How dark is black?
by Jonathan Rosenblum
April 13, 2001
That the co-winner of this year's Intel-Israel Corp. high school science prize used to be named Pavel comes as no surprise. More surprising, David (formerly Pavel) Kovalev is a 10th-grade student at a religious high school in Jerusalem.
Kovalev's high school is part of the SHUVU network of schools for children from Russian-speaking homes. When Kovalev, whose family originally settled in Migdal Ha'emek, began to look for a high school, an ad in a Russian-language publication for SHUVU's Jerusalem high school caught his eye. After a visit to the school, Kovalev was convinced by the atmosphere in the classrooms he visited. "I could tell right away that the students were very serious about learning," he explains.
Rabbi Reuven Kaplan, Kovalev's principal, places great emphasis on science education. Last spring, for instance, when Gregory Kupchik, an experienced science teacher from Siberia, inquired about a job, Kaplan immediately hired him, even though the school year was almost over and the school had no openings. To make sure that he would not lose Kupchik, Kaplan found him work tutoring over the summer.
Kovalev was Kupchik's tutoring project last summer and, over the summer, he designed a new computer language for graphics and animation. The Intel panel described his work as deserving a start-up company of its own.
The emphasis on math and science characterizes the entire SHUVU system. Using immigrant mathematicians and scientists, SHUVU developed its own math curriculum for elementary schools, which is considered the best of its kind in the country.
For three-quarters of the children in the SHUVU system, the SHUVU school was not their first here. In a just completed survey of parents in four SHUVU schools, 76% responded that their children were receiving a better education than previously, and 84% that there is less violence in the SHUVU school.
Over 90% of these notoriously demanding parents (most of whom hold academic degrees) described their children's math and science education as good or very good. Sixty-four percent reported that their child's exposure to Jewish learning has increased their own Jewish identity (as opposed to 72% who describe their children's previous state-school education as having had no effect).
Many studies point to Jewish identity as the most important factor in determining the success or failure of aliya.
The students in the SHUVU network, many of whom, like Kovalev, had little previous Jewish knowledge or identity, are obviously far removed from traditional haredi students. Yet most of SHUVU's $10 million annual budget is raised from the American religious community and the network's leading administrators are all yeshiva-trained. That the haredi world has created out of whole cloth a system that excels in secular studies should itself discredit some of the stereotypes about that world's alleged contempt for secular studies.
Speaking of stereotypes, it is interesting that the Shas school system is among those that have expressed an interest in SHUVU's math curriculum. And Shas's Pedagogic Resource Center has developed educational materials in sciences, language arts, and Jewish studies that are being copied by educators around the world, according to Dr. Moshe Leibler, the Yale and MIT-trained chief educational psychologist for the Shas network.
Such sophisticated curricular materials belie the familiar caricature of Shas schools as backwaters of ignorance dedicated to perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
That picture, incidentally, is more than a little racist. It assumes that the thousands of non-religious Sephardi parents who have registered their children in Shas schools, which typically have far inferior physical conditions than those in neighboring state schools, are oblivious to their children's education or life chances.
Interviews with those parents, however, reveal a far different picture. Far from being unconcerned with their children's education, they have concluded that a system which imbues students with respect for themselves and others, enthusiasm for learning, and is free of the endemic violence of the state schools is far more conducive to real learning.
Shira Leibowitz Schmidt, the holder of science degrees from Stanford and the Technion, and co-author of Old Wine in New Flasks with Nobel chemistry laureate Ronald Hoffman, recently toured Shas schools in Netanya, Hadera, Jerusalem, and Petah Tikva.
In Petah Tikva, she viewed a math lab in which thousands of dollars were invested to make concepts such as fractions tactilely and visually real to students, and specially designed science equipment illustrating the principles of mechanics.
At Beit Margalit, a new girls' school in Netanya, which I also visited recently, principal Yaffa Shanks related how one of her first initiatives was to hire the best elementary-school science teacher in the Netanya region. Shanks proudly described the curriculum linking science with halachic concepts, as well as a project in which every girl is writing and illustrating her own book.
Shimon Yitzhak, principal of the school in Hadera, confidently assured parents that the thinking and learning skills developed in the school ensure that none of its graduates will be relegated to the remedial-education units in the army.
Even within the mainstream haredi school system, it is simply a myth that students are left unprepared to earn a living in a hi-tech society. Hebrew University math researchers found that high-school-age students with intensive Talmud backgrounds do better solving geometry problems than their secular counterparts who have taken high-school geometry. And Ha'aretz's Amira Golan recently documented the demand in the hi-tech sector for yeshiva graduates.
Talmudic study, in which every statement is likely to be challenged and tested by one's study partner, and where students strive together to find the most elegant solutions to knotty problems, is a perfect preparation for the collegial world of the hi-tech workplace.
The question, it would seem, is not so much whether a haredi education can prepare its graduates to earn a living, but whether our society is prepared for the integration of thousands of working haredim into its ranks.
To that question, the ongoing debate over the Tal Commission recommendations will provide the answer.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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