Teach your neighbor as yourself
At a time when the fissures in Israeli society seem ever present, Tzav Pius’ joint religious-traditional-secular schools provide a reason to be optimistic.
Israel Hayom (published in Hebrew on September 22, 2015); by Shir Ziv
(Above: The Usha Yachad Elementary School in Ramat Gan. (Photo: Yehoshua Yosef))
The Usha Yachad Elementary School in Ramat Gan, which just a few years ago was on the verge of closure for lack of students, this fall enrolled some 200 boys and girls – the most in its history. For the first time, there are two first grade classes, and a kindergarten. The school credits the rise in enrollment to an educational initiative introduced together with the Tzav Pius organization.
Under the program, which is in its second year, secular, religious and traditional children study together – hence the name of the school, Yachad (“Together”) Usha. Usha was an important Jewish city in the Western Galilee during the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods, and “together” represents the goal of reconciliation – coexistence between the various sectors of the Jewish community. The initiative is run by educators who believe that children of this age can be taught to be open and tolerant, to listen to and accept the other, to create mutual respect and genuine dialogue among the various sectors.
The vision behind Usha Yachad may sound like a utopian dream in a divided and polarized society such as Israel. Anat Asher, who is beginning her fourth year as principal of the school, welcomes the challenge. “Dialogue between religious and secular is not just a subject to be taught, it is a matter of listening to one another and values that we want to instill precisely at such a young age,” she says. The program follows the Tzemach educational track, which accompanies the pupils from the time they enter first grade until they complete eighth grade and graduate from the school, Asher explains. “We begin when they are young, because when you get older, it’s much more difficult to listen to different viewpoints and to create a truly respectful dialogue.”
The decision to open the Tzemach Track was made three years ago in cooperation with the Ministry of Education-State Religious Supervision, and the Department of Education in Ramat Gan, with the encouragement of the mayor and chairman of the education committee in the Union of Local Authorities, Yisrael Singer. “Education is more than a matriculation certificate and good grades,” Singer says. “It’s also, and even more important, about values and accepting the other and living in cooperation among all communities. The connection between religious and secular is good for everybody. Usha Yachad furnishes a shining example that many cities in the country will learn from. And who knows, maybe we can use what it teaches us to create real social change.”
(L-r) Nathalie Tza’iri, Anat Asher and Sarit Schlossberg. (Photo: Yehoshua Yosef)
Dialogue – Values and Listening
The story of the joint schools in Israel began in the 1980s. Three were built, in Kfar Adumim, Tekoa and Beit Horon. In 1995, shortly after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, of blessed memory, the Keshet School opened in Jerusalem, founded by Ruti Lahavi, who also served as principal. It was the first time that a joint school opened in a city and not in a small community whose population had a shared ideology. In 2000, Yachad Modi’in opened; it has kindergartens, an elementary school, a middle school and a high school, and serves Modi’in and its environs.
Since 2008, joint schools have become more and more common, in part thanks to the initiative of former MK Rabbi Michael Melchior, who led the Knesset to pass the Law for Joint State Education (2008), designed to encourage the establishment of such initiatives. In addition, changes in Israeli society and the increasing need of the religious and the secular for pluralistic frameworks, as well as the encouragement of the ministers and the professional staff in the Ministry of Education to open these frameworks, and the entrance of Tzav Pius into the joint education field, led to the changes taking place today.
At the same time, Tzav Pius adopted a strategy of actively encouraging the phenomenon and placing it on the public agenda. The organization receives many requests to open joint schools across the country, and it works together with applicants (school principals and parents’ committees) at every stage, from proposal to implementation, as was done with the Usha Yachad school. In the last five years Tzav Pius has been a partner and guide in the establishment of some 20 new educational frameworks across the country, in communities such as Shoham, Binyamina, Gedera, Rehovot, the Megiddo Regional Council and Rishon Lezion. Overall approximately 10,000 children study in various joint educational frameworks.
The Usha school started out two decades ago as a small state-religious institution, located on a quiet street in Ramat Gan’s Gefen neighborhood. In recent years, the school suffered from a dearth of students, and when change was needed, Tzav Pius came into the picture, indentifying the needs of both the school and the residents of the area.
“Following the success [of Usha Yachad] and the increased enrollment, we opened the Tzemach Track last year, and this year the track will have three levels: kindergarten, first grade and second grade, and these children will continue on the Tzemach Track through eighth grade,” an excited Asher says. “The rest of the school will continue to function as a regular state-religious school. The fact that this year we have two first-grade classes, and in light of the success, we are examining the possibility of opening another kindergarten; this speaks for itself.”
“I think learning together is very meaningful and important, if only because of everything that is happening on the Israeli political scene,” she adds. “I turned to Tzav Pius with the understanding that following the changes the school was undergoing, we needed a structure that would provide us the pedagogic and recruitment resources and would help us position the school in the best possible way, and allow us to achieve the best possible results.”
