Why Israel Could Be the Answer to the Jewish Education Crisis

With three children in Jewish day schools in Canada, Stephen Epstein found the tuition prices prohibitive.

Why Israel  758 (photo credit: NEFESH B'NEFESH)
Why Israel 758
(photo credit: NEFESH B'NEFESH)
“In the United States and in Canada, you either have to be really poor and get all or some of the education subsidized, or you have to be really rich so that you don’t have to depend on it,” said Epstein. “Making sure our kids got a great Jewish education was a major factor in why we decided to make Aliyah.” 
With the cost of Jewish day school tuition often exceeding $20,000 a year in North America, many families are struggling to provide their children with a quality Jewish education—if they ultimately choose to do so. 
“In America, you have to make a decision about whether Jewish education is a part of your values, whereas in Israel, it’s a way of life,” said Avi Silverman, Nefesh B’Nefesh’s Education Specialist.
Some families, like Epstein’s, are considering Israel’s religious school system, which provides education at public elementary schools for an annual tuition price of 1,000 NIS a year ($280). Alternatively, semi-private options have tuition prices that range from 3,600 NIS to 10,000 NIS ($1,000 to $2,800) per year. Though these tuitions are much lower than those at North American Jewish private schools, it is important to note that Israeli salaries are not as high.
In addition to its low cost, Israeli education is known for its progressiveness. “Education in Israel goes far beyond the classroom,” said Silverman. “It’s extremely experiential, with volunteer work, holiday activities, intergenerational programming, and field trips woven into the regular curriculum.”
With all schools partly run by the government, Israel is home to diverse Jewish schools for children in grades 1-8 that offer strong secular curricula, a range of religious study options, as well as staff support for new Olim. 
Public Religious Schools
Tuition: 1,000 NIS a year
After moving to Israel in 2005, Epstein and his wife opted to send their children to Mamlachti Dati schools, Israel’s public religious schools. Mamlachti Dati schools, also called Mamad schools, often have students that range from secular to Orthodox. While some schools separate students by gender in elementary schools, others do not. 
At Tachkemoni, Epstein’s daughter’s elementary school, teachers accompany the students for two years in order to forge a closer connection to the students and to ensure a higher level of learning continuity. In addition to the secular and religious curricula that the school provides, there are also school trips, staff members who make themselves available to parents, daily prayer services, Rosh Chodesh celebrations, and a special program for gifted children.
After making Aliyah from New York, where she sent her daughters to a private Jewish day school in Manhattan, Lois Lebowitz opted to enroll them in Efrata, a Mamlachti Dati school in Jerusalem. “The class sizes are larger, but students can still do very well, especially if the parents stay in touch with teachers by phone or email.”
Because the school has a large presence of English-speaking Olim, it offers a strong English educational program, as well as a dedicated counselor to help students with their Hebrew.
Another type of religious public school in Israel is the Mamlachti Dati Torani school. These schools offer a stronger emphasis on Torah studies and a focus on developing a more rigorous religious atmosphere. In these schools, boys and girls study in separate classes, and attend separate schools after fifth grade.
Tova Goldfine, an Olah who sent her daughter to a Mamlachti Dati Torani school in Har Nof was impressed to see how committed the teachers were to her daughter’s welfare, encouraging her to call them at home if necessary. “I feel like the teachers really appreciate the choice we made to move to Israel,” said Goldfine. 
Semi-Private Orthodox Schools
Tuition: 5,000 NIS - 10,000 NIS a year
Many parents who previously sent their children to liberal modern Orthodox day schools may find that semi-private Orthodox schools best fit their values. Schools like Hartman (with separate schools for boys and girls) and Pelech (for girls) have strong secular curricula, with diverse subjects that include Yiddish, Arabic, and theater, as well as Jewish studies programs, which encourage students to challenge and question tradition while respecting it. The schools, which are both located in Jerusalem, also strongly emphasize community service.
Richard Saffern, who made Aliyah with his family in 2003, chose to send his daughter to Pelech after attending its open house. “We were impressed with the school’s creativity and seriousness,” he said. “We also liked that it encouraged out-of-the-box thinking and focused on instilling good values in its students.”
Pelech seeks to inculcate its students with the values of Orthodox feminism, and sees many of its graduates join the army instead of Sherut Leumi, Israel’s National Service. 

