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Israelis go back to school

An armed guard stands outside a Jerusalem school Sept. 1, as children arrive on the first day of Israel's new school year. (Brian Hendler)

An armed guard stands outside a Jerusalem school Sept. 1, as children arrive on the first day of Israel’s new school year. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM, Sept. 2 (JTA) — At 7:25 a.m. on Sunday, Ariel Drin, 13, shifted nervously from one foot to the other, waiting with his mother for the school bus to arrive at a busy intersection in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. “He has to get all the way to Kiryat Moshe,” explained his mother, Hana, referring to a neighborhood across town. “He hates being late on the first day.” Ariel attends a semi-private religious school, which is why a private bus ferries him to school. Most of Israel’s 1.6 million school-aged children walk to school or take public transport. The Drins waited for Ariel’s bus at an Egged bus stop filled with Gilo locals, waiting for one of several different bus lines heading into central Jerusalem. One of the bus routes listed was the 32A, which was blown up on June 18, killing 19 Israelis on their way to school and work. The accordioned double buses pulling in and out of the bus stop were filling up on Sunday morning as teen-agers with heavy backpacks and adults weighed down by hefty briefcases looked for seats. But a glance into the cars making their way in the early morning traffic found back seats full of school kids, ferried by harried parents looking anxiously at their watches. Many parents this year seem to be driving or arranging car pools to school, erring on the side of safety rather than risking rides on public buses, which have been frequent targets for suicide bombers. Hana Drin, who teaches ninth grade at a public high school, also was waiting for her “tremp,” Hebrew slang for a ride, to work. Her daughter, who is in 12th grade, got a ride to school. “Tomorrow she’ll go with me,” Drin said. “Because of the situation, we’re forced to think of ways to get our kids to school. I’m just hoping for a good year, one without worries.” This year, security and safety, as well as hopes for a peaceful, quiet year, were the wishes expressed by parents, teachers and students. “You want to think there’s hope, but I’m just not so sure,” said Ariel Goodman, a father of six, while dropping off Chani, a second grader, at Horev, a religious elementary school in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Old Katamon. “Everybody is under a tremendous amount of stress.” At Horev, security measures include guards at each entrance and a high, refurbished fence around the corner lot. Students will not line up in the yard each morning, and only two classes can be in the school yard at the same time, according to Goodman. “I’ve got eyes in the back of my head,” said Itzik, an affable guard who carries a gun and a walkie-talkie. “I know the faces of everyone who walks in here and I know who doesn’t belong.” For some parents, Itzik’s presence is enough of a safeguard. Bruria Avidan, shepherding her triplets, Reut, Shmuel and Ya’akov, to their first day of first grade, said security is “very good” at Horev. Goodman, who is originally from Minneapolis, isn’t so sure. “So long as a suicide bombing hasn’t taken place in schools and synagogues, people aren’t worried,” he said. “They worry about malls and cafes because that’s already happened.” In past years, parents focused their worries on whether school would actually start, as Israeli teachers are notorious for striking on Sept. 1 — the first day of school — to protest budget cuts, salary freezes and layoffs. This year, however, all elementary schools were open, while public high school teachers and middle school teachers belonging to the Secondary Schools Teachers Association were on strike, protesting budget cuts. But the strike ended with an agreement Monday, and secondary students were slated to begin classes Tuesday. In the primarily upper middle class, seaside city of Herzliya, elementary school parents were protesting municipal cuts in the city’s education budget. Over in Rosh Ha’ayin, a sprawling bedroom community near Ben-Gurion Airport, parents at one religious elementary school were striking over the continued tenure of an unpopular principal. Given the state of affairs in Israel, many parents find the strikes appalling, something else to gripe about during an increasingly fractious time. “Isn’t there another way to solve these problems?” asked Sarah Harpaz, a frustrated Rosh Ha’ayin parent whose 10-year-old son wasn’t in school on Sunday. “It should be understood that education is a top priority. There shouldn’t be problems with it every year.” Yet the parents themselves are often the culprits, even if their concerns are valid. The Parents Association initially threatened to strike over security problems in the schools, specifically the lack of guards for kindergartens. With the help of 5,000 volunteers, police were stationed around schools on Sunday in order to supplement security. The school system also is getting some security help from North American Jewry. As part of the continuing Israel Emergency Campaign, United Jewish Communities is pledging $20 million to supplement the government budget for school security guards. The funding is allocated to school, kindergartens and extended-day programs in Jerusalem, Hadera, Netanya, Afula, Kfar Saba and other communities near Palestinian areas, where terror attacks have been most prevalent. The students themselves, however, don’t seem too concerned about security measures. Life, they say, must go on. In Kochav Yair, a suburban community that is a 10-minute drive from Kfar Saba and very close to the border with the West Bank, four teen-age girls hoped for a Sunday strike to extend their summer vacation, but said that fears of suicide bombings rarely stopped them from taking buses or ‘tremps’ to school or the mall. Fear, even during the two years of the intifada, is a concept they try not to embrace. “We’re maturing in this ‘matzav,’ ” said Renana Yuzak, 18, using the popular Hebrew term for the security situation. “We grew up in this matzav, with the matzav.” “I don’t let fear limit me,” added Talya Flint, 17. “A terror attack can happen anywhere. I can’t start making graphs to figure out where and when the next one is going to happen.” They call Harel, their religious girls’ school in Kfar Saba, “the ghetto”: the guard won’t let them outside school gates when there is a high alert for an attack. “You can’t get out, and you can’t get in,” quipped Flint, a 12th grader. For Meital Kraus, 15, the school’s security makes her feel safe, which she appreciates. But after spending the summer in New York with family and friends, she also feels proud to live in Israel — and considerably more mature than her American cousins. “They’re supportive but they’re, like, 10 years younger than I am,” Kraus said. Israeli teen-agers have different decisions to make during their high school years than their American counterparts. For Flint and her friends, this is the year they will decide whether to enter the army, or — an option for religious girls — enroll in national service. Both Flint and Yuzak have nearly decided to serve in the army, as long as they won’t be relegated to serving coffee. “In 11th grade, we learned about Lehi and Etzel,” said Flint, referring to pre-state Jewish militias. “They were fighting to create the state; we’re fighting to remain a state. That touched me inside. That’s what I have to figure out this year.”