Swimming Against the Stream

A court refuses to close the first secular-religious democratic school.

Two weeks ago, Haifa District Court agreed to a request from a nonprofit organization of parents from Zichron Yaakov and rejected an injunction to close Keshet, the democratic school they had established, until the Education Ministry appeals committee can meet.

Judge Gideon Ganot wrote that the Education Ministry makes it unnecessarily difficult for private groups to open new schools. The parents' group views the clear position expressed by the court as a moral victory and another step on the way to making democratic schools the mainstream in Israeli education. But Keshet is not just another democratic school.

It is the first attempt to establish a democratic school for both religious and secular children. The school, which opened this year in a building belonging to the Kibbutz Ma'agan Michael field school, has 85 pupils from kindergarten to the seventh grade in classes with two age groups. Of them, 25 come from religious homes.

The required curriculum is mostly secular and there is no attempt to create symmetry between the two sectors. However, the school appears to represent a genuine effort to bring the two populations together and bring the message of democratic schools to the religious public too.

It is difficult to find a more resolute and tightly knit group than the parents' group from Zichron Yaakov, some of whom dropped all other occupations to devote themselves to establishing the school over a year before it actually opened.

The idea for the school, says principal Inbar Avital, arose two years ago out of chance discussions between parents - all of whom are newcomers to Zichron Yaakov, residents of the new neighborhood north of the town - in her son's kindergarten. Since then, the idea has taken on different forms, until the opening of the mixed program this year.

Because Avital had been active in educational matters and was an organizational consultant, the parents naturally involved her in the initial steps, although her son was too young (he is four now). They began holding evening meetings in private homes to advance the idea.

At the same time, Avital was approached by actor Moshe Ivgy, a Zichron Yaakov resident whose two older sons had attended a democratic school in Hadera and who was looking for something similar for his daughter. He soon became the driving spirit behind the establishment of the democratic school.

Moshe Lerner, a longtime resident of Zichron Yaakov also joined as a parent and guide. He helped the parents set up work teams and with all the formal stages of setting up a democratic school. He is the teacher for the oldest class, the sixth and seventh graders, including his own son.

Lerner, 50, says simply that the school is his life's work. But he preferred to leave the job of principal to someone else and concentrate on what he considers to be of supreme importance in a school - the relations between adults and children. Lerner says he is "self-taught." Until 12 years ago he was a farmer, a member of one of Zichron's oldest families. After 20 years, he leased his farm and began to teach in the democratic school in Hadera. In recent years, he has advised parents' groups interested in opening schools and has taught in Hadera's Democratic Institute.

Something Lerner said, quoted in a local paper 18 months ago, touched a raw nerve with local resident Hamutal Efron. Lerner said that the school of the future would be open to both religious and secular children. Efron, a religious woman who covers her hair, had been looking for a more open school for her son, who at the time was studying in a state-religious school.

She called Lerner, and immediately joined the parents' group. Efron is newly Orthodox and on her way to becoming observant went through numerous stages and paths. In recent years, she has been looking for her own way.

Her choice to live in a mixed community like Zichron rather than in a homogenous community was part of that search. Shmulik Ben-David has been thinking about starting an open religious school for many years, until recently an educator in a yeshiva high school in the Golan Heights.

His children studied in the Kanaf democratic school there, but it bothered him that they were a minority in the school. After failed attempts in other places, including new religious communities, Ben-David concluded that "The religious community is not yet ready for an open framework."

He moved his family to Zichron a few months ago and teaches different subjects in the school. His wife teaches the first and second grade class. It is not difficult to see why Keshet's secular parents wanted a democratic school, but why did they want to become embroiled in the complexities of religious-secular relations?

Talks with parents revealed that to them opening the school to a religious population served a certain search for spirituality, which they thought about only after religious families came to them. It appeared to legitimize a certain closeness to Judaism.

Architect Tamar Rosenblum says she decided to send her children to Keshet because of the school's move in the Jewish direction. She says she immigrated to Israel six years ago in a vain search for Jewish pluralism. In Keshet she found what she was looking for. Architect Anat Atzmon, whose twins are in Keshet's first grade, says she grew up in a religious home. She is no longer observant but says she does not describe herself as secular.

"I wouldn't send my kids to a state-religious school which is why Keshet is so right for me. The kids don't distinguish between religious and non-religious kids. They encounter religion but from a different dimension," says Atzmon. Efron presents a striving for normalcy, talks of "peace among us."

"Religious and secular people hardly meet, perhaps only in the army. I believe that if the encounter starts at a young age, they will get used to living together," she says. They do not deny that there were many fears, especially on the part of the secular parents, who feared that the religious minority would overly influence the school's lifestyle.

Last week, for example, a mother asked to have a sign removed that was posted above the sink in the eating area - it instructed students to wash their hands with a blessing before eating. She feared her son would see the sign.

This is apparently the type of sensitivities likely to be triggered in the future. At present parents are convinced that everything can be resolved through dialogue. Another problem they anticipate is complaints from religious parents at the dearth of religious studies because the children will not be prepared to study later in conventional religious schools.

All the parents are currently perturbed by the schools academic level, an achievement-driven attitude at odds with open schooling. They voted to introduce mandatory studies in basic skills such as Hebrew, math and Bible, alongside elective studies in other subjects, including Jewish studies.

Ben-David and Lerner, who favored complete free choice for the children, was in the minority. Ben-David fears that making studies mandatory undermines children's natural curiosity, but hopes the parents will assimilate the concept of a democratic school further on.

The Education Ministry has an ambivalent attitude to democratic schools, which in recent years have become the bon ton of the better established sectors of society, who have made high-quality education their first priority. Opponents of these schools say they provide the founding parents with a way to get around integration.

In his term as minister, Yossi Sarid threatened to close them down. The parents won in court and in the ministry's appeals committees. The Education Ministry appears to have changed its approach and formed a special committee to deal with the schools.

The special committee decided to permit the establishment of democratic school provided they met certain criteria, such as a minimum of 80-100 students and a minimum of 22 per class; that the schools would be established only in areas where they do not undermine existing schools and only when there is a real need in the community.

The ministry claims that the school's high tuition fees (NIS 1,200 per month) in effect keeps out children from poorer families. Atzmon rejects the criticism and tells of the parents' desire to move the school to a poor neighborhood in south Zichron and to receive recognition from the ministry so that the tuition fee can be reduced considerably.

For now, the Zichron Yaakov local authority is sitting on the fence - waiting for the ministry's final decision.