Are Israel's school programs funded by hidden agendas?

Some parents were eager to hear about it, but, perhaps because most parents felt blindsided by the announcement and had never been given a vote in the process, there was outrage.

 RONI SASSOVER, founder, Parents’ Forum for Tradition. (photo credit: Ilanit Doanias)
RONI SASSOVER, founder, Parents’ Forum for Tradition.
(photo credit: Ilanit Doanias)

Imagine a school with no classrooms, a school where students choose what they want to learn. Imagine 25 children in an Israeli class quietly working on exercises while the teacher works with four or five children at a time.

When Mayor Yigal Lahav announced in January a format for the educational framework in Karnei Shomron, the town was abuzz. He introduced a method called open schooling, and he engaged a pedagogy system to teach teachers this method.

Four years ago, he observed it in practice at SAR Academy, a well-established Jewish day school in Riverdale, New York. The new Masuah school being built in the center of Karnei Shomron’s growing, heavily National-Religious neighborhoods was designed without walls, to allow children to learn in an open environment. 

Two schools in Karnei Shomron were using the program already – the mamlachti (public-secular) Rimon School and the Torani (Torah-oriented) school Barkai (where it was limited to language and mathematics, not used for Torah studies). 

A well-attended parent-teacher Zoom meeting introduced the founder of the method, Orit Sheetrit, CEO and founder of the nonprofit Hinuch Yisraeli (Israeli Education). With a bachelor’s in teaching mathematics, a master’s in Talmud and Torah and an 18-year track record in education, she has impressive credentials.

 THE ‘OPEN School’ at Masuah in Karnei Shomron, under construction.  (credit: JUDITH SEGALOFF) THE ‘OPEN School’ at Masuah in Karnei Shomron, under construction. (credit: JUDITH SEGALOFF)

However, she neglected to mention one of her credentials – that she is an ordained Reform rabbi and a member of the IISHJ, also known as Tmura – the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. This movement is dedicated to a system of redefining Judaism to promote Jewish-secular culture.

Lahav assumed parents would be enthralled by the state-of-the-art system and with the brand-new school designed to accommodate the unusual program.

Some parents were eager to hear about it, but, perhaps because most parents felt blindsided by the announcement and had never been given a vote in the process, there was outrage. For days after the Zoom meeting, WhatsApp groups were formed and members were firing as many as 50 missives an hour, as alarmed parents shared their thoughts and fears. A political and educational maelstrom hit.

Do parents have a say?

A parent pointed out that the Hinuch Yisraeli board of directors is composed largely of progressive leftists, and the website states: “We call on all advocates of the good of the State of Israel in Israel and around the world to join hands in leading actions to improve the education system so as to ensure a solid democratic foundation and constant cultural renewal.”

Words like “humanistic,” “democratic,” “secular,” “pluralism” and “cultural renewal” are often used as buzzwords hinting at a woke agenda – one that, parents said, has no place in a National-Religious school in the middle of the Shomron. Were parents tilting at windmills, or were they pinpointing a potential problem?

People asked where the money for the new building came from and never got an answer.

They speculated on how a Reform woman rabbi, with left-wing ideologues on her board and affiliations to secular sites with a mission to redefine Judaism, was admitted to a National-Religious school system. 

At the schools where it was already operative, the principals were pleased with the open school system. One of the principals described Sheetrit as a “brilliant and professional educator.”

Yet it was hard for parents to imagine a “Chinese Wall” between the method she implements and her progressive affiliations on the Internet. They were concerned that once she had established herself in the schools, her own teaching materials would be provided to the teachers, and progressive values would be subtly introduced.

“Our educational system was hijacked by political rhetoric,” Lahav asserted angrily. “Why would National-Religious parents think that a teacher’s teacher would be encouraging teachers to alter the religious focus of the school? She doesn’t get near the children or the content.”

“The method is the content,” Maya, the mom of an eight-year-old in the school system, insisted. “When you take away the walls, which is the progressives’ mantra, you are taking away boundaries. And all children need boundaries. Plus, I am not convinced an open system will work for every child, particularly when there are 30 children in a class. There are bound to be children left behind.”

One parent discovered a transcript of protocols of a Knesset session where Sheetrit spoke on the topic of allowing external parties (such as left-wing NGOs like Break the Silence) into educational institutions. It appeared she was arguing to allow the external parties into schools, albeit in a controlled manner.

“Such a discourse can be a protected discourse only when done inside the school and tools are provided for dealing with critical thinking, with the ability to synchronize knowledge....,” explained Sheetrit to MKs. “And for this there are educators who need to empower [teachers in the schools] and teach them how to manage it.”

“Proof that she is leftist!” some argued, but it could just as easily have been argued that she advocated introducing critical thinking in classrooms.

One parent, who works in procuring grants for preschools, said the only funds available for preschoolers these days are grants addressing racism or gender.

