First grade for my Israeli daughter

Thank goodness for Israel

Moving [back] to Israel as an adult has had its ups and downs for me, but I can honestly say that I’ve never doubted my decision for one simple reason: our daughter’s Jewish upbringing and education.

I’ve written in the past about the simple comfort and fulfilment of living as a Jew in the Jewish State:

Israeli Jews speak Hebrew, the Jewish tongue. The State’s work week runs from Sunday through Thursday (just like in the Arab states), and its national holidays include all of the Jewish religious holidays…

Even my daughter’s Jewish education is of no serious concern, unlike it would have been elsewhere…

Every moment is a Jewish moment here. The notion of assimilation is… laughable.


A moment of truth

Our daughter will be entering first grade next year.

This means that we will be selecting a school for her and thus making the first of several major decisions governing her education. In Israel, the education system consists of three tiers: primary (grades 1–6), middle school (grades 7–9) and high school (grades 10–12). The major decisions about schooling have to be made for 1st grade and 7th grade.

If any of you would like to know about the different tracks of Jewish education available here in Israel, you can take a look at what I wrote in a previous post of mine; I laid everything out there. As always, if you are curious to know more, I would be happy to answer your questions. However, for the purposes of this post, only two school systems are relevant for us:

  1. State-Secular;
  2. State-Orthodox

Nota bene:

Most people in Israel would translate ‘State-Orthodox’ as: ‘State-Religious’, but this is not quite accurate. For historic and political reasons, the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations (Conservative, Reform, and others) continue to have a very limited footprint in Israel. For this reason, the Hebrew word ‘dati’, which means: ‘religious’ has long come to mean: ‘Orthodox’ in the minds of Hebrew speakers.

However, in reality, an individual could be a ‘religious Conservative’ or ‘religious Reform’ Jew, and(!) one could also be a ‘non-religious Orthodox’ Jew. This is why I more accurately term Israel’s ‘religious’ Jewish schools as: ‘Orthodox’, for they only represent a very limited range of flavors of Jewish religious expression.

This may be a lot to take in for those who are not very familiar with Jewish life and culture, but if you have any questions for me – I will do my best to answer them.


So… our two school options are:

State-Secular

State-secular elementary and high schools provide a general studies education, including a minimal amount of Tanakh (Bible) study. Some of these schools offer a limited Jewish enrichment program.

State-Orthodox

State-Orthodox elementary and high schools offer a dual curriculum of Judaic and general studies. There is a commitment to both a Torah-observant lifestyle and to the values of religious Zionism.


Our take on Jewish tradition

Despite observing the Sabbath and keeping a kosher kitchen, my wife and I are very non-ideological. We don’t believe that all Jews “have to” follow traditional Torah law. We don’t think that being “religious” or being “Jewish” necessarily makes one “good”. At home, we don’t require our daughter to participate in any religious norms and rituals unless her choices would affect the entire household.

Both of us, having had secular or non-Jewish upbringings, chose for ourselves to live our lives according to Jewish tradition. Our extended families are mostly comprised of non-religious Jews and gentiles, and we embrace them as they are, just as they do us.

Personally, I harbor deep skepticism about the theological underpinnings of all faiths, as well as of the involvement of any supernatural power in our lives. My wife is definitely more of a theist than I am, but she’s very much a pluralist, in the sense that she doesn’t believe that any particular religion has a monopoly on humankind’s access to the Almighty.

Still, for ourselves, we have chosen to live in Israel because we love being Jews. We are proud of our national identity and ancestries. We both find great beauty in many of our rituals and holidays, and we are both reluctant to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” when it comes to Jewish tradition.


Our take on secularism

Neither one of us is uncomfortable with secular life. Most of our friends and family, as it happens, are not religious by their own definitions.

Also, by virtue of our daughter growing up in Israel, it’s highly unlikely that she would marry a non-Jew, which is of concern to me in particular. In principle, therefore, why should it matter how familiar she becomes with Jewish texts and history? Her national identity is essentially guaranteed.

