How to Say 'God' in the Classroom: Teaching for Religious Tolerance in Israel

For the first time, teachers will be trained to handle classes with both religious and secular kids. The movement started in small communities, but is now coming to big cities too.

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"Mixed" schools with secular and religious children have been around since the 1980s but the trend has been gaining momentum. Now academia is getting on board. For the first time in the upcoming school year, teachers will be trained to handle these mixed classes, courtesy of Kibbutzim College.

The first schools to pilot the integrated classrooms, in Kfar Adumim, Tekoa and Beit Horon countered the conventional separation between "public" schools (secular in nature) and "public religious" schools. Their aim was to strengthen both Jewish and democratic identity among students.

“It’s part of a wider trend also found in secular yeshivas and pre-army academies where religious and secular students study together,” says Aliza Gershon, director of Tzav Pius, a non-profit organization that facilitates dialogue programs for people across the religious-secular spectrum. “People want to choose for themselves the components of their Jewish identity and this complexity doesn’t exist in either the religious or secular school systems."

Major encouragement for mixed religious-secular schools came in 2008 when the Knesset passed a law recognizing the new movement. The law was proposed by Rabbi Michael Melchior, then a member of Knesset from the Labor party and chairman of the Knesset Committee on Education, Culture and Sports.

Approved only about a year ago, the law allows any school, public or religious, to integrate its classrooms with approval of at least two-thirds of the school's parents and a majority of teachers.

The school is also required to submit a curriculum that emphasizes Jewish identity and tolerance.

The leap into the big cities

About 20 mixed schools now operate in Israel, from Shlomi in the north to Be’er Sheva in the south, along with a similar number of kindergartens. About 10 additional schools are being established.

But the big leap was the establishment of the Keshet school in Jerusalem by Ruth Lehavi.

“Suddenly, it’s become something that’s not just for a small community where people have chosen to live together," says Gershon. "It's become a vision in the big city too.” Gershon also notes that other larger cities have embraced the idea, including Modi’in, Rishon Lezion, Ra’anana, Carmiel and Ma’alot.

A mixed school is being established in Tel Aviv and others are planned for Binyamina, Gedera, Herzliya, Rehovot and Petah Tikva.

The spread of the movement has created a need for teachers trained to handle mixed classes, explains Yotam Tron, director of the Hothouse for Educational and Social Initiatives at Kibbutzim College. “Attitude and good will aren’t enough. The ability to work with the complexity of these issues in the classroom is also necessary.

“There’s a need to work with various narratives to enable them to meet each other halfway and understand how teachers work with differences,” Tron explains. “The courses in Bible and Jewish thought will combine the narratives. A course about the cycle of the Jewish year will not approach the topic from just one perspective, but rather from several possible angles.”

The program, which is being developed jointly by the Institute for Democratic Education, Kibbutzim College and Tzav Pius, also focuses on dialogue.

“There will be a lot of emphasis on teachers’ educational identity, what sort of world view they bring to the classroom,” says Tron. “For example, how I teach Bible in an environment of dialogue.”

God's presence - a delicate dynamic

Even if parents tend to be more involved in their kids' education than in the past, mixed schools create yet another level of parental involvement, "much deeper and more idealistic," says Tidhar Gutman, who teaches at Kibbutzim College and works at Tzav Pius.

"The dynamic is very delicate, and it reaches the classroom as well. There are a lot of enthusiastic opinions, full of intensity," Gutman says.

In the absence of formal training for "mixed-school" teachers, the various institutions have had to improvise. Some classes are taught with two teachers, one religious and one secular. Some subjects are taught from two points of view while others are initially taught to separate groups of religious and secular students who then discuss the ideas together.

There are also prayer groups every morning for the religious students and a meeting group for the secular ones.

“One has to have acceptance skills that allow different opinions to be heard, even if sometimes they contradict my beliefs as a teacher,” Gutman says. “To nurture beliefs that differ from mine — that takes work.

“The biggest question of all, of course, is God’s presence in the classroom,” she says. “As a secular teacher, I don’t always feel comfortable with it." She points out that in the morning meetings with secular first graders, they sing Hebrew songs and tell stories from the Jewish tradition as well as Greek mythology, while the prayer group meets.  

"When there are other mythologies, that gives the children space," Gutman says. "From my perspective as a secular teacher, it softens the presence of the deity in the room. Children can go home and process it with their families.

Gutman recalls a discussion that came up in a fourth-grade Bible class, where a secular student read the word "God" and other children told him he should say "Hashem", which literally means "the Name" and is used as a substitute by many religious people when referring to God.

"We talked about what we wanted to call God." Gutman says. "The amazing thing was that the children decided not to make a decision. With mediation from the religious teacher and me, we agreed that the important thing would be not what we said, but how we acted toward each other.”

The secular-religious community in Mazkeret Batya.Credit: Dan Keinan

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