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In a stark turnaround, the Education Ministry is in advanced negotiations with the Lev Leviev Foundation to approve its Zman Masa (Journey Time) program for bolstering Jewish identity.

For the past two years the ministry steadfastly objected to using the program in state elementary schools, but it has approved it for the upcoming school year under two key conditions: The course booklets must undergo major revisions, and the program must be taught by faculty members or student teachers, not Orthodox teachers from outside.

Sources at the Leviev Foundation said the curriculum material is being rewritten, and that they hope to secure the necessary permits by mid-August. However, it remains unclear whether the program will indeed be taught exclusively by secular teachers.

This past school year, Zman Masa was taught at 66 elementary schools in Rishon Letzion, Netanya, Petah Tikva and Beit Shemesh. The Leviev Foundation covers the cost of instruction hours (two hours a week) and course materials. The foundation previously submitted two versions of the program for Education Ministry approval, and both were rejected, partly on the grounds that they take an Orthodox approach.

When ministry officials met in late April to discuss the matter, pedagogic secretariat head Prof. Anat Zohar said that "the essential concept was not amended," and "the program is written from the viewpoint of faith, observing the commandments, and accepting God's sovereignty." Another official at the meeting said there had been "'patchwork' revisions, not a change of concept."

For the past two school years the program operated without the authorization of the Education Ministry pedagogic secretariat, which is responsible for vetting outside programs. Zman Masa directors say the program was approved by the ministry's previous director general, Shmuel Abuav.

After the discussion in April, it was decided that the program's course pamphlets would be brought in line with the Shenhar report, which stipulated that Judaism studies at state schools must take a pluralistic approach.

In recent weeks, Dr. Ron Margolin of Tel Aviv University, who was a member of the committee that drafted the principles for studying cultural Judaism, has begun serving as a secular academic adviser for Zman Masa. Margolin says the program's directors realize they cannot take an Orthodox approach in state schools.

"If they indeed make the changes, there is no reason not to cooperate with them," he added.

Zman Masa officials say they are changing some units and deleting others, such as those on ritual hand washing, identifying kosher and non-kosher animals, and a supplemental chapter on the Temple and its vessels. Faith-based statements are being toned down. For example, the goal of "strengthening belief in the Almighty who created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day" has been changed to "learning about the creation story described in the Bible." In addition, reference to the Leviev Foundation will be deleted from title pages.

The biggest stumbling block remains who will teach the program, if approved. Last year the program was taught by 160 adjunct teachers, all Orthodox. The Education Ministry insists that Jewish education must be the province of its teachers. But Zman Masa director Shai Rinsky says it is tough to find secular teachers for the program.

"We are investing tremendous effort in this, but cannot make any commitments yet," he said.

An Education Ministry official responded, "The program will be taught exclusively by teachers from the state school system."

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