The reality is that the level of ignorance among secular Jewish Israelis on all subjects related to traditional Judaism is very high. They would be, of course, able to navigate the Torah and other historic Jewish texts in their original forms because their fluency in modern Hebrew would enable them to decipher Biblical Hebrew and its later incarnations… but they usually don’t care to do so.

Sadly, we live in a very polarized and reactionary world, and this is no less true of religion than it is of politics. State and religion are not separate in Israel and infringe upon the lives of its secular citizens, and Orthodoxy is broadly accepted in Israeli society as the “one true faith”, so many secular Israeli Jews are turned off to Judaism as a historic way of life. By virtue of living in Israel, they are members of a predominantly Jewish society and participate in what one might call “social” religion, but I dare say that for most of them, being Jewish in the Jewish State is not so much their choice as their default.

Now, I well know that this is a controversial thing to say, and there are plenty of people who will disagree with me. And, yes, I am aware of the growing trend among some young secular Israelis to study traditional Jewish texts and incorporate Jewish rituals into their lives. Still, I maintain that this is a tiny minority in Israel, and I believe that my perspective is borne out in the curriculum taught to secular Israeli school children, which contributes to their general ignorance of traditional Judaism.


But, but…

But the Orthodox schools are run by Orthodox Jews.

😮‍💨

I cannot speak to other religious communities, but I assume that the following also holds true outside of the Jewish world: Jewish religious schools are operated by and taught by people who are more religiously conservative and less favorably predisposed towards secularism and skepticism than the families who send their children to these schools.

Prayer is obligatory, girls are required to wear skirts, classes are only co-ed until 4th or 6th grade, and the Torah is taught to the students as the undeniable Truth, rather than as a historical cultural document.

Ugh.

Now, luckily for us, we live in Jerusalem. Living here is expensive, but there are great advantages, including a wider range of religious communities than can be found in many other places throughout Israel. This means that several of the local Orthodox schools are somewhat religiously liberal, given the communities that they serve. This means that in our neighborhood we are not the only ones with one foot firmly planted in the non-religious world. This means that teachers are somewhat more prepared for students and parents to push back on them.

We’ve done our research, and it seems that there are three or four Orthodox schools in the area that are open-minded enough for our tastes. That is exactly the number of schools we are required to register for, so we are not left with any flexibility (outside of Jerusalem, we would have even fewer suitable alternatives, if any at all). Hopefully these schools are good enough. Hopefully our daughter will be okay.


Providing what we cannot give

Ultimately, parents supplement their children’s school educations, and the reality is that we cannot give our daughter the substantive Jewish education that we never received ourselves.

That is what it comes down to.

Priorities.

40 thoughts on “First grade for my Israeli daughter”

  1. I love your post. I was brought up in the Church of England and feel about it in a way very similar to the way you feel about Judaism. I also have an enormous fondness for your religion and culture. Oddly enough it feels like a home to me also. It is probably all those wonderful stories I read as a child about the Judean desert and the ancient Jewish tribes. Also on my father’s side there was clear and obvious Jewish ancestry – my grandfather waa very obviously of Jewish origin. Though to be exiles from pograms. In any event I much enjoyed reading about your lives in Israel.

    1. Thanks, Anthony!

      You know, sometimes I feel odd about being so open about my Israeli-Jewish perspective online because I wouldn’t want to be misunderstood and accidentally misrepresent something, but I am who I am, and I didn’t create this blog merely for my poetry… so my policy is to attempt to encourage questions and answer them as precisely as I find possible.

      All best,
      David

  2. This was really interesting to read, David, thanks for sharing. I was raised in Church of England schools which were not very religious but did teach us Bible stories. I opted out of all religious schooling options for my son in Spain because I didn’t want him to be brainwashed. Here in Slovenia, religion is completely separate from the school curriculum. But I realise he’s missing out on a great part of our cultural heritage by not learning the bible stories I learned at school. So I’ve started teaching them to him, as objectively as possible.

