During the unlamented days of Soviet rule, Jewish parents in the Soviet Union had little opportunity to provide their children with a Jewish education. All Jewish learning took place under the ever watchful eye of the KGB.
One of the great challenges posed BY the aliyah from the former Soviet Union is providing Russian Jewish children with a connection to their Jewish identity. to meet that challenge, american orthodoxy undertook ten years ago to create a Jewish school system in Israel -- SHUVU --for children from Russian-speaking families.
The SHUVU network today encompasses 27 kindergartens, 17 elementary schools, and 10 high schools, with 5,500 students. Another 5,000 children from Russian-speaking families receive supplemental services from SHUVU during the school year, and over 6,000 attend SHUVU-run day camps. To sustain this vast enterprise, over $5,000,000 is raised annually from overseas donors.
The desire to provide their children the Jewish education they never received has been one of the SHUVU’s primary attractions for Russian-speaking parents. In a letter to then Education Minister Yossi Sarid last year, MK Marina Solodkin of Yisrael B’Aliyah described the schools as providing a basic connection to Judaism for students who lack "any knowledge of the fundamental concepts of Judaism . . . Without any religious demands on students or their families."
Needless to say, the government of the Jewish state has done everything possible to encourage Jewish education for children whose families were denied that education for over seventy years. Right? Well, not exactly.
In fact, Israel is the only country in the world today in which Jewish religious schools face closure not because they have failed to provide a quality general education but because they provide too high quality education.
Last year, the Education Ministry, together with several northern municipalities, waged a determined campaign to prevent SHUVU from opening two new schools in Nahariya and Nazereth Ilit. SHUVU was accused of draining the best students from the local systems.
Only after intense pressure from Yisrael B’Aliya and international supporters of SHUVU, including Senator Joseph Lieberman, the organization’s honorary chairman, did the Education Ministry agree to the appointment of an independent expert to evaluate the two schools.
Menachem Kaplan, a former director general of the Education Ministry, issued a report so effusive in its praise of the two schools that the Education Ministry had no choice but to issue the licenses.
Over the four months prior to the issuance of the licenses, however, parents of children in the two schools were subjected to the unrelenting pressure to remove their children the SHUVU schools and return them to the public schools. Nahariya municipal workers phoned every parent to tell them that they would be subject to prosecution for truancy violations and aiding and abetting an illegal organization if they did not do so. Several parents received stiff fines of 2,000 shekels.
Parents employed by local municipalities from which the students were drawn found themselves threatened with dismissal if they persisted in sending their children to the SHUVU schools. That particular tactic was reminiscent of the early ‘50s when new immigrant parents who chose religious education for their children faced the loss of their vital Histadrut work cards.
Remarkably, only a handful of parents removed their children over the course of four months of these pressure tactics. Kaplan’s report explains why. He describes the curriculum of the schools as "well-organized, varied, and rich in content," the teaching staff as highly qualified, and parents and students as "extremely satisfied." One mother told Kaplan, "This is the only school in Israel where teachers call you at home and fill you in our your child’s progress."
Walking unannounced into one classroom, Kaplan was shocked when all the children jumped to their feet. Asked why they were standing, the children all answered, "In honor of our visitor." (Kaplan explicitly rejected as unfounded the charge that SHUVU was accepting only the best students.)
Unquestionably the violence and general lack of discipline in Israeli public schools makes the task of recruiting for SHUVU much easier. Yet rather than improve the public schools, many municipalities have resorted to strong-arm tactics to fend off competitition from SHUVU schools.
Yerucham is a case in point. Three years ago, SHUVU opened in a caravan for 35 students. Last year, the number was fifty, and this year 80 students registered for the SHUVU school.
From the beginning, Yerucham Mayor Motti Avisror has fought the SHUVU school tooth and nail, even going so far as to withhold $40,000 transferred by the Education Ministry to the municipality for the SHUVU school. Every communication from SHUVU elicits the same response, "I don’t recognize your school."
This year SHUVU purchased an abandoned Histadrut building on Yerucham’s main thoroughfare. A half meter stone fence was already in place, and to comply with Education Ministry regulations SHUVU immediately began work to add a 1.5 meter wire fence. On the land registry the plot is explicitly zoned for a fence of up to two meters..
Whatever its undoubted merits, Yerucham is not exactly known as a garden city; nor are local building ordinances strictly enforced. The Mayor’s own father raises donkeys and sheep in his back yard – a homestead demarcated by empty oil barrels, cactus plants and boulders.
Yet last week, Yerucham city workers razed the $10,000 fence on the grounds that no building permit had been sought. Despite the obvious danger posed to the schoolchildren, Avrisor went ahead with the demolition solely to force SHUVU to close its doors.
If the recently proclaimed secular revolution amounts to anything more than incitement to religious war, it must begin with recognition of parents’ right to choose the education they want for their children. It is not the task of the neutral state to protect its citizens from Judaism.
After all, if the SHUVU parents wanted to be told how to educate their children, they might just as well be back in the USSR.