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Behind the Headlines: a Crisis in Jewish Education: Israel — Yes, Israel — Takes Stock

As a student, Dikla Shahar used to love learning Bible and Jewish history in the public schools she attended.

But the 21-year-old Jerusalemite remembers feeling that too few classes were offered and those that were available taught Judaism in a superficial manner.

But all that could change. In a move that some might consider a revolutionary new approach to teaching Judaism to Israeli youth, a government-appointed committee is recommending that students in public secular schools learn more about Judaism and its progressive, humanistic values.

At stake, say members of the committee and other experts, is the Jewish identity of non-Orthodox Israelis, who make up the overwhelming majority in the Jewish state.

She may not be an expert, but Shahar, too, strongly believes that Jewish knowledge is essential for Israeli youth.

“The children must be given more. They don’t know anything,” said Shahar, who describes her family as non-religious.

“If we don’t pay attention to it, if we forget, we will be lost. We won’t be a people anymore,” she said.

How Jewish identity among Israeli youth is shaped, say the experts, has wide repercussions for the future of Israel-Diaspora relations.

“If there is no change, the Jewish community in Israel will remain with no knowledge of and commitment to the Jewish people and to Jewish continuity,” said Muky Tsur, an educator, former head of the United Kibbutz Movement and member of the committee.

Menachem Revivi, director general of the United Israel Office of the United Jewish Appeal, believes that “more Israelis should be concerned that we’re bringing up youngsters who have no understanding of what it means to be Jewish.”

Not only is too little Jewish knowledge imparted to Israeli students, say those involved in the issue, but what is taught is too narrowly focused.

‘JEWISH IDENTITY IS VERY NARROW’

“For students who come out of the current system, Judaism and Jewish identity is very narrow,” said Allon Gal, director of the Center for the Study of North American Jewry at Ben-Gurion University.

“It is often built on negative factors such as anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and Israel’s wars, rather than on positive factors, such as a pluralistic, ever-developing culture,” he said.

The committee, headed by Haifa University Rector Aliza Shenhar, was appointed in 1991 by former Education Minister Zevulun Hammer to investigate the declining interest in Jewish studies in the public secular schools.

Of the 35,000 high school pupils who took the matriculation exam in Bible studies last year, fewer than 3 percent chose to study beyond the mandatory two units which were required for the test, according to Shenhar.

The committee report called the decline of interest in Judaism in the classroom a partial reflection of changes in the values of Israeli society in general.

It cited the decline of ideology, the growth of materialism, the explosion of technology and specialization, the politicization of religion and the polarization between the religious and secular populations.

The committee recommended additional hours of required study of Jewish subjects. But it put most of its emphasis on teaching these subjects in a new, innovative and interdisciplinary fashion and dramatically revising teacher training.

It also called for pluralism to be a central focus of Jewish studies. While the report does not refer to the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements by name, it calls for the teaching of the different streams and movements within world Jewry.

The report also criticized the secular schools for abdicating responsibility for Jewish education to the Orthodox. Teachers from Orthodox yeshivot, it pointed out, are often brought into the non-religious schools to teach Bible or Jewish history from an Orthodox viewpoint.

This, Shenhar observed, is a product of political pressures and creates an “estrangement” and a dislike of Jewish studies among the non-Orthodox students.

The result is a paltry number of non-Orthodox students in Jewish studies in higher education and a dearth of non-Orthodox Jewish studies teachers.

‘JUDAISM BELONGS TO THE ENTIRE NATION’

The committee’s recommendations, which apply to the first through twelfth grades, were warmly endorsed by Education Minister Amnon Rubinstein, who lashed out at the Orthodox monopoly over Jewish education.

“Judaism is too important to be left only in the hands of the Orthodox,” he said at a recent news conference unveiling the committee report. “It belongs to the entire nation.”

After these remarks were publicized, the committee was criticized for its apparent anti-Orthodox bias.

But Dalia Goren, the ministry’s liaison to the committee, said there was never an intention to blame or attack the Orthodox for the current problems.

Rather, she said, the message is that “the non-Orthodox should take responsibility for the education of their children.”

The committee included Orthodox members, all of whom signed the final recommendations.

Avi Ravitzky, a professor of Jewish studies at Hebrew University, served on the committee and describes himself as a modern Orthodox Jew who believes deeply in pluralistic Jewish education.

“Jewish studies is not the domain of the Orthodox,” he said. “It’s the domain of all, and the general society must prepare (Jewish studies) teachers. If only the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox have knowledge of the Jewish texts, it will be a catastrophe for general society.

“I want Israeli poets to be familiar with Jewish texts,” Ravitsky added. “It doesn’t matter if they are religious or not.”

Ravitsky also said he applauds plans to teach alternate streams of Judaism.

“I believe modern Orthodox Judaism is more authentic, but I want students to be exposed to all Jewish creativity,” he said.

Still, the recommendations drew fire from the fervently Orthodox political establishment, despite the fact they have no bearing on the state-run schools for the Orthodox.

Moshe Maiya, a member of Knesset from the Shas Party and the former deputy education minister under Shulamit Aloni, was reported to have said that Reform is not Judaism and that Shas would not rejoin the Labor-led coalition if the ministry begins teaching Conservative and Reform Judaism in the secular schools.

NEW CURRICULA ARE BEING MAPPED OUT

Despite the opposition, the report is not expected to become a political football. According to Goren, it is already on its way toward implementation by the ministry.

Strategies to put the main recommendations into effect are to be submitted to Rubinstein in October, said Goren. The minister also plans to appoint an independent board to ensure that implementation remains faithful to the committee’s policies, she said.

At the same time, new curricula for teacher training are being mapped out, while some of the principal recommendations are already being carried out as experiments in some schools, Goren said.

The non-Orthodox movements in Israel have applauded the recommendations. They represent a “potential revolution in the way Jewish studies are perceived and taught,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center.

“Today, the disciplines are chopped up and unrelated, not enabling the student to see the dynamic trend and continuity” of the tradition, Regev said. “Bible is taught as literature and grammar and not as a national value system and ethical treasure.”

Regev hailed the centrality of pluralism and the call for teaching about contemporary streams of Judaism in the report, a subject not now required, much to Regev’s frustration.

“It is inconceivable and unacceptable that Israeli students will know more about the French revolution than about contemporary Jewry,” he said.

Gal, of Ben Gurion University, echoed Regev, bemoaning the fact that students currently can pass the matriculation exam “while knowing nothing about American Jewry.”

“It is traditional in the schools to ignore North American Jewry or to mention it in a narrow way,” he said.

Gal said that in 1992 he submitted a lengthy memo to the Shenhar committee calling on its members to make it mandatory for students to study world Jewry in the same way it is mandatory to learn about the Holocaust.

“They should know not only about the 6 million who perished but also about the millions of Jews living and thriving in the Diaspora,” he said.

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