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December 22, 2014 | 30th Kislev 5775

Public Education

Galilee Diary #553, October 26, 2011
Marc Rosenstein

...If a teacher comes and opens a school near an existing school, in order to attract other students - or even students from the existing school - the teacher of the existing school is not entitled to protest, as it is written: "It pleased the Lord for the sake of His righteousness to enlarge and expand Torah." (Isaiah 42:21)
-Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Torah Study 2:7

From its beginnings in the late 19th century, Zionism was more than just a political movement - it not only envisioned the creation of a Jewish national state, but it also sought to create a New Jew, a new model of Jew reprising the heroic types that characterized us when last we lived in our own land - Joshua, Deborah, David, Amos, and their ilk. Therefore, from the beginning, education stood at the center of the Zionist effort. The present Israeli school system stands on the foundation of the pioneering work of educators who immigrated to the land of Israel at the turn of the 20th century.

Those pioneers imagined a role for public education like that in the United States - a unifying system that would create a cultural common denominator for all [Jewish] citizens. The schools would teach a universal Jewish culture that would be relevant for all "denominations:" Kids would learn language and literature, history and thought, holidays and customs in school. It would then be up to their families and communities to decide whether and how to practice traditional customs. In other words, Orthodox, Reform, "secular" - everybody would go to school together and absorb a cultural common denominator, a national Jewish identity. Religion would be a private matter, not the concern of the school.

But in our case, the boundary between culture and religion is a bit fuzzy, so this idyll collapsed already in the early 1920s, and separate "streams" of public education formed. Today, we have four divisions: Public (no religious content); Public religious (teaching the public school curriculum with an overlay of Orthodox practice), Arab (language of instruction - Arabic), and "private" (Orthodox schools that do not teach the public school curriculum but receive public funding). So most Israelis go from kindergarten through high school "segregated" according to this division. Each sector of the population, of course, likes this structure as it enables them to perpetuate certain cultural norms and avoid difficult dilemmas; on the other hand the price we pay - in mutual ignorance and mistrust and fear, in polarization and compartmentalization - is very high.

Over the years there have been modest local attempts to bridge these divisions, with limited success. There are a few mixed Jewish-Arab schools that struggle to survive; and there is "Meitarim," a new network of schools attempting to bridge the "religious-secular" gap. For three years a group of parents in our area operated such a school - "not Orthodox, not secular, just Jewish" was their motto - and they represented a spectrum of different religious and ideological backgrounds. They faced consistent opposition from the county and national education departments, who have been dealing with an increasing erosion of the regional public school caused by the opening of several "boutique" special-interest schools (Jewish-Arab, Waldorf, new age). Finally the authorities ordered the parents to merge with an existing school or face truancy charges. Negotiations all summer ultimately resulted in a plan to operate as a school-within-a-school in an Orthodox community. It may have been a shaky merger with doubtful prospects, but it didn't matter, as the ministry rejected it the day before school opened, when it was too late to seek an alternative solution, thus forcing all the kids to scatter to other schools. While the concern of the establishment to preserve the public school is understandable, so is the bitterness of the community of parents who had invested so much in a dream that probably is the vision that the whole system should be pursuing.

How can the schools change society if society controls the schools?

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