HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Establishing an Integrated Community and School in Israel: A Continuing Challenge
What is the mission and vision for a Jewish day school that can unite a population with a wide variety of Jewish beliefs, affiliations and practices? This article provides perspective by describing how this challenge has played out at an intentionally pluralistic school in Israel.
As a child growing up in the 1920s, my grandfather studied in a cheder and was originally destined to become a rabbi in his hometown Zawiercie, Poland. The winds of change peeled off his religious clothes and my grandfather, like many young Jews across Europe at that time, immigrated to Israel alone. He joined a training program at a kibbutz in northern Israel. I grew up in a secular Israeli Zionist family. My home was filled with Israeli literature and world culture, science and love of Israel; but following my grandfather’s way, it lacked any Jewish feature. I did not know how a synagogue looked like from the inside; we did not light Shabbat candles. I did not know what the siddur, the Talmud, or the Mishnah was. In the secular social environment in which I grew up, there was no room for it.
With this cultural baggage, I arrived at the Keshet community at Mazkeret Batya. It was a double baggage: the past deeply rooted in Jewish wisdom and the Diaspora and the Jewish way of life, and the secular Israeli present, connected to the culture, the language and the land, while consciously disconnected from any of the religious aspects of Judaism. I arrived at Keshet wondering how I could help my children to establish a Jewish-Israeli identity that will be less divided. How can one combine these parts of their identity so they won’t feel dichotomous or in opposition? And in a parallel process, how can two identity groups, religious and secular, learn together, without constant confrontation and without erasing one another?
Establishing a community
The public education system in Israel is composed of several educational tracks: state secular education, state religious education, and a variety of independent Orthodox systems. The religious and secular education frameworks are separated from kindergarten. This separation reduces the chance of these two groups meeting and getting to know each other. The Keshet project consists of a group of parents who joined together around the idea of integrated education, challenged the existing reality and proposed the creation of a new alternative.
The motivation to live together stems not only from ideological motives but also from the emotional needs of the two identity groups.
What does the secular group lack that it seeks to find in the religious group? What does the religious group wish for by bonding with the secular group? The secular lack the cohesive togetherness, the rituals that are an occasion for gatherings and festivity, the connection to the collective past. They lack the melody and the liturgical hymns that strum the heartstrings through faith and spirituality. The religious group, it seems, lack the internal permission to be egocentric, to engage in personal development and self-fulfillment. They seek the freedom to ask questions, to resist, to challenge and criticize.
The central task during the initial stage was to create a community, a group in which individuals will feel a sense of belonging, in which they will feel themselves to be significant participants. This desire to establish a community around the school was manifested in the planning of many community-wide events: social gatherings for children and adults, holiday events and festivals, lectures, study and discussion groups.
At the same time, plans for the development of the kindergartens and schools were established. The school’s vision was formulated, inspired by the communal vision.
A Joint Dance
The integrated model that was chosen is called Keshet (“rainbow”), based upon the first Keshet school founded in Jerusalem. The model takes into consideration the dichotomy that exists in Israeli society between the two identity groups, the religious and the secular, and softens it through their encounters and shared activities. For prayer and Jewish study, the students are divided into two groups: a meeting group for the secular and group prayer for the religious. When a student enters Keshet’s educational institutions, his or her parents choose the student’s identity group. During Jewish studies the class is again divided in two: the prayer group studies Judaism with an emphasis on Jewish law and the sacred, whereas the meeting group emphasizes the cultural aspects of Judaism.
The educational framework that was established included many issues that required guidance and direction. Who will lead the class, a secular or a religious figure? What type of collaboration will there be between the two teachers, and what is the model for successful collaboration? How will Judaism be taught in a way that gives equal room for both groups—the group that “knows” and the group assumed to have no knowledge? How will the school celebrate events and holidays in the Jewish calendar in a way that reflects the two identity groups? Additional questions arose, concerning the different lifestyles and how those can co-exist. Should food be kosher? Should there be a dress code? What about the various blessings? Can events be scheduled on Saturday?
The underlying assumption was that both identity groups arrive with great cultural wealth. The goal of the partnership is not to change the other or convince the other to switch sides. The goal is to respect, accept and enjoy the added value that the other brings. At the beginning of the process it was evident that each side wanted to reveal its strengths.Like two peacocks dancing a mating dance, each side presented its colorful tail: one arrived with Maimonides, Rashi and the Mishnah, the other bringing Israeli writers such as Yehuda Amichai, Bialik and Alterman. At this point another issue emerged. The religious group felt that Hebrew culture and world culture belonged to it also; hence, how does one define a distinct secular identity for the community and for the school?
Debates over the school’s ideological foundation occurred also in the pages of the community newspaper, published weekly for the past eight years. Arguments and disagreements arose there. Is the organizing theme of each issue the weekly Torah portion? What is the place of secular content? What is appropriate and permitted for publication and what is inappropriate and hurtful towards others?
A pause to think
The initial stage was frenetic, requiring the establishment of organizational and pedagogical infrastructure for the school, consolidation of the community through activities and meetings, and the development of an organizational infrastructure for the new venture. The atmosphere was of cohesion, blurring of the differences and dilemmas in an effort to succeed in the new venture.
