As the first almond trees in Israel start budding – bringing to life the famous children’s song, HaShkeidah Porachat – a new optimism is flourishing in Israel too. The election results continue to excite and inspire. I recently visited Rabbi Richard Hirsch, a veteran civil rights activist who worked with Martin Luther King, Jr., and may be his generation’s leading Reform Zionist. When Dick examined the Yesh Atid list, filled with impressive people sacrificing for public service, including social activists and security experts, mixing secular Jewish educators like Ruth Calderon with open-minded Haredi rabbis like Dov Lipman he told his wife: “This is the Israel we signed up for.”
Actually, I live “the Israel we signed up for,” especially in the educational institutions defining my family’s daily life. Shortly after Election Day, we attended the finale of “Project Week” at IASA (pronounced yasa), my oldest daughter’s high school, the Israel Arts and Science Academy (“Madaim ve’omanuyot” in Hebrew). For nearly two weeks, the students at this school committed to academic excellence and community service develop independent projects, individually or in groups, mentored by their impressive teachers or local experts. They break the tension with teacher-student basketball games, lectures from some superstar graduates, and trips reflecting the students’ academic interests. The extended “week” culminates with an exhibition of student work and a half-hour presentation – just thirty, well-planned, substantive, compelling, disciplined minutes – highlighting some of the projects.
The projects dazzled me. Four tenth graders created a video game, using virtual tours of their Schusterman campus as the backdrop. Another student surveyed people’s sense of their own handsomeness or beauty, confirming the feminist critique that consumer culture dictates particular scripts for beauty and that women are more self-critical of their appearances than men. One student deciphered a code of seemingly nonsense words using a statistical analysis of the most familiar words that appear in an English text. My budding scientist analyzed saliva’s chemistry – discovering, among other conclusions, that saliva can be very smelly.
This Project Week culminates a particularly successful IASA year, whose goal, according to its founder, Bob Asher of Chicago, is to “make a paradigm change towards excellence in the Israel education system.” Last year, the Israeli army accepted eight graduates to its iconic elite Talpiot program for math and physics whiz kids, Out of approximately 100,000 high school graduates annually and ten thousand who test for it, Talpiot recruits fifty, who undertake nine years of intense scientific training and technological innovating, earning a university degree along the way. Recently, the head of Human Resources of the IDF’s Cyber Program told IASA administrators, while brainstorming about spreading their math and science program to middle schools: “We know your youngsters very well. They come into our top programs at a level far above any other young people.”
Meanwhile, Bob Asher, a volunteer who with his wife has devoted twenty years to making the school flourish, reports proudly that IASA alumni have used Facebook to build their sense of community, help each other find jobs, and, what Asher most appreciates, establish the “IASA Public Service” page. There, graduates share ideas about different new public service initiatives they participate in or have launched. Asher reports: “we invested more in IASA students, and the justification for doing so is that they learn to give to society. It obviously is working.”
Everyone else in my family is similarly stretched and inspired by first-class institutions. My wife attends and helps run the Jerusalem Studio School, a boutique art school which is the brainchild of the master painter Israel Hershberg. Hershberg’s work has been shown in leading museums worldwide. His latest Israel Museum show “Fields of Vision – Landscapes by Israel Hershberg” generated rave reviews. “There are very few contemporary old master painters left, and Israel Hershberg is one of them,” says Marty Peretz, the legendary longtime publisher of The New Republic who is also an art connoisseur. This little taste of Renaissance Florence in modern industrial Talpiot is the only school in Israel that teaches fundamental principles of art based on the Western tradition. The JSS is respected throughout the art world for producing graduates who understand basic technique and can then flourish creatively.
My youngest daughter attends Efrata, a national religious school committed to cultivating the arts while teaching traditional studies. This week her fifth-grade class mounted an impressive “shorashim,” or roots evening, featuring songs from all the different traditions represented in the class. Talk about diversity. Children of varying skin colors, different socioeconomic conditions, diverse backgrounds, sang songs in eleven languages – Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Arabic, Amharic, Danish, Hungarian, Czech, Spanish. They treat each other equally, as kids, bound by common experiences and values. Across the neighborhood, my sons attend the Hartman Junior High and High School, guided by the late David Hartman’s vision of creating a humane, loving, person-centered, community-oriented school with high standards, steeped in Jewish tradition while preparing the students to master the modern world.
In his book A Heart of Many Rooms, Rabbi Hartman taught that “Israeli society must convey the excitement and importance of living as modern Jews who combine a sense of history and tradition with a profound belief in new human possibilities. The final chapter of our people’s spiritual drama has not yet been written.” Too frequently, the only stories told about Israel, the only chapters we write, especially abroad, concern internal divisions and external enemies. At IASA and the JSS, at Efrata and the Hartman schools, new chapters in institutional excellence are being written, championing scholarly achievement, fostering altruism, nurturing creativity, embracing diversity, educating toward authenticity, thriving Jewishly. These Zionist achievements, this new spirituality in Altneuland, Old-New land, are indeed creating the Israel so many of us signed up for.
The author isProfessor of History, McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow. His latest book Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism was just published by Oxford University Press.
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