First-graders’ First Step on Road to the Army

On the first day of school in central Israel, parents pull out the smartphones, kids are excited about arithmetic and the principal compares first grade to getting married and joining the military.

Moti Milrod

The pupils at the Jacob Cohen elementary school in Kiryat Ono were greeted Tuesday morning with drums and shofars. Acrobats on stilts walked among them on a path adorned with a red carpet and colored balloons, and the teachers handed out small gifts. School principal Michal Rosenshein personally greeted each student. “It’s Michal’s carnival,” said one of the mothers, referring to the usual opening of the school year at this school.

The parents of first-graders took pictures with their Smartphones. Here, and in schools all over the country, new Education Minister Naftali Bennett wants to teach the pupils values such as love of the country, preferably Greater Israel, and acceptance of the other, as long as he is Jewish and not some kind of pluralistic “milkshake.” Here and in other schools he will insist that every pupil “will open a siddur (prayer book) before starting the army.”

The 30 pupils in Class 1-6 began their morning with their first roll call. They probably didn’t notice that their classroom is a daily reminder of the Israeli reality in which they are growing up – no blue sky or trees can be seen from its windows, only a gray surface of reinforced concrete, with an air purifier hidden by the door. The pupils in this class will spend their first year in school in a mamad – a reinforced room that serves as a bomb shelter.

When asked what they most wanted to learn, they immediately replied: reading and arithmetic. When asked what they definitely wouldn’t learn in school they replied: how to play on the phone, how to eat chocolate and how to make an omelet. They were then asked to march in pairs to the school plaza, where the sixth-graders greeted them with a festive ceremony.

Oshrit Barhad was doubly excited. She is the mother of twins who started first grade. “This is the first time they’re separating into two classes,” she said of her daughter Roni and her son Itay. “Until now they were always together. I think we’ve prepared them enough for whatever awaits them. We come from a warm and loving place, but as you see, this school is so big, we hope that the children will receive personal attention.”

Moti Milrod

“First grade is an exciting moment,” said Rosenshein at the ceremony. “There are a few moments to remember in life: starting first grade, being drafted into the army, your wedding. You’re allowed to be excited today.”

But something about the comparison between first grade and the army wasn’t particularly encouraging. The sixth-graders danced, and at the end white doves were released into the air. And then, with all due respect to the drums and dancing, doves and shofars, the truly dramatic moment arrived: the moment when the parents had to leave their children in the hands of their teachers.

“Give the children a hug and a kiss here, and the children go to class with the teacher only,” said Rosenshein via a loudspeaker. “If you go to class with them I’m not responsible for the outcome.”

That was the moment when the parents had to trust the teachers to take good care of their children.