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How Jewish education can succeed in the secular space

A string of failed government initiatives -- and one longtime success -- prove that the key lies in touching hearts

Since the establishment of the State of Israel, there has been ongoing debate over the Ministry of Education’s role in shaping the country’s Jewish identity. Successive education ministers formed public committees, launched new programs, promised transformations.

First was Education Minister Zalman Aran’s “Jewish Awareness” program in the 1950s; then the 1994 Shenhar Committee recommendations; Minister Limor Livnat’s “100 Tenets” program, which hardly took its first steps before being shelved; then Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s “Jewish Culture and Heritage” program, which lasted around five years before Minister Shai Piron decided to revise it. In between, Knesset Education Committee Chairman Rabbi Michael Melchior promoted the “Integrated Education Law,” which posited joint educational programs for secular and religious students in semi-private frameworks.

As the 5777 academic year approaches, yet another new program promises to promote Jewish education for Israeli children from grade one to grade 12 – the “Jewish-Israeli Culture” program. We should wish the new program’s formulators and directors every success in their endeavor, but given the brief track record noted above, one is inclined to believe that the problem of Jewish education in a secular space will only be resolved after there is a thorough effort to ascertain why, until now, nearly all attempts resulted in resounding failures.

Let me relate to the underlying weakness in the Ministry’s attempts to provide Jewish education, based on the cumulative experience of the TALI School system that is now marking its 40th anniversary, and which provides the only evidence of enriched Jewish studies programs for the secular public that were not ended prematurely:

Preparing the ground and professional training

The average teacher in the state education network faces two problems when it comes to teaching Jewish subjects: lack of knowledge and lack of motivation. Unfortunately, the state education network has yet to create the mechanism that will mobilize the quality time needed to train teachers, and the resources needed for in-depth professional development of teachers of these subjects. Without this twofold investment, every new effort is doomed to failure.

In his article The Spirit of Jewish education, the illustrious 20th century thinker, A.J. Heschel wrote:

According to Rabba ‘when man is led in for judgment, he is asked…did you fix time for learning.’
Man is not asked how much he knows but how much he learns. The unique attitude of the Jew is not the love of knowledge but the love of studying….
[E]verything depends on the person who stands in front of the classroom. The teacher is not an automatic fountain from which intellectual beverages may be obtained. The teacher is either a witness or a stranger. To guide a pupil into the promised land, the teacher must have been there themselves. When asking themselves: Do I stand for what I teach? Do I believe what I say?, the teacher must be able to answer in the affirmative. What we need more than anything else is not textbooks, but textpeople. It is the personality of the teacher which is the text that the pupils read: the text that they will never forget.

When the Israeli education system trains teachers like this, it will know that its job was done faithfully.

The question of resources

Serious training of tens of thousands of teachers and principals costs money. Transforming Jewish studies into a meaningful part of the school experience requires an allocation of time not instead of core subjects but in addition to them. Any policy that does not include a real and significant allocation of resources over time is destined to fail.

The matter of choice

To what extent can the state impose Jewish education as a core subject on someone who does not want it and does not believe in its importance. Is it possible to succeed in instilling Jewish education in a place where no sense of mission exists? In a place where the commitment to passing on tradition has been silenced? Can Jewish education that has become just another “subject” touch the heart and soul of teachers and students?

Based on what has been said thus far, it is possible to understand the secret of the success of the TALI network of schools, which is currently operating in 112 schools and more than 200 kindergartens throughout the country, and comes in close contact with 47,000 children.

The vision of the TALI education system is to reconcile the Israeli Jew with his spiritual and cultural heritage. It doesn’t stop at merely acquainting students with the Judaism of their forefathers, but works to nurture a modern, open, tolerant, deliberative and embracing Judaism.

When it comes to the training of principals and teachers, TALI focuses on select schools, creating the ideal conditions for enhancing the educational teams: academic plans, spiritual mentoring, pedagogic guidance, supplementary professional training, adapted learning tools, opportunities for experiential learning and more.

For the curriculum to gain traction and make a true impact on the State of Israel Jewish studies must touch the heart of the teachers and students. Only when a principal and his or her staff believe in the importance of the matter and freely choose to engage with it, can the longed-for change be achieved.

Dr. Eitan Chikli has been the Susan and Scott Shay Director General of the TALI Education Fund since 1994 and a lecturer at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

About the Author
Dr. Eitan Chikli has been the Susan and Scott Shay Director General of the TALI Education Fund since 1994 and a lecturer at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
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