The odd couple?

Parents and teachers are divided on the wisdom of merging Evelina de Rothschild and Hartman high schools for girls.

evelina 298 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
evelina 298
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
After an extended debate within the municipality's education department, a decision has been made to merge the Evelina de Rothschild High School with another religious girls' school, the brand-new Hartman School. Evelina has recently recovered from a tumultuous time. Dr. Beverly Gribetz, the previous principal who was adored by some and abhorred by others, was forced to quit and now she is opening a new school, Tehilla, which will also offer a new place for religious girls. This year, Evelina is suffering from low registration. The new Hartman school brings hope for something totally new and, according to its administration, will strive for academic excellence but doesn't want to become an elitist, upper-class institution. After a few different options were suggested, Manhi's (the Jerusalem Education Administration) decision was to let the new Hartman school set up on Evelina school grounds. The first year will still see the two schools separated, but the goal is to transform them as soon as possible into one school, under the name of Hartman for Girls, and thus put an end to the chapter of Evelina de Rothschild, which was first opened in 1864. "The decision taken by the head of Manhi, Benzion Nemet, could turn out to be a new start for Zionist religious education in Jerusalem," says the head of the Evelina parents' association, Etti Binyamin. "We all know that the level of education in this city is far from appealing. People leave the city and establish themselves in the surrounding areas - Mevaseret, Modi'in, Ma'aleh Adumim. Although they keep their jobs here, they move just because they can get a better education for their kids in those places. The situation of the national religious schools, especially for girls, is no better. This new experience, with the Hartman Institution, could be the turning point." "The game seems lost even before it has begun," says a veteran Evelina teacher with a bitter smile. "We have no chance against them, and even if this new initiative is not a bad one, I grieve for the crudity and the cruelty of the system, which puts aside with no mercy, old and good habits, a certain kind of modesty and humility we always stood for here at Evelina. As if we really do not matter anymore. It's all brand new and exciting and we are no match [for the new system]." "It's not that we do not understand that there are some rules," she adds. "It's just that we feel nobody has the patience to let things run their natural course. We even had rather encouraging registration in the higher grades this year, so what is the hurry? We seemed weak to the system, so the system is crushing us. What will become of our teachers? Of our principal? Has anybody up there even given it a thought? I doubt it." Earlier this week, one of the teachers even composed a kina (lament) to mourn the premature death of the school, where he has taught for years. However, Sam (not his real name) a father of a student at Evelina, says the situation is not that serious. "Over the years, we have seen how the school brought in more Orthodox teachers [haredim], who are certainly not suitable for what we, the parents, had in mind when we sent our daughters there. And we have no choice - of course, there is Pelech, but how many girls can register in Pelech every year? [Usually, Pelech takes in about 60 new girls each year, this year the number dropped to some 40, but the number of girls applying is higher every year.] It's sometimes a real nightmare for the girls and their parents and of course, there are many more girls who are not accepted there than the number of lucky ones who make it. So this new school will put an end at least to that." But now that the merger with Hartman has been confirmed, many Evelina parents are concerned that their daughters won't fit in at the new institution, but they remain hopeful. "Nobody wants to talk, especially to the media," explains one father, who spoke with In Jerusalem on condition of anonymity, like many interviewed for this article. He added that his eldest daughter, who was lucky enough to be accepted at the end of elementary school to Pelech, felt the difference in quality there immediately, but they are happy now that their youngest daughter won't even have to go through the anxiety period to see if she is accepted there as well. "There is [now] an option, and a very good one for us. It's a tremendous achievement." "WHEN WE went public with the project and last February had an open house, 500 people showed up," says Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, co-director of the Hartman Institution and the main mover behind the project. "It's not that there is a lack of places for religious girls in Jerusalem, but there was not enough choice for those in the religious Zionist community who wanted something close to their vision. Except for one place, for those people, everything else was a second best choice, and I don't mean to say anything negative about the other schools. But there was a lack of options and we now offer a good solution." In fact, according to sources inside Kikar Safra, it was Manhi's initiative to look for something new and different. And indeed, the Hartman project was originally conceived as a semi-private project for its own community, though now it will be a state religious school. The encounter between Hartman and Chana Kehat (who created the framework of the project) and her vision, along with the quest by Manhi for something new and appealing, resulted in the new initiative. According to Kehat's description, the new school will be an answer to the needs of a growing modern, egalitarian, pro-feminist and educated religious community in the city. Kehat, who founded the Orthodox feminist movement Kolech, sees the new school as much more than a place for studying. "This will be the place where we will be able to give our daughters the best education available, to raise a modern, religious, feminist young girl in contemporary Jewish society. Our program is designed to give the girls the best tools to enable them to take their places, once they are grown up, in a society where they will be able to fully live their religious experience, live in peace with themselves and their bodies, as women, as Jews, as feminists and as citizens in the modern world. This is far beyond mere learning. It is a new, holistic and healthy approach." The program will include three parts: beit midrash (Talmudic studies), followed by a body and soul program and a third section dedicated to arts, culture and general knowledge. Kehat and Hartman insist that the new school will be "totally integrative," to ensure that financial issues will not prevent potential enrollment. Hartman adds that in any case, they will not "look into parents and families' tzitzit" regarding the level of religiousity, "as far as the girl and her family agree to respect what we are: a religious school." "The whole approach will be different from anything we know," adds Kehat. "The actual model of the high school is a masculine one. Women and feminists do not need hierarchy or distance. We will teach and work accordingly, and see that the girls will have a religious and learning experience they deserve." "I've heard a few things about the vision of this school," the veteran Evelina teacher says. "It does sound beautiful, although I am not sure it fits all the girls. In any case, I realize this is the end of an era and although I wish them all the best, I still think it could have been done in a different way." When asked what will become of those - teachers and students alike - who do not fit in with the new dream, Hartman answers honestly: "They will have to find another place. Nobody will expel them, but I believe this is Manhi's major obligation."