The bare fact...that simple and unsophisticated peoples have unbounded faith in education does not mean that the faith is untenable. -George Counts, "Dare the School Build a New Social Order?" (1932)
Last week I accompanied a group of HUC students (Mandel Fellows) on a visit to the Galilee School, located a few miles from Shorashim; a number of my neighbors send their children there. The Galilee School is one of five integrated, bilingual (Jewish/Arab) schools in the country, one of the four that were initiated and are supported by the Hand in Hand Foundation. In other words, of a million or so students in Israel, a few hundred attend mixed schools; the vast majority attend schools that are formally designated as: state (culturally Jewish), state religious (Orthodox-zionist), state Arab, independent (Ultra-orthodox), or private (usually Christian). The educators who founded the Jewish education system in pre-state Palestine (even before the British Mandate began after WWI) began with a vision of a universal system (for the Jews, at least) based on Jewish culture (without religion); if you wanted to teach your child a particular religious or ideological approach, you would do so in the afternoon or on weekends. The public school system of the US was the model for many of these educators. But already by the early 20s, the universal vision had collapsed, and separate "streams" developed, "general Zionist," "religious Zionist," "socialist Zionist," Arab and Ultra-orthodox. And from the beginning, it had been taken for granted that the Jews would educate their children - and the Arabs theirs. The British tried to operate truly "separate but equal" systems, but the Jews brought in their own resources and expertise - and demanded autonomy; there was frequent conflict between the Zionist educators and the British education authority. With the creation of the state, the "streams" were adopted by the new ministry of education, and that structure continues to this day.
The "stream" system means that a typical non-Orthodox Israeli can reach the army induction center before meeting his/her first Orthodox peer, meet an Arab for the first time (if ever) at university, and never meet an ultra-Orthodox contemporary. Only in the past 10 years or so have there been attempts at change. The Hand in Hand schools offer a symmetrical dual-immersion approach: every class is mixed, with an Arab and a Jewish teacher, and the kids are supposed to pass freely between languages. In reality it's more complicated, as the ambient culture is in Hebrew, so the Arab parents all know Hebrew and their kids absorb it from the environment, whereas virtually none of the Jewish pupils ever hear Arabic outside of the classroom. Moreover, while the school receives basic government funding and the Foundation pays for the extra staff, special materials, etc., the busing is paid by the parents, and is a significant expense. And there are a number of attractive alternatives for the Jews. Therefore, symmetrical enrollment has been an impossible challenge, and the schools are engaged in a constant struggle for survival. Watching the kids playing and learning naturally together was moving and left me wondering if what might have been still might be.
We also met with a parent whose children attend another local experiment, a "just Jewish" school - pluralistic, enrolling children from Orthodox and non-Orthodox families. Partially supported by the Meitarim Foundation (that supports a network of such schools), this school has not attained ministry approval, so is operating under the rubric of home schooling (which is allowed, and supervised, in Israel - there are a few hundred families involved, nationwide). In this school, the parents provide a significant amount of volunteer manpower - there are classroom teachers, but all of the enrichment and "frills" are provided by the parents.
These inspiring, struggling experiments are part of a difficult discussion that has occupied educators for the past century (at least): Can schools change the social order? Or are they doomed to perpetuate it?