Riding back to Jerusalem from Ben Gurion airport after a two-week sojourn in North America, I asked my cabdriver to bring me up to date on the latest developments. Soon the conversation turned to the complete breakdown of the secular educational system.
My cabbie reminisced about how, in his youth, teaching was one of the most respected professions, a fact reflected in the way students were required to stand whenever the teacher entered the room. That simple gesture of respect instilled an attitude in students that is completely absent today.
Every year when the disastrous results of the latest multinational study comparing the scholastic achievements of Israeli youth to their contemporaries in other industrialized societies are released, the Minister of Education suggests restoring the old practice of standing for teachers – a practice which continues to be rigorously observed in the chareidi educational system.
That small gesture of respect would no doubt be a welcome improvement for the secular school system. But it is unlikely to be adopted. Such a show of respect for authority flies in the face of the modern Israeli ethos. As Maariv editor Amnon Dankner wrote last year, after the latest failing marks on international educational achievement exams, stricter discipline in schools is impossible so long as it is antithetical to everything Israeli youth experience at home, view on television, or see on the street.
The breakdown of discipline in the larger society, which is reflected in the schools, is too complete to be overcome by any set of gestures alone. Ha’aretz reported last January 28 on an international study comparing levels of teacher satisfaction and the quality of teacher-student relations in industrialized nations. Israel ranked behind all but four other countries. Only 10% of teachers expressed a high level of job satisfaction. In 10% of the schools, the teachers missed an average of one day a week. Inspired by their teachers’ message that nothing vital is taking place in the classroom, almost half the students missed at least one day every two weeks.
Lack of discipline leads inexorably to violence. Fifteen percent of students between 11-16 come to school "armed" for self-protection at least once a month. Half the male students and one-third of the female students report being physically injured in a violent episode during the school year. Not surprisingly, another transnational study of 28 countries found that Israeli students express the highest level of dissatisfaction of any students in the industrial world.
Ha’aretz described classroom behavior and teacher motivation as much better in the chareidi educational system. That is hardly surprising given the differences between the two systems. Within the chareidi world, a melamed is a respected profession. And among women, there remains no profession that even compares to that of teacher in terms of social prestige. Within the Bais Yaakov system, the primary goal remains that of becoming a mechaneches, and those who find jobs within the system are viewed as an elite group.
Though the pay for mechanachim is lower than in the secular school system and salaries are frequently paid late, the annual strikes that plague the secular school system are unknown and mechanachim demonstrate great mesirus nefesh. In the SHUVU school system, created for children of Russian-speaking immigrants, for instance, the teachers -- most of whom are products of the Bais Yaakov system --devote many unpaid hours to providing individual tutoring to new students and in home visits.
It would be naïve to think that when forty energetic youngsters are crowded into a classroom that there is not room, sometimes much room, for improvement in classroom decorum, particularly in the late afternoon hours, when both rebbes and talmidim are tired. But respect for teachers is deeply engrained in the chareidi educational system, and the problem of serious violence is virtually unknown. One survey of parents who had transferred their children to SHUVU schools found that 84% felt the level of violence was lower than in their previous schools and 80% felt the cultural level was higher.
WHILE THE BREAKDOWN of the secular education system is a national tragedy, it also provides a window of opportunity for expanding the reach of Torah education. The lack of discipline and an environment conducive to learning in the secular system have opened many secular parents to considering the option of a Torah education. As one obviously non-religious mother filmed registering her son in a Torah school, explained to Israel TV, "I want my son to learn krias Shema, talk nicely to his parents, and be able to learn in a school that is safe." No wonder, then, that Lev L’Achim has been able to register thousands of Israeli children for Torah education in recent years.
The last remaining selling card the secular state schools has been their ability to provide a better basis in subjects most parents deem necessary to earning a living in a modern, technological economy. Now even that claim has been severely undermined. The Education Ministry recently published for the first time a comparison of the secular and chareidi fifth-graders in Hebrew language and mathematics. The results (albeit on different tests) showed an advantage for the chareidi system. Girls in the Bais Yaakov system scored above the national average in both subjects, and boys in the Shas Maayanei HaTorah system, scored at about the national average, despite devoting fewer hours to these subjects.
The difference is even more marked when we compare the secular system to the SHUVU system, which was designed from the start for children from non-religious homes and provides an enriched Torah curriculum. In math, for instance, SHUVU offers 20-25% more material per year. According to Ben Gurion University researcher Dr. Tamar Horowitz, the SHUVU school system has the highest level of teacher accountability of any school system in Israel.
Now for the first time, SHUVU is offering its model of enriched Torah education and superb secular studies to secular Israeli parents. A little over two months ago, I was present at a parlor meeting in Kfar Saba, an upscale suburb of Tel Aviv, at which SHUVU director Rabbi Chaim Michoel Gutterman described the SHUVU model to a group of secular Israeli parents. As I surveyed the room, which included one burly fellow with several large tattoos and not a single father wearing a kippah, I thought to myself that there was no way that enough children would be registered from this parent group to start a school. That impression was only strengthened when the questions started flying at Rabbi Gutterman and the principal of SHUVU school. If SHUVU is not trying to missionize our children and make them chareidi, a number of parents wanted to know, why do SHUVU schools separate boys and girls from fourth grade on? Many parents expressed concerns that they would be opening a Pandora’s box of potential family conflicts by sending their children to a religious school.
I was wrong. Due largely to two mothers who were desperate to find a more educationally conducive setting for their children and who had visited a nearby SHUVU school in Netanya, enough children were registered for SHUVU to open a school for first through fifth grade. Those two mothers apparently saw in the SHUVU school they visited the same thing that Dr. Horowitz and two other university researchers found in a recent comprehensive study of five SHUVU schools: extremely high self-image among the students, a high degree of enthusiasm about their studies, and a positive image of themselves as Jews.
Since the school year opened a month ago, SHUVU-Kfar Saba has already added another five students by word-of-mouth, and a group of parents from nearby Karnei Shomron has requested a presentation from SHUVU so they can decide whether to send their children as well. At the first parents meeting of the new school, the parents expressed a high degree of support for the new school. The parents, most of whom are university-trained, described to Dr. Oz Martin of SHUVU their children’s excitement in school and how for the first time they have intellectual aspirations. Not only were there no questions raised about the number of hours devoted to Torah study or the religious practices in the school, but some parents even requested that the school add more Torah study.
Whether SHUVU-Kfar Saba will provide a model that can be replicated in other hard-core bastions of secular Israel only time will tell. The initial signs, however, are promising, and the potential for such an initiative has never been greater.