Knesset okays integrated education bill

System will provide enriched Jewish studies to secular pupils; Sources: Test is in implementation.

melchior 224.88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
melchior 224.88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Knesset Education Committee chairman Michael Melchior's (Labor) dream of an integrated educational system that would provide enriched Jewish studies to secular pupils became a legal reality on Tuesday afternoon when the Knesset approved his bill. The bill, cosponsored by MK Esterina Tartman (Israel Beiteinu), passed its second reading 14-1 with one abstention, and its third reading 15-1. The law provides a framework to incorporate schools that follow such a system, alongside the existing state and state-religious frameworks. While the Education Ministry prevailed upon Melchior not to give the integrated framework exactly parallel status to the state and state-religious systems, it is clear Melchior believes this is what he has created. According to Melchior's vision, which he shared with The Jerusalem Post on Sunday, the new framework would incorporate those schools that already teach enhanced Judaic studies such as the TALI (the acronym in Hebrew for enriched Jewish Education) Education Fund schools and the Meytarim network for Jewish Democratic Education, along with a few individual schools. Melchior fought for and succeeded in achieving an implementation date of September 2008 at eight schools. He hopes to expand that number rapidly in the next few years, perhaps even to a thousand schools, he said. No new schools will be created in the initial stages, as per a condition imposed by Education Minister Yuli Tamir to secure her support for the bill. Tamir told Melchior that the bill could not come with a large price tag because the education budget was jam-packed already. The bill also had the support of the Ministerial Legislation Committee. Melchior told the Post during an interview in his office that "this bill is one of the major reasons I went into politics in the first place. While I believe in all the laws that I have passed in the last two years and four months, this one is special." Melchior has become increasingly concerned that secular and religious citizens do not interact with each other in Israel. "They can go from the cradle and even to the grave without truly interacting on a values level with one another," he told the Post. He drew, in part, on his experience as a rabbi in Norway to conceive of a different vision. "At my synagogue, all the Jews prayed together under the same roof, and it enriched the Judaism," he said, "These days, an American kindergartener has more Jewish knowledge than a person getting his doctorate at Hebrew University." The new law, he explained, "comes to create a different dialogue about what Judaism in Israel is in all the realms of our lives. It comes to create an experiential narrative based on a broad spectrum of Judaism." In Melchior's opinion, too much of Jewish education has been left in the hands of the religious. "The religious monopoly over Jewish education has forced Judaism to splinter into sectors. There is no longer any shared Judaism," he said, adding that kids today no longer defined themselves as Jewish, but as Israeli. "This country has never fully answered what it means to be a Jewish state. Does that mean just numerically, or does it mean content-wise too?" he said. "I think this new framework could be revolutionary. It could change the face of the nation." Melchior threw the power of his position as Education Committee chairman behind efforts to get the law passed. He canvassed incessantly and claimed to have support across the entire Knesset spectrum from religious to secular. Melchior did not bring to a vote a similar proposal a few years ago because he did not feel he had the support then. Existing schools could opt into the new framework if a two-thirds majority of parents voted in favor and if a simple majority of teachers concurred. Like the state and state-religious school networks, the new framework would have a governing council made up of Education Ministry professionals and representatives of the parents, the teachers and pluralistic organizations. Teachers would receive additional training and a Jewish educator or rabbi would be appointed in every school. Melchior was also convinced that the new framework would pique the interest of Diaspora Jews. He said they would find it easier to relate and connect to an education system with serious pluralistic Jewish content. He also noted that it would appeal to immigrants who came to Israel searching for Jewish content and a solid Jewish education for their children and who had not found their place in the state or state-religious systems. While Melchior was practically brimming with optimism and excitement, many others involved in the legislative process have adopted a more hesitant and skeptical approach. While the Education Ministry welcomed the idea behind the law, many felt that it could have been accomplished without actual legislation, a ministry source close to the matter told the Post Tuesday. "Education Minister Yuli Tamir supported the bill with two major conditions. One, it would only apply to existing schools to keep the costs down, and two, there would not be a clause in the law making it mandatory for the ministry to provide access to an integrated school," the source said. At present, the ministry must give every child the choice of a state or state-religious school, and if there isn't one close to the child's home, the ministry provides buses. No such practice would be undertaken for integrated schools, according to the source, thereby keeping costs low. "This could have been accomplished without a law," the source said, but admitted "no one had actually gotten around to creating such a framework before this law." Implementation was uppermost in the ministry's concerns, he said. "There is a sense that Melchior rammed the idea down the ministry's throat, and now it's up to us to implement it. And there are a lot of questions regarding implementation," the source noted. "At present, there are only about five people in the entire ministry who really understand what pluralistic Jewish education means, for one thing." TALI director-general Eitan Chikli characterized his stance as "cautious." "There are great [opportunities], but also great risks," Chikli told the Post Tuesday. "On the one hand, if the state has finally decided to support, financially, enriched Jewish studies among the secular, then that's great." However, he said, "the key will be in implementation. The main question for us is, will the spirit of the integrated framework really be open and pluralistic? The bill went through several wording cycles, and the word pluralism was removed line by line. I sincerely hope the same thing won't happen in the implementation." Still, Chikli added that the expected budget allocation of NIS 15 million-25m. was "a good start. I hope that if the number of schools joining the framework grows, the budget will grow accordingly." Chikli estimated that 60-70 percent of Israelis were searching for an alternative educational system for their children rather than the state and state-religious. Studies have revealed a "forgotten center" searching for something more Jewishly meaningful but not national religious per se, he said. He noted that TALI schools constituted nearly 10% of all elementary schools. The TALI network will comprise 183 schools and programs next year, from preschools through high school. Chikli also said he did not know how many of the initial eight schools in the framework would be TALI schools, "and that worries me too." Meytarim head Yossi Pnini described the law to the Post as "a challenge. It doesn't set reality, it challenges reality. I think Meytarim's efforts over the six years since its establishment as a pilot project, if you will, shows that it is possible. Therefore I am very excited," he said Tuesday. "The law sets a goal of a different societal future - a meaningful, cooperative one. The framework can be an important lab for preparing a new generation of Israelis for meaningful Jewish and cooperative lives. I very much want to believe that the educational system and the Israeli public will be able to stand up to the challenge," Pnini said. Meytarim was established six years ago and consists of 25 educational institutions ranging from preschools to high schools to pre-military academies. Its two main tenets are an integrated pupil populace - half secular, half religious - and an emphasis on educational programs with lots of Jewish content. Melchior is not unaware of the long road ahead. "We don't exactly know what will emerge here, but it is certainly exciting," he said with a smile.