Bringing pupils of all stripes together

The Meitarim school network teaches religious and secular children under the same roof.

THE MEITARIM branch in Gilo, Jerusalem, hosts a ‘slihot’ event last month. (photo credit: Courtesy)
THE MEITARIM branch in Gilo, Jerusalem, hosts a ‘slihot’ event last month.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In modern Israel, it has become axiomatic that the country has sharp and deep societal divisions. A poll published by the Pew Research Center in March this year showed that the overwhelming majority of secular and religious Jews in Israel socialize almost exclusively within their sector, along with other clear indicators of the religious and secular polarization.
But in the Meitarim school network, secular and religious students learn and grow side by side.
“I thought we came here to be together, to grow up together, to study together, to be Jewish together, and bring all our identities together in order to enrich each other’s Judaism and create something new and wonderful together,” said Rabbi Michael Melchior, a former MK and minister who is the founder of Meitarim, which runs kindergartens, elementary, middle and high schools.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Melchior described his sorrow upon coming to Israel and seeing how these divisions are instituted through the school system at such an early age.
“When I first came to Israel, and I studied here and learned about Israeli society, what disturbed me more than anything else was that we divided ourselves into all these different boxes,” he said. “Having differences of opinions and identities is fine, but that we force our children when they are babies to be separated, for me that was an antithesis of what Zionism meant.”
In 2000, upon noticing significant demand for a more inclusive education system, Melchior set up Meitarim as a framework which would dispense with the religiously divided state education model of separating between secular children who are placed in the general state school system and religious children who are placed in the statereligious school system.
Melchior’s new framework was designed as an alternative where pupils could be educated in Jewish values and culture from a spectrum of perspectives, and to which secular, traditional and religious parents would feel comfortable sending their children.
Melchior’s goal is clearly fraught with potential pitfalls. Secular and religious parents alike are bound to be unsettled at the children learning a different set of values and lifestyles.
How does Meitarim overcome such anxieties while still providing the multi-faceted Jewish education at the heart of its philosophy? Ranit Budaie-Hyman, executive director of Meitarim’s network of 70 schools, says one of their foundational principles is that the schools are not “fire and forget” institutions.
“It’s not like you send your child to a religious school and that you know he’ll be OK, he’ll wear tzitzit and put on tefillin because someone is taking care of this there,” she says. “With Meitarim schools, the educational responsibility passes over to the home and it’s hard work for the home, because the child comes home with questions and with opinions.”
But, she explains, this gives pupils the opportunity in school “to think, to learn, to go in depth, and to see the complexity, to see that not everything is black and white.”
Children in the Meitarim system come across new ideas and perspectives, says Budaie-Hyman, in a “guided” manner, which she said is preferable to encountering such things for the first time as a young adult. And, she pointed out, there are no guarantees in religious schools either, citing the relatively high rate of people educated in the state religious system who later leave that life behind.
Budaie-Hyman says some parents expect their children’s schools to instruct pupils in performing religious rituals, even if the parents themselves do not perform them.
“With us, the example comes from home, the child sees that the parents observe Jewish law and practices, and they get their religious direction from there,” she says.
Although practices vary among Meitarim schools, one model is for the teachers to be aware of which children should wash their hands before eating bread, for instance, and ensure that they do so at school.
So how do the schools go about teaching Judaism? The first and foremost principle is what Meitarim calls “reading barefoot.” This means that when studying a Jewish text, the first thing that is taught is the text itself and a familiarity with the text, before any commentaries are brought in.
The pupils are asked what they think of the text in question before bringing in the medieval Jewish commentators, as happens in state- ת religious schools, or before bringing in biblical criticism, as happens in the general state school system.
“Only then do the schools bring in commentaries and interpretations, from Rashi, Rambam [Maimonides] and Sforno, to Bialik, Ahad Ha’am, and Brenner, and Shakespeare, and Michelangelo,” said Budaie-Hyman. “So the child learns basically how to be familiar with the world and to find his own identity, his religious-Jewish identity, and his Israeli and universal identities through this multiplicity of voices.
“The central message to the children is that they are commentators, and this gives them the chance to interpret and to examine for themselves.”
In general, Jewish practice in Meitarim schools is done on an Orthodox basis, generally with a greater emphasis on egalitarianism than average Orthodox institutions. And when classic approaches to Judaism are taught it is largely through the prism of Orthodox thought.
In some Meitarim schools, however, where there are children from Reform and Conservative families, such as in Modi’in and Kiryat Tivon, parents have requested that a non-Orthodox perspective also be included in the Jewish education framework.
Budaie-Hyman says the issue is a very sensitive one for Meitarim, because Orthodox parents have been extremely reluctant to send their children to a school where non- Orthodox thought is taught.
She says, however, that the issue has not arisen in many schools and is dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
Regardless of denominational questions, the general emphasis on a multiplicity of perspectives, opinions and interpretations is at the core of Meitarim’s goals and beliefs.
But to religious parents wanting to impart a religious education to their children, the prospect of giving their children a pluralistic education can be unsettling.
Children can and do come home with questions about what they have learned in school which is different from what they practice and see at home.
“It does make me nervous, and you have to be attentive,” says Eli Lifshitz, a religious parent who has a child at a Meitarim school in Tel Aviv. “It’s a fear and it is there; maybe some parents would feel uncomfortable with it, which I understand. But I think children can and do handle complex issues if there is a clear line you provide them for how to handle such things from the home.”
Lifshitz also argues that, in his opinion, the situation is unavoidable even at a state religious school where pupils are told explicitly how to observe Jewish customs, laws and practices, and what Judaism says about particular issues.
Inevitably, a teacher will give instructions on any given practice or idea which is either more strict or less strict than what a pupil has heard and seen at home.
“When the child comes home, the parents have two possible answers: either that the teacher is right and the parents are wrong, or that the teacher doesn’t know what they’re saying or is not aware of other legitimate practices,” he said. “Both of these are bad options because they diminish either the authority of the teacher or the authority of the household.”
Instead, what Lifshitz said he is seeking from religious education at school is to firstly provide knowledge and secondly to provide an emotional connection.
“A lot of responsibility then comes back home, and so the home has to give the [religious] direction,” he said.
Hemed Aviezer, a religiously traditional parent who sends one of her children to a Meitarim school in Ra’anana, has a perspective that is strikingly similar to that of Lifshitz.
“We were looking for something which was not just Jewish studies but studies with Judaism, studies that would make them like and love Judaism and everything around it,” she said. “Something that shows Judaism as a way of life and not just a theoretical subject.”
Aviezer, who is the chair of the school board, a volunteer position, said she does not worry about whether her children will become more religiously observant as a result of going to a school with such an emphasis on Judaism and religion.
“What’s important to me is not that my kids are religious or not religious; they can choose whatever they want to be. What matters is that they understand what they’re doing and where they’re coming from,” she says.
Integrating children from religious and secular homes is not without its challenges, for parents and for the schools themselves, which do have to deal with concerns raised by parents about what their children have learned.
But this challenge is at the heart of what Budaie-Hyman says Meitarim is trying to achieve.
“We are raising a Jewish and Zionist generation that will want a Jewish and democratic state, and the new Israeli-ness that will come out of this will have numerous faces, great variety, a multiplicity of opinions and many interpretations and will also be harmonious and will be able to take Israel forward, both in terms of society by bringing different sectors together and in terms of values” she said.
“We need to create a certain unity in the people between different sectors and populations, to be familiar with the other, to respect the other, to value the other, and to see the beauty in an opinion which is different from your own.”