The Famous 'Jerusalem Mix' Applies Only to Pita, Not to Preschools

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There is a dish called meorav Yerushalmi – Jerusalem Mix. In reality it’s a mix of animal organs and entrails, which I admit to having eaten exactly once in my life. In practice, one can use the term to describe anything in Jerusalem that is a mix of this and that. We are one such hybrid family – a little bit foreign and a little bit local, a little bit Western and a little bit Eastern, a little bit religious and a little bit secular.

The educational system, it turns out, doesn’t love Jerusalem Mix. It wants you to choose, from age three, what kinds of ideas you intend to pour into your impressionable child’s mind, and it is black or white. Either your children are in a religious framework or a secular one. That leaves families who have a mix of secular and religious values – or those with liberal religious values – feeling a bit confused over where to send their children.

We encountered this problem while spending most of the spring looking for a place to send our two small children this fall. We committed the cardinal sin of looking too late, having decided only in April that we were moving to another neighborhood, Arnona-Talpiot. More responsible parents start the process in December.

In the rather stressful scramble for spots, waiting lists abound and anxious parents (yes, myself included) regularly post questions on online parent forums looking for recommendations. But that doesn’t mean you’re getting in. At times it seems that coveted spaces at a good gan – which translates both into nursery school and into day care – are as hard to secure as admission to Harvard or Yale.

A trickier hurdle was matching up my educational priorities with my husband’s. He wanted a religious gan, one within walking distance, and to take advantage of the recent Trajtenberg committee reform introducing state education from age 3. But I had other priorities: the gan should be share my progressive values – a few of them anyway – be nurturing, and have a small class size. But that meant leaving my son in his current private gan, attached to a synagogue for Progressive Judaism – and paying three times as much as we would in a public gan.

As we debated what was best for us and our son, we quickly realized time was not on our side – we’d be lucky to get in anywhere. What surprised me most of all is that parents can put their child’s name on a list for acceptance to three different ganim, but they must be on the same track – either secular or religious (or Arab or ultra-Orthodox). Several parents I know tried in vain to put a mix of secular and religious ganim on their top-three list. The bottom line is the system tells me I can’t put in my “druthers” depending on my research about which teachers and facilities are the best, but insists I mold my child into one stream of identity and stop being so choosy about it.

We went to visit the only secular state gan in the neighborhood with a few spaces left – twice, in attempt to have a conversation. There, the young teacher had a burned-out look in her eyes, as if she’d been teaching for 40 years, as if it weren’t nine in the morning.

“I don’t really have time to talk to you, it’s not fair to the kids,” she said, yelling at one who was trying to drag his friend across the room. “Don’t ask me about the afternoon program, I don’t know anything about it. I can’t really tell you what will be next year at all, everything is in flux and they might change everything again.”

And then, at my husband’s urging, we went to visit religious ganim. The ones we’d heard great things about were full, with several names on the waiting list. In one visit, my husband asked if girls could have leadership roles in religious ceremonies, such as when the kids play at “making Shabbat” on Fridays. The substitute teacher, who wore a hair-covering and a long skirt, looked at him like he was crazy.

“Only boys can serve as cantors and make blessings. This is a state religious gan, it’s Orthodox. It’s not Reform here,” she said.

I could feel her looking down at my pants – the ones I purposefully wore so as to not try to look the part, to see if I would really find the openness I was looking for – and to check whether I would feel pressured to put on a uniform to drop off my son in the morning. Jerusalem is full of women like this, who have one leg in the secular world and one in the religious world. Many of them, like me, resent and resist the demand to declare themselves and their children on one side of the divide or the other.

At the end of the day, our calculations turned to number crunching and convenience issues: We’d have to travel further and pay far more to leave our son in his private gan for another year. Cost, of course, is not the only factor. My other values would easily lead me to take my kids to a bilingual Hebrew-Arabic school – which we might do at some point down the line. Alternatively, I would have loved to put my son in an English-language gan, though the only one I know of is impossible to get into and gives preference to applicants with older siblings who’ve already attended. (Again, think Ivy League.) We’re city people who like to do things on foot where we can, and the thought of sitting in traffic at the height of the morning and afternoon traffic jams was enough to make me curb my enthusiasm, for another year anyway.

Six weeks into our search, the municipality called; Their gan point-person was very conscientious about being in touch until we found a space. The city, she told us, is opening a new state religious gan in the neighborhood to deal with the huge demand in this young and growing part of the city. Some of our not-so-frum friends were also registering in the same place, we learned. My husband, who has moments of radical idealism, thinks because it’s new we can have an influence on the flavor of things there.

I’m less optimistic, but I’m all for compromise – and a classic Jerusalem mix. This September, we’ll have our three-year-old boy in a state religious gan and his younger sister, half his age, will be next door at a private secular gan run by a kibbutz.  How did we get here? The answer is that in this city that is itself in a constant tango between religious and secular, it’s a very Jerusalem story, and not so much as a unique one.

Children at a Jerusalem preschool, 2008.Credit: Tomer Neuberg / Jini

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