in the Shas school he continued for a few years in a yeshiva, and finished his army service. Now, as a father of two (so far), he attends a kollel yeshiva for married men during the day, and studies business administration in the Haredi College at night.
As a gesture of gratitude - hakarat hatov - he volunteers once a month to tutor children in the Shas school near him, helping them also break out of the cycle of poverty.
While many parties can only promise to improve opportunities for the less privileged, Shas has an impressive track record of accomplishment. All Israel benefits from these initiatives.
The writer, a Technion graduate, is a translator in Netanya affiliated with the Haredi College in Jerusalem.
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