Pluralistic Schools Gaining Traction in Israel

Integrating religious and secular Jewish children is attractive for parents who seek unity, but as students get older, 'their own identity' gets in the way

Students at Meitarim school, Kiryat Tivon, Israel, June 19, 2019.
Amir Levy

At the morning prayers in the first grade in the Meitarim school in Kiryat Tivon, some of the boys are wearing skullcaps, but most of them are bareheaded, and all the children, girls and boys, are sitting together on the rug. The siddurim (prayer books) are not all the same; there are Ashkenazi and Mizrahi versions, along with a Conservative siddur and one that combines secular texts with the traditional prayers. Every siddur has stickers pasted next to the sections everyone says to faciliate group prayer despite the diversity.

Until three years ago this building housed a state-religious school, which eventually closed for lack of registration. What replaced it is an institution that fills its classrooms with both secular and religious pupils from Kiryat Tivon, along with children from Kibbutz Hanaton, which identifies with the Conservative movement.

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This is not the only pluralistic school of its type in the country, and it’s far from being a pioneer in the field. The first ones opened more than 30 years ago, in the settlements of Tekoa and Kfar Adumim, where both religious and secular families live. In the mid-1990s, spurred in part by the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the secular-religious polarization that resulted, the Keshet school opened in Jerusalem.

Today, the Meitarim network, to which many of the country’s pluralistic schools belong, numbers some 50 preschools and 20 elementary schools. Another major player is the Tzav Pius nonprofit association, which helped set up 15 such schools and 20 preschools. There are, however, only 10 pluralistic high schools, most of them in the Jerusalem area.

Why does the number of schools decline as the children get older? Perhaps because that’s when there arise far more questions about one’s identity, says the director of the Meitarim network, Dr. Ranit Budaie-Hyman. “There are parents who say, let them play ‘Shabbat mother and father’ together in preschool, but now we want our own identity.”

The schools differ from one another on how they mix secular and religious subjects, but they are almost always started by a group of motivated parents. A relatively new initiative is gathering steam in Petah Tikva, where a group of parents met in a local apartment to discuss opening the city’s first pluralistic school and to sketch out its guidelines.

Students at Meitarim school, Kiryat Tivon, Israel, June 19, 2019.
Amir Levy

“We talk about unity, so why don’t we live it from a young age?” asked Yonatan Mishal, a member of the founding nucleus of the future school. “Why do we have to wait until the age of 18, for the mechina [premilitary academy] or the army to meet?” He and his wife, Nurit Barak Mishal, are both graduates of centrist religious schools. They are looking for a different framework for their children, who aren’t yet of school age.

One of the issues they and the other parents will have to discuss is the question of morning prayers – whether to hold them together or separately. At the established Keshet school in Jerusalem, every grade has a religious homeroom teacher and a secular homeroom teacher, and the children are part of either the prayer group or the so-called encounter group, based on their identities. The children are also separated by identity group for some of the Jewish studies lessons. In the schools founded by Tzav Pius, on the other hand, the groups are separated, and generally only the religious group prays.

“The differences between the groups have a value that’s important to preserve,” says Assaf Hirshfeld, head of the organization’s cooperative education department.

The Kiryat Tivon schools have chosen a different model, typical of many of Meitarim’s schools: The children pray together, and then have an activity that has no religious content, which could be a discussion of the day’s events, learning a song or a text, or an arts and crafts project. Here each class goes out one day a week for a full day of study in the forest, and learning is by the Montessori method, which stresses experiential and self-directed learning based on sensory activities, so there’s no lack of options.

“There are schools in which the secular parents want their child to be familiar with the prayers,” explains Budaie-Hyman. “If he is invited to a bar mitzvah, they want him to know how to open the siddur, so that it shouldn’t be strange.” In any case, she says, “The prayers don’t look like prayers in a religious school. We speak about the meaning and everyone can insert his personal content into it.”

The decision to pray together wasn’t easy for some secular parents. “There was concern at first, great fear,” says Kiryat Tivon’s principal Tamar Ben Elhanan. But by the end of the first year, it turned out that even the parents who had a hard time accepting it were pleased with the decision.

Along with prayers, another potentially explosive issue is kashrut. Some of the schools decided that everyone would bring kosher food they had bought to communal events, to avoid a situation in which only religious children would be allowed to bring food from home. One school set up a dairy kitchen where parents could prepare a birthday cake or other food. Yet questions remain. Could a secular child bring a non-kosher sandwich for morning snack? What about birthday parties taking place on Shabbat? How would the school ceremonies and celebrations be like? There’s a mine hidden in every such question, but also an opportunity to generate a discussion that leads to a consensus.

“We essentially sit on a volcano, conflicts are part of our reality,” says Ben Elhanan. Such a volcano is the question of secular identity. How does it manifest itself when everyone prays and there is constant preoccupation with Jewish content? “This is an issue that preoccupies us,” she stresses.

