Olim parents need to learn about Israeli schools and share ideas

Two new Olim taking an excited selfie upon landing in Israel (photo credit: SHAHAR AZRAN)
Two new Olim taking an excited selfie upon landing in Israel
(photo credit: SHAHAR AZRAN)
Welcome to Israel! If you are a new immigrant just arriving, I am writing this for you, as I see pictures of you descending from your plane here in Israel.
I remember my family’s aliyah four years ago. We arrived with four children, the oldest one headed to first grade. There were so many things to do when we arrived that at first I didn’t have time to appreciate what it meant to immigrate to Israel. However, when the school year began, I realized how meaningful it was that we had made aliyah. When my son entered first grade, I witnessed the school assembly with Hebrew songs welcoming Kitah Aleph, and I was filled with pride, hope and patriotism.
Suddenly, I had a strong feeling that my children were being educated as part of a nation and a people. Their education would not only be about their individual educational accomplishments, but also about their place in the collective Jewish nation of Israel. This purpose and religious sentiment that infused the atmosphere at the school was very different from anything that I had ever experienced in the US.
The integration of Jewish history and religious messages in Israel takes place in both religious and secular schools. This mixture of religion and education is one very important difference between the Israeli and US public school system that new olim should know about. Even the government secular schools will have teachers include Jewish religious concepts as part of the broader education. For example, I taught English in a mamlachti school in which all the students from the school were taken to a synagogue to learn the prayers of the High Holy Days shortly before Rosh Hashana.
Another difference is that the public schools in Israel direct students to schools that correspond to their language and religious background. Students are directed into four main streams of schools: Arabic language schools, ultra-Orthodox schools, government run secular schools (mamlachti) and government run religious schools (mamlachti dati, or MAMAD). This process of separating the student population in such a definite way is also not done in the US. The result is that public schools in Israel have more uniformity in the student population.
Even though there are separate streams of schools, olim parents will still likely have an opportunity to choose between different schools. In doing so, it’s worth considering some of the inequities in the educational system. For example, the religious primary schools (MAMAD) will have 45 more minutes of school, than the secular mamlachti schools. This is because students in the Mamad schools begin the day with an extra class for prayer. In addition, Mamad schools will frequently ask for a rav bet sefer, or a rabbi in charge of religious instruction. In other words, the government pays for students at some religious schools to receive messages of moral edification, but does not grant a similar position to government “secular” schools.
Whether it’s a secular or religious school, parents gain insight into a school’s educational priorities by examining how the hours of the school day are allotted. Some Israeli schools are founded with a specific educational purpose and will devote less time to core subjects. In contrast to a MAMAD school in a region, a Mamad Torani school may offer more hours of Torah study but devote less time to math or science. Another issue is how the genders are divided. In my son’s MAMAD school, the boys and girls study together until the fifth grade, at which point the boys receive Gemara instruction but the girls do not.
Special-purpose schools may also charge extra fees for students and be more selective in their choice of which students (or what families) to admit into the school. When we arrived in Israel, I was shocked to learn that one of the primary schools in our city had a selection committee where they asked personal questions about a family’s religious practices before admitting a student.
Due to this selection process, one would expect that many Mamad Torani schools would have a less diverse student body. In fact, a recent study of religious Zionist schools by Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avoda found this to be the case. There is less socio-economic diversity in the Torani schools. Only 9% of students in Torani schools were from struggling economic backgrounds, while 27% of students in the Mamlachti fell into that category.
In America, I learned to place great value on equality and diversity in education. It leads children to think more broadly about the community and the world and appreciate the gifts of their own family. For this reason, I think that children benefit from diversity in their classroom. Olim should strive to place our children in a school where they will integrate into Israel and be exposed to a wide spectrum of the Israeli population.
Much of my family’s absorption process into the school system in Israel has been about us keeping up with Hebrew assignments or trying to figure out what the teacher’s notes mean. But I believe that as olim, we have a lot to offer and share with the Israeli school system here. There is a great emphasis by the Ministry of Education in Israel on teaching English to students in Israeli schools. But we, as parents who were educated in the US, know that there are many wonderful cultural values and ideas from America that come along with the English language that can be taught to Israeli students.
Ideas that we take for granted, like respecting the world by not littering, respecting the unique aspects of other cultures, “it’s okay to be different” and the equality of genders, seem to have been emphasized more by early education teachers and primary teachers in the US. There are other lessons that parents from the US may know and wish to share with teachers and students in Israel. Perhaps the very idea that teachers and the school administration should listen to parental input might be a great idea to share in and of itself.
Ultimately, the absorption process of olim and their children should be more than one where information is swallowed by new arrivals here in Israel. The Ministry of Absorption and the Ministry of Education should look for more ways for immigrants to learn about the school system here and also be creative in welcoming ideas from olim about education so that conversations with the schools can take place on a local and national level.
The writer is coordinator of English-language projects at Ne’emanei Torah Va’avoda.