More Religion Than We Bargained for at School

Fathers earn, mothers cook. Boys chant prayers, girls sit modestly. This isn't the Judaism we'd thought to show our preschool son.

Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher
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Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher

The other day, we received our weekly note from our son’s gan, or preschool, outlining what his teacher has been imparting to our children, ages three through four. Here is an excerpt:

“The father’s roles and mitzvot are: earning money, studying Torah, laying tefillin, affixing mezuzot, prayer, making Kiddush on Shabbat and holidays. The children told of what their father’s work is.

“The mother’s roles and mitzvot are: cooking, baking, ironing, organizing, kissing, giving treats, lighting Shabbat candles, making challah, praying for the family and more.”

We already had one foot out the door, setting our sights on more pluralistic options for September. This latest update, coming on the heels of a whole year in which ultra-Orthodox teachings and imagery has permeated the curriculum, has erased all doubts that this is no place for a family like ours.

This time last year, when we decided to sign our son up for a state-funded, city-run gan, we were torn between two choices: secular or mamlachti-dati, roughly translated as national religious, meaning it is supposed to represent the modern Orthodox public in Israel.

Though we don’t quite fit into that demographic, we are observant people who are enthusiastic about teaching our children about the richness of Jewish tradition. Moreover, we weren’t impressed with the secular gan we’d visited in our neighborhood.

We found ourselves asking what they would teach all year to three-year-olds – democracy? A bit difficult to impart to preschoolers, and nowhere near as fun as holidays and Bible stories.

But we got a lot more religion than we bargained for, and the Judaism we wanted our son to be exposed to looks very different from the one his teachers bring to class.

The modest rib

Shortly after the start of the school year, his teacher taught the children the story of Adam and Eve. Eve, the teacher explained in her source sheet to us, was created from Adam’s rib. “Why the rib? It is a modest place. She was not created from the hands – so she wouldn’t be someone who touches too much. And not from the mouth – that she shouldn’t be a chatterbox. Rather from the rib. And every other organ of the body told her: be modest!”

It is perhaps this ultra-Orthodox obsession with modesty – tsniyut – that troubles me most of all. Although we made our concerns about this line of thinking known to the teacher from that first month of school, it has recently returned to the classroom full blast. Said teacher went on maternity leave a little over a month ago to have her sixth child.

Her replacement is also Haredi, and has felt the need to teach our children that modesty is of utmost importance. My son reports that modesty means that girls, when sitting on the floor, can sit with their legs crossed or held together, but never open, the way boys do. Last week, he was given a sugary reward by the teacher for the mitzvah of remembering to wear his kippah. Afterwards, I asked him what mitzvah the girls can do to earn a similar prize. “Sit modestly!” he answered eagerly.

I sent my son to this gan with reservations, expecting some things to be different than they are at home, believing that the example we set at home to be most important. But I didn’t expect indoctrination about how boys and girls are allowed to sit when they’re simply settling down for story time. As these are only the issues that I managed to learn about, I wonder how many other examples there are that I’ve missed.

This is not a school for a Haredi population; there are plenty of schools that serve that sector. In fact, most of the parents in the community look like us. Some are modern Orthodox, some are masorti or traditional, some look completely secular, some are involved in egalitarian religious communities where women participate without limitations.

We are not the only ones who have approached the teachers and explained that their teachings do not fit the population they serve. But when my husband challenged the crude teachings about gender roles – Aba earns money and Ima cooks – the teacher defended her characterizations as being the ideal. Although many Haredi women (the teacher included) work and therefore contribute to the financial well-being of their families, it would be far better if this were not the case, she argued.

An added factor is our son’s afternoon program. The actual teacher and her assistant only stay until 1:30 P.M. After that, an afternoon staff takes over. This staff, too, is Haredi. All year long, my son has brought home pictures he’s been given to color in or otherwise decorate. They have been, almost without fail, pictures of men or boys in kippot, and often peyot (sidelocks) as well. On the one occasion I recall a woman in the picture, she was the boy’s mother, dressed in Haredi garb and scolding him for trying to cut a loaf of bread with a knife. I have yet to see a picture of a girl.

This is where the fault lines of Israeli society lie, and they are rumbling. They rumble when hundreds of thousands of Haredim come out to protest, as they did on Sunday, against the new draft bill. And they are rumbling in America as well, albeit in a different way. There is a growing awareness of the problematic messages girls get in religious schools, following the publication last year of “Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools” by Dr. Elana Sztokman and Dr. Chaya Gorsetman, which won the National Jewish Book Council Award in education and identity.

It makes me sad to write this, because the gan has not been all bad. The two teachers and support staff have been warm, energetic, competent women who care about the children. If I could believe that they weren’t also trying to do kiruv – a word for missionizing, trying to make our kids more like their kids – perhaps I could live with having my child in a school system whose teachers subscribe to a worldview which is very different from mine

A religious kindergarten in Israel (archive)Credit: Alon Ron
A coloring-in exercise handed out to students at a national religious school. The stamp indicates that it comes from a Haredi pedagogical center.Credit: Courtesy

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