'We don't need no education': An open letter to Education Minister Piron

Our current crop of Israeli youth are often found lacking somewhat in the realms of motivation, having a hard-working mentality, and general social awareness/capability

Israeli kids play on Zikim beach 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli kids play on Zikim beach 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
"School's out for summer"! It's the end of June, and for many Israeli children and young adults this can only mean one thing: a two-month summer holiday ahead; a vacation looked forward to in direct correlation to parents' dread (especially working parents who have to worry about childcare). The familiar cry of 'summer holiday' does not require translation - it is an international children's expression that rises above language and culture. It's about freedom, time for friends, to 'chill' and do all those things that the school calendar would not allow for. Yet as a parent attempting to raise children in Israel, it seems that we have a long way to go.
I grew up in England, where education is top of the agenda: then-Prime Minister Tony Blair (now Middle East envoy) made his famous "Education, Education, Education" policy speech in Parliament and the education system in England reflects this priority. State schools have school from Monday to Friday, from 8:30 a.m.- 4 p.m. (in general); the Jewish schools tend to add a few hours on Sunday morning and can finish as late as 7 p.m. And the summer holidays tend to last for one month. The Israeli state system pales in comparison: the secular schools have a giant summer holiday and school ends at around 1-2 p.m. each day. Compare the much-criticized haredi yeshiva system in Israel currently: the yeshiva day tends to go from 9-7 and summer holidays are three weeks. This means that the average English student (and definitely the average Israeli haredi student) tends to receive around three times the hours of education that the secular Israeli receives.
One might expect that this is because Israeli society is simply doing great – the secular Israeli can suffice on less education. A cursory look will reveal otherwise. To generalize somewhat, our current crop of Israeli youth are often found lacking somewhat in the realms of motivation, having a hard-working mentality, and general social awareness/capability (how many of our young kids cannot take themselves away from their iPhone for more than five minutes?) And in other human interactions - relationships, loyalty in friendships and other life skills, the youth of today are hardly 'acing' - the decrease in family values and marriage success is born out of a misplaced education and exposure to disloyalty and poor relationships skills during youth.
Judaism has always been the leader in terms of promoting education: our children were literate in a time when the Greeks and Romans were keeping their masses uneducated to consolidate power with the few. At a time when the Christians were teaching that 'questions are the food of the devil' Judaism was encouraging questions and intellectual honesty. I understand that our Education Minister is a Rabbi. Are there no Jewish values that might improve the youth of today's lives and future credentials? Does Judaism have nothing to say about the values of loyalty, integrity, honesty, motivation, marriage and relationships? Do we have to wait until our teenagers enter the army and are forced to be educated by the Army Values (erkei tzava) classes that the army offer to compensate for their previous education: at a time where most teenagers are only looking forward to their sorties in India, Thailand or South America. For we certainly can find the time in our school day! How about Jewish History - how many children in Israel have a real knowledge of pre-state Jewish history? My husband overheard a conversation between a mother and her nine-year-old child on the steps down to the Kotel (Western Wall). The child turned to her mother and asked 'what was once in this place - a palace?' The child clearly had no idea of the existence of a Temple - a basic in Jewish History.
The Jerusalem Post recently ran an article about Education Minister Rabbi Shai Piron's new initiative to train Israeli children to edit pages of Wikipedia - modernizing the education system indeed. And it is well-known that Rabbi Piron is expending much energy in trying to revolutionize and make an upheaval in the haredi education system. I would boldly suggest for Rabbi Piron to look a little closer to home. Perhaps the secular education system can be turned around? Perhaps the national religious school system (with teachers decrying the students undoing their year's education with their large summer holiday) could do with a change? Perhaps either of these should occupy top priority in education.
With the increasing trend (among both haredi and national religious) to open independent-funded schools not controlled by government policy, can one be surprised? It was once famously said that "religion is the opium of the masses". It seems that nowadays one could conjecture that 'education is the new opium of the masses'. Though all such cultural references will no doubt be lost on our current crop of youngsters.
Janine is originally from England and lives in Jerusalem. She has studied law and management and is currently a photographer and a dedicated mother of three.