Snap Judgment: The education of a racist Anglo snob

What the battle over two Jerusalem schools says about the place of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel.

calevbendavid88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Perspective can be everything in looking at a particular news story, with the truth of the matter - or at least one truth - sometimes requiring it be viewed in the proper context. Here, for example, is one such story. On the surface it's a fairly local issue about the proposed merger of two Jerusalem primary schools, and the differing social attitudes of the communities they represent. Looked at from a different angle though, and with added background, it becomes quite a different matter, one that makes fairly important and more general points about the role of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel in general, and in Jerusalem specifically. One school, TALI Bayit Vagan, is a successful educational effort that draws students from all over the city, many of them children of Anglo (native English-speaking) immigrants. Its only drawback is that it is housed in a fairly small and run-down building, its space and facilities somewhat limited for its growing student population. The other institution, the Stone school in Kiryat Hayovel, is located in a larger and better outfitted building, but declining enrollment along with some social problems among its remaining student population - most from local working-class Mizrahi families - have left it more than half empty and on the verge of collapse. To solve the problems of both, as well as to encourage social integration, the Education Department of the Jerusalem Municipality, known locally as MANHI, has decided to merge both schools next year in the Stone building. But the plan has encountered some stiff opposition from parents of children in the two schools, and from a clear majority of those in TALI Bayit Vagan. Last week, an official from MANHI told The Jerusalem Post's In Jerusalem magazine that the opposition from the latter sounded like "the closest thing to racism." Well, it so happens that I myself have two children studying in TALI Bayit Vagan, and am one of those parents strongly protesting the proposed merger with the Stone school. I guess that I should be feeling pretty ashamed of myself right now, having been exposed as one of those "limousine liberals" who is really a closet racist, like those advocates of school integration back in the States who wouldn't dream of sending their own kids anywhere but de facto segregated private schools. And I would - if that was all there was to this story. BUT IT'S not, due to the special status that TALI Bayit Vagan has in the Jerusalem educational framework. The school is part of the nationwide system known as TALI - from the Hebrew acronym for tigboret limudei yahadut, or enriched Jewish studies - which comprises non-Orthodox religious schools or classes within schools. For most parents, Tali represents the only alternative between the strictly Orthodox Judaism of the state religious schools and the lack of religious ritual and dearth of Jewish studies in the secular system. TALI's path hasn't always been easy; it had to petition the High Court of Justice to win a landmark case four years ago to force the Education Ministry to fund instructional hours for prayer in TALI schools to the same extent that it funds them in state religious schools. Despite this though, there are today some 135 schools within the TALI system, and many more classes based on its educational approach in other schools. Even within this framework though, TALI Bayit Vagan is unique. It is the only one of the Jerusalem TALI schools specifically linked with the Israeli branch of the Reform movement, in particular with Kehilat Kol Neshama in the Baka neighborhood. For example, the students make trips to this well-known progressive synagogue on certain Jewish holidays, the school's official rabbi is linked to the shul, and parents are encouraged to take part in events there. Needless to say, this hasn't exactly endeared the school to a Jerusalem Municipality, or its MANHI branch, now dominated by representatives of the city's ultra-Orthodox population. When it became clear that demand for the school had outstripped its fairly small size, the city repeatedly overlooked its requests to transfer to bigger facilities elsewhere when they become available. Last year though, MANHI proposed that TALI Bayit Vagan move into the Stone school (part of the secular system) and merge the remaining student population there, which had dropped to less than 100 pupils, into its own. Opposition quickly developed among the parents, including some very strong opposition from Stone families, some of whom told the local Hebrew press they didn't want their children going to school with "Anglo snobs" or taking part in their alien form of Judaism. Faced with these protests, MANHI dropped the idea, then suddenly resurrected it this year. This time around they basically presented it as a fait accompli, saying TALI Bayit Vagan had already been assigned for use next year as a haredi girls' school to accommodate that neighborhood's burgeoning haredi population. Let me make a confession here; I really do wish I was an "Anglo snob," sending my daughters to an "elite school;" alas, anyone who ever laid eyes on TALI Bayit Vagan, or observed how the parents of its advanced English-speaking students had to struggle this year to find a suitable English-language teacher to instruct their kids, would laugh at my pretensions. In truth, the school is exactly the kind of institution helping to create a base for an Israeli Reform Jewry that could seriously use (and deserves) greater support from the movement's wealthier American cousins, but for various reasons it has not been that fortunate. Last week a Shas city council member also told In Jerusalem: "It's amazing. Under an ultra-Orthodox mayor, the city administration offers the Reform movement a fair and viable solution that will save this school, its most important educational and public achievement, and they can't overcome their feeling of superiority toward 'simple' people from Kiryat Hayovel. Next time I hear them criticizing us about the [alleged discrimination against] Sephardi girls' situation in Ashkenazi seminaries, I'll know what to answer." In fact, there is no issue with TALI's ethnic diversity, which boasts Israelis from many different backgrounds, in large part reflecting the character of its local "catch" neighborhood. What unites those families, though, is their willingness to accept the school's special religious character, whether or not that played any part in their decision to register their children there. Not that I blame the parents at Stone who, like me, oppose the merger. They may well not be ready to have their daughters come home from school demanding, as mine do, to be given the chance to say the blessing over wine at Friday night dinners - a rite normally reserved for men in Orthodox households. But I'm glad my own girls are getting that kind of education, and don't want to see it diluted by sticking into the school kids whose parents are not supportive of this approach. And if battling a city hall, an education department and a Jerusalem mayor who are uncomfortable with that idea risks being labeled a snob and a racist, so be it. [email protected]