We're No Racists, Insist Parents at Private School in Petah Tikva

Hasidic music in the school yard and straw baskets filled with candy awaited parents and children at Darchei Noam, a private religious school in Petah Tikva, yesterday. Parents of first graders came with cameras to document their children's first steps at the prestigious school, which has a student body of 700.

But the music and the sweets were not sufficient to dispel the bitter taste of the scandal that preceded the opening of the school year, even though it appeared yesterday morning as if everything had been resolved satisfactorily. Only after the ceremony marking the beginning of the school year was over and the parents had taken leave of their children did both parents and teachers speak of their frustration over the injustice they felt had been done - to them.

The agreement that the school worked out with the Education Ministry and the Petah Tikva municipality on Monday called for Darchei Noam to accept 14 new students of Ethiopian origin, on top of the 15 Ethiopian children who studied at the school last year. Earlier, it had refused to accept these students.

The Ethiopian parents said little yesterday. Those whose children were accepted expressed satisfaction, while those still waiting for their children to be admitted said they were hoping for a positive response.

Confusion reigns

For some, confusion reigned. One family was told their son was registered at another school. And two families left with their children and instructions to quickly buy the books and supplies the children would need, though the book list had been made available to them only the day before.

On the positive side, however, during the first recess, several of the children could already be seen joining in a soccer game.

Teachers and non-Ethiopian parents at the school expressed outrage over the accusations of racism that the controversy engendered. They said the dispute had its origins in an internal struggle within the religious community over the status of state religious schools and jealousy on the part of some in the religious community over the success of Darchei Noam, an elite private school.

"It's a very diverse school," said Gidi Segal, one of the parents. "The last thing that can be said about it is that it is racist. The school's focus is a high level of Torah study. Even if a bank manager with a low level of observance were to come to the school now with his son, they wouldn't accept him."

One parent, a Russian immigrant, said that his wife and daughter had recently converted to Judaism, and while they were still in the midst of the process, they had applied to several other religious schools in Petah Tikva.

But all of those schools refused to accept children in the process of conversion, other than one state religious school where, according to the father, his daughter was not made welcome.

At Darchei Noam, in contrast, "no one asked us anything about conversion," he said. "They just asked if we observe Jewish tradition at home. Believe me, here they just want to create an atmosphere of Torah."