Children from Eshhar.
Children from Eshhar. Photo by Gil Eliyahu
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One day before the school year opens, some 50 children still have no school to attend, due to a last-minute decision to nix a special program focusing on pluralistic Judaism.

The program, an initiative by a group of parents from the Misgav town of Eshhar, was slated to be run at a school in neighboring Moreshet. But both the Education Ministry and the Misgav Regional Council opposed the idea, and on Monday, the parents were informed that the program had been denied approval and that they would have to send their children to other schools.

"Now, two days before the school year begins, our three children have to go to school, but we have no other solution," said one resident, Tali Guetta. "It's a very difficult feeling."

"Our son is entering first grade in two days, and now, we've been left without a solution," chimed in Tali Perlstein.

Eshhar is home to some 130 families. While many small towns are homogeneous, Eshhar was founded as a mixed religious-secular community, and many families even contain one parent of each persuasion. As such, the idea of a pluralistic school attracted many residents. Some, like Guetta and Perlstein, even said they moved to Eshhar especially for the school.

Eshhar parents first set up a pluralistic school four years ago with help from Meytarim, an organization that runs mixed religious-secular schools. The parents insist the school's educational level met all the Education Ministry's standards, while also offering a "pluralistic atmosphere" featuring ideas from "the entire Jewish and Israeli cultural spectrum."

But neither the ministry nor the Misgav Regional Council ever recognized the school. They repeatedly warned the parents that it was operating illegally, and the principal was even called in for questioning by the police.

The parents therefore decided to try to find a solution that would be acceptable to the authorities. After several months of discussion, they said, a state religious school in Moreshet agreed to open a special pluralistic Jewish study track this September in which Eshhar's 50 children would learn.

"For years we've been fighting to set up a mixed school," explained Yael Sela, a veteran Eshhar resident. "To date, the establishment has caused a split among the community's children by forcing them to study either in a [secular] state school or a state religious school. That undermines the Eshhar experience, causes splits and rifts and creates extremes."

The authorities "didn't like the framework we set up," added another resident. "They told us, 'Either be religious or be secular.' The council, which boasts of the integration at its Jewish-Arab school, wasn't capable of supporting a religious-secular school."

Under the deal with Moreshet, Eshhar children were to learn in separate classes 70 percent of the time and together with Moreshet children the rest of the time. The school, parents said, was very accommodating. For instance, even though it has a religious dress code, it agreed that secular teachers in the Eshhar program would not have to comply with it. Nevertheless, some parents were concerned that the atmosphere would be too religious and decided to enroll their children in secular schools instead.

The parents said the Moreshet agreement was approved by both the relevant Education Ministry supervisor and the State Religious Education Administration for the northern district. They also said Misgav's education department was kept informed.

But at a meeting Monday night with the director of the Education Ministry's northern district, Dr. Orna Simhon, they were suddenly told that the Moreshet program had been vetoed, and that they would have to send their children to other schools.

"The whole time, we had understood that the establishment was supporting us," charged Guetta. "And now, at the last minute, it has announced that it opposes the move. We wanted to act in a normative fashion and they've spit in our faces."

Jacky Vanunu, head of Misgav's education department, said the Moreshet plan simply proved to be unfeasible.

"For instance," he said, "there's a problem with construction: It's not possible to hold separate classes there." He also denied that Misgav ever approved the deal with Moreshet, saying, "We heard about the understandings only last Wednesday."

Simhon did try to be accommodating, he added. He said she promised money for enhanced Jewish studies classes for students who enrolled in secular schools and said the ministry would consider setting up a pluralistic school in Eshhar in the future.