Tomer Samarkandi

Teachers are the heroes of the home front

If Israel doesn't prioritize education and social resilience alongside its military prowess, it will lose its chance for real change and healing
Doing schoolwork in small groups is part of Beit Daniella's program for troubled teens at the Havat Harei Yehuda riding stable and dog kennel, west of Jerusalem. (Courtesy, Beit Daniella, via The Times of Israel)
Doing schoolwork in small groups is part of Beit Daniella's program for troubled teens at the Havat Harei Yehuda riding stable and dog kennel, west of Jerusalem. (Courtesy, Beit Daniella, via The Times of Israel)

So, how are the teachers these days? Thanks for asking. It’s about time we ask.

Alongside IDF soldiers, Israeli police officers, other members of the security forces, healthcare workers, and local municipality workers, teachers found themselves thrust to the front lines of Israeli society in the wake of the onslaught by Hamas on October 7th.

Though schools were immediately closed, teachers did not stop working for even a moment. Rather, they immediately began preparations for distance learning, with very little time to do so, and, especially in the beginning, provided emotional support for their students online, by phone, and by means of home visits. That was true across the country, and more so in communities that are closer to the conflict areas, in both the south and the north.

When almost every one of us – including our children – know people in both close and extended circles who were harmed on that terrible Shabbat, the educators found themselves almost immediately relaying to their students the horrors that happened, gently, sensitively, and with the necessary filters.

And they did all of this without having the time to process and digest the situation into which we all suddenly found ourselves. There was no time – leadership needed to get up to speed on the fly, and teachers are the trailblazing leaders in their communities.

Since the war began, I have been privy to many cases of school principals and educators who were directly involved in leading their communities’ response to October 7th. In one of the most heavily bombed southern cities, a principal learned that one of his graduates fell in battle against the terrorists. He and his team immediately mobilized to assist the grieving family in any way they could, including bringing one of the graduate’s brothers to Israel from Ethiopia, in order to reunite him with the rest of the family.

In another instance, a graduate of a high school in Beersheba, doing her compulsory military service called her former teacher, sharing that due to the arrival of reservists in her unit, she and her friends had to sleep on chairs in the office. Within hours, mattresses were collected for them, in quantities that far exceeded the need. And these are just two heartwarming examples of the many stories I’ve heard.

These factors have significant meaning – far beyond material assistance. For many students and even their parents, the school, with its teachers, educators, and educational framework, provides one of their only authoritative institutional anchors. That is true on the most normal of days, but it is that much more significant now, when many of our other institutions are struggling to function.

Even when the teachers themselves are called to military reserve duty, they continue to be meaningful adults for their students. They send messages of encouragement and reinforcement, for example, to their students from the front lines.

The principal of a high school in the north recently recorded a motivational video for his students and asked them to pay special attention to the video’s final segment, in which he took a picture of one of the burned and destroyed homes in the south. He and his friends found a piano there that wasn’t damaged, and one of them began to play. The melody of “Hatikvah” rose from the keys, and the bittersweet singing of the reservists that emerged from the destruction is a lesson that the students will surely remember for a long time.

For all that the IDF is at the forefront of the struggle for Israel’s place in the region, fighting to restore a sense of security to the citizens of Israel, the teachers are at the forefront of the struggle for Israeli society. They play a central role on the home front and in the preparations for the day after.

Moreover, the educators must be there for their students even when they themselves face severe uncertainty, with spouses or children (or both) on the front, for example. Many teachers are dealing with anxiety in their own families, a topic that is raised frequently in conversations with them, given their integral, unceasing roles in the educational mission.

All of the above is doubly true for educators of youth at risk. After all, when there is a general risk to society at large, and we have accumulated considerable experience in this arena over the years, the challenges faced by these teens only increase – and, at the same time, their needs become less of a priority for others, given the backdrop.So, who is responsible for the at-risk youth, especially now? Who maintains contact with them and helps keep them as busy as possible for the common good? Their teachers, who are completely dedicated to their mission.

Hamas tried to break our spirit. The damage is horrific, but the attempt failed, as already evidenced by the tremendous civil mobilization, the unique Israeli spirit of coming together, and the military recovery. 

There is an education here that will carry on for generations, with all the challenges that have contributed to the current cohesion and resilience. We need to continue building this unity further, especially for the benefit of the younger generation, who are likely to be particularly affected by the staggering experience. This is, first and foremost, the role of the state education system, the educational decision-makers, and the teachers. It is not for nothing that they were once referred to as the builders of the homeland. Indeed, the nickname still pertains.

Out of the great evil must come a repair that will allow us as individuals and as a society to stand up against it: a return to education that not only imparts knowledge but also communicates fundamental values: to educate a person to love human beings, their people, their country. The educators are our nation builders, and through them, real social change is possible with the return of a discourse of tolerance, unity, and hope in our society.

There will be many vital, valid needs soon, but if we do not understand that the key to repair and that recovery is through education, and if we do not put education and social resilience at the top of our priorities alongside military resilience, we will not be able to bring about real change and healing in Israeli society.

May we know good days and recover soon.

About the Author
Tomer Samarkandi is the CEO of Village Way Educational Initiatives, which works to change Israeli society through education that is empowering and creates a sense of belonging.