    1. Yeah… I really… it’s hard to explain, but secularism and divorce from tradition just doesn’t work for me at all. I want our daughter to be comfortable in her Jewish shoes, so to speak, I want her to be empowered to make her own religious choices. Being raised without the “religious skillset” that children receive in Israeli “Orthodox” schools would handicap her… I want her to have all the information possible to make her own intelligent decisions in the future. But, of course, religious coercion, for me, is always lurking – I am very wary of any sort of religious fundamentalism and/or close-mindedness.

      -David

  3. With our daughter, we wanted to start deliberately from a blank page, if you like. The UK school system was therefore ideal for us – children are taught about all religions, just, really, what they are, what they represent. Our thinking was that our daughter could make her own choices, whether and which, if she later chose to be religious. As I say, we were very deliberate in not offering any “steer” in this.

  4. This is such a beautiful read and thought process. There is so much to dissect but one thing stuck with me is the question of identity. ‘I love being a Jew’. I can’t lay claim to a well-defined identity. There are about 12 tribes in the line of Judaism, is there the same feeling of solid identity as to say I come from the tribe or line of Judah, Benjamin or Ephraim . In South African culture people are proud to be called Zulu, Xhosa or Pedi , there are others. As Nigerians are proud and also proud to be in the line of Igbo, Hausa or Yoruba. One can cite many other examples. I love being a Jew….is it the same as saying I love being Arab.
    I am born into South Aftica, the threads of my tribe is fragmented so i don’t put a whole lot of emphasis on orthodox or not. I trust my spiritual line to do her work along the way and to do it well. However when i survey the landscape of the religious, public or secular schools I must say that I have a learning towards Catholic, Methodist and Anglican schools. They are so incredibly well structured and incorporate broad teaching methodologies that expand the fields one hope my grandchildren will embrace, be it sport, science, the arts, history, religious studies, crafts, music and technology.
    But here my emphasis and interest is identity and being Jewish from the tribe of…..this interests me.

    1. Abi,

      Well, in Jewish lore/history, ten of the twelve tribes were lost forever circa 722 BCE, as you can read about here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_Lost_Tribes

      So today only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin remain, and nobody really knows which of the two they are from. There are some groups that claim descent from some of the “lost tribes” as you can see here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_Lost_Tribes#Groups_which_claim_descent_from_the_tribes … but not everyone necessarily accepts all of these claims.

      So, speaking personally, it’s not about being from a particular tribe, but rather about being a member of the Jewish nation. (Interestingly, in colloquial US English some Jews refer to themselves as MOT “Members of the Tribe“. Both of my parents took DNA tests, and they both were 99%-100% genetically Jewish. I feel very attached to our family identity… generations of Jews lived and died as Jews in order for me to be able to call myself a Jew today. I wrote about my attachment to my Jewish identity a little bit here: https://skepticskaddish.com/2020/10/19/to-india-and-others-with-love/

      Does any of that answer your question?

      -David

      1. Thank you David, i will follow those links. I just thought that belonging to a specific tribe in Jewish life still carries weight. As i mentioned identity fascinates me since my association and tradition is tattered and fragmented. And im most excited when a tattered thread is caught and reels me in. This is a wonderful feeling.
        But the issue is here is secular or orthodox. I come from a dogmatic orthodox religious background which has impacted our lives positively and in a great deal negatively since the man aspiring to a conservative religious upbringing was also in essence a fragmented man.

        1. In the modern world, Jews live all over the world and we identify with our families’ backgrounds – European, Middle Eastern, North African, etc…

          And, of course, within that, Jewish communities of different countries have their own traditions.

          -David

  5. An informative post for me. But I was wondering if there was any difference in prospects of those who finish secular or orthodox schools, in the matter of higher education or employment.

