Still a Marginal Trend in Israel, Homeschooling’s Appeal Is Growing

It’s a lot of work for the parents, but research shows homeschooled children are every bit as successful as their peers sitting in classrooms everyday.

Sagi and Hadar Galor with children Charlie, Marco and Simone.
Eyal Toueg

It is 10 A.M. and in the Galor family home in Kfar Vitkin everything is in a commotion. Marco, 7, Simone, 5, and Charlie, 3, are sitting at the dining room table and their mother is serving them Belgian waffles with maple syrup. The three kids are chattering among themselves, and no one is in a hurry. It may be the middle of September, but the Galor children don’t go to school and their parents don’t need to be at work this morning, so they have no reason to rush.

An hour later, when the adults were talking in the living room, the three children were busy. Marco is building boats on the carpet, Simone is watching videos on the computer and Charlie is running around between her parents and siblings. Next, the three sat down at the table. Marco follows the instruction in his Hebrew workbook, Simone practices her writing skills and Charlie draws.

This is school for the Galor family. No teachers and no students, nor classes or recess, tests, report cards or summer vacation. Parents Hadar and Sagi chose not to send their children to school and are teaching them at home. It was the natural outcome of the lives they chose for themselves: of abandoning the rat race.

“Why homeschooling? Because it’s great fun,” Sagi says with a smile. He works part-time in high-tech and manages the Galor Foundation, which promotes education for tolerance. “We grew into it,” says Hadar, who has a doctorate in criminology and feminist sociology. “I always worked independently and when the children came it was fun and enriching to see them [all the time].”

“We’re asked if we’re our children’s teachers, and the answer is no. We’re parents who are responsible for educational tasks, too, but we have never tried to turn the house into a kindergarten or school.”

The Galors do not set aside specific times for studying because they believe learning happens all the time, even when you take a trip or prepare dinner.

The Education Ministry says 550 children are homeschooled in Israel today, a big jump from the 229 children during the 2007-08 school year, and 283 in 2009-10. But the homeschooling community says the real number is much higher, because many families do not report their homeschooling to the ministry.

Sarit Zik and Rimon Hayat, and Reut and Aviv.
David Bachar

Under the radar

“Some families succeed in staying under the radar,” says Inbal Cohen-Meidan, a Ph.D. student in education at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who has studied the phenomenon. “It’s still a marginal phenomenon and not everywhere do they know how to handle it, so there is no strict enforcement system.”

Because Israel has a compulsory education law, a parent who is interested in having their children study at home must ask for an exemption from school in order to homeschool. Permission must be renewed every year or two, and an inspector from the Education Ministry visits periodically, mostly to ensure the children are not suffering from neglect.

The Education Ministry may allow parents to homeschool their children but many of these parents think just receiving approval is not enough, and the relations between homeschoolers and the ministry needs to be institutionalized.

Hadar and Sagi say they are not opposed to the educational system, but are offering an alternative. “We don’t teach them that school is something bad that has to be fought,” says Sagi. “They know there are these types of children and those types of children.”

The family lives in the Emek Hefer area, where they both grew up and say they want to be part of society. The children are not cut off from their community just because they do not go to school; they participate in after- school activities. Marco was part of a Shavuot holiday ceremony in Kfar Vitkin and appeared in the poster of all first grade children. They have lots of friends from the town and outside of it, so they are not missing out on the normal childhood social scene.

“When we were children, everyone went to the same school,” says Hadar. “Now some go to the Democratic [school] in Hadera, some study here and there are those who learn at home, and everyone meets in the afternoon.”

When Marco saw his friends going to second grade, he told his parents he wanted to go join them. His parents registered him, but in the end he changed his mind and now says he is going to school only for the last day of 12th grade so he can enjoy the fun and ceremonies.

Stay at homes
Education Ministry figures for the number of children in home schooling

It is much too early to talk about college, but Hadar and Sagi are confident their children will be able to take the matriculation exams and college entrance tests without a problem. “They have learning skills and they can do what they want,” says Hadar. They say they tutored students for the exams in the past and it took three weeks to prepare them, so it won’t be a problem if the kids are interested.

It started by chance

Cohen-Meidan knows about homeschooling both personally and professionally. Her oldest daughter stayed at home until she was five, and then asked to go to kindergarten. Her two younger children, two and five now, are still at home — and school is nowhere on the horizon. After doing her master’s thesis on the achievements of homeschooled children, she is convinced they do just as well educationally as those in regular schools.

Very little research has been conducted in Israel on homeschooling so she relies on information from studies conducted overseas.

“Studies that examined them at college age found that children who came from homeschooling showed clearly higher skills, both from an educational perspective and from the perspective of the ability to handle pressure. They come to academic studies with stable self-confidence and greater ability to contain the environment,” she says.

But research is one thing and stereotypes are something else. Homeschooling in Israel still suffers from a number of stigmas. Parents who opt for it are seen as being rich enough to allow themselves the luxury, or are living on the margins of society, or are raising children without limits and have given in to childrens’ demand for self-fulfillment, says Sarit Zik, describing the most common stereotypes.

Zik and her partner Rimon Hayat are homeschooling their two daughters, Aviv, 9, and Reut, 10. Homeschooling is not a privilege of the well off, but of people who have decided on a certain set of economic priorities: To drive an old car, fly overseas infrequently, live in a less prestigious neighborhood — all in order to educate their children at home, says Rimon.

Rimon is a mortgage adviser who has his office in the yard. Sarit worked as a social worker until the girls were born. “I achieved what I wanted in my career and wanted to be with the girls. I felt it was what was right for us, I saw it worked, so we continued,” she says. “It started by chance and since then we have chosen it every year again out of the knowledge that it is what is appropriate for us.”

Aviv and Reut’s day is made up of activities, trips and mostly time with their parents. They go to the bank with Rimon, accompany him to lectures and more. “We have more of an emphasis on values than on meeting the test standards,” he says. “Will they know what sine and cosine are? I have no idea now, but they certainly will know what interest is.”

Homeschooling has a wide range of possibilities, from “a fixed curriculum, including classes, books, workbooks and tests, to “unschooling,” a philosophy of unstructured learning based on the child’s areas of interest. Cohen-Meidan says most homeschooling families in Israel tend to unschooling, because those who prefer a structured curriculum leave their kids in school.

She does not ignore the challenges of homeschooling, mostly for parents. The choice of homeschooling has personal, professional and financial implications, says Cohen-Meidan. You are always busy with the children. There is the burden of constantly reinventing yourself, being creative, driving them to actvities, finding friends for them, she says. “It is not easy to raise children outside the mainstream, because there are a lot of questions and doubts coming from the surroundings.”

“At first we heard a lot of criticism, from relatives, too, but then we understood that it came from the desire to hold a dialogue,” says Cohen-Meidan. “We were never extremists, only different from the herd, and so very quickly everyone moved to focus on our happy children.”

The relatives were a bit worried at the beginning, adds Sarit. But as soon as they saw the girls learned to read and they loved it, the pressure eased. Today, when they see them reading Harry Potter books, they are much less worried, she says.

One of the problems that troubles the homeschooling parents is the question of insurance for the children. Students in the regular educational system are automatically covered by insurance policies taken out by local governments (and which the parents are required to pay for) from the time they enter municipal preschools until they finish high school. Homeschooled children don’t get this, compelling their parents to buy much more expensive insurance.