I’ve had close to 25 years of first-hand observation of the Israeli school system to wonder about the differences between the system in which I grew up and the system in which my children have been educated.

When my first-born son started pre-school my then-husband and I assumed that he’d be studying in the Dati Leumi trajectory, since that’s the path with which we most closely identified. In the intervening years my kids attended a wide range of dati leumi schools — some traditional and some “alternative.”

We have had some incredibly positive experiences over the years (one principal sent a fellow student after my son to encourage him to return to the school after a year’s hiatus; many teachers nurtured my kids through distressing periods) but now that my youngest is moving towards graduation from that same system, I’m older, wiser and, unfortunately, much more jaded.

One of the strengths, and weaknesses, of the Israeli dati leumi school system is the perception that “we’re all family.” Friends who sent their kids to the secular schools tell me that they never experienced that same kind of feeling. In the secular system no one calls the kids “tzaddiks” and no one seems to really see each child as a neshama that needs to be nurtured.

On the other hand, staff members of the secular schools don’t seem to exhibit the kind of anger and disappointment in the students when the kids don’t live up to their religious expectations (full disclosure — 2 of my kids were kicked out of their religious school).

Approximately 15 years ago I spent a few years teaching in a couple of the dati leumi schools in the area. I was a new teacher, my Hebrew wasn’t fluent and I didn’t integrate easily with the staff (I wasn’t really “one of them”) so I mostly just sat and observed, but I was disappointed to note how the teachers spoke about the kids — they actually gossiped about what the girls wore, whether a girl had been spotted talking to a boy, who the girl’s social group was, etc. There was none of the professional distance that should exist between teachers and students. None of this goes unnoticed by the kids.

I was always disturbed by the bi-yearly “committee meetings.” These meetings involve in-depth discussions of each student by the staff — reports on the “good kids” fly by while the difficult kids also turn into gossip sessions about the girl’s hair, clothes, behavior…..not exactly a pedagogic session at all. And recently, my 11th grader told me that all the kids know about these sessions. They know exactly what the teachers say and how they say it. “They’re disgusting” my daughter said. And then, the kids are supposed to respect the teachers?

I could go on endlessly. The staff member who was upset by a girl’s short skirt and told the girl that her clothing made her “want to throw up.” Bullying (!) parents. Kids getting kicked out of school because of rumors of their irreligiosity. My older son summarized his feelings yesterday when he said “I’m religious today in spite of the school, not because of the school.”

I’ve become a proponent of homeschooling and even help build curriculum for a homeschooling program in the United States. I don’t know if homeschooling would answer the disturbing issues that I see in the dati school system, and I don’t know if homeschooling would have been the answer for my children as they were growing up. I do know that today, when I meet a family that homeschools their children, I no long automatically think “weirdos.” I think that they’re a lot more on the ball than I ever was.