Religious Aliyah

Religious Education and Aliyah: 
Some Suggestions for New Olim

by Michelle Berkowitz, Yoel Finkelman, Ari Shames, 
and Dodi Tobin
source: http://www.atid.org/journal01/edinisrael_sum.htm

Education can be one of the most challenging aspects of aliyah. 
In "Religious Education and Aliyah: Some Suggestions for 
New Olim," the authors help prepare parents and children for 
the move by identifying some of the more significant differences 
between the Israeli religious educational system and that of 
hutz la'aretz. It reports some of the facts, evaluates certain 
trends and attitudes, and makes suggestions for finding the 
right school for your children. It can serve as an important 
resource for families planning the move to Israel. 

Education and Aliyah
Education is Critical to Successful Aliyah

The advantages of aliyah for religious education are obvious. 
Your children will be immediately and directly involved in the 
center of the Jewish world; they will learn Hebrew as a matter 
of course, opening up to them the world of the Jewish sources; 
concern and commitment to ‘am yisrael is woven into the very 
fabric of the culture and its educational system. Yet, there are 
challenges. Successful aliyah can depend on your children's 
acclimation to their new schools. You are moving across the world, 
changing language and culture. Acclimating to the new school 
environment can be particularly challenging, and the older the 
student the harder the adjustment. We have spoken with numerous 
educational professionals, parents, and students, and have 
collected some of their insights and suggestions. We hope to 
provide some pointers to ease the adjustment period and help 
make for a more successful aliyah. (This hopes to supplement 
the Association of American and Canadians in Israel [AACI] 
fine pamphlet, "The Israeli Educational System," which describes 
in great detail the technical aspects of Israeli education and 
provides helpful advice. Contact AACI at 6 Mane St., Jerusalem, 
+972-2-561-7151, or at www.aaci.org.il)

The better you understand the Israeli system, the better you 
will be able to communicate with teachers and schools. Many olim 
assume that the ways familiar from Jewish education in the 
Diaspora are "correct," and the differences that they encounter 
are a "incorrect." This can create unnecessary frustration and 
a sense of helplessness. To get the most out of the Israeli 
educational system, recognize that the Israeli schools provide 
different education: sometimes better, sometimes worse, and 
sometimes simply different.

Hebrew Language and Culture

Children in Israel, especially younger ones, pick up Hebrew very 
quickly. This gives them a tremendous educational advantage over 
their counterparts overseas. They have much easier access to 
the sources they learn in limudei kodesh, making their religious 
education potentially much more fruitful.

At the same time, the first few weeks or months can be very 
trying, both because of the language and because of the larger 
issues of social and cultural integration. Even good students 
may have trouble understanding the class material simply 
because of the language. Speak to your children about these 
potential frustrations, and be understanding if they have 
trouble making the grades you expect early on. It can be 
advantageous to work on Hebrew with your children before 
making aliyah, either by speaking Hebrew at home (if you can) 
or through tutoring.

Keep a Positive Attitude

As a parent, your attitude will rub off on your children. 
Frustrations and setbacks are inevitable, as you change from 
one social and educational culture to another. If you are 
positive, upbeat, and forward-looking, this will rub off on 
your children.

Religious Education in Public Schools

Most Israeli religious schools belong to the Mamlakhti-Dati 
(religious public schools) stream, which combine limudei 
kodesh with general education in a Zionist setting. A minority 
of religious public schools are considered Mamlakhti-Dati-Torani 
(Torah oriented religious public schools). These schools place 
greater emphasis on limudei kodesh, employ a school rabbi, 
have a stricter dress-code particularly for girls, and may 
have longer hours than the mamlakhti-dati schools. An even 
smaller minority are semi-private schools. These schools 
follow most of the same regulations as the fully public schools 
regarding administration and curriculum. However, they usually 
offer some unique element - like an emphasis on art or science, 
a particular religious or educational outlook, smaller class 
sizes - which is paid for by moderate tuition. Each school, 
no matter what stream it belongs to, is different. Pay close 
attention to the nuanced differences between the different 
schools in your area, even those schools that officially belong 
to the same official stream.

Fundamentally, all of these streams are public schools, which 
make them different than the private Jewish schools typical 
of hutz la'aretz. Even Israel's semi-private schools, which 
maintain a greater measure of autonomy than the fully public 
schools, remain intimately connected to the existing public 
school bureaucracy, under the control of the Ministry of 
Education.

Public School is Less Expensive Than Private Schools

Public school is considerably cheaper than private schools. 
The regular religious public schools are virtually free, 
excepting payment for various kinds of insurance, special 
events, transportation, and books. By law, schools may charge 
no more than about $200 per year per student for these 
services, but some schools may bend this rule, or find ways 
around it. Even exclusive semi-private high schools in Israel 
charge only a small fraction of what private religious schools 
in hutz la'aretz charge. In general, tuition for semi-private 
elementary schools range from $60-$150 per month, while some 
exclusive high schools may charge as much as $450 per month.

