Early Learning for Life

Shas led the way. Now a secular pre-school network is competing for the hearts and minds of three-year-olds.

In the afternoon hours of last week a group of women and children could be seen in the center of the Ezra neighborhood in south Tel Aviv. The women stood around, chatting with one another, rocking babies in strollers. Beside them on the sidewalk children who had just returned from kindergarten and school were scampering about. The mothers wore pants and sleeveless tops, the school-aged children wore black skullcaps and some of them had tzitzit (ritual tassels) peeking out from under their T-shirts and little earlocks framing their faces. All those ultra-Orthodox identifying marks were not visible on their younger siblings.

Such scenes of families becoming more observant are characteristic of south Tel Aviv, as well as other distressed locations around the country, where there is a continuous trickle of children from the state education system to ultra-Orthodox education institutions, predominantly those run by Shas. The process has been identical everywhere. Shas institutions were the first to set up in those places, where their activists quickly began actively converting the education of the neighborhood's children.

Shas identified the needs of the residents of distressed neighborhoods and rewrote the rules of the game: a long school day and tuition costs that are immeasurably lower than that of the state institutions. Thus, for example, in the small Ezra neighborhood, which barely covers three streets, there are at least four pre-school facilities (for three-to-six-year-olds) and three ultra-Orthodox elementary schools - a boys' and a girls' school run by Shas's Ma'ayan Hahinuch and a Beit Ya'akov girls' school run by the independent Kehilat Ya'akov, which also houses a high school.

"The local residents care mostly about the most basic needs," says Liat Levy, a teacher at the only secular pre-kindergarten (pre-K) in the Ezra neighborhood. "They don't care if the kindergarten is run by Shas or not. If there is food and the place is clean, and most importantly, if it is cheap, they will send [their children]. The parents are less interested in the values and educational side."

Chai supporters in Ha'argazim

Levy's pre-K belongs to the network of secular pre-school facilities run by the Israel Education Association, known by its Hebrew acronym Chai (which means life). The exterior of the building is painted purple and pink and is clearly visible from a distance. The pre-kindergarten's entry to the neighborhood was not a simple matter. Even so, since its establishment two years ago there has been a steady increase in enrollment, with registration this year being higher than anticipated.

The Chai association's goal is to return the secular ethic to the neighborhoods via a struggle with the ultra-Orthodox associations over the children. This year the association is operating seven pre-school facilities. In addition to ones in Tel Aviv, there are pre-schools in the Yoseftal neighborhood of Petah Tikva, in Kiryat Yovel in Jerusalem, in Ofakim, in Moshav Patish, near Ofakim and in the community of Migdal, near Lake Kinneret.

Although Chai states that it promotes pluralistic Judaism, currently the vogue, it actually competes with Shas with the weapons than that movement uses - a long school day and low tuition. Thus, for example, for the first two years monthly fees at the pre-K in Ezra were a joke - NIS 50, including extra-curricular activities and materials. This year, now that it has become established, fees have gone up to NIS 150 per month, the same fee charged by the Shas pre-schools.

"First, we'll attract the parents and afterward worry about the education of the children toward the pluralism that is important to us," says Levy, adding that the beginning was not easy. Last year the pre-kindergarten was the recipient of alienation and abuse. "Children who passed [the building], as well as adults, would shout that we are a pre-school for Arabs and blacks, and that the children here did not learn Torah. We were stigmatized. Rumors were spread that the teachers had no diplomas, that it was a terrible facility. But the situation has turned around."

Three women from the neighborhood who were asked last week about the pre-K said that the teachers were excellent and praised the facility highly, but admitted that they would not send their children there because they were religious (something that was not evident from their clothes). One of them even said, her voice lowered in apparent shame, that her husband had become newly observant and "she had no say in the matter."

Other families, however, felt differently. In its first year, there were 12 children in the pre-K, 21 in the second and this year there are 35 children, more than the association's limit, so more teaching and childcare staff have been hired.

Chai was founded about four years ago in the wake of activities of the Dor Shalom movement in the local authorities. Oren Yehi-Shalom, then the spokesperson for the movement (which has since ceased its activities), ran an afternoon program set up by the movement in conjunction with the Tel Aviv municipality, in the Ha'argazim neighborhood adjacent to Ezra. A caravan was set up among the mounds of garbage throughout the neighborhood, which suffers from abject poverty and social distress, and children gathered there to study and do their homework after school. Later the movement rented an apartment and ran the afternoon program.

