A Zionist reeducation

Since making aliya from France in 2009, Sam Pinto has already been instrumental in setting up Darca.

mural showing the first local Alliance school 521 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
mural showing the first local Alliance school 521
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Sam Pinto planned everything down to the last detail before making aliya. Regular visits gave him more than a passing acquaintance with the quirks of Israeli society, he made sure he had work waiting for him and he bought an apartment well before getting on the plane. He also had siblings and children anxious for his arrival.
Even Pinto’s choice of Tel Aviv as his final destination was well thought out, for he found it eerily similar to the Moroccan metropolis where he spent a happy childhood. Indeed, both Tel Aviv and Casablanca host their country’s commercial centers, sit on the sea next to well-developed ports, are blessed with sunlight, and have a distinctly international flavor. They also share some of the same architecture, for when German- Jewish architects of the Bauhaus (International) School were kicked out of their homeland with Hitler’s rise to power, many who didn’t come to pre-state Israel moved to Casablanca and built houses with the Bauhaus design for which Tel Aviv has become famous.
“Yet it is never easy,” says Pinto. “True, I didn’t come as a Moroccan immigrant in the ’50s. But I had lived in Paris for over 40 years, knew the city like the back of my hand, had a successful career and a comfortable financial situation. Still, I am so very happy to be here, and to be able to participate in the Zionist dream.”
And participate he does. Besides a parttime job with the Rothschild Group, Pinto hopes to bring about change. To this end he is already deeply involved in two Israeli projects: one with KIAH (Kol Israel Haverim – the Israeli branch of Alliance Israelite Universelle); the other a new program offering advanced education for madrichim (youth workers).
Pinto’s ideas for change have nothing to do with Israeli behavior. In fact, he thinks Israelis are wonderful, and isn’t fazed by the pushing and shoving, the incredible noise level, the lack of courtesy in our elevators and trains, or the way that people drive (“Paris is a driving jungle as well, although here it is worse. But never mind, I drive fast!”). No, what he worries about is the future of Israel as a Jewish state, and the speedy growth of an increasingly extremist haredi movement.
The solution to both, as he sees it, is to put Jewish – not religious, but Jewish – content into Israeli education and to eventually see the emergence of a Jewish movement imbued with Jewish knowledge and Jewish values. He feels that it is important to go against the current trend of polarization, and to build a strong pluralistic foundation in Israel.
Pinto is familiar with both the strictly religious and the secular world: in his family, one sibling is completely secular and one very religious, with their children split between the two as well.
“The extremism here is surprising,” he says. “In our world, in Morocco, this didn’t exist. There was one Judaism with some people more traditional and some less. The rabbi was out in the community helping people, not rejecting them... everyone was praying the same, in the same room, with the same beautiful tunes, nobody was rejecting anybody. You were just Jewish!”
He is just as concerned with a growing ignorance about everything Jewish among our young people.
“If things continue like this, there will be no need for a Jewish country, we will not be a Jewish country. Absolutely we need to be in our country, but always to be Jewish, this is very important to me. And I found the answer in Alliance.”
ALLIANCE WAS founded in Paris in 1860 by Jews who were not particularly religious and thought in terms of tolerance and pluralism, says Pinto.
“They believed it was important for young people to be familiar with the Jewish texts, to know about Jewish values, and to accept all Jews as Jews.”
In 1862, Alliance opened its first school, in Morocco, where Pinto was born. And by 1900 the organization was operating nearly 100 schools for Jewish children in Arab countries, and in pre-state Israel. Pinto’s great-grandfather, grandfather and the entire extended family up until the last two generations were all educated in Alliance schools. Thus, although Pinto himself didn’t attend any of its schools, he knew all about Alliance.
“It was practically legendary, in my family,” he says.
Pinto’s career included 28 years of work for the Rothschild Group in Europe, many of them with Edmond de Rothschild, namesake and grandson to the pre-State Israel’s “Great Benefactor” – “Hanadiv.” About 10 years ago he persuaded the Rothschild family to donate a large sum of money to build a center for Alliance in Paris. Today, he notes, it is a beautiful eightstory building with school, synagogue and activities.