Semi-Private Ultra-Orthodox Schools
Tuition: 3,600 NIS a year 
For families looking for schools that offer a more stringent observance of Halacha and provide a secular education, Mamlachti Dati Chardal schools may provide a good option. Boys’ schools have a central focus on Torah studies, and all students take the Bagrut matriculation exams. Upon graduation, boys continue onto Yeshivat Hesder, which combines fives years of Torah study with army service. Girls participate in Sherut Leumi.
Following her Aliyah from Long Island four years ago, Miriam Schwartz and her family settled in Ramat Shilo, a town right outside of Ramat Beit Shemesh, and enrolled their three children in the Mamlachti Dati Chardal school, Rappaport. With a strong commitment to Zionism, Torah learning, Hebrew and secular studies, as well as extracurriculars that range from gardening to chess to robotics, the school offered what the family was looking for.
It also didn’t hurt that the school has a large English-speaking student body. “The teachers show tremendous understanding for what Olim are going through,” said Schwartz. “It’s amazing to see how much warmth and care they show their students.”
Schwartz also expressed appreciation for the teachers because they do not overburden the students with homework and instead recognize the children’s need for playtime—both of which have not negatively affected the school’s emphasis on academics. Last year, Schwartz’s son’s second grade class ranked in the 90th percentile in Israel’s nationwide Hebrew test. 
Semi-Private Community Schools
Tuition: 5,000 NIS - 10,000 NIS a year
To meet the needs of families who are looking for a pluralistic environment, a handful of community schools have popped up in the last 20 years—many of which can be found in areas with high Olim density.
Yachad, one such school, which is located in Modiin, “is dedicated to promoting Jewish dialogue and education in an environment that integrates children from different Jewish backgrounds,” according to its website. Students at Yachad come from households that range from Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, secular, traditional, as well as a mixed background.
While Yachad provides a core Jewish curriculum, students and their families have the independence to define the extent of their religious study and practice. For example, in the morning, students can choose to attend a traditional prayer service or a “siach shacharit,” a facilitated discussion about contemporary events.
Having made Aliyah from Toronto six years ago, Michal Nefsky decided to send two of her children to Yachad because it was similar to the multi-denominational school that they had attended in Canada. “Yachad gives the students a Jewish framework, but they’re not forced to do more than they’re comfortable with,” said Nefsky. “So it really gives them the accessibility of the religion and also allows them to make their own decisions.”
In keeping with its value of inclusivity, Yachad has an Olim Coordinator on staff to provide support for Olim students. Families are also invited to take part in the greater Yachad community through their minyan, Tu B’Shevat Seder, Purim party, as well as a range of activity clubs. 
Teen Ulpan
Tuition: 400 NIS a year
When Susan Levin moved from Maryland to Gush Etzyon in 2006, she was concerned that her 13-year-old son would have trouble transitioning to a regular Israeli school. So, she decided to enroll him in Teen Ulpan, a pluralistic school setting, which provides immersive Hebrew classes focused on reading, writing and conversational skills. In addition to Hebrew study, students also take classes in history, math, and Torah studies.
At Teen Ulpan, teachers provide students with individualized attention according to their needs, and encourage students to transition to regular high schools once they have determined that the students are sufficiently prepared. At all schools, new Olim children are entitled to six hours of “Oleh hours” in which they receive extra help in Hebrew and other subjects that may be new to them.
With hundreds of schools that offer diverse Jewish curricula, Israel makes it possible to find a school that fits any family’s values and financial needs. 
Israel offers a wide range of affordable schools. Speak to an NBN education specialist to find out which schools may be right for your children. Contact education@nbn.org.il