Happy Aliyah day!
When we celebrated National Aliya Day in Israel, I got a call from a primary school principal from a large Israeli city. For the past few years, her school has been welcoming a growing number of children who start school without knowing Hebrew. This scenario may be familiar from the ’90s, but these kids aren’t immigrants – they are 100% Israeli-born Sabras.
Unlike we immigrants, these kids don’t feel out of place or see a need to prove themselves. They were raised to see Israel as their home, where they don’t need to please anyone. The problem is that the kids develop antagonism towards the Hebrew language, holidays, and everything that seems different from how they were raised. They huddle in Russian-speaking groups and stagnate even in subjects they are good at, like math.
Even though it’s clear that this is foremost an issue for their teachers to tackle, it is also a complicated situation for the children, confronted with immigrant experiences without actually immigrating. The principal, who is trying to find positive ways to engage teachers and make it more accessible for students, called me for advice.
I started by saying that I understand where the parents are coming from. They remember what being in school was like for them. They eventually learned Hebrew and integrated into Israeli society despite the difficulties while maintaining their culture and language.
The parents believe that their kids will overcome the difficulties just as they did, but what they don’t realize is that their kids, unlike them, aren’t immigrants. When a child grows up with a specific language and culture at home but goes to a school with a different set of norms, language and culture, he will react by getting defensive. Unlike the saying “when in Rome, do as the Romans do,” these kids know they are home, born and raised in Israel, and have no reason or incentive to change their behavior.
I advised that in her place I would start by making the school atmosphere familiar to the kids by incorporating Russian language lessons (and perhaps add another language, like French), talking about f the culture and history of people from the FSU, and celebrating holidays and important dates. This would be a start to making the kids feel less like they have landed in outer space.
Later on, it is essential to create a dialogue with the parents, approaching the situation in a constructive and non-judgemental way, to make them receptive to teaching the Hebrew language and culture at home.
In conclusion, I told her that this challenge wasn’t hers alone to solve. She should recruit the highest-ranking education officials in her local municipality for a pre-schooler pilot to study Hebrew after school in a fun way. It’s possible to move forward not by judging parents but by giving kids a positive way to start school at the same starting point as their peers. Should a pilot like this succeed, it may well become a nation-wide, successful program.
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