“So I got even closer to Alliance,” he continues, “and about six years ago the chairman asked me to join the Central Committee and to be on the board. I accepted and became increasingly active. In 2008, a year before I immigrated to Israel, I was asked to become chairman of Alliance’s French-Israeli school in Mikve Yisrael and since I was already planning to come here, I agreed. That year I commuted frequently between France and Israel, and when I finally made the move I joined the board of KIAH.”
With the mass exodus of Jews from Arab countries, Alliance had to change its focus. It closed or pulled out of many schools that bear its name, in Israel as well. For the past 15 years KIAH has concentrated on improving education by offering schools located in disadvantaged areas additional resources, new programs that emphasize Jewish content and the advice of skilled professionals. KIAH operates in both state and state religious schools for, even in religious schools, says Pinto, they often concentrate only on text, “or on how long a skirt should be” and not on Jewish social values like caring for the less fortunate.
By now, teachers, principals and pupils from 50 schools are taking advantage of the services offered by the Israeli branch of Alliance.
“We have had very good success in the schools teaching ‘piyutim’ [Jewish poetic hymns] from communities all over the world. Children become proud of their Yemenite, Moroccan or Russian heritage as they learn the beautiful piyutim sung by their grandparents,” says Pinto.
IN THE only KIAH program of its kind, located in a stunning, century-old building purchased 35 years ago by Alliance, the Kerem Institute in Jerusalem also offers weekly classes to teachers and other professionals – both active and retired – from both ends of the religious spectrum.
The approach at Kerem is pluralistic, and courses range from art and creative writing workshops to “International Law and the Halacha,” “Egypt: Place or Concept,” “Family Relationships in Genesis,” “Love and Family in Agnon’s works” and “Handel versus Haydn.”
But all this wasn’t enough for Pinto, as the new head of KIAH. Last year Alliance decided to join forces with the Rashi Fund, the largest non-profit organization in Israel. The combination resulted in Darca (“way,” in Aramaic), a new network of schools located all over the country.
So far there are nearly 10 such schools, managed with a professional team whose aim is twofold: raising the academic level, and imbuing the institution with Jewish content. Next year they hope to double the number of schools, and continue from there. If the network is very successful, Pinto hopes that it could, possibly, change the system of education in this country.
Another of Pinto’s philanthropic projects is connected with the non-profit organization Bayit Ham, founded 30 years ago in Paris by five professionals active in the Zionist movement. Based on a French technique known as Institutional Psychotherapy, Bayit Ham consists of 30 drop-in centers all over the country, including two in Jerusalem. The aim is to overcome the feelings of rejection, loneliness and distance that teenagers often experience in their surroundings, and to help them achieve a better life.
Pinto supported the project financially from the beginning, and became more involved over the past 10 years. Once in Israel, however, he went a step further, after noticing that the majority of the youth workers (madrichim) had no academic training for their very important task. So he went about setting up a special BA program at Ben-Gurion University and Zvia Walden was chosen as its director.
A specialist in developmental linguistics, Walden is an unusually innovative educator.
Not only is this program unique in Israel but it has one very unusual aspect: about a third of the students, who may have come from backgrounds similar to that of the young people in their care and are often in their 30s, never finished high school or completed their matriculation.
What they do have, however, are motivation and experience in the field.
The new program includes three years of academic studies in social work, psychology, sociology and related fields including specific techniques for working with youth at risk. In addition they participate in field work each year in houses run by Bayit Ham and other similar institutions.
When they finish the program, they end up with either a degree in social work or a diploma – both from the university.
For those students who had no chance of acquiring a higher education this is the realization of an impossible dream.
Thirty students began the program last year, 30 more started this year and by next October there will be 90 of them studying at the university. Soon Israel will benefit from a new cadre of dedicated and experienced people who love the work they do and are serving their country well.
And Sam Pinto will be onto yet another project...