Zehava Balata came on aliya from Ethiopia in 1999. The youngest of nine children, she has seen more in her twelve years than most people see in a lifetime. Uprooted from her place of birth, challenged by a new language, and living in a foreign environment, Zehava has grown up in Netanya among hundreds of other immigrants at the periphery of Israeli society. Until now.
On Wednesday June 22, Zehava delivered her Bat Mitzva speech in a most unlikely place: The Israeli Knesset.
During the past year, Zehava participated in a unique program sponsored by the ITIM: Jewish Life Information Center (full disclosure – I run ITIM) and the Ministry of Education, which enables Israeli sixth graders in the context of their school day to learn about Jewish heritage and particularly explore traditional dimensions of their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.
This past year, two hours were added to the national curriculum for “heritage studies” and Zehava was chosen (with three others) among 12,000 sixth graders to present her drasha (or speech) in the Knesset committee on education. Following the ceremony, Zehava was awarded with the Legacy Heritage prize for excellence in the program.
MK Zevulun Orlev, who chaired the special hearing in the Knesset, asked Zehava’s mother in the context of the hearing if she was proud of her daughter. There was a pregnant pause before Orlev realized that Zehava’s mother didn’t speak any Hebrew.
Zehava’s story is inspiring. (you can see Zahava''s picture here) This is why I was shocked to read that following her Knesset appearance, the Meretz faction in Kfar Saba decried the Jewish Heritage curriculum and suggested that there is no room for Jewish studies in the public schools.
Now honestly, if we aren’t going to teach Jewish studies in the public schools, where are we going to teach it?
To be fair, the Meretz representatives said that they have nothing personal against ITIM’s program: It’s really Chabad that scares them. But better not to have anything than Chabad.
Well, I disagree. And I challenge Meretz to come meet Zehava. Jewish Heritage is what binds us together. It binds us to immigrants, and it binds us to the Jewish world. If our student’s don’t study this in school, then we have little left.