A major milestone for our Israeli family
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.
Last December, I wrote about applying to elementary (grade) schools for our daughter who will be entering 1st grade next year. In January, we officially submitted our preferences to the municipality. Then we waited.
The application process requires families to request four different potential schools for their children, and at least one of the four most be “local” (i.e. a neighborhood school). Three of the four of the schools we applied for are officially “State-Orthodox” schools. One of them is officially registered as “State-Secular”, and that’s the one our daughter was accepted to.
If you would like to know about the different tracks of Jewish education available in Israel, I’ve written about this in a previous post. And, as always, I would be happy to answer your questions.
State-Secular & State-Orthodox
As I mentioned above, the two categories of Israeli schools that are relevant to our family are “State-Secular” and “State-Orthodox”.
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 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.
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 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.
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 precisely call Israel’s ‘religious’ schools ‘Orthodox’, for they only represent a limited range of Jewish religious expression.
The exception to the rule
Why is it, you may ask, that David and his wife decided to apply to one State-Secular school and three State-Orthodox schools? For that matter, why is he so happy about his daughter having been accepted at that particular State-Secular school?
I’m so glad you asked.
The State-Secular school that’s not secular
Despite observing Jewish holidays in a traditional manner and keeping a kosher kitchen, and despite my wife and I, of our own accords, having chosen to live traditionally religious lives, we are both religious pluralists. (More on this here.)
Ultimately, despite our misgivings, we decided that providing our daughter with a substantive Jewish education (which neither of us received), outweighed our concerns about religious coercion. The three State-Orthodox schools we applied to are just about as religiously openminded as possible; and, probably, we would have been happy “enough” with any of them.
The 4th school, which is now our daughter’s school(!), is officially State-Secular, but it prioritizes rigorous religious education no less than any State-Orthodox school… and it’s non-coercive! For us, there is no question that this unique school is the best of both worlds – our daughter will receive a substantive religious Jewish education, without being expected to believe in a particular theology.
The mixed student body
It gets better. So much better.
This school deliberately strives to maintain a student body that is 50% Secular and 50% Orthodox. In Israel, this is practically unheard of. Generally, Israeli children are educated in either the “Secular” track, the “Orthodox” track, or an “ultra-Orthodox” track.
At our daughter’s school (it’s actually hers now!), the student body is mixed, and classes and activities are run in such a way as to deliberately encourage dialogue between the students and their families. The families at this school are deliberately building a Jewish community together that is not defined by religious practices and preferences.
It gets better.
Since this school is officially State-Secular, and since 50% of the students come from Secular families, the classes are coeducational. At some State-Orthodox schools, boys and girls are separated from one another as early as 4th grade; none separate them from one another any later than 7th grade.
Coeducation is not the worst thing in the world, and I know many people who prefer it, but I am not among them and neither is my wife. We would have accepted it as the default if our daughter had been accepted into any one of the three State-Orthodox schools that we applied for… but now we don’t have to.
Additionally, at State-Orthodox schools, girls are required to wear skirts, which I am not in favor of requiring. There are religious reasons for this, which I personally do not buy into… but, again, now we don’t even have to worry about it! (My wife, of her own free will, wears skirts nearly all the time.)
We are so lucky
No matter what, we would have considered ourselves lucky had our daughter been accepted into this school for all of the above reasons. However, we don’t just consider ourselves lucky – we are lucky.
You see, unlike most schools, our school opens enrollment for preschool, rather than 1st grade, and most of its preschoolers remain for 1st grade, which means: an incoming 1st grader can only get accepted into the school if one of the preschoolers drops out. Then, if one of the preschoolers does drop out, the school holds a lottery to determine who will take their place, and there are a lot of applicants.
Beyond this, the younger siblings of all former students are automatically accepted, and the school is not very large… and let’s not forget that they strive to maintain a student body that is 50% Orthodox and 50% Secular… 50% female and 50% male…
In any case, when we included this school on our list of four potential elementary schools, we never expected that our daughter would be lucky enough to be accepted there, but she was.
I am, to say the least, very happy.