    1. Kaushal,

      There is no difference in prospects for those who finish State-Secular and/or State-Orthodox schools.

      However, most State-ultra-Orthodox schools and other non-State-ultra-Orthodox schools do not teach their male students core curricular studies after primary school. No English, no math, no science, etc. This puts them at a severe disadvantage when it comes to entering the workforce, and it’s a huge drag on the Israeli economy. Not teaching core curricular studies is against the law, but it is generally overlooked by authorities for political reasons.

      -David

  6. Thanks, David. All the best. Good discussion. I am in an intermarriage as you know, and would not believe in religious day school in any event. We all have to find our own path. I do think non-orthodoxy has somewhat more of a footprint in Israel than you give it credit for. Up to 10 percent at this point. See the recent Hiddush webinar on the DeAngloization of Progressive and Masorti Judaism in Israel, especially the remarks of Rabbi Gilad Kariv of IMPJ and his associated materials.

    1. According to Hiddush polling over the past decade, the percentage of Reform- and Conservative-affiliated Israeli Jews has not risen for many years. The non-Orthodox denominations are not succeeding at appealing to greater numbers of Israelis – they seem to be stuck in the same spot.

      Love,
      David

  7. Well written and very informative about the educational choices available. My husband and I live in the US and my son and daughter in law are seriously considering making aliyah at some point. I’m going to ask you a question that, as a grandparent, weighs heavily on my mind: Do your children see their grandparents?

    1. Rhonda,

      We have one grandmother in Russia and one grandmother in the USA. Both of them (when it’s not pandemic season) visit us every year for a month or more. When my father was alive, he would also come visit us annually for a month or more. And generally, when they visit, it’s summertime so they spend a lot of time with our daughter.

      -David

  8. David, your obvious concern for your daughter’s education is commendable. I believe in a broad education that provides the skills for students to educate themselves throughout life.

    I believe that a good education includes knowledge of many different cultural traditions, but especially the student’s own. If we are ever to have worldwide understanding and peace, I feel this is important.

    I believe that education should not, as it often does, squelch creativity and independent thought. Education in science and the arts enhances thinking skills… for example, the connections between math and music.

    I believe that early education should also prepare students with the competencies needed to get into the university of their choice. We want them to have many options. It seems to me that you have very thoroughly thought these issues through. All the best to your daughter in getting into a good school. ❤

  9. Informative and well-written post, David. Clearly you and your wife have many priorities to consider, fortunately you have options. Are you able to move her to a different school, if you are not satisfied?

    1. That’s a good question… I’m not sure how switching schools works, but I’m pretty sure that it requires that another school accept her and probably that another student leave that school – they all have limited capacities… I’ll have to look into this, but hopefully it won’t come to that.

      -David

    1. Angelique,

      Yes, it is! It’s a totally different decision-making process than I would have gone through if I’d remained living in the USA.

      -David

      1. Well, I don’t think a lot of people consider religion. They’re mainly concerned about the cost and how far the school is, the quality of education and all. We do have a lot of schools that are religion-oriented but parents don’t really mark it down as an essential aspect. I go to a convent school and there are non-Christian students here as well because this school was the most convenient for them. It’s usually the management that gives the school a religious inclination, students are quite diverse and can be from different walks of life.

        1. Yes, I’m a Christian. There’s no indoctrination of any sort but non-Christians can participate in religious events like feasts or the Holy Mass if they want to. No one forces them or tries to impose any religion on them. We all get along pretty well, religion poses no boundaries at all.

  10. Great discussions yu have engendered, David ben Alexander. Your father would be proud for your thinking the matter through even if he might totally agree. As you know, much education comes at home, and I know you and Margo will nurture Liorah very much, no matter where she is. Love to you all.

    And hey, 10% non traditional Jews not so bad. More than the total proportion of Jews is the US.

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