Changing Israeli society one school at a time

Highlighting rather than hiding.

Keshet pupils (photo credit: COURTESY KESHET)
Keshet pupils
(photo credit: COURTESY KESHET)
Walking into Jerusalem’s Keshet School, which serves pupils from first through 12th grade, one meets children and young adults who encompass a wide spectrum of the Jewish world. There are boys wearing kippot of various sizes and materials, while others are bareheaded; there are brightly dressed girls in skirts or pants, with long- or short-sleeved shirts. Five of the school’s 17 classes cater to children with special needs.
However, what might first catch one’s eye is that none of these distinctions seem to matter.
In the Education Ministry’s 2013 census, there were 1,169,711 pupils in the country’s Jewish education system during the 2012-13 academic year.
Of these, 668,692 studied in secular schools, and 212,379 attended state religious schools. The Central Bureau of Statistics found that 42 percent of Israeli Jews self-identified as secular in 2010, with 12% self-identifying as religious and 13% as national-religious – so at first glance, the number of pupils attending secular and religious schools seems to be representative of the country’s overall religious demographics.
But on a closer look at the numbers, it appears that over 200,000 pupils may be “misplaced” in the rigid constructs of “secular” or “religious” schools. And what of the 25% who self-identify as traditional? In a country where tensions often run high between “the secular” and “the religious,” schools like Keshet are trying to highlight that members of these different communities have more in common than we might think. Talia Koren, deputy director for pedagogical administration at the Education Ministry, says that the acknowledgment of these commonalities reflects a change occurring in Israeli society.
“We’re seeing Israelis who are coming together from a variety of backgrounds and living together with mutual understanding and respect,” she says. “The Education Ministry has a very strong desire to do something for these people.”
ONE ORGANIZATION trying to encourage these viewpoints is Tzav Pius. Tzav Pius, which literally means “conciliation order,” was founded in 1996 after the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, as a response to growing tensions between the country’s religious and secular communities. The organization’s name is a play on the term “tzav giyus,” or IDF induction order, highlighting that unity among Jews should be addressed with the same urgency as ensuring the country’s national security.
Tzav Pius decided that change should begin with the country’s future: its children. The organization therefore works to create religious desegregation in the public school system, assisting interested communities in opening schools that celebrate diversity. Its aim is gradually to change the fabric of society to allow for religious difference while acknowledging sectarian similarities.
Aliza Gershon, the organization’s acting director of nearly six years, says that last year Tzav Pius received 180 inquiries from parents and educators about creating integrated schools in their communities. So far the group has assisted in the formation of 46 schools across the country, serving over 7,200 pupils.
While that may seem like a small number in the scheme of things, Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Rachel Azaria considers integrated schools the future of Israeli education. Azaria says that many Israelis do not strictly identify as “secular” or “religious,” and that these classifications only pose a problem once they have a child going into first grade.
“The Israeli education system is not giving such parents a place to send their children,” she says.
“This is why we’re seeing more and more religiously integrated schools opening – they’re catering to a large population.”
But while many might theoretically support the idea of religious integration in schools – religious and secular parents alike aspiring to broaden their children’s minds through interaction with those from different backgrounds and traditions – several questions arise on a practical level. How does this actually work? At a time when surroundings are crucial to a child’s development, what does being in this kind of environment do to him or her on a personal level? On a religious level? How can children stand up to peer pressure at such a young age? TO ANSWER some of these questions, three high school students from Keshet share their own experiences of being members of a blended community.
“I really feel that this framework gives us an opportunity to be heard,” says Noam, a senior who has attended the school since kindergarten. “It’s a tool for life, being able to honor and accept people who are different from you. I also think that it gives you self-confidence regarding your own choices.”
Eleventh-grader Yuvi adds that there is little conflict between the secular and religious pupils; rather, “we’re able to learn from – and teach – each other.”
Yuvi’s description of how the school handles Shabbat offers an example of the way the pupils accommodate each other: “There are definitely kids who don’t go out on Shabbat, so secular friends might change plans to another night so that their religious friends can be included.
On Shabbat itself, a friend might ask if it would be okay to take a picture. People are flexible.”
The Education Ministry’s Koren, too, uses Shabbat as an example of integration.
“I could be sitting next to a classmate whose parents drive on Shabbat, even if that’s not what I do in my own home. So what?” she says. “When there’s understanding and mutual respect for people, irrespective of where they’re coming from, it allows for a different kind of conversation, which will only continue to help the Israeli population flourish.”
Twelfth-grader Linoy adds that for her, being in an integrated environment has been “an opportunity to learn about different worlds. You learn about how they observe Shabbat, and they learn about what you do. It’s a way to figure out what you want.”
When it comes to religious identity, “what you want” is a serious – and perhaps frightening – thing to determine. Yuvi says that addressing this question is an ongoing process.
“You’re constantly reevaluating, and meeting new worlds,” he says. “Coming from a home where my mother is religious and my father is secular, I knew I would have to make a decision [about my own religious identity] at some point. Coming to Keshet has given me a chance to taste different flavors of religious practice.”