As the initiative developed, the gaps, conflicts and disagreements regarding the nature of the community and its educational frameworks emerged. This required taking time away from logistical concerns and returning to the basic questions, the conceptual basis. Why do we wish to live together and educate together? What is the purpose of integrated education? What is the nature of a joint community composed of both religious and secular? What do we fear and what do we hope for, both as individuals and as members of one of the identity groups?
As a result, a forum was established for community members who wished to discuss these questions. The forum was moderated by an external facilitator who specializes in issues surrounding Jewish identity. About 20 members of the community attended the forum, which provided them with an opportunity to give voice to their personal Jewish-Israeli identities, as well as a clarifying the directions and principles of the initiative at Mazkeret Batya.
Intriguing questions emerged regarding the joint community:
What is the role and importance of Judaism in my personal identity?
To what extent am I interested, as a secular adult, in developing my Jewish identity?
Does the religious party of the community have a responsibility to “teach” the secular party and bring them closer to the Jewish sources?
What is the purpose of the partnership between the religious and secular groups? Is it being good neighbors, creating personal acquaintance, or perhaps even a mutual influence on the perception of Judaism—expanding one’s perception through the other?
Is Judaism the organizing theme of the community?
The forum was named “thinking—dreaming.” It enabled us to get to know each other, communicate and bring up dilemmas. It turned out that the dreams of the group were diverse and sometimes contradictory. Discussing the difficulties helped us abandon the utopian concept of a shared community and embark towards a more realistic perception.
Some of us are satisfied with being good neighbors: we have someone to call when our child needs a ride to school. Some of us think that Judaism is nice, but there are important cultural resources and values from other, universal, sources. Others expect nothing less than identity transformation.
Back to school
It is important to understand that unlike other schools in Israel, which are established through the education system and the local authority, the Keshet School in Mazkeret Batya was established by a group of parents in order to realize their social-educational goals. Even so, some of the teachers who joined the school were not familiar with the vision of Keshet, its teaching philosophy and educational practices. For this reason, two years after the establishment of the school, various stakeholders undertook a structured process of forming a school vision. The process was led by the school administration, with staff and parents participating.
The vision document details the key values on which the community is founded: mutual respect, tolerance, pluralism, multiple perspectives, development of individual identity and group affiliation as well as encouragement of social and communal involvement. In addition, it includes a commitment to promote academic achievement among all students, based on the assumption that a successful school is one which provides quality pedagogy and strives for continuous improvement.
The implementation of the Keshet School vision was led by staff members together with the parents. The challenge now was to translate the vision into a practical program for all ages. For example, the meeting group (secular) discussed the definition of secular identity that is a mix of Jewish, Israeli and universal components. If so, what is the ratio we expect between those components? To what cultural legacy do we want to expose our children? To what extent will the school focus on Jewish laws and customs? What principles will guide the teaching and learning in this group? During the discussion diverse voices emerged, some focusing on social values, others putting emphasis on experiential learning, some emphasizing critical thinking, learning through asking questions, and examining dilemmas.
Who will teach the complex subjects? It became necessary to find teachers who are familiar with the material, whose worldview is pluralistic, who consider the two identity groups as equals, who are able to accept feelings, attitudes and behaviors different from their own, and who will protect every child’s right to express his or her opinion, even if it contradicts the worldview of another.
Again, the discussions were charged and heated. The pattern of splitting into subgroups when an inner group conflict emerged repeated itself within each identity group. The attempt to establish a common ideological basis, at least within the identity group, dissolved. We were divided into those who were traditionalists, those who were secular with a tendency to emphasize the universality, those who preferred strengthening the Israeli-Zionist aspects, and those who wanted to strengthen traditional Jewish aspects. The need to listen and show tolerance became relevant to the parents as much as it was relevant to the children.
As mentioned, this is an ongoing process and not all dilemmas can be solved. Among the remaining topics is the issue of the management of the school. Should it be led by a single figure or two figures having different identities? Other questions that remained open include, how can the school best respect the interests of the two identity groups? What about the needs of those who believe that the current definitions do not meet their own identities—for example, couples who consider themselves “traditional” and “mixed”?
After eight years of community-educational development, one cannot ignore the fact that the encounter between the two groups leads to a frequent engagement—assertion, questioning, negotiation—of personal and group identity, the boundaries between the personal and the collective, and the relationship among subgroups within the whole. My starting wish that the integration would manifest itself in a balanced and harmonious system has given way to the understanding that this is an ongoing process of discontent and self-challenge, one that enables personal growth, expansion of awareness about the identities, lifestyles and interests of others, and an introduction to many interesting people who, despite their differences, all care deeply about Jewish-Israeli society and identity in this country.♦
Ayelet Lehman is a mother of three children who study at Mazkeret Batya’s integrated school, as well as an organizational consultant and group facilitator, and a consultant at Tzav Pius, an organization that fosters dialogue and co-existence between religious and secular Jews in Israel. firstname.lastname@example.org
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