Three weeks ago, I was privileged to receive Israel’s Presidential Medal and speak on behalf of my fellow honorees. Being an educator, I chose to share a story that has been etched on my heart from my many years at Yemin Orde Youth Village.
A six-year-old boy, the grandchild of a Jewish man, found his way to us from a desolate orphanage in Eastern Europe, thanks to the holy work of the Nativ governmental agency in the former USSR.
Years later, after he completed his military service and began his academic studies, we spoke about the turning point in his life. When did the change occur in him, after experiencing a world devoid of compassion as a helpless toddler? “It happened very early on”, he said, “when I heard you sing. Children and adults singing together, with joy. I didn’t understand a word but my heart told me, ‘You can’t be bad; bad people don’t sing like that.’”
This refugee child, who grew and matured to be an engaged and value-driven citizen, could be the poster boy of Israel’s education system, that in its finest hours knew how to integrate universal values and the human dimension with teaching scholastic skills. It was a system that knew how to create educational environments that, in a nutshell, represent uprightness and social cohesion for disenfranchised kids.
Israel’s Law of Return can be seen as an expression of such righteousness, the openness and generosity to welcome many thousands who are of Jewish descent. Like our poster child, many boys and girls from Israel’s social and geographic periphery have been successfully integrated and brought up in youth villages, as well as state-run educational frameworks.
True, this has not always been the case. Not every school or village can embrace this benevolent spirit and we all know the ills of our education system. And yet, over the years, this system claimed and even succeeded to create a basic common denominator and vision for the majority of children in our fractured society.
These days, a real concern arises about this collective glue that has always served as the backbone of our state education system. The Education Ministry has been stripped of major components. Basic Common Core studies have been tainted with sectionalist content, undermining the educational freedom and scholastic sovereignty of teachers.
AND IF all this were not enough, even the grandchild clause in the Law of Return is in the crosshairs. Will we still be able to offer a safe haven to refugee children and youth afflicted by war and misfortune if they are not Jewish according to Halacha? Should they find their way to us? Can we continue to provide them with an education that broadens their horizons, inspires curiosity and discussion, and allows criticism of existing world orders?
We do not have the privilege of giving up on education and on our educators’ autonomy to be authentic. This is probably the last bastion of our civil society’s ability to embrace diversity, as well as common values and common ground. We must not wreak havoc on our very foundations.
Long live Israel – that is my deepest prayer and wish, and those are the words I have chosen for the conclusion of my address at the presidential residence. Indeed, the responsibility for this now lies with the elected Israeli government.
And so, before the powers that be rush to legislate, amend and recodify the Education Ministry’s departments, management and scope of authority, they would do well to pause and read the opening words of our State Education Law. Enacted in 1953 and still in force today, the preamble states that the goal of the law is to educate a person to be a people-loving person.
Anyone who believes in the unifying power of education, must cherish and uphold this vital point, and even fight in order to preserve it.
Education is first and foremost an individual endeavor and the collective endeavor of many individuals, driven by a sense of purpose and a passion to impact young lives. Anyone who has experienced teaching in a classroom will probably agree that educators not only face tremendous day-to-day challenges but also have the capacity and resilience to withstand impositions that contradict their innermost values.
We will continue, against all odds, to sing together.
The writer is the president and founder of Village Way Educational Initiatives. He has recently been awarded Israel’s Presidential Medal for his life’s work in education.