HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Israeli Shlichim in Pluralistic Schools: Challenges, Solutions, and a Proposal for Change

by Micha Balf Issue: Pluralism
TOPICS : Pluralism Israel

The pluralistic spectrum of Jewish practices and behavior is often baffling to Israel educators who have spent their lives in systems differentiating between being “religious” or “secular.” The teachers can be loosely divided into two groups. Orthodox teachers come to the U.S. with excellent Jewish knowledge, but, especially in Jewish community schools, have a difficult time understanding the pluralistic Jewish community. The other group I will call kibbutz teachers who have a better understand of a heterogeneous world, but little understanding of the Jewish precepts and practices which are at the heart of the community school.

A steady return of Israeli educators exposed to a pluralistic Jewish educational environment would have a transformative impact on the Israeli educational system.

One might think that any effort to expand, revitalize and add relevancy to the Israel connection in Jewish day schools would include a systematic approach designed to train, integrate and optimize the presence of Israeli teacher-shlichim as authentic role models and native Hebrew speakers. Yet if the spring issue of HaYidion on Israel & Zionism Education is any indicator, the Israeli teacher is barely noted as a spectator, let alone as an active, positive participant. This article looks at challenges that schools confront arising largely from the culture gap between Israeli teachers and their American counterparts. It offers strategies for administrators to address those challenges. While I believe that these strategies can be effective on the local level, more needs to be accomplished on the global level to ensure a steady pipeline of shlichim who know the situation of American schools and can be integrated quickly and effectively. Hence, I present a proposal for a structural solution for training Israeli teachers to work productively in Diaspora education.

Challenges

I encountered many Israeli teachers in Jewish day schools during my three years of experience (2006-2009) working with the Jewish community as a Makom/JAFI education shaliach in Greater Washington, DC. The majority of them are local Israelis who are long-term residents in the US. A minority of the teachers are teacher-shlichim who come to the US on short-term contracts, usually via the Jewish Agency. These are primarily employed in Orthodox schools.

“Local Israelis” and “teacher-shlichim” are the two main categories of Israelis teaching in day schools. Local Israelis are usually a dominant component of the Hebrew staff and in many cases a significant part of the Judaic staff. These teachers often have strong convictions about their connection to Israel and strive to inculcate Love of Zion and Israel connectiveness in their students. Nonetheless, I often sensed a slightly bemused reaction among colleagues, and particularly parents, who signified with a raised eyebrow that if the “homeland” is so important, why is their home in my neighborhood? This is not to say that the Israelis were not accepted in the Jewish schools as good teachers and colleagues, but their ability to preach with personal conviction was often viewed skeptically, though candid discussions of this topic are taboo.

There is a different set of issues for teacher-shlichim. The people chosen have a minimum of five years experience in the Israeli system and often considerably more. They are usually high caliber educators in Israel embedded in a different system than what they encounter in community Jewish schools and even in many Orthodox schools. Many of the teacher-shlichim are excellent teachers and authentic role models committed to goals of furthering the identification and understanding of Israel. However, the fact that the prevalence of teacher-shlichim has not expanded even as the emphasis on teaching Israel has increased and the dearth of Hebrew speaking teachers is more prominent indicates that there are endemic reservations on the part of day school leadership.

The combination of the authentic Israeli capable of presenting an alternative while respecting the local US institution can prove to be elusive.

The majority of teachers in both of these groups are married with children who are costly to absorb into the school system. Teachers do not always feel obligated to those “extra-curricular moments” in which the Israeli teacher can experientially impact students and teachers. There can be relocation issues that involve money and time as Israeli families struggle with an unfamiliar world. Today there are few teacher couples in Israel, so bringing one married teachers means some measure of responsibility for the spouse and assistance in a job search. Also, the combination of the authentic Israeli capable of presenting an alternative while respecting the local US institution can prove to be elusive.

Finally, few Israeli teachers are trained in the skills necessary to teach Hebrew as a second language. The language skill set for a non-Hebrew speaking population is usually not part and parcel of their training or life experience.

All of these factors together limit the prevalence and relevance of the teacher shaliach, in spite of the fact that many of them are excellent educators who by virtue of their personality and Zionist conviction make Israel accessible in a way that conventional curriculums rarely accomplish.

Solutions

These problems are certainly not insurmountable. Administrators who are aware of the challenges can by and large preempt them by adopting the following strategies.

