When You Don’t Fit the Mold

My wife Alexis is fond of saying that although we live in Israel, most of what we do would be the same were we living anywhere else in the world. We go to work, we cook dinner, do laundry and go food shopping just like our friends in America.

This month we registered our son, Shemer, for kindergarten and while on the surface this seems like another one of those obligations common to all parents, there are unique decisions and challenges in an Israeli city.

Most Israeli children go to public schools. But because Israel does not separate between religion and state, parents must choose between secular and religious public schools. The only Jewish religion that the state recognizes is Orthodox Judaism. Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism are not recognized here. Neither synagogues, nor rabbis, nor m arriages nor conversions under non-Orthodox auspices are supported or recognized by the Israeli government whereas Orthodox Rabbis are state employees, Orthodox synagogues receive state funding and Orthodox schools are public.

As pluralistic observant Conservative Jews, we do not fit into either the Orthodox or the secular school system. We are searching for an atmosphere of knowledge and tolerance where our children will be taught how and why to be observant Jews and educated citizens of the world without being coerced into thinking that there is only one way to be Jewish. This openness is part of a general world-view we seek to transmit to our children which although more popular among Israelis than in the past, is almost non-existent in official institutions.

In a society that is very divisive, people in Israel are often categorized as “us and them, i.e., Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, right and left. Ideas and opinions are also classified in such ways and so there is little room for tolerance, compromise and dialog.

Kindergarten will be our first experience with an Israeli public institution other than the army. In Israel, kindergartens are separate institutions not connected to elementary schools. Alexis and I considered three different neighborhood kindergartens before we registered Shemer for next year.

We saw two Orthodox kindergartens and one secular school — with an Orthodox teacher. I asked all three teachers what they do when a child is disruptive. Of course none of said they punished the children. However there was a clear gradation of how the teachers turn a problematic situation into an educational opportunity. One teacher said that the child goes into the kitchen until ready to return to the class. Another, said that the child is sent to a special soft chair to relax and calm down. They can read a book from a shelf next to the chair and when they are ready can join their classmates. The third teacher, Daphna, sends the child to the corner of the classroom that is set up like a library. The youngster sits at a round table and reads until calm and then the teacher reviews what they did and explores how the child might have acted differently and what the child might do should the situation reoccur. If there are two children involved, they have a discussion with each side being heard. The goal of the dialog is to show each child how the other child felt and to open each child up to an alternative view of the same situation.

Daphna has a similar attitude when discussing religion. For instance, everyone in the class may celebrate Shabbat differently: one kid goes on family day trips, another goes to synagogue while another hangs out watching TV at home. Each is seen as legitimate and provides the children with a chance to learn how people differ. When I asked Daphna why as an Orthodox woman she chose to teach at a secular school, she explained that while she was a student at the teachers’ college she was one of two religious girls in the whole class. She was shocked at the amount of ignorance among the secular students and while she does not believe that every Jew needs to practice the religious rituals and observe holidays, she believes that all Jews should have a basic knowledge of their faith. Since we are all part of one people, Daphna wanted to teach secular children some of these basic principles without judgment in an open and tolerant atmosphere.

Alexis and I liked what we saw so I got on the computer and went to Jerusalem’s municipal Web site http://www.jerusalem.muni.il/ to register Shemer for his first year of public school. I was told I could request a first and second choice. I had to select a list of religious or secular schools for my neighborhood. I chose secular and selected the school with the religious teacher. I then tried to select a religious school for my second choice, however, apparently it did not dawn on anyone that parents might want to select one religious and one secular school. The possibility to do so does not even exist.

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