More Secular Parents Look to Schools to Provide Missing Jewish Education

Ronit Hadar, a secular mother, moved with her family to French Hill in Jerusalem just so that her children could attend that neighborhood's Frankel School. Frankel is part of the TALI network, where pupils receive significantly more Jewish studies than is customary in ordinary state schools.

Hadar has no regrets, despite growing gaps between her lifestyle at home and what her child is learning in school. "On Pesach we eat bread alongside matzah, and after what he learned in school, it bothered him that we eat bread. But he accepted that this does not stem from disrespect for tradition. On the other hand, he brings a parshat hashavua (weekly Torah portion) page home every week and we study it together at the Shabbat meal, and when he plays in the neighborhood, he sings "Adon Olam" for sheer pleasure. The neighbor asks me: "Are you nuts? Why did you send him to a school where he learns this stuff?" But I'm very pleased that he sings this."

Leah Passi-Even, another mother at Frankel, comes from "a totally secular home, a home of immigrants from Bulgaria, where there wasn't even a Friday night dinner. When my eldest son began studying here, he started teaching us all sorts of things. When we went once to a [Passover] seder at a kibbutz, he asked that we not do that anymore, because it's not a "proper" seder. We used to not make kiddush [the blessing over wine on Shabbat]; now we do. We created a special hand-washing ceremony, in which out daughter brings the water and vessel to the table. She has also begun to attend the Conservative synagogue on Shabbat. We're moving to Modi'in in a year and our daughter is already pressing us to find a similar framework there."

Frankel is one of 69 schools in the TALI network, which also has more than 100 kindergartens and a total of 30,000 pupils, according to Director General Eitan Chikli. The school network was founded in 1977 by American immigrants, members of the Conservative movement, but since its inception, it has made a point of being open to all non-Orthodox parents in Israel (partly at the behest of then education minister Zevulun Hammer). Instead of establishing new schools, in almost every case, principals and parents at existing state schools have requested to be affiliated with TALI. Chikli said that in recent years, there has been a surge in demand: Eight schools joined this past year; 14 the year before. He attributed this to two factors: "One - a parents' generation that feels incapable of giving their children the same Jewish baggage that they themselves received from their grandparents. They are horrified by the possibility that the generational chain might be broken, so they look for an answer in the school system. The second factor is the general crisis in values education in the school system, which focuses on academic achievements and achievement tests, so a deficit has been created in the area of values. The assessment is that Jewish education can deepen values education in general."

In addition to Bible, which is the only mandatory Jewish subject in state schools, the TALI network provides five other study tracks: rabbinic texts, familiarity with prayer, holidays, parshat hashavua, and general Jewish values. Not all schools offer all programs, but the option exists. Thirty schools, including Frankel, hold daily prayers. While the network encourages this, it is not a condition for joining TALI.

Other frameworks also offer reinforced Judaic studies, with one of the most striking examples being joint schools for religious and secular pupils. The pioneers were schools founded in mixed communities, like Tekoa and Kfar Adumim. Then came the Keshet school in Jerusalem, and five years ago, the Meitarim network was set up to spread the gospel of religious-secular education across the land.

Some 20 institutions have joined Meitarim to date, from kindergartens to high schools, totaling 2,800 pupils next school year. Meitarim offers extra classes in Bible, Mishna and other Judaic studies, but also what its director general, Yossi Pnini, terms "educational climate" - "creating a general atmosphere in school of addressing the Jewish world: posters on the walls, integrating various subjects on the basis of Jewish sources, and so on."

He, too, suggested that non-Orthodox parents' desire for such a program stems from a desire "to grapple with the question of Jewish identity. People say that understanding Jewish identity is important to them for justifying their very existence here in Israel. There are also a lot of formerly religious parents who care about their children knowing and experiencing what they learned and experienced, and quite a few mixed couples, for whom Meitarim is a good solution for their children's education."

Of all the aspects of the secular Judaism revolution discussed so far in this series - batei midrash [study sessions], prayers, rituals - the school system is evidently the most important: All the rest are elitist initiatives that affect several thousand people, whereas schools cater to the broad mass of Israeli society.