Pre-hiring:

Look for people who have had significant experience overseas (i.e. outside of Israel) both as youngsters and as adults. No amount of preparation can completely prepare a person for the reality of living in a foreign country. The best guarantor is that a person was able to transition once.

A shaliach teacher is a teacher, but he/she is a family package. Meet the spouse and children. Take into account the ages of the children—a loose rule of thumb is that pre elementary school is difficult because the spouse must work and early child hood arrangements are precarious and prohibitive. Teenagers, no surprise here, often have a very hard time adjusting. If the spouse needs to work, is he/she employable? What is the extent of your personal and institutional responsibility to make that happen?

Bring your teacher over for a visit if you can afford it. It is not cheap, but then personnel errors are much more costly. Make sure that your candidate stays with host families, it is cheaper and gives a much better opportunity for acculturation and developing bonds.

Define your expectations, benchmarks for contractual extension and level of overall responsibility for the well-being of the family. This is not a normal hire—the expectations are different and the level of dependence of the shaliach-teacher on your institution is not as with local hires.

Many schools, I think, are looking for teachers who have the ability to be charismatic outside of the classroom. Probably all of your candidates will be competent and good classroom teachers, but do they have that special ability to create an experiential situation for a Shabbaton, holiday, Israeli event?

Finally, the level of English is important. Before I came on shlichut I was of the opinion that it may even be an advantage in the classroom to have minimal English skills, but in two areas English skills are critical – parental interactions and e-mail. Speaking with parents is an acquired skill and can often be an area in which cultural gaps are most exposed. Secondly, when a greater and greatest percentage of reporting, grading and communicating is by e-mail it is a real hindrance to not be proficient in written English.

Post–hiring:

Obviously any strategy will depend on the particulars of the individual, but as a start it is possible to review the pre-hiring points and see how things stand.

Providing assistance to your Israeli teacher in filling out report cards, checking e-mail correspondence and adapting language to culturally acceptable patterns can be very helpful.

Organizing a program of hosting your teacher and family in people’s houses can often reduce cultural misunderstandings. Encouraging your teacher to host as well is also important. Most Israelis are not used to feeling that someone needs to take care of them, so reciprocity is a good thing to encourage.

Especially in smaller schools, principals sometimes are the mentors, probably to avoid burdening staff. It is important to appoint someone else to mentor in order to allow the Israeli teacher, who almost certainly will have something to say about how Israel and Hebrew are taught, a neutral venue to vent.

It takes time to adjust, but there are limits. One of the biggest cultural adjustments for all Israelis is the reliance on long-term planning. This cultural difference extends far beyond the school. Most of my Israeli friends send out wedding invitations a month in advance. In the US that is bordering on criminal negligence. The Israeli teacher arrives geared up to make a difference, and when he/she realizes that the calendar is booked until spring, it can be hard. On the other hand, if after a year your teacher does not appear to be on the way to “figuring it out,” think seriously about your commitment. Cultural flexibility, openness and acceptance are not always acquired in spite of the best efforts of people and schools.

Finally, challenge your Israeli teacher—and empower him or her to challenge you. The phenomenon of the school that wants to transform itself with the condition that everything remain the same is not unknown to educators. Your Israeli teacher shaliach should not be committed to doing the same old, same old. On the other hand, change is often encouraged, but rejected as impractical, not feasible, etc. Challenge your Israeli teacher to overcome, but provide the resources, the back up and the organizational support to optimize the possibilities for success. Two months to adjust, one month to decide on a challenge in collaboration with a group of staff and parents and then allocating resources and a license to implement should be a good format.

A Proposal for an Alternative System to Recruit Teacher-Shlichim

Can Jewish day schools find Israeli teachers who are young, unencumbered by families, less expensive in terms of salaries, flexible about relocation and capable of being both instructors of subject matter, leaders of experiential activities and authentic role models? Are there Israeli teachers who are not Orthodox, but aware and interested in the broad spectrum of Jewish activity that characterizes the American Jewish community? Are there excellent Israeli teachers who are skilled in pedagogy, experienced in dealing with a broad array of educational situations and yet not completely wedded to an educational system inherently different from the pluralistic American environment?

The answer to all of the questions is YES. These young teachers exist at prominent Israeli teacher colleges such as Oranim and Seminar HaKibbutzim. These institutions are an untapped resource of skilled teachers in their mid to late 20s who have been trained in classrooms. Many of them have additional experience in national service frameworks or in the IDF. They are far more aware and open to pluralistic Judaism than previous generations. They are knowledgeable, committed to the field of education and amenable to training.

