An educational alternative
by Jonathan Rosenblum
October 8, 2004
Little more than two months ago, I attended a parlor meeting in a well-appointed Kfar Saba villa to which a group of local parents had invited Chaim Michael Gutterman, director of the network of SHUVU schools in Israel. Until now, SHUVU has almost exclusively served children from Russian-speaking families. But these native, secular Israelis wished to discuss the applicability of the SHUVU model to their children.
As Rabbi Gutterman, in full haredi regalia, and the bewigged principal of the SHUVU school in Rishon Lezion spoke, the proposed match struck me as highly unlikely. That impression was only strengthened when a burly biker-type, sporting two large tattoos, exited noisily in the middle. Next, the parents started questioning whether SHUVU is a haredi missionizing organization that would alienate their children.
I was wrong. A small SHUVU school opened in September in Kfar Saba. Two local mothers were so impressed by what they saw on a visit to the SHUVU school in nearby Netanya that they did not rest until they had enlisted enough children to start a school for first through fifth grade. Most of the parents are university-trained and work in academic professions; many of their children had never even heard the words "Shema Yisrael" in their lives.
Word of mouth has proven the best advertisement. Another five children have enrolled since the school opened, and a group of secular parents from nearby Karnei Shomron recently invited SHUVU to make a presentation to them.
Far from being put off by their children's being taught how to make blessings before eating and learning about the holidays, a number of parents at the first parents' meeting in Kfar Saba expressed a desire for more Torah study in the school.
Desperation fueled by the collapse of the state educational system convinced the Kfar Saba parents to entrust their children to Bais Yaakov-trained teachers. The release of international test scores showing Israel students at the bottom of industrialized nations in reading comprehension and math leads to an annual rite of self-flagellation. Anshel Pfeffer reported in Haaretz last January 28 on a multinational study showing Israeli teachers with among the lowest morale and highest rates of absenteeism in the industrialized world. Israeli classrooms were found to be among the most unruly.
The lack of discipline breeds violence. Half of the boys and one-third of the girls between 11 and 16 report being injured in a violent incident in the course of the school year. Not surprisingly, Israeli students report the lowest level of satisfaction with their schooling, in another multinational study.
EVEN THE claimed superiority of the state schools in secular subjects has been called into question. For the first time, the Education Ministry has released test results for fifth-grade girls in the Bais Yaakov system and boys in the Shas Maayanei HaTorah system. The girls outscored their counterparts in the state system by a wide margin in Hebrew and a smaller margin in math; the boys in the Shas system scored slightly higher in Hebrew and slightly lower in math. The differential is even greater between the state system and SHUVU, which adds 20-25% to the standard state math curriculum each year.
The reasons for the sharp contrasts between the unruly classrooms in the state system and haredi classrooms are not hard to find. As Maariv editor Amnon Dankner wrote last year, instilling more respect for authority and discipline in the state school system is impossible when such respect is contrary to everything Israeli youth experience at home, watch on TV, and see in the street.
Yet both respect for authority and reverence for learning remain core haredi values. Haredi boys and girls still stand when the teacher – indeed any adult – enters the classroom. Moreover, teaching remains a high prestige profession in haredi society, and continues to attract the most idealistic and talented Bais Yaakov seminary graduates. Though teachers' salaries are lower than in the state system, strikes are unknown. The teachers in SHUVU schools contribute many unpaid hours making home visits and privately tutoring students who are falling behind or entering the system late.
Of SHUVU parents who have transferred their children from other schools, 84% report less violence in the school, and 80% describe the cultural level as higher.
A team of researchers led by Ben-Gurion University professor Tamar Horowitz recently published the results of surveys of students in five SHUVU schools. They found extremely high self-image among the students, despite a more demanding curriculum than the state system; a high degree of student confidence that their studies are preparing them well for life; and that the students have a very positive image of themselves as Jews.
The new SHUVU school in Kfar Saba demonstrates that there is a market among secular Israelis for schools in which the teachers are passionate about their jobs and in which children can study in a violence- and drug-free environment while learning to talk with respect to their parents and becoming more familiar and comfortable with their Judaism.
Related Topics: Israeli Society, Jewish Ethics
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