Find a School With an Ideology Similar to Your Own

Israeli religious schools are closely tied to particular 
religio-political ideologies, and the political parties which 
represent them. It is critical that parents find a school 
which closely reflects their own religious approach. 
Dissonance between the religious messages the student hears 
at home and in the classroom can create educational problems 
for any child, but particularly for new immigrants.

Cultural Diversity

Public schools derive their student population from all the 
socio-economic subgroups within their geographic area. Expect 
the socio-economic and cultural heterogeneity in your school 
to parallel that of the religious community in the geographic 
area upon which the school draws.

Be a Postive Influence, but Be Realistic

Public schools depend on a national bureaucracy. Parents 
should learn to work with the system. Especially in the first 
few years, try to figure out how to best adapt yourselves 
and your children to the resources available. If there are 
things about your children's schools which you feel you can 
influence positively, try to gain that influence by working 
within the existing bureaucracy. Do your homework. Find out 
what parent committees exist in the school, - Va'ad Horim (PTA), 
Va'ad Kitah (Class councils), etc. - how you can be involved, 
and what influence these can have. Find out what aspects of 
the school's curriculum and regulations are mandated by the 
system, what is deeply engrained in the school's tradition, 
and which can be reasonably changed. Even working with the 
system can be frustrating, especially for parents who are 
used to private schools of hutz la'aretz, which are small 
and less bureaucratic, and where the high tuition payments 
"buy" a certain amount of influence.

Mehanekh/et and Yo'etzet/et
Mehanekh/et

The system of mehankhim may be the single biggest advantage 
of the Israeli educational system. Each class has a 
"mehanekh/et" which is ill translated as a homeroom teacher. 
Beside teaching various subjects, the mehanekh/et serves as 
the class social coordinator, keeping track of the social 
dynamics in the class, helping to organize extra curricular 
activities, and keeping a particular eye on each student. 
The mehanekh/et also teaches a course entitled "hinukh," 
which meets about 1 hour a week, and often deals with values 
education, social issues, current events, and other topics 
which the mehanekh/et considers critical. Although there 
is no formal training required for this job, most teachers 
do not start out as a mehanekh/et, but are promoted to the 
position if the administration feels that teacher has the 
kind of personality, commitment, and concern that are 
demanded of a mehanekh/et.

Parents can reasonably expect to have regular contact with 
the student's mehanekh/et, particularly if problems arise. 
When dealing with almost any issue that arises in school, 
parents should be in contact with the mehanekh/et before 
anybody else (principals are generally not involved in the 
day to day concerns of each student, particularly in larger 
schools). Once you have chosen a school for your child, 
be sure that the mehanekh/et knows that your child has just 
made aliyah (or any other concern), so that he or she can 
plan accordingly. A good mehanekh/et can have a profound 
effect on a student's successful integration into Israel, 
and on his or her educational success in general.

Yoetz/et

Each school also has a "yoetzet," an advisor, who deals with 
individual and social issues where the mehanekh can not. 
She (there are almost no men in this job) has a university 
degree in yi'utz, and is part of the school's administration. 
She serves as an advocate for the students within the 
administration. She advises teachers, staff members, students, 
and parents who are struggling with any educational or social 
problem. She also serves as the contact person between the 
school and other psychological or social services that might 
be called in when the need arises. If there are issues that 
parents, students, and mehankhim can not solve adequately, 
the yoetzet is the next stop. The mehanekh and the yoetzet 
should be excellent resources for evaluating your children's 
integration and academic success and for dealing with problems 
before they become too severe.

Idiosyncrasies of Israeli Schools
Jewish Calendar

Israeli schools follow the Jewish calendar. There are 
particularly long vacations before Pesah and Sukkot and 
during Hannukah, which can be particularly trying if both 
parents are working. Public and private camps are available 
in some places to fill the children's time. Camps of various 
kinds are also available during the long summer vacation 
(hofesh hagadol), but there is almost no organized activity 
available during the last few weeks in August. Take this into 
account when planning your work and vacation, or when 
scheduling relatives' trips from overseas.

Bagrut

In order to be eligible for college admission, high-school 
students must pass a series of matriculation exams in various 
subjects, called bagruyot. Exams in some subjects are 
mandatory, while exams in other subjects are optional. 
There is an elaborate point system, in which more difficult 
exams in a given subject are given greater weight. Each student 
must receive enough points to graduate with a teudat bagrut 
(bagrut certificate), which are calculated by the number of 
tests and the difficulty of the tests. Higher grades on bagrut 
exams are an important factor in determining college and 
university admission. If your children have begun high school 
before aliyah, be sure to be in touch with the school to 
determine how to make up the missing work.