During the course of my shlichut I had discussions with prominent people in the above mentioned teachers colleges. The idea of creating programs in their universities to train teacher-shlichim for day school work was enthusiastically endorsed.

The reasons for the enthusiastic response are important to understand. They reflect their sober analysis of and commitment to the importance of Jewish peoplehood in the 21st century. They reflect an understanding that a training program would lead to future educational collaboration and be a special track for outstanding students. Additionally, they believe that a steady return of Israeli educators exposed to a pluralistic Jewish world and educational environment would, over time, have a transformative impact on the Israeli educational system.

Some of the indicators of just how serious and attuned these institutions are can be found in their suggestions for creating three year training programs:

  • developing appropriate curricula in conjunction with American advisory boards
  • requiring participation in Jewish camp experiences
  • visiting day schools in advance to diminish the adjustment time for future teachers
  • above all, training a candidate pool from which the day schools would be completely sovereign to choose their teachers

When we broached the idea to educators, principals and Jewish leaders in the US there was a generally positive response. Here were some of their main questions and our answers.

  1. Is this program a fast track to yeridah? Possibly for some, but there is reason to believe that this would not be the trend given the profile of the teachers. The experience of the Jewish Agency with shlichim in their 20s is instructive. The vast majority of them return to Israel. A well designed training program and long term commitment would influence candidates to choose based on their core values.
  2. Would these people have enough experience to be effective teachers? Although as in any hiring there is an element of risk, all of these candidates have had a great deal of practical classroom training including working as full-fledged teachers in their last year of university. Also, many of them came through programs for national service, IDF teacher programs and youth movements. Their educational resumes are impressive. Their life experiences and teacher training are far more diverse and substantive than the average US college graduate.
  3. Isn’t this a long program for teachers who will work for a short time in a US school? Based on our discussions with potential candidates, we believe that it is reasonable to contract for three to four years with an option for a school to end the arrangement after one year. If a school/community were to enter into a long term arrangement with one of the teacher colleges in Israel, future teachers would be chosen from a known and trusted candidate pool, thus mitigating some of the issues of turnover. A long term sustainable relationship between a consortium of schools/communities and several teacher colleges in Israel could only benefit all of the involved parties.
  4. They can speak Hebrew, but can they teach it? Teacher colleges in Israel were willing to offer specific training for students to prepare them for the challenge of teaching Hebrew to non-native speakers. They saw the opportunity to provide native Hebrew speakers appropriately trained to teach Hebrew in the Diaspora as a worthy educational challenge. An organization like Hebrew at the Center, dedicated to revitalizing and professionalizing Hebrew teaching, is known and recognized in Israel.

Conclusion

My understanding is that many principals and schools would like more excellent Israeli teachers who would fill the role of true shlichim and return home to the homeland at the end of their tenure, while being capable of adapting and contributing to a pluralistic Jewish world. These young teachers would add authenticity, vitality and creative spirit to their schools.

This is the time to begin to create the connections and the programs so that soon a new breed of Israeli teachers can begin to transform Israel education in North American day schools and to serve as a force in bringing pluralistic Judaism to the Israeli school system.

The Israeli educational system is in need of change. Teacher training will be a key component in that process. Jewish day schools are in need of better Hebrew teaching along with authentic, attuned, charismatic Israeli teachers who can provide cognitive content and experiential Israel engagement to the pluralistic Jewish communities of the US.

The challenges are not insignificant, but the potential for a positive educational impact on Jewish day schools and the Israeli educational system is real and worth exploring. I was taught that if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. Who will take up the challenge? ♦

A member of Kibbutz Maagan Michael and a former high school principal, Dr. Micha Balf was a Makom/JAFI education shaliach at the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning from 2006-2009 while working with day schools and other Jewish educational institutions in the Greater Washington Jewish Federation. He can be reached at mbalf@pjll.org.

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Pluralism

Pluralism is central to the mission and self-understanding of many community day schools. The questions of what that term means, and how it is implemented in the policies and educational practices of the school, are difficult to answer and require reflection and discussion among all stakeholders. Explore larger perspectives on, and disagreements over, pluralism and ways to approach Jewish study with pluralistic methodology.

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