Teachers provide children with answers at their level of under-standing’ (Photo: Yehoshua Yosef)
Sarit Schlossberg, director of the junior section at Usha Yachad and a first grade teacher, has taught there for 18 years. She lives in the ultra-Orthodox city of Elad, and understands something about relations between majority and minority. “It’s a lot harder for adults – the new framework allows children to wonder and to ask questions, and they learn to grapple with the questions, to respect one another and understand that it is legitimate to be different. In the end we are all one people and we must learn to accept one another with our differences,” she says.
A Normal Day at a Joint School
“We [the students and teachers] start school by getting together to say good morning, and then split up into a prayer group and a discussion group,” relates Natalie Tza’iri, the lead kindergarten teacher. “The students in the prayer pray and study the daily halacha, and the discussion group studies material in parallel from the moral aspect – what is friendship, acceptance of the other, tolerance and so on. Then there is a shared activity – children play together, create together and eat together.”
religious and a secular pupil at Usha. (Photo: Yehoshua Yosef)
Some veteran families in the neighborhood had a hard time at first getting used to the changes taking place at the school – mainly because of a fear of exposing their children to other lifestyles and difficulty in understanding the significance of the new framework.
“As a state-religious school for many years, there was a very clear norm for students’ dress – kippa, tefillin, skirt,” says Schlossberg. “With the enrollment of secular families that are not committed to this norm, the dress code is constantly changing. We require that students come dressed in a respectful and modest manner, but respect all styles of dress. There is a different dress code for a child in a prayer group than for one in a discussion group. It was a complex formulation to come up with, because some families are complex, with the father more traditional and the mother more secular, or vice versa, and there are families who preferred not to choose, but it was important to us.
The Decision to Create the “Identity Groups”
“You need a lot of faith and sense of mission and to truly believe that ‘together’ is the order of day,” says the school principal Asher with a voice full of confidence. “We learn that there are many Israeli families who are searching for this value of togetherness, which is very meaningful for them, who value listening and acceptance of the other, and we here are working hard to highlight the common ground. This is our job. It’s easier for the children. For them the connection is natural, and they’re interested in being exposed to different behaviors. We celebrate a joint Kabbalat Shabbat; each family brings its story. The children learn what religious families do on Shabbat and what secular families do on Shabbat, and understand that both are acceptable and legitimate.
The Child at the Center
Nurit Dabush is the mother of Liav (5), studying at Usha Yachad and in the Tzemach Track for a second year. “I am following a clear path and Jewish values are important to it,” says Dabush, who defines herself as a religious person, “but it’s important for me to show Liav there are children whose parents have chosen differently and they are no less generous and moral than she. The school’s model demonstrates that we need not succumb to tribalism and racism, and through the broad common ground we will create a tolerant society. Actually, with my daughter at this age it is especially important for me to deal with all the questions that pop up. If you teach values to a child this young, it will make things easier down the road.”
Dabush, former chair of the Second Authority for Television and Radio, said her daughter learned over the past year to accept the children who are different from her, and learned to respect us as they learned to respect her religiosity. “In escorting the annual school trip I saw how the discussion group looked at the prayer group, the respect with which they related to the prayer group. If the youngsters respect, accept and encourage one another, they will have these values as adults. This personal example will serve as a model for them.
Dabush mentioned the “Friends Host” initiative, where she and Liav entertained children from the school, some religious and some secular. “When you eat supper, you say, ‘Now we wash their hands, whoever wants to joins in, and whoever does not – then not.’ It goes beautifully. There is great love and respect on all sides. I think we are raising happier children.”
One only has to look at the school personnel to understand that the change taking place at Usha Yachad is gaining momentum. The great majority of staff members are religious, but this year three secular teachers have joined the school. One of them is Rachel Nachman, age 25, from Tel Aviv.
“I come from a traditional Tiberian home, I fast on Yom Kippur and keep Passover and maintain a connection to Judaism,” says Nachman, who teaches first grade. Previously she taught science for grades 1-4 to the children of refugees and foreign workers at the Bialik-Rogozin School in Tel Aviv, some of them African and some of them from the Philippines. “It was very interesting and difficult, a huge challenge. And I’m ready for the next challenge,” she says.
Principal Asher says, “Pedagogy and professionalism are important, but I’m looking for mensches. What is the real character of the teachers, what added value do they bring as human beings, what are their educational worldviews? We firmly believe that if you love a child and believe in him, you will succeed, and bringing out his potential will lead to success.”
Asher aims to bring in secular teachers with a traditional orientation, and is open to hiring religious teachers who have an accepting, inclusive, Israeli orientation.
“I pray that we see more schools following our model. In my dreams I wish that all schools would be like this,” Asher smiles. “I think the old conception, that there is a population or sector that has it all, and a population or sector that has an empty wagon, is irrelevant. The two wagons need to take from each other and to strengthen each other, and to reinforce, right now, our Jewish roots. I would like the elementary school to grow and continue through high school, and I’m certain that the character of our graduates will be different. In my vision, I would like there to be a synagogue here in which secular, religious and traditional pray. In light of all the extremism on both sides, I think this is the place.”