Cityfront: Final chapter?

Budget cuts are threatening the long-running Adult Literacy Program.

Fortuna Goldberg made aliya from Egypt in 1951 with her husband and two children. She had five more children here, and today has 22 grandchildren and nine great grandchildren. "My daughter is a pharmacist, another one is a teacher, my son is an engineer and so on," she relates. "I gave them the best education available, but I didn't have the time to learn Hebrew. Of course I speak Hebrew, but all these years, I couldn't read or write, as I can do with French or Italian. So I wanted to know Hebrew better and to know more about our history and culture, and this I can do here." Goldberg is currently learning to read and write Hebrew at the Baka Community Center, which runs one of the adult literacy programs operating across the country, many of them since the Sixties. In 1961, a nationwide survey revealed a high rate of Hebrew illiteracy among the adult population. In response, the Education Ministry launched a national literacy program in 1964, which targeted immigrants from the early years of the state. The program was led by then-head of the ministry's Culture Department, Yitzhak Navon, in cooperation with the army's Women's Corps. Women soldiers were trained to teach courses in Hebrew language and literature, basic math and history, working for the most part in ma'abarot (transit camps for new immigrants) and development towns. Over the years, the courses diversified to include ulpanim for new immigrants and classes for the elderly. Literacy programs at the Baka and Gilo community centers have continued, but recently budget cuts have threatened their existence. "I have always been a teacher; for me it is not just a mere job, it is a vocation," says Sarah Maizel, the head of the Adult Literacy Program in Jerusalem. "I know their [the students'] names, I know their personal history, I know the details of their children's lives - who's here and who's living abroad, marriages, births, bar mitzvas - it's like a big family." ON A Tuesday afternoon, Sima Aharoni can be found teaching math at the Baka Community Center. Her voice is soft, her students attentive and eager to answer her questions. Most of the 12 women who comprise the adult literacy class at the Baka Community Center immigrated to Israel in the Fifties. They range in age from 64-70, are all mothers and grandmothers and live in the area. Their story is typical of many of the students, most of them women, who take part in the adult literacy program: Their education was put on the backburner as they turned their time and attention to raising their families. Now, years later, they finally have the opportunity to invest in themselves. "We worked in every job available - cleaning, child care, cooking - just anything to bring a few more shekels home," recalls one student, Mazal Ben-Ezra, who has lived in Baka since 1948. "After I married, I had to take care of my children, and to make a living, I took in foster children as well. All of them, my biological children and my foster children are one big family." Years later, all her children graduated from college. "They were the first to give me support when I decided to join the class," she says. Her deskmate, Leah Hamani, is a mother of nine, eight of them girls. "All my daughters are teachers, graduated from university, but though they are very proud of me, they do not help me with my homework, but I manage by myself. After all, they are busy with their own children," says Leah, who immigrated in 1950. "For me coming here is more than just getting an education," says Leah's sister Rivka. "It's a social occasion, but the studying has given me something very important: I feel more confident in myself, more independent and as a result, I am much prouder of myself. "When I sit with my grandchildren, I can read them stories, I can draw with them," she continues. "It's really very different from what I experienced with my children in the past - although they [my children] are all college educated and my son is even a doctor." "I wanted to be able to read the street signs," says another student, Tamar. Before she learned to read she would constantly have to ask people for directions. "I was so humiliated when people answered 'It's right here, can't you read the sign?' Well, I couldn't and it upset me so much. Now I can read and I don't need anybody's help. I am free and independent and it makes me feel so good!" But the enthusiasm of Aharoni's students and their counterparts nationwide may not be enough, as the Adult Literacy Program's future hangs in the balance. According to Maizel, the program is made possible by the Education Ministry, its Department for Adult Education and the community centers where the program operates. The government's recent proposed reforms to the education system to resolve the secondary school teachers strike will cost NIS 5 billion over five years. Shortly after the December deal was struck, ministry Director-General Shlomit Amihai notified the Adult Education Department that it would face additional budgetary cuts in 2008 - a decision department employees have since protested. The Adult Education Department's last budget cuts were in 2007, when the ulpanim's budget was slashed from NIS 80 million to 40m. and the Adult Literacy Program's from NIS 9m. to NIS 4m. The cuts expected this year, some department members warn, could be even higher. "Even though we already know that this cut will not even allow us to pay the teachers until the end of the year [2008], we also already know that further cuts are already planned in next year's budget," says a high-ranking department employee. As a result of the 2007 cuts, he adds, cooperation with the community centers became necessary to help bear the brunt, as the centers agreed not only to host the department's programs but also to participate in their funding. "Think about the meaning of this [prospective] decision [of additional cuts]," he says: "On the one hand, we try to improve the level of education and the respect for it among young students, and on the other hand, we tell their parents that their education has no importance. What kind of a message is that? "Someone at the ministry realized that the government was not going to fund all the [education] reforms, so they had to find money somewhere," says the department employee. "The fact that they decided to target the Adult Literacy Program is unspeakable. The state owes these veteran immigrants - who had to work hard to make a living - the right to literacy and education; we cannot let them down." Aharoni's students are no less concerned about the expected budget cut. "Why would they stop this wonderful initiative?" the women ask. "It is so important and rewarding, we can't believe the government would let us down after all the hard work we've done," they add as the class topic shifts from math to Theodor Herzl and the history of Zionism.