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Pluralistic schools in Israel

Students at Jerusalem´s Frankel School listen to a lecture on Rosh Hashanah on Sept. 5, during the first week of the new school year. (Brian Hendler)

Students at Jerusalem´s Frankel School listen to a lecture on Rosh Hashanah on Sept. 5, during the first week of the new school year. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM, Sept. 6 (JTA) — The fourth-grade girl in pigtails pores over a page of Mishnah, shooting her hand in the air in response to the teacher’s question — on how Jewish tradition was passed from generation to generation. In other classrooms at the Frankel School in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood, second-graders are learning Rosh Hashanah songs for the school’s holiday assembly, and first graders are learning how to read. The school, built in 1976, was the first of the increasingly popular school network called TALI — the Hebrew abbreviation for Enhanced Jewish Studies. These schools, part of the secular public school system, are modeled in part on the North American day school system, where students receive both a Jewish and a general education. The TALI schools now serve 20,000 students in its 70 pre-schools and 50 other schools. In addition to the growth of other alternative school systems, the schools’ popularity reflects a demand by Israeli parents for new educational options for their children. The schools were founded by North American immigrants disappointed that it was impossible to find Israeli schools providing a pluralistic Jewish education. Their only option at the time was either to send children to a religious school with an Orthodox outlook or to a secular school where little Jewish learning or practice was taking place. “Parents are saying, ‘Where is the Jewish education for our children?’ ” said Eitan Chikli, executive director of the TALI Education Fund. “We are trying to fill that gap.” According to Chikli, the Ministry of Education is now investing even less money in Jewish education than in past years, as it allocates increased funds to math and science programs — subjects in which Israeli students are falling behind internationally. Most of TALI’s annual budget of $1.6 million comes from North American Jews, among them many from the Conservative movement. The TALI Educational Fund is supported by the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies which is affiliated with the Conservative movement. Through the fund, teachers and principals at TALI schools participate in leadership courses offered at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem; special textbooks on Jewish themes are produced; and parent-child workshops are held. Shoshana Jadidi sent all three of her children to the Frankel School because, she said, it best reflects the Judaism they practiced at home. “It is a school with a traditional outlook and at home we observe the holidays and Kashrut. What they learn here we follow up on at home,” she said. “Orthodox state schools are not the right fit for us, they are too stringent.” Incorporating TALI schools, with their message of religious pluralism, into an Israeli society riven by a pitched secular-religious divide, has not been without battles. Recently, some fervently Orthodox rabbis warned Israeli parents not to send their children to the schools, insisting in letters that the school network is part of the Reform and Conservative movements and would corrupt their children. In one letter, parents were warned that sending their children to such a school would lead to “the destruction of Israel and assimilation.” In bold print, the letter tells parents to “safeguard the souls of your children.” Among those warning parents to stay away from the schools this year was the Rabbinate of Givat Ze’ev, a West Bank settlement not far from Jerusalem. In a letter to parents, the rabbinate said the new TALI school in their community would wreak damage and assimilation. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled in July that prayer in TALI schools was legitimate and that the Ministry of Education was obliged to fund instructional hours for prayer in these schools as it funds such sessions for state religious schools. The TALI Educational Fund had taken the education ministry to court for refusing to give the pluralistic school network schools funding equal to that received by state religious schools. “Our students come from across the religious spectrum,” said Batia Bar, the school’s principal. “The school’s curriculum is infused with Judaism,” said Bar, saying that even subjects like zoology are taught with an eye toward Judaism, examining, for example, what animals lived in the Land of Israel during the biblical times. Strengthening the idea of the Jewish people as both a community living in Israel and abroad, there are classes on the Jewish Diaspora. Contacts have also been forged with two Jewish communities in Long Island — one in Roslyn, the other in Dix Hills. The school is named after the Frankel family in Detroit, which has helped build it and continues to help fund its activities. Chikli said TALI schools are especially important in maintaining the bond between Diaspora and Israeli Jewish communities as more and more Israelis grow distant from their Jewish roots and traditions. In the fourth-grade class at the Frankel School the students sing a tune to words describing how Moses passed the Torah on to Joshua and Joshua passed it on to the elders who in turn passed it along to the prophets and the people. Now, their teachers say, it is being passed on to them.

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