Bridging the Jewish-Israeli Divide With Integrated Schooling

A new initiative seeks to close the religious-secular gap in Israeli society.

Religious or secular? The question seems to divide our country along serious fault lines. The conventional wisdom is that the religious and secular societies in Israel are each increasingly becoming more radical and fundamentalist in their beliefs, and more intolerant of those on the other side of what is viewed as an unbridgeable divide.

However, as much as people increasingly identify the polarization of Israeli society as one of the greatest threats to our future, we nonetheless overlook the fact that our society is not necessarily polarized at all. In fact, when given a choice to identify themselves, four in 10 Israelis completely opt out of that binary system, viewing themselves as a living bridge between the poles. That is, four out of every 10 Israeli Jews prefer to identify themselves as traditional, than as religious or secular.

Seen through this lens, we do not see any of the polarization, or the problems associated with it, that so many of us fear. On the contrary, we see a full spectrum of approaches to Jewish life being practiced and observed. It thus becomes clear that Israeli society is not naturally polarized.

However, there is a reason that the image of polarization is so prevalent. Even if the society is not naturally divided into two, our education system is unfortunately structured in a manner that transforms the rich and diverse spectrum of Jewish life that exists here into one that splits us into rival camps. It is the educational system, more than anything else, that segregates and separates our society. Once forced to decide whether we prefer our children to be "religious" or "secular," we segregate them into completely different social groupings. This segregation is at the root of the very polarization that we consider to be so dangerous to our future.

It is for that reason that many groups are struggling to create new options that would allow all of our children to learn together in the public school system.

For those born and bred in the Israeli system, this segregation of Jewish education into two separate sectors is rarely questioned, seeming to be a natural part of the fabric of Israeli life. However, for those of us who are Israelis-by-choice it seems anything but natural. Often spoiled by the rich dual-curriculums of the day schools of our countries of birth, we often resent the need created by the Israeli school system to sacrifice rigorous Jewish studies if we send our children to the secular schools, or, on the other hand, the need to sacrifice a full curriculum of humanities if we send our children to the religious schools.

Furthermore, for the 40 % of the Israeli population that defines itself as traditional, the choice is even more heartbreaking, as the system forces us to choose to educate our children toward an identity that is different than the one we chose for ourselves.

But traditional Jews do not bear this crisis alone - the entire country suffers from the polarization that results when the country is divided into two, with no support for the spectrum that bridges between the poles. The lack of an integrated school system here in Israel essentially is structured to create the very polarization that everyone, on both sides of the divide, decries.

This doesn't need to be the case. Community schools throughout the world are successfully navigating the admittedly difficult task of creating educational communities in which everyone, from the secular to the religious and everyone in between, can participate equally. A dozen schools in Israel are attempting to integrate society by combining our schools, seeking ways of educating our children together. But until such schools become available throughout the country it is only a select few who can avail themselves of the opportunity.

Until now, no such school has existed in Tel Aviv. For more than a year, I have been part of a group of people in Tel Aviv from all parts of the religious spectrum that has been attempting to create an integrated school in the city. After intensive efforts, it appears that we have been successful, and that the Municipality of Tel Aviv will finally create an option that will enable all Tel Aviv residents, religious and secular, to educate their children together in an appropriate manner, without needing to label them first in any way. At Meshutaf, all students will receive the same education, including a full curriculum of Judaic studies and humanities, with no compromises. Most importantly, our children will be educated there of tolerance, respect and mutual responsibility for all of Israel.

There is great, justified concern among those who see our country splitting at the seams and dividing into rival groups with no sense of common responsibility and destiny. The success of initiatives such as Meshutaf in Tel Aviv – educating our children together in order to form a common nation with a common heritage and a common curriculum pursuing a common future – is crucial for building a solid foundation for our country's future.

Rabbi Jeff Cymet is currently the spiritual leader of Kehillat Tiferet Shalom, the Masorti congregation in Ramat Aviv. He is formerly the Legal Advisor to the Israeli Minister of Justice.