BUT DO parents necessarily want to give their children a framework for this sort of “tasting”? Shimon Avichzer, Keshet’s principal of six years, says that just as one might envision one’s ideal life partner, parents have the same kind of dreams for their children.
“Every parent wants their child to turn out in a certain way,” he says, and the decision of where to send one’s child to study is part of that equation.
However, a look at the school’s graduates, he continues, shows that students usually do not make drastic religious changes; the majority continue to identify “with their religious identity at home.”
For pupils who have one secular parent and one religious one, “religious home life” might be hard to define. However, here, too, schools like Keshet aim to provide a model that puts pupils in a comfortable and familiar setting so they can, as Yuvi says, figure out who they are and who they want to be.
According to Tzav Pius’s Gershon, this is one of the aspects that makes studying in an integrated school worthwhile. “You are able to see other people’s viewpoints at eye level, because at the end of the day, they’re your friends. It allows you to build your personal and national identity in a very unique way.”
Azaria sees this change in national identity as seminal for the nation’s future.
“We are currently a multicultural society, but each culture often lives inside of its own gated community,” she says. “The next step is solidarity and finding the common ground that we share as a people” – a founding principle of the Yerushalmim party, which Azaria leads.
Keshet’s vice principal and 12th-grade head teacher, Amiad Melzer, affirms that any changes pupils make regarding their own religious practice are done thoughtfully and gently. Parent involvement is encouraged every step of the way, he adds: “Parents recognize that we’re actively trying to strengthen the identity of our pupils.”
Another element of religious integration is how the school deals with rebellion.
“Children sometimes want to rebel, but here things are very open,” says Melzer. While other schools might not allow for pupils simply to decide to cease specific religious practices, enabling them to do that can create opportunities for dialogue.
“Deciding not to daven [pray] does not go against the ethos of the school, [and that gives] students a unique floor for expression,” says Avichzer. “And if a student does make that kind of a decision, it is never made without conversation, with both the student and his parents.
It’s a way to get at underlying issues that might otherwise go unnoticed.”
Melzer gives an example of this phenomenon in the story of Nathan, an 11th-grader from a religious home who one day stopped wearing a kippa. After several days, a Keshet staff member approached him. Following extensive conversation, Nathan admitted that after learning about the atrocities children suffered during the Holocaust, he felt he was unable to pray and chose to remove his kippa. This discussion resulted in his having one-on-one study sessions with a philosophy teacher who specialized in faith as it connects to the Holocaust.
For ideological reasons, Keshet does not offer a trip to Poland like many schools do, but instead has a four-day immersion in Israel focused on the events of World War II. On that trip, Nathan gave a presentation on the subject that had so troubled him, and today he studies at the Ma’aleh Gilboa Yeshiva.
“In another school, this would not have happened,” Melzer stresses. The fact that Nathan had the option to take off his kippa, the vice principal continues, allowed for real conversation to take place; in a different framework, the school might never have known that Nathan was struggling.
“Every day, students choose to attend either tefilla [prayer] or mifgash [a structured meeting],” explains Avichzer. “Every morning, pupils have to stand and face their own identity.”
However, this does not mean pupils can arbitrarily opt to go to tefilla one morning and mifgash another.
“If a child wants to switch from one to the other, once again, this is an opportunity for discussion,” says Melzer. “We ask them, ‘Why do you want to make this change?’” AS PART of strengthening identity, Keshet believes it is also important for pupils to have some classes with those who are like them.
For this reason, the school’s Beit Midrash program in seventh and eighth grade has separate classes for religious and secular pupils, who in turn are separated according to gender, making for four groups. Melzer says that while most of the school’s classes are integrated, “you have to strengthen your own world as well.”
Avichzer adds that this past year, the school separated math by gender as well.
In high school, the Beit Midrash program – which primarily focuses on Jewish law and Jewish philosophy – once again becomes religiously integrated. However, classes are taught by two teachers, one of whom is religious and the other secular. Avichzer says this allows for a conversation between the two worlds, as the teachers themselves often have opposing views, enabling the pupils to ask questions openly.
“It’s a way to highlight both similarities and differences,” Avichzer explains.
Similarly each class in the high school has two head teachers, one secular and one religious.
This is an unusual pedagogical experience for the teachers as well. Melzer says being in a place like Keshet opens one’s mind. “We have secular teachers who have never had daily contact with a synagogue, and religious teachers who had all sorts of preconceived notions about what it meant to be secular. It changes the way you think.”
Assaf Hirschfeld, who has spent the last five years as a consultant for all new Tzav Pius schools, says he recently asked a principal of a new integrated school to write a couple of paragraphs about his experience.
“The principal is a young religious man, and I was impressed and surprised by his openness as he described having had stereotypes about secular people, which proved to be unfounded.”
Hirschfeld, whose involvement in Tzav Pius began eight years ago when he spearheaded the opening of an integrated school in his own community of Mazkeret Batya, says that parents are beginning to see the effects and successes of integration with their own eyes. In a recent study the organization conducted, 70% of parents said they would consider sending their children to a religious blended school.
