Program raises Jewish identification

2 years of innovative pluralistic education starting to bear fruit.

school children israel class 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
school children israel class 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A novel program aimed at enhancing Jewish identity in public schools is showing significant success after a two-year pilot in Holon, ahead of expansion to additional cities.
The Hitchadshut program, established by the Panim non-profit organization and the Legacy Heritage Foundation, has set out to rectify what is considered by many to be one of the most troubling shortcomings of the Israeli educational system.
“The educational system has next to no discourse on Judaism and the significance of being Jewish,” Hitchadshut program director Lea Wohl- Segal said.
This is despite the fact that five of the 11 goals to the State Education Law, as noted in the updated version from 2000, pertain to Jewish identity, the history of the Jewish peoplehood, Jewish values and tradition. Education Minister Gidon Sa’ar had also stated that fortifying Israeli pupils’ affinity to the land, Jewish heritage and peoplehood would be one of his primary goals of the recently concluded school year.
Starting in September 2008, Hitchadshut implemented a municipally supported model of Jewish pluralistic education for some 4,770 pupils in Holon’s public schools, through activities such as studying Jewish sources, conducting religious ceremonies and holding communal events. Preliminary work with the 396 teachers from six elementary and secondary schools had taken place from January of that year.
A study conducted by Research Success Technologies Ltd. among nearly 500 youth from the three secondary schools in the program before its implementation and after its first two years shows a noteworthy shift in the students’ take on things Jewish.
If at the beginning of the 2008 school year 37 percent of the pupils said that Jewish identity had a significant or very significant place in their school, in June 2010 some 65% held that opinion. While in 2008 some 56% noted that they’d like to deepen their knowledge of the Jewish tradition and culture to a great extent, 67% felt that way in 2010. The desire to learn more about Jewish values also grew from 60% to 76% during those years.
Besides work in the schools, Hitchadshut also held activities in community and youth centers in Holon, including Kabbalat Shabbat evenings; trained kindergarten teachers on methods of using Bible stories to shape educational agendas, and held a mass bar and bat mitzva ceremony.
Holon was deemed a perfect choice for the pilot, since its population is representative of all the levels, facets and origins in Israeli society, while it is also well-run by Mayor Moti Sasson, who was recently named one of the world’s top 10 mayors by the UK magazine Monocle.
Moreover, some 40% of the mid-sized city’s people define themselves as “traditional,” a populace that can at times fall between the cracks of the Israeli educational system, which is divided into religious and secular sectors.
“Traditionalism is a component in the identity of a significant part of the Israeli society,” Wohl-Segal pointed out. “A traditional person is attached to the land, the fate of the Jewish people, the Hebrew language, Israeli literature and so forth. The dichotomy between secular and religious in the public school systems creates a situation in which the needs of the large expanse of traditional students are insufficiently addressed. Additionally, the educational system does not benefit from a voice of traditionalism in the ongoing Jewish discourse.
“We at Hitchadshut believe that one of the central roles of Jewish education is to provide for the spiritual needs imbedded in the souls of the students,” Wohl-Segal added. “Our Holon program is testimony to the fact that the municipal setting can enable a student’s exposure to a discourse around Jewish identity, in different settings and times.”