Many of the Ha'argazim neighborhood's residents - who invaded the neighborhood and have been waging an uncompromising battle with City Hall for municipal services - became Dor Shalom supporters and later supported Chai. Today one third of the children in the Ezra pre-K are from Ha'argazim.

In order to combat the flow of children to the ultra-Orthodox educational institutions, the Tel Aviv municipality opened 79 afternoon children's clubs in Jaffa and south Tel Aviv. Udi Neta, the deputy mayor, said this has halted the turn towards ultra-Orthodox education.

But Yehi-Shalom, 31, whose parents came from Yemen and is himself the resident of a distressed neighborhood in Petah Tikva (even though his parents obtained a higher education), is not so sure Chai has won. He says that he decided to found Chai because he realized that more drastic measures were necessary - in the form of an educational network - in order to strengthen secular education.

He does not hide the fact that he copies Shas's aggressive marketing methods. Before the pre-K was established in a neighborhood, Chai activists check what buildings in the area are vacant, who the local residents are and what their needs are. Like "Lev L'ahim," an organization responsible for recruiting children and registering them at the ultra-Orthodox institutions, each summer Chai volunteers visit all the homes in the neighborhood and speak to the parents about registering their children at Chai's pre-schools.

They flood the neighborhood with leaflets about the pre-schools and even set up registration tables in the public areas in the neighborhoods. Every year the struggle for survival is renewed.

"The belief that Shas works on the deep-seated fears of the neighborhood's residents, or offers them homes is a myth," says Yehi-Shalom. "Anyone who works in the field discovers that Shas is not liked everywhere. There are residents who are angry that [a Shas facility] is their only option."

Chai pre-schools offer the neighborhood residents much more than regular educational institutions. They do not depend on the education alone, routinely visit the homes of the children, put on various cultural events to which all the neighborhood's residents are invited and quite often help residents with their dealings with the authorities.

The association is dependent on donations, mainly from commercial companies (the association is chaired by Dov Lautman, board director of Delta). The current economic crisis, however, is making it difficult to raise funds to finance the high cost of the pre-schools, towards whose maintenance the parents pay very little. Yehi-Shalom says that for this reason Chai is trying to get the Education Ministry to recognize the pre-schools, just as it does the ultra-Orthodox pre-schools, and to provide government funding to supplement the donations.

The pre-K in Ezra is run jointly by the Tel Aviv municipality and Chai. Deputy mayor Neta, who once represented the Dor Shalom movement on the city council, says that Chai's advantage is that it has volunteers. "Chai has the ability and the flexibility to work in the field, to get to know the people personally," says Neta. What would the city be able to do? At best to announce the opening of a pre-K and registration dates. But people would not come to city hall to register and the pre-kindergarten would not open."

Chai therefore serves as a type of crutch to the city and the Education Ministry and today receives calls from other city councils, like Netanya's, to come and operate there. Similarly in Petah Tikva, where Chai operates in the Yoseftal neighborhood, a distressed neighborhood that is like a way station for newly arrived immigrants - there the municipality welcomed Chai with open arms. It turns out that the residents, too, agreed to pay a relatively higher price, NIS 500 per month, for the pre-school.

Yakov Ben Simhon, who heads the education department of the Petah Tikva municipality, says that he was dreading the closure of two neighborhood state schools, "Kibbutz Galuyot" which is secular and "Nir Etzion", a state-religious school, whose enrollment was dwindling as Shas's institutions grew.

"Chai came at just the right time," says Ben Simhon. "We were able to save both schools. The pre-kindergarten helped us set up a series of pre-schools corresponding to Shas's pre-schools and we also strengthened our kindergartens. Without the joint effort the [secular] situation would have been terrible."

Sarit Biton, a resident of Yoseftal whose daughter attends the Chai pre-K, had planned to register her for the Shas pre-kindergarten for economic reasons, and only an incident of neglect that she witnessed at the Shas pre-kindergarten convinced her not to register her daughter there. Nevertheless, she understands the residents who did register their children there. "People find it hard to pay [fees elsewhere]. That's the reason," she says.