Large Classes/ Shorter School Days

Classes in Israeli schools can be large, up to 40 children. 
If this concerns you, take into account that some schools - 
usually smaller semi-private schools - are designed to have 
somewhat smaller classes.

The school week is six days long, Sunday to Friday. In general, 
the school days are shorter than the average day in American 
yeshiva day schools, although the semi-private schools may 
have longer days.

Early Departmentalization

Israeli schools begin departmentalization early. Even elementary 
school students have different teachers, and even different 
classrooms, for different subjects. This can be confusing, 
particularly for younger students, but it also provides the 
children access to teachers who know their fields particularly 
well, and are excited by their topic.

A student's schedule may change at various intervals. Courses 
are not arranged in any particular order, like Judaic studies 
in the morning and general studies in the afternoon. Therefore, 
be sure that your children understand their often complex 
ma'arekhet (weekly schedule), but don't be surprised if this 
causes some confusion early on.

Teacher Breaks

Many male teachers do miluim (reserve duty). They can miss 
as much as 5 weeks per school year - sometimes a few days at 
a time, and sometimes weeks at a stretch. The government's 
National Insurance pays for three months of maternity leave 
for female teachers, although some mothers take more time 
off. Schools will find substitutes, but these interruptions 
can be disruptive.

Early Independence

Children in Israel are treated as relatively independent at 
a younger age than their peers in English speaking countries. 
There tends to be less formal supervision of recess time 
and bus rides (although this has been changing in recent 
years). This can be jarring to immigrant parents, but it is 
reflective of Israeli culture in general. Much of Israeli 
culture assumes that children will be treated as older at 
a younger age (many will be soldiers by age 18).

Staff Strikes

Staff strikes are not uncommon in Israel, particularly during 
the first week of school. Usually, teachers will make up 
missed days during the course of the year by eliminating 
scheduled vacation days. The strikes usually do not effect 
special education, and often do not effect students preparing 
for the bagrut exams.

Books

Israeli schools do not provide books. You will be given a 
book list, and will be expected to purchase the books from 
local stores. Israeli schools usually do not provide lockers 
for students. Buy a large backpack for students to carry 
their many books and materials back and forth from school.

Food

Israelis often eat their main meal during the day. Lunch is 
often a meat meal, and many schools, especially those with 
long school days, offer a catering option in schools that 
have a long day. Besides regular meals, children usually 
eat a 10 AM snack ('aruhat 'eser).

Practical Advice for Researching Schools 
Schools are Critical in Successful Klitah

When choosing a community to live in, take the schools into 
account. This is particularly important if you are making 
aliyah with older school-age children. Place school visits 
and research high on your agenda for a pilot trip, and when 
visiting potential communities. Your child's adjustment to 
his or her new school can have a significant impact upon 
the success of your klitah (absorption).

Different Schools for Different Kids

Each child has his/her own educational needs. It is not 
unusual for families in Israel to have their children in 
a number of different schools. It is also not unusual for 
olim to switch their kid(s) to different school after a 
few years, at which point the child's needs and the reality 
come into more clear focus.

Planning a School Visit

If at all possible, visit the various schools you are 
considering in advance of your aliyah. Arrange appointments 
with any or all of the following: the principal, mehanekh/et, 
yo'etzet (counselor), teachers. Ask questions and express 
your concerns. Sit in on classes, and speak to other students 
(they often know more about what school is really like than 
anybody else). Speak to parents and school activists - especially 
new olim - whose children attend the schools you are researching. 
Ask to see a book list for the grades you are interested in. 
A book list may give you the most accurate picture of what 
the students are learning and reading.

Youth Movements

Many Israeli religious children are involved with youth groups, 
like Ezra, Benei Akiva, Ariel, and Tzofim Datiim. These youth 
movement do quite a bit of informal character education, 
focusing on Zionism, the Land of Israel, responsibility to 
the community, and social activism. A child who does not 
participate in one of these groups may miss out on much of 
the social life of Israeli kids. These youth movements can be 
critical educational tools to supplement the education 
provided in schools.

Benefits for New Olim

The government, municipality, and the schools offer olim 
hadashim certain forms of educational assistance: for example, 
special tutoring hours in the school setting, eligibility for 
home tutoring, and allowances to take certain exams in one's 
mother tongue. The details of these benefits change from time 
to time, are available in different ways in different areas 
of the country. We spoke with many people with various 
different jobs in various different settings, and were not 
given consistent information about what olim are entitled to, 
and what they are realistically likely to receive. Consult 
the local branch of the Absorption Ministry, the local 
municipality, the school administration, and other parent 
olim for realistic picture of what is available in your area 
or school.

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