Jerusalem schools: How is education managed in Israel's capital?

Unpacking the Israeli capital’s complex education system, with the director of the Jerusalem municipal education administration.

 EXCITEMENT OF the first of day of school, Jerusalem, September 1. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
EXCITEMENT OF the first of day of school, Jerusalem, September 1.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

If it can be said that managing a city like Jerusalem is a difficult task, then perhaps managing the education system in the city is the closest thing to an impossible task.

Jerusalem is a district by itself in the Education Ministry, being the city with the largest Arab and ultra-Orthodox populations in the country. The secular and religious public streams make up a significant part of the total number of students in the city; but unlike in other cities, the education system must be adapted to the diverse needs of each sector.

Zimi Zimran, who heads Manhi, the municipal education administration, took office about a year ago and controls a kind of empire with close to 300,000 students in the general state and religious state streams, as well as the Arab and ultra-Orthodox sectors. In the last two sectors, there are institutions of different status – from recognized to recognized unofficially, and to independent education that is not conducted in Hebrew but in Yiddish.

There are 197 schools in the general public stream, 189 in the Arab sector and 397 in the haredi stream. There are about 290,000 students in the city in all three streams; in approximate numbers (without specifics for the private schools in the haredi and Arab sectors): general public (including public religious) – 67,000; Arab, 103,000; haredi 114,000.

This is also the case to a certain extent among east Jerusalem residents (schools of the religious Muslim institutions) beside a network of independent schools – private and under the auspices of the churches or the Wakf trust (with some of them under religious influence that sometimes slips into extremism and which are identified with movements such as Hamas).

 ZIMI ZIMRAN, CEO of Manhi. (credit: ARNON BUSSANI) ZIMI ZIMRAN, CEO of Manhi. (credit: ARNON BUSSANI)

Zimran sat down with In Jerusalem to discuss how he is dealing with these aspects, as well as talk about the image of the city’s educational system. As he addressed the issues, he candidly shared the daily reality that he and his administration faces, while describing plans for improvement in the educational system in the near future

He pointed out the great challenge of opening the first full academic year after the pandemic – when we all remember the enormous damage caused by the COVID epidemic.

“Safra Square was empty on the first day of school; there were no demonstrations or strikes and we opened in all sectors across the entire city.”

Zimi Zimran

“Safra Square was empty on the first day of school; there were no demonstrations or strikes and we opened in all sectors across the entire city,” Zimran said. Referring to Yaffa Ben David, chairwoman of the Teachers’ Union, he emphasized that in Jerusalem, all the parties work together: “Here, there are not on two different sides of the barricade. We all have a common goal.”

There are about 290,000 students in three sectors, (not including private educational institutions, and the Arab and the ultra-Orthodox school systems). Each system is managed separately because the education methods are different, reflecting their unique worldview. In the Arab sector, most of the students still study under the Palestinian Authority’s curriculum. However, Zimran noted that there is an increase in the number of applicants opting for Manhi’s Israeli program and the Israeli matriculation.

“We are still in low numbers, but I don’t accept that it doesn’t work. It is a process, and such processes take a long time. You have to understand that four years ago we had about 500 children studying according to the Israeli program, all of them in Beit Safafa, which was originally a half-Jewish neighborhood. Today, there are about 15,000 students across all the Arab neighborhoods

“The processes are spot-on. There are neighborhoods where it is more difficult to introduce change – for example, Jebel Mukhaber, which is under a larger Islamic influence. However, there are also quite a few children there who are already studying in the Israeli program. My role is to enable; I am not involved in the political aspects. I do everything to make it possible, including for the neighborhoods beyond the security barrier, such as Shuafat. 

How did you finance all these processes? Was it financed by the municipality alone?

We took the resources of the 3970 plan, we added urban resources, and we added construction resources. Although the Education Ministry is responsible for the construction of classrooms, we are building, and we are building like crazy in the east of the city. This is how we are creating a different reality. Little by little, Palestinian mothers are realizing that their children’s future will surely be better if they are in the Israeli system and go to the Hebrew University or to the Hadassah College. They all understand that mastering Hebrew is a process and does not happen in one day.

Who trains the teaching staff in the Arab sector?

The Education Ministry and us. There is more to improve in this program. It is also a process because sometimes it is easier to educate children than it is to make this change in adults among teaching staff. But we are already seeing a change for the better, certainly in the area of Hebrew competency.

Have you encountered teachers who refuse to be a part of this program? 

Yes, there are some, but our policy is not to force anyone. Initially, the program was more based on teachers from the North – teachers with Israeli citizenship from there. But now, more and more teachers from the east of the city are getting involved. Today we are investing a lot in the leadership development of local teaching staff from the east of the city, and we see significant results.

Let’s talk about the dropout problem. How successful have you been in addressing this issue, or is it a Sisyphean task that has no chance of being eliminated?