“We see what is happening in American schools with critical race theory and gender issues, and we don’t want that to happen in our schools in Israel,” she explained. “Jewish identity is at stake. Theories come wrapped up in a pretty package with words like ‘innovative education,’ but they can be a Trojan horse with insidious ‘new values’ content.”

Roni Sassover, a Tel Aviv mom, became a lobbyist and formed the Parents’ Forum for Tradition organization, after her daughter’s second grade mamlachti school’s Kabbalat Torah party. The party, which celebrated the children’s introduction to Torah learning, culminated in the presentation of a Humash. When Sassover examined the gold-wrapped book, she saw that it wasn’t a Humash at all. The pages were completely blank.

“I was shocked,” she said. “We are, after all, a Jewish state. The law states that even in mamlachti schools, they should be teaching Jewish heritage, Jewish concepts and Torah-based values. There are no ‘secular schools’ in Israel.” 

Sasover approached the Knesset as a very concerned parent. Although she doesn’t describe herself as religious, she feels that raising her children with a Jewish identity requires some basic Jewish values. 

She explained that the Education Ministry budget is among the highest of all budgets because there are foreign organizations, funds and even other governments that put money into the educational system. She pointed out that the New Israel Fund and the Panim organizations contribute to the Center for Educational Technology, which helps fund curricula and educational projects.

The New Israel Fund is a progressive American organization devoted to combating Israeli settlement expansion, promoting public transportation on Shabbat and changing Israeli educational systems. Besides advocating for better math and computer programs, the NIF supports organizations to slowly imbue more progressive and less Jewish values into the educational system.

The Tmura organization, Orit Sheetrit’s credentialing organization, is also funded by NIF, according to Sasover. 

“Parents need to wake up and assume that the schools are not what they used to be when we were growing up in Israel,” she asserted. “The agenda is totally different. We need parents to start asking questions and addressing the changes that are being made in their schools. Education is more than gender and race concerns. These issues are eclipsing basic education. And it is spreading quietly to religious schools as well.”

Sasover was brought to Karnei Shomron to address the parents in a meeting that the mayor dismissed as something akin to a prayer meeting. 

“She spoke, and the crowd said ‘Amen!’” he scoffed. “The people who presented had no insights on Karnei Shomron or about the educational system here,” Lahav said. “Roni said parents should take responsibility. But the principal of the school is ultimately responsible – not the parents.”

BUT THE day that principals were enabled is the day that things got murky in the Israeli school system, according to Sasover.

“Shai Piron (Yesh Atid), education minister from 2013 to 2014, awarded school principals the complete authority to decide on what’s going on in their schools,” explained Sasover. “Once he enabled the principals, the nonprofits could approach schools directly with programs, some of which are funded by NIF.” 

She pointed out that the ministry currently has approved 3,000 programs that they do not monitor, which are available to go into schools. If an influential parent approaches a principal and pitches a program, the principal is empowered to commission it.

These programs are sometimes directed at teachers, but some go directly to the children in the school. And other parents may not know or approve of the subjects that are being introduced to their children.

“Boundaries are being dissipated,” Sasover pointed out. “You cannot play games with Jewish identity. The Education Ministry has a new project involving gender politics. They are rewriting Hebrew zachar and nekeva [to be replaced by gender neutrality] to challenge traditional gender outlooks. They are teaching teachers to change gender norms. At the end of it all, children are being encouraged to ask themselves if they are Jewish, if they want to be Jewish, and even whether they are boys or girls. These messages are very confusing for children.”

ARE MESSAGES hiding behind the new teaching programs introduced in Karnei Shomron?

I was not permitted to observe Sheetrit’s teaching in action, but I was able to talk to her on the phone. She was disappointed that her program was truncated, and refused to talk about parents’ objections to the educational initiative, although she offered insights into her method.

Her approach to education offers three tenets. The first involves core curriculum as well as life skills, problem-solving and social values skills. The second principle is personalized learning. A teacher works with four or five children at a time for seven to 10 minutes, giving each child personal attention. The rest of the class does exercises and reviews. And the third involves active learning. For example, each child may choose a subject that he or she is interested in, study it and teach it to the rest of the class.

She claims she has no say on any school’s content or curricula. That is up to the teachers and the principal. She simply teaches teachers how to teach. And she affirmed that she thinks it is very important to keep Tanach in all the Israeli schools.

When I asked about her organization’s left-leaning board of directors, she said she looks for board members who support her educational theories. She said she was not averse to appointing a National-Religious right-wing board member. 

“It’s about education, not politics,” she added.

But it seems these days that those topics are impossible to separate. To end the conflict, it was decided to pull Sheetrit and her organization from both the Barkai and Masuah schools. The program remains at the Rimon School.

According to Lahav, Karnei Shomron recently finalized a contract with a new open school educational organization for the Masuah Mamlachti Dati school in Karnei Shomron. No substitute has been finalized yet for Barkai.  I asked if parents will be involved in the choice.

“The director of the education department [of Karnei Shomron] has the final say,” Lahav said. “If I need to ask the parents, September 1 will come around and no one will be good enough.” ❖