Newly arrived parents pass test of figuring out the Israeli school system

When Ilana Mushkin's family moved to Israel in August of 1973, her eight-year-old brother asked for a 10-year diary, and told his parents he would go back to the US when the diary ended and he turned 18. "He was extremely nervous about security issues," Mushkin recalled. She added laughingly, "Today he is a colonel in the IDF." "I've been through the experience of kids integrating into a new society twice," said Mushkin, who since coming here as an 11-year-old has moved back and forth several times between Israel and the States with her husband and children. Today, she is the Chairwoman of the Parents Association for Pluralistic Education in Ra'anana, which runs the Meitarim School - a private, religiously pluralistic school where more than 10 percent of the student body is made up of new immigrants. Entering a new culture, Mushkin said, was never easy. When her own children were in junior high in the States, she recalled, they were taught proper ways of responding to other students whose opinions they were contesting in a debate. "Here in Israel, it's often more like 'Shut up, what do you know?'" she said. She also noted that Israeli children have very different ideas about competitiveness and ethics in school; whereas in the States it would be unheard of to copy someone else's homework before class, in Israel it's considered bad form if you don't. Among the olim studying at Meitarim are Shaya and Tova Baichman-Kass's two oldest children, who studied at the Solomon Shechter School in Los Angeles before moving here last July. "My kids are doing great - they had no culture shock whatsoever," said Shaya Baichman-Kass. He attributed their easy acclimatization process to the fact that they study with so many other English-speaking friends, from whom they can get help when the going gets tough in Hebrew. The Baichman-Kass's youngest son, Itamar, spent six months back at his Los Angeles school in a Hebrew-immersion program before coming here, and already speaks it fluently, his father said. Five months into the school year, many recently arrived olim are wondering how to evaluate their children's social and academic processes in their new schools. On Sunday, the Ra'anana Community Aliya program offered its latest lecture on acclimating to life in Israel, which focused on helping parents to do just that. Baichman-Kass said that his advice to other parents like him and his wife was to listen to their kids - and, most importantly, "just have fun." "We've really had so much fun being here," he said, "and the kids pick up on that." Debbie Finkel, who moved here last August from Massachusetts with her husband Robert and their three children, said that friends had advised her to wait until January to evaluate her children's progress. "It was like magic - all of a sudden, in January, their language skills and social lives started to click into place," Finkel said. Since her children still weren't expected to do all the Hebrew homework their classmates do, she said, she devises small after-school projects in English so that they maintain the structure of doing homework. Dr. Bob Chernick, an educational psychologist who runs the Educational Services Department in Kfar Shmaryahu and also works at the Ra'anana municipality, shared some professional advice with parents at Sunday's lecture. "English-speaking parents will often send kids to English classes to keep up with their English before improving their Hebrew language skills," Chernick told The Jerusalem Post prior to the event. "Although from an emotional perspective it's important for kids to maintain their native language, it's also important for parents to send the message that they value learning Hebrew." In some cases, he said, what this meant for parents was acknowledging that they didn't know the language perfectly themselves, rather than avoiding it altogether. This included, Chernick said, trips to the local library, reading easy texts in Hebrew together, or getting a tutor for extra help with learning the language.