The waning days of summer in Israel are a flurry of activity. Last minute camping adventures and hikes through crisp, shady rivers begin to give way to treks for school supplies and to uniform shops, where gentle hands press endless emblems on t-shirts to brand the tribes of different schools.
The first day of school is sacred here. While the tail end of August still smells like summer and the streets swarm with playing children and summer-weary parents, on September 1st, it’s as if the Pied Piper has come to town, his soundless melody enticing anxious, excited Israeli children unto buses and off to school. Those towering school buses play chicken with rushing commuters, and student crossing guards once again stand at intersections, tