Israel Education: Picking Your Battles (part 1)

Olim parents of young children sometimes feel overwhelmed by the education system in Israel. Don’t worry, this is normal because it is different like most experiences in a new society, but because it can be emotionally difficult for our children it can become very stressful.

I know that I have preached in the past that one should not make Aliyah with the idea that they will cling to the customs of the society from which they came forever fighting those of the Jewish homeland. However, the following situation is an exception (in my opinion) because just like in the US (and I suspect other countries) future generations will benefit from positive improvements to the education system.

Yesterday, I found myself in two upsetting situations related to education.  The first occurred during ulpan when our morah (teacher) asked if anyone knew why Sarah (not her real name) had been missing class. A few of her friends explained that Sarah’s 1st grader was refusing to go back to school because of a bullying situation and the administration’s lack of response to it. My stomach knotted because I instinctively knew which school this boy must be attending based on our experience there 3 years ago.  Our morah knew of my experience and suggested that I contact Sarah and encourage her to fight the system as I had done – and added that if a group of parents got together and petitioned the school, things could improve.

I suggested to Sarah’s friend that this far into the school year without reasonable resolution from the school, perhaps moving the child to the state religious school that my son attends would be a good solution. She responded that Sarah’s husband would never allow it since (the perception in their neighborhood is that) my son’s school isn’t frum enough. Here we go again with the lashon hara from a neighborhood that applies pressure on new olim to attend a school that they all know has serious discipline problems, while condemning the other school they have no experience with.

We had the same experience in Cleveland, which makes me wonder why? – what motivates this negative speech and why do they keep the problem hushed?  I meet several olim families every year who have suffered through this experience. I think sometimes new olim feel isolated and it’s important to reach out to the rest of us for support, then carefully weigh the varying opinions and make a more educated decision.

Since this particular school is partially state-funded, and partially tuition-based, it is possible to apply pressure financially (i.e., if a group of parents threaten to withdraw their sons from the school, the pain to the budget might just cause the school to do something about the physical and emotional pain the child has been forced to endure).

What happened next when the mother of a young child mentioned the term “homeschooling” – hurling the ulpan class into a 20-minute frenzy – caused me to realize that the melting pot we live in is filled with some extreme differences of opinion from varying cultures that may not be reconciled for several generations!  At first the Russians across from me didn’t understand the term. While the teacher explained it to them in simple Hebrew terms (beit sefer b’bayit), a French woman on the other side of the room was insistent that such activity is socially harmful to the child!

In defense of the young mother, I attempted to describe my daughter’s junior and senior high homeschooling experience in New York, West Virginia & Tennessee but was interrupted by the Russian lady who seemed furious with me as she viewed the concept of homeschooling to be antagonistic toward the government and insisted that it just couldn’t and shouldn’t be done!  Imagine mothers and fathers teaching their children – what were we thinking?!

Eventually I was allowed to describe the environment of 20+ homeschooling families joining together for social, physical fitness, science and music events periodically, and the rest of the time parents teaching math, economics, science, agriculture, horticulture, languages, history, cooking, carpentry, mechanics, engineering, etc. in a computer-based and hands-on home learning environment.  Some had trouble believing that American children are able to receive valid high school diplomas through private schools that supervise and test during the senior year, or that they are allowed to take state GED exams to earn diplomas. I explained that all students, regardless of schooling have the opportunity to take SATs for college acceptance. Despite my frustration over trying to describe this using my limited Hebrew skills, I think I got the point across as the French lady gave me a thumbs up and the teacher suggested that our homeschooling environment had been a mini-school.

The next challenge was to convince them that homeschooling is legal and actually does take place in Israel and that there is a Jerusalem homeschooling group (refer to for more details) of which several Ma’ale Adumim families are members.  Somehow this led into a discussion on whether or not Stalin and Lenin were crazy! Don’t ask, because I don’t know where that came from. The discussion became heated and our sweet morah decided it was time for a quiet writing assignment.

To be continued…


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