There’s definitely been a shift in general public opinion, Avichzer adds. “There’s been success in the elementary schools, so parents – both secular and religious – can see that it works and that their children’s identity is being strengthened. Now that we’ve passed that adaptation stage, people who wouldn’t consider schools like ours before now can. The world is getting a little wider.”
He predicts that religiously integrated schools will become more common in Israel, an assessment that Hirschfeld heartily confirms. Education Minister Shai Piron wants to make integrated schools part of his education reform. Piron, who self-identifies as religious, comes from a secular background, and during his career he has been involved with several projects encouraging interaction between the religious and secular communities. Hirschfeld sees Tzav Pius as a proactive part of the Education Ministry, able to provide the hands-on support necessary to get things moving after a project receives ministry approval.
In 2010, a law was enacted that allowed existing Israeli schools to become religiously integrated, but said that new religiously integrated schools could not be opened. Gershon says that while she hopes this law will ultimately be changed, there are still parents from all over the country interested in adapting existing schools to an integrated model.
“We provide resources to any parent who is interested, which includes everything from funding to pedagogical instruction,” she says.
According to Hirschfeld, in the next three years, Tzav Pius hopes to open 50 new integrated kindergartens, elementary schools and high schools, which he says “will genuinely impact Israeli society.”
In a speech at a new integrated school in Mazkeret Batya, Piron asked what was special about such schools. He posited that it was their formation of communities that were not afraid “of meeting one another, of those who are different. You can’t teach from a place of fear, and fear plays too big a role in the interactions between both individuals and communities in Israel.
[Integrated schools] are setting this fear aside and allowing for meaningful interaction.”
ASKED IF they have ever considered going elsewhere, Yuvi, Noam and Linoy say that Keshet is unquestionably the school where they belong.
“Though I’ve been at Keshet since kindergarten, I had several opportunities to switch schools,” Noam says. “My parents always gave me that option. But I’ve really found my place here – the school is like my second home – and I don’t know that that would have been the case elsewhere.”
Yuvi, who transferred into Keshet in 10th grade, says the school “opened up my mind in a good way. As the school’s name suggests, you see the entire rainbow here, and every person can gain something. No one knows everything, and there is always something that can be learned.”
Linoy says that getting to meet people who “don’t necessarily come from where you do is the same kind of experience we’ll have in university, in the army and in the workplace. This is a way of life – a choice, if you will: to accept people who are different.”
She feels Keshet pupils have an advantage in this area, because “we’re coming from a place where we’ve already learned to do that.”
Yuvi adds that “when you come in with an open mind and let yourself change your opinion, you become a better person for it” – an assessment with which Noam heartily agrees.
“I’m pretty comfortable with my religious identity,” Noam says. “But [being in this environment] makes you stop and improve yourself. Being with people who aren’t like you does not mean that they are far away from you. Rather, you learn how you can be together.”
One example is a class that Keshet offers on Jewish justice. An optional unit for the Jewish philosophy matriculation exam, the course examines shared Jewish identity. Noam, who was in the class last year, says that it was an opportunity to look at Jewish texts on a variety of topics. The course looks at Judaism’s approach to societal issues, “many of which are still relevant today, but we also talked about how things have changed. It’s a class that really encompasses your world: your stance on your country, the city in which you live, and your family.”
Here, too, she says, differences often highlight similarities.
The concept of a shared Jewish identity is one that Avichzer says is common in other parts of the world, though not necessarily strongly felt in Israel.
“When recent immigrants from France come looking for schools for their children, they don’t understand the notion of ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ education,” he says. “They’re just looking for a Jewish school.”
But Israeli society is moving in that direction as well.
Gil Kraiem, who is responsible for Tzav Pius’s PR, says that the last five years have witnessed “a renaissance of Judaism in the Israeli secular world. We’re seeing serious Jewish learning programs opening for Jews from various backgrounds.”
Kraiem cites Israeli music as reflecting the increasingly blurred lines between the religious and secular populations.
“More and more secular singers are singing religious texts,” he says. “Similarly people are looking for schools that are less black and white.”
Demographically, Avichzer estimates that Keshet’s student body – which is some 380 strong – is approximately 30% religious and 30% secular, with the rest falling somewhere in the middle. Melzer says he would have approximated 70% falling somewhere in the middle, with 15% self-identifying as secular and 15% as religious.
Intriguingly, Keshet does not have statistics on pupils’ religious self-identification, because although it asks them to provide that information on their seventh-grade applications, the school never formally asks them again after that. And this seems to be reflective of Keshet’s stance on integration: It’s not that differences don’t matter, but each pupil is on his or her own personal journey, and rigid definitions are not always necessary.
Hirschfeld recounts that Amram Mitzna, chairman of the Knesset’s Education, Culture and Sport Committee, recently visited a Tzav Pius school. A pupil asked what “the big deal” was, wondering why a Knesset member would take the time to visit his school. When he was told that Mitzna was interested in seeing a school where religious and secular students learned together, the pupil looked up and asked again, “But what’s the big deal?” That attitude represents exactly the sort of change many hope to see in the country’s future.