Not just a drain on society

Think Again: SHUVU, a network of 25 schools in 25 Israeli cities, is a good example of what the Haredi community can contribute to society.

SHUVU 521 (photo credit: courtesy of SHUVU)
(photo credit: courtesy of SHUVU)
About a year ago, I was asked to participate in a Knesset symposium on what the haredi community had to contribute to broader Israeli society. That particular symposium never took place, but I was nonetheless buoyed by the fact that there were secular Knesset members who were prepared to consider the proposition that the haredi community is not just a drain on society. Had the symposium taken place, I intended to focus on those Jewish values of applicability to each of us that the haredi community has been successful in transmitting from one generation to another. Among those, I would have mentioned reverence for learning and for scholars, and the view that teaching is a holy calling.
In any event, my contributions have proven unnecessary. About a year ago, Dr. Tzvi Tzameret, head of pedagogy at the Ministry of Education, went to visit the local SHUVU school in Beit Shemesh, where he lives. SHUVU is a network of schools in 25 cities across the country, and employs over 1,000 teachers. Originally established over 20 years ago at the urging of Rabbi Avraham Pam, z”l, a leading American rosh yeshiva, on behalf of new immigrant children from the former Soviet Union, SHUVU has in the last six or seven years begun to accept many children from native Israeli background as well.
The immediate impetus for Tzameret’s visit to the SHUVU school in Beit Shemesh was to study the Waterford Method, developed in America, of teaching English as a second language with an interactive computer. Eight SHUVU schools are currently the only schools in the country using the Waterford Method to supplement their own English-language studies from first grade and up, and SHUVU is hoping to add more schools each year.
As a result of Tzameret’s visit, the Education Ministry is now considering widespread use of the Waterford Method. But the language studies were not the only thing that caught Tzameret’s attention on his visit to Beit Shemesh. He had a hard time tearing himself away from the instruction in one math class. (SHUVU’s math curriculum covers 20-25 percent more material a year than the state system.) The entire ministry staff that accompanied him on the visit was struck by way the students all leapt to their feet when they entered the room and chanted, “Bruchim habaim la’orhim hahashuvim [welcome to our important guests].”
One of those accompanying Tzameret commented on the “old-fashioned discipline,” which is no longer even a distant memory in most Israeli schools. That was not just a “blink” impression, but more than supported by repeated studies of SHUVU parents. Eighty-four percent of SHUVU parents whose children have transferred from other schools or who have had other children in the state school system say that the level of violence is much lower in SHUVU; 80% that the cultural level is higher; and 70% that the decorum is superior.
So impressed was Tzameret by his visit that he put SHUVU on track to be one of the “experimental schools” that the Education Ministry studies over a period of five years to better understand their success in a particular area. Two SHUVU schools – one in Netanya and one in Lod – were chosen for the study. Last month, a meeting between senior ministry officials and the directors of SHUVU took place. The ministry official, who has been accompanying SHUVU for nearly a year in the process leading up to the selection as an “experimental school,” became too choked up to speak as she started to describe what she had witnessed.
Finally, she related how for decades the secular system had failed to instill any Jewish identity. “When we try to teach about the holidays, it seems to go in one ear and out the other,” she said. “But I see that SHUVU has a method that works. SHUVU has the potential to revolutionize our system.”
At the meeting, Tzameret asked SHUVU director Chaim Michoel Gutterman for the source of the school’s pedagogic philosophy. Gutterman pointed to Ahuv al Kulam – Beloved by All, an abbreviated translation of an English biography of Rabbi Pam, the late rosh yeshiva of Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn. He spoke of how Rabbi Pam had believed that Jewish values were best absorbed in the context of teaching about Torah and mitzvot, and that only one who is fully committed to the values he is conveying can do so successfully. He or she is not simply transmitting dry knowledge, but must be a living example of the values being taught.
Two days after the meeting at the ministry, Tzameret visited the SHUVU school in Netanya. Scheduled to last less than an hour, the visit extended to three-and-a-half hours. Chess grandmaster Boris Alterman was in the school that day to play students and parents, so it was a perfect opportunity for Tzameret to speak to parents as well as observe the enthusiasm of the SHUVU students. It was Friday, and in every classroom, Tzameret asked children different questions on the weekly Torah reading. Almost every hand went up in response to each question, as the children vied to be the ones called upon.
One mother told Tzameret that her son had been bullied in school in the FSU, but she had never dreamed that it would happen in Israel. When he was also bullied in Israel, she took her son out of the state system and transferred him to SHUVU. “Now he is blossoming,” she said.
Another mother told him that it had been her husband, not she, who was interested in SHUVU’s enhanced Jewish studies curriculum, but after having seen the “warmth and love” her son received from the staff, she was now the one pushing for her daughter to start school in the SHUVU system next year.
Shortly after his visit, Tzameret wrote the type of letter to Mrs. Anna Shilkrot, the principal of SHUVUNetanya, that one hangs on the wall. He praised the school’s unique combination of “educating towards tradition and educating towards modernity,” and remarked upon the enthusiasm of both the parents and students to whom he had spoken.
Interestingly, however, the first thing Tzameret mentioned was the “dedicated and caring” teaching staff. That is one area where the contrast to the state system could not have been sharper. Israeli teachers express the least job satisfaction and have the highest rates of absenteeism in the Western world. By contrast, according to Prof. Tamar Horowitz of Ben-Gurion University, who has studied the SHUVU system extensively, SHUVU has the highest degree of teacher accountability in Israel.
She also found that students express a positive selfimage, despite the more demanding curriculum, have a high degree of confidence that their studies are preparing them for life, and possess a positive image of themselves as Jews. Those are qualities that can only come from the teachers.
Some past Education Ministry officials, eager to explain away SHUVU’s success, have accused it of cherry-picking talented students. But that is false. About half the students come from single-parent households – a high-risk group – and about 40% are from the Muslim republics of the FSU.
The key is the staff – mostly made up of young Bais Yaakov graduates. Though they are paid even less than their counterparts in the state system, almost all spend many unpaid hours tutoring weaker students and those just transferring into the SHUVU system. They are driven by their commitment to what they are doing, for they have been raised to view the transmission of Jewish values to the next generation as a holy mission.
I presume that most teachers in the state system also start off as idealists. The difference is that SHUVU makes it possible for teachers to succeed, and the reward of the teaching further fuels their idealism.
Because of the “old-fashioned discipline” and the respect shown to staff members, teachers can focus on their primary task and not spend their time as disciplinarians of unruly students. The ultimate beneficiaries of an environment conducive to teaching – and thus to learning – are the students.
But Dr. Tzameret has already testified to that more eloquently than I ever could have.
The writer is the director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997 and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.