In order to understand what is happening, you have to evaluate each sector separately. In the state and religious state sectors, even in light of the coronavirus, the numbers are very small relative to what is happening elsewhere in the country

When you view the situation in the haredi sector, the numbers are much larger. Most of the children who are part of the youth development department (Kidum Noar) come from that sector; even more of them since corona. Things we didn’t see before corona are happening today. At Mahaneh Yehuda at 2 a.m., you will see youths in hassidic garb who walk around drunk. This was not the case in the past.

We have established several programs, with workers who go to the places where these youths are. We have programs for seminary girls in order to help them just before they drop out. We work in a variety of programs, and some with organization. 

I think that the haredi network that was built to provide an answer is huge. However, reporting [absentees] is more complicated in the ultra-Orthodox sector. Three years ago, in the Arab sector, we made a significant effort to reduce dropouts. We work in coordination with the Israel Police, with dropouts who are already borderline criminals and have engaged in activities related to terrorism.

But you have no direct way of knowing what the real figures are for dropouts in unknown educational institutions that are not under the supervision of Manhi. 

That’s right, but I can get data through the Education Ministry to complete the picture. Church educational institutions do not have a dropout problem, but in private educational institutions of the Wakf, which do not cooperate with the state, we do not have accurate information.

Let’s talk about seminaries for haredi girls that exclude Sephardic girls. How long will this go on? Days before the start of the school year, why weren’t many dozens of girls assigned to any seminary? Don’t you have the power to demand a change in the attitude of the seminary heads? Why isn’t their funding suspended?

These seminaries are private bodies; they do not receive money from the Jerusalem Municipality. They receive funding from the state, and the state must decide whether to do something about it. As of today, to the best of my knowledge, there is not a single girl who was not placed in a Jerusalem seminary. 

But we know the phenomenon, which this year is more severe than ever, in which outstanding girls with good grades are not accepted. As an attempt to improve the situation, we established a new seminary – the Keter Seminary – to solve the problem. But it’s a lengthy process. This is more of a cultural phenomenon, and I hope we have opened a window to solve the problem. 

What about this new public haredi stream?

It takes time, but we have started. This year, there are close to 2,000 boys and girls in state-Orthodox institutions. This year we opened four such institutions in the city.

You introduced a Bais Yaakov school in the building of a state school in Kiryat Hayovel, which angered the neighborhood residents. Why?

Because I have to provide an educational structure for all the students of the city. These girls, almost 1,000 of them, live in Kiryat Hayovel. They have to study somewhere, right?

You are a clear product of the educational approach that combines formal and informal education. What do you bring from there? How does education address the questions and challenges of our age? What is the Jerusalem education system’s stand on this? What is your vision? 

In my previous position [as deputy director of Manhi], all the innovation units were under my responsibility. I grew up at the Nisui [experimental, pluralistic] school, and I returned as a grown-up to manage it. I was raised in a home that was very influenced by alternative education. 

Alternative education sits deep in my educational ideological concept, and it has three anchors. One is that learning happens everywhere. Second, that the child is the full container and not the empty container to be poured into. Lastly, the belief of a parent in the child and the dialogue between them. 

All this has nothing to do with technology or patents. It is related to the basic understanding of what education is. And I understand that educational diversity needs to be expanded.

What else influences you?

The understanding that this city chose, 50 years ago, not to box in its residents but to allow them to find their educational venues – something that does not exist in other cities. Our goal is to figure out how to provide better education. 

We all understand that there will always be a certain number of [so-called] elite institutions – that means there will always be Leyada [Hebrew University High School, a semi-private high school] and IASA [Israel Arts and Science Academy]. But there shouldn’t be only one Nisui school – there should be six. There should be six Keshet schools [a joint educational framework for both religious and secular students].

There should be more anthroposophical ones as well [schools incorporating a spiritual component, which rely more on experiential teaching than concrete learning until at least the third grade]. Anthroposophic education focuses on contributing to urban children’s optimal human development, also making this educational format accessible to every parent who is interested in it. That way, we will create a holistic education, and that’s where I lead.

And what will it include?

It is composed of three sequential components. First, following the transfer of the daycare centers to the Education Ministry, we decided that each new building would contain kindergarten to the upper grades. From now on, we are building campuses, not a single school. 

Second, to envision the school as a 24/7 operation – a move we started four years ago in Kiryat Menachem, where we added youth movements and voluntary afternoon activities to the schools. This creates a space where not only is the child there until 6 p.m., but the teacher knows what is happening in the youth movement and also sits with the instructors from the classes and the rest of the team. 

And third, this school year we have already introduced this approach of holistic education and 24/7 schools to the city’s Arab sector. We upgraded it and opened four schools according to this model in east Jerusalem. Today, they have become what we call the “complete school.” ❖