As the pace of modern life becomes increasingly frenetic, with less focus on exploration and more on quick results, many people are seeking a more traditional path – including alternative schooling options, where it all begins.This was the impetus that drove veteran Jerusalem educator Ariella Ben-Amitai to establish a small preschool in her Nahlaot home about 15 years ago, after her search for a meaningful Jewish foundation alongside a holistic educational experience for her own children came to nothing.She envisioned a Jewish education in which children could discover the world organically, at their own pace and in their own way, and could engage in imaginative play and sensory-rich, hands-on learning.Ben-Amitai grew up on a secular kibbutz and later became a ba’alat teshuva (returnee to observance) on a mission to integrate her kibbutz background and education with firm roots in Torah.
A festive day at the preschool.(photo credit: COURTESY)At first glance, aspects of her preschool, Maayanot Rabbi Hiya, appear similar to those of a Waldorf anthroposophic kindergarten.Based on the philosophy of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, anthroposophic schools emphasize the role of imagination and experiential education (learning by example), striving to holistically integrate the intellectual, practical and artistic development of pupils. There is more of a focus on nature and the world of the spirit than on God.Yet Ben-Amitai asserts that the cores of the two systems are entirely different, with hers “focusing primarily on Judaism and the source of creation, the Holy One, blessed be He [God].”In 2004, four years after she began her homebased preschool – whose name was selected based on a talmudic passage illustrating that the famed Rabbi Hiya valued process and each individual – like-minded Jerusalem parents went about forming a nonprofit that worked with the Jerusalem Municipality to open up a holistic preschool, partly subsidized by the parents and partly by the city.
The first branch was in the picturesque neighborhood of Nayot, near the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens. Today, there are 10 institutions around the country following Ben-Amitai’s principles in the Maayanot Rabbi Hiya network, including three elementary schools in Jerusalem, Pardess Hanna and the Galilee.This past year, Maayanot Rabbi Hiya in Nayot had 33 children divided into three age groups, and a dedicated staff of five who receive regular training from Ben-Amitai. In keeping with its holistic philosophy, the school’s toys and supplies are made of natural materials such as wood, cotton and clay, and meals are prepared from whole grains, fresh produce and legumes.One of Maayanot Rabbi Hiya’s distinguishing principles is a focus on the process rather than results, and this is evident in the seasonally relevant, hands-on creative projects it has for the children. Around Passover, for instance, the kids bake matza in a clay oven from wheat that they grow and grind into flour themselves.On a day-to-day basis, they help prepare meals in the ways they are able. The aim is to give them a sense of pride and self-accomplishment, while also teaching them patience and delayed gratification.According to the school’s philosophy, respect for belongings and valuing what one has created are the first step in learning to care about the world at large.The process-based approach also manifests itself in the planting and growing of flowers, fruits, vegetables, herbs and wheat (though not during shmita, the sabbatical year) in the preschool’s gardens. The pupils spend a large part of the day outdoors, playing with stones and sticks and sand, watering the trees that they plant and swinging on hammocks.“We are not trying to create something new here,” says Eli Cohen, a teacher at the school. “We are just trying to maintain something we have all always had.”The parents who make up the demographics of Maayanot Rabbi Hiya are eclectic, but for the most part are Torah-observant and broad-minded. Many are community leaders or significant contributors to the Jerusalem economy. Entrepreneurs, hippies, young professionals and academics are among those who send their children to this preschool.YET THE preschool is facing a number of challenges – one of which is a contentious eviction from its current space in Nayot by the municipality.The nonprofit’s understanding was that it would receive an equivalent facility, as well as a space for an additional preschool to meet growing demand. However, the feeling among Maayanot Rabbi Hiya parents is that the school’s character has not been sufficiently taken into account in the building of the new preschool.
Maayanot Rabbi Hiya parents and children protest the Nayot preschool eviction outside Mayor Nir Barkat’s residence in mid-July.Leaked emails suggest that the motive for the eviction may have been local residents’ desire to remove a religious educational institution that was not in keeping with the “character and future of the [largely secular] neighborhood” (as noted in the Nayot Facebook group).In mid-July, Maayanot Rabbi Hiya parents and children held a peaceful protest outside Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s house to draw attention to the situation, and this resulted in some proactive steps.Last week, the parents issued an appeal to the Jerusalem District Court with evidence of potential false registrations, which made it appear as if there was more demand from the local community for additional space than seems to be the reality.This was due to proof of 30 people on the municipality registration list who registered for a Nayot preschool, but do not live there; the suspicion is the Nayot community group encouraged people to register for the preschool so as to potentially drive out Maayanot Rabbi Hiya.Sarit Levy, whose family came specifically from Rehovot to live in the capital this year because of the preschool, says she is “saddened to understand that my kids are potentially not welcome in a neighborhood just because of our beliefs and how we look [visibly religious, with modest dress and kippot].I don’t want to live in a ghetto, and I want to raise my kids to love all. How can I do that if I am forced to not set foot in a particular neighborhood?” Cohen adds that “although there is so much talk of diversity, pluralism and acceptance in Jerusalem, these words do not always come down to deeds.”He and many others are frustrated that there is a drive on the one hand to retain young professionals in the capital, yet many families who value this educational approach are being forced to leave Jerusalem for Pardess Hanna, where there is a thriving educational institution of the same approach.City Councilman Aaron Leibowitz (Yerushalmim), who holds the education portfolio, says that “Jerusalem is a diverse city, and these [Maayanot Rabbi Hiya] preschools are one of the most successful alternative models in Jerusalem, with growing demand every year. I dream of a Jerusalem where parents can provide their children with the education they believe in, and that means supporting and encouraging alternatives.”For now, much is unclear about the next academic year, which is just weeks away.“Everyone is thinking about everything other than the children,” laments Cohen.The municipality, for its part, issued this statement: “Given the increase in demand among the children of the Nayot neighborhood, the Jerusalem Municipality went about building two new preschools for Maayanot Rabbi Hiya from scratch [in the Mishkenot Hauma neighborhood]. We are taking all necessary actions to make sure that the new building will be ready for the beginning of the school year.”