Shaharit: A new dawn for religious schools in Jerusalem

Is this a religious school? If so, how come most of the girls are wearing pants? And, in general, how is it that in a religious school there are boys and girls?

 STUDENTS PUT Shaharit’s ‘dialogue approach’ in action on a recent school day. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
STUDENTS PUT Shaharit’s ‘dialogue approach’ in action on a recent school day.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Monday morning, a little after 8 a.m., at the Shaharit junior and high school, a Hallel prayer event is being run by the students. On the right side of the entrance to the building, the boys are praying, wearing tefillin, while on the left, at the end of the vestibule painted in bright and cheerful colors, the girls are singing the verses of the Hallel, listening to the Torah reading by a female teacher, reciting the blessings over the Torah and, finally, two girls raise and re-dress the scroll.

At first glance, it looks a bit confusing – is this a religious school? If so, how come most of the girls are wearing pants? And, in general, how is it that in a religious school there are boys and girls? Aren’t state-religious educational institutions completely gender segregated?

In her modest office, Roni Hazon-Weiss, the founder and director of the school, who grew up in Ma’aleh Adumim and now lives with her husband and three children in the Baka neighborhood, talks about the dream she managed to realize. 

Shaharit: A dream fulfilled for religious, liberal education

Shaharit is Hazon-Weiss’s dream fulfilled. But it is also a dream shared by quite a few religious parents from the liberal stream, for whom Jerusalem is not only a residence but a place where it is possible to innovate and spread ideas that are revolutionary.

Shaharit is a new and especially innovative school in almost all it does. A religious experimental high school in Gonenim – for boys and girls – enabled by the Education Ministry (via the religious public education stream), the city’s Education Administration (Manhi) and the Association for the Advancement of Education, it’s based on the High Tech High model developed in San Diego. It is meant to enable personal development and excellence, experiential and collaborative learning, authentic customized work and equal opportunities.

 RONI HAZON-WEISS, Shaharit founder and director. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) RONI HAZON-WEISS, Shaharit founder and director. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Asked if her school should be considered as a new line of education that shows the way to other institutions or just one possibility offered to those in search of a less stringent religious institution, Hazon-Weiss answers that her vision is to be a guiding light.

"Shaharit brings good tidings to Israeli education and to Jerusalem education, and even to religious education in general. We’re actually bringing two innovations in education."

Roni Hazon-Weiss

“Shaharit brings good tidings to Israeli education and to Jerusalem education, and even to religious education in general. We’re actually bringing two innovations in education. The first is pedagogical – that is – how we should teach and learn in a school, Our model is one where most of the responsibility for learning lies in the hands of the girls and the boys. This is the model of a beit midrash, based here on projects. First, a big question is asked. Then there is a large amount of research done by the students, and then the project itself is done – a project that demands from the students to go out and learn from [experiences] outside of the classroom. To read, to give presentations, to give feedback to each other. This is a model in which a lot of the responsibility for learning is on them.

“Basically, we believe here in a dialogue approach. This is not a democratic school, this is an institution in which we are in constant dialogue with our students.

“The second message we carry is the religious one, about the possibility of mixed education for boys and girls, in the religious state education stream. Our model at Shaharit is modular: here, the classes are separate classes. But there are spaces that are shared, where they study together, and not only in informal settings, such as breaks between courses, but also everywhere we believe it is right for them to be together. But there are also [times]...  we believe it is right for them to study separately.

“However, the trend is that by the end of the 12th grade, they will study in as many shared spaces as possible. The reason is that we believe that the public we are addressing is the religious families, who are involved in all areas of life, and hence, that is what their children should reach for and be ready for, too,” she says. 

ON THE origin of this vision and how it came to fruition, Hazon-Weiss, who was awarded the Kiverstein Institute Prize for 2021 for being an influential Jerusalemite in the field of advancement of women, explains: “It is a model we studied in San Diego, and to this day there is only one like it, in Holon, and now here, at Shaharit, as we are the first religious school in this format.”

The Shaharit system works as a meeting between the beit midrash format and innovative learning methods, a meeting between learning in the classroom and learning through experience.

Hazon-Weiss is not a newcomer to religious-feminist activism. In past years, she was involved in several struggles linked to this agenda. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the Democratic Institute and has a master’s degree in gender studies from the Schechter Institute. She is one of the leaders fighting against the exclusion of women from the public space – on bus ads and on billboards – and is for women’s independence when it comes to immersing themselves in mikvaot (ritual baths). 

She served as the secretary-general of the Yerushalmim faction and was adviser to then-deputy mayor Rachel Azaria. She established Leadership for Coexistence – meetings of Jewish and Arab, religious and non-religious girls with an emphasis on feminism, female leadership and promoting change in the public sphere. Yet, education, and innovation in education, backed by her religious-feminist credo, are the core of her activities. Shaharit and its vision and mission were tailor-made for her.

But, as notes Hazon-Weiss, there is more. Even though there is an emphasis on bringing together girls and boys, the school doesn’t ignore the different needs boys and girls of middle school and high school age have. The joint activities and separate classes allow each of the genders to develop fully without pressure, and that is the soul of the whole project of this special school, she says. 

The teaching method is based on textbooks and research and curiosity, or in Hazon-Weiss’s words, a meeting between school and real life, between outside and inside and between Torah and work, to prepare these young students for real life, when society – one that regards men and women equally – is expecting them to work and develop. 

The other pillar of the school’s vision and mission is the emphasis on in-depth knowledge of the Jewish sources. This field is taught through creating a sense of belonging, love and relevance, without ignoring the challenges facing believers in a modern world. Hence the morning prayer, the reading and singing of the Hallel, and the central place attributed to Jewish spirit – and knowledge of sacred texts such as the Bible, Mishna and Gemara. 

WHAT ELSE does this school provide? Hazon-Weiss says it strives to provide a spiritual, religious, educational and social response through research-based learning out of choice and interest, as occurs in High Tech High schools. “The learning is at a high educational level and of high quality with an emphasis on 21st-century skills, with gender studies, elective classes... in social involvement and in other social and educational activities, as well as aspiration for excellence in all areas of life – academic, social and personal, in view of the future of these students. We see them as future citizens who will reach all the fields of life in the country, where they will hold their place, to build a society that fits religious families that want to take their place in Israeli society in all fields, without renouncing their Jewish heritage and way of life.”

Part of the curriculum includes social involvement, and this is, too, points out Hazon-Weiss, at the heart of the school, which is based on social Judaism.

The school is currently preparing to register new students, like all the other schools in the city, for the next school year. The competition to win the hearts of students, and especially their parents, is great. Shaharit offers a new way, which is not without difficulties and doubts – with an ambitious model, both in the educational aspect and the religious aspect.

Hazon-Weiss believes there are enough religious families in Jerusalem who will prefer the model it proposes, which combines the pursuit of excellency with the preservation of religious values without giving up a liberal, feminist and egalitarian approach. ❖