Students at Meitarim school, Kiryat Tivon, Israel, June 19, 2019.
Amir Levy

During Bible lessons, for example, a variety of interpretations of the texts are presented. When the creation story is taught in first and second grade, evolution and the Big Bang are also discussed. There are those that reject the scientific approach; others believe that the biblical creation story doesn’t describe a historical reality, while there are those who seek a way to reconcile the approaches. In this respect, one can say that that the foundation on which the educational perspective rests is very liberal, more secular than religious.

And there is another aspect, perhaps somewhat latent, in which the liberal approach is expressed, namely the acceptance and tolerance of religion. “I am asked to be flexible, to yield and to understand, and I see less flexibility on the other side,” says Limor Dimand-Wender, a secular art teacher at the school. Thus, when before Hanukkah she was asked to speak about the glorious cultural and artistic heritage of Greece, the religious teachers thought there was a problem conducting such a discussion before the holiday in which the Greeks are portrayed as enemies. In the end, Greece’s contribution to world culture was mentioned, but significant space was also given to the Jewish narrative, in which the cruelty of the Greeks was emphasized.

But the religious teachers also feel that they must make concessions. “I have to weigh my words in class,” says Sarit Ben Yehuda. “I cannot say, for example, that the Torah is true, even though this is my worldview.” Ben Elhanan, however, asserts: “The discourse over identity is a discourse of adults, who want to ‘bring order’ to the world they know. Young children don’t have that need.”

For some parents, the secular-religious divide isn’t really relevant. In some families, one spouse is religious and the other secular. There are also formerly religious people who still feel a connection to religious society, and secular people who have a deep connection to Judaism. “Those who come to these schools see themselves as ‘on the religious-secular continuum,’” says Dr. Carmit Fuchs-Abarbanel, whose doctoral dissertation deals with religious and secular communities. “The secular seek a connection to tradition without being required to become religious. The religious weren’t finding themselves in the rigid ‘standard’ religious education.”

As a rule, the Education Ministry supports pluralistic schools, but “the road ahead is still long” says Budaie-Hyman. In 2008, the Knesset passed a law officially recognizing mixed schools, which until then had operated within the state or state-religious education networks. The law was enacted during the term of Gideon Sa’ar as education minister. He gave these schools an extra budgetary benefit of an extra teaching hour a week. During Naftali Bennett’s term, extra weekly hours were also granted to pluralistic high schools. And yet, this is still not an independent stream; schools must choose supervisors from either the state or the state-religious system. Only one quarter of these schools opt to come under the purview of the state-religious stream.

Despite the formal recognition and expansion across the country, the pluralistic network remains the choice of only a few, comprising less than one percent of all schools in Israel. Most pluralistic schools are concentrated in Jerusalem and its environs and in the country's center. There is only one pluralistic school (belonging to Meitarim) out of a total of 500 in the Haifa distric. South of Be’er Sheva there are none, although a pluralistic first grade is expected to open in Yeruham next year.

Questions and dilemmas

Elhanan, of Tzav Pius, notes how pupils in the mixed secular-religious system are challenged.

“We send kids home with a lot of questions,” Elhanan explains. On Jerusalem Day, for example, children were sent home with the task of asking their parents what Jerusalem meant to them and bringing the answers back to class. In Elhanan’s opinion, the ability to ask questions without committing to a specific answer is the core of pluralistic education.

“In the religious school system, in which I grew up and then taught, the attitude is ‘that’s how it should be,’” she says. “Children grow up without questioning and everything arises much later, when they leave the school bubble and start meeting other people. In a pluralistic school, there is an opportunity at a young age to say ‘I think this way and you think differently,’ without it rattling one’s identity.”

Despite the desire for dialogue and exposure to the other, the religious-secular encounter raises dilemmas, mainly among religious parents, such as what to do if one's child has a friend who suggests they go to the beach on Shabbat. “People look for assurances that their child remain religious,” says Mishal. “But a religious education can’t guarantee that either; far from it.”

Orit Fogelman, a religious first-grade teacher in Kiryat Tivon, whose children attend the school, says that exposure to the secular world at a young age forces religious parents to hone their worldview and find answers to questions the children have. Fogelman’s daughter, who is 12, is one of the few girls who wear a long skirt for religious reasons, something that raised questions among other children. “It ended with her standing in front of her class and explaining why she wears a skirt,” relates Fogelman. “Not with an attitude of ‘everyone should’ but because that was her worldview.”

Israeli life doesn’t exactly foster religious-secular encounters, such as those that take place in these pluralistic schools. “Until I arrived here, religious people for me were people I saw in the media, trying to impose their way of life on me,” says Dimand-Wender. “Even today, when I leave school I feel like I’m stepping into another world.”

Fogelman remembers how when she was on her way to the first meeting of the founding group setting up the school, she hitched a ride, joined by Dimand-Wender, “who had dyed hair and tattoos. I said to myself: if she’s a teacher in this school it’s goodbye, I’m out of here.”

“I thought the same thing about you,” replies Dimand-Wender. “If for me, an educated and liberal person, so many concerns and reservations were evoked, it means that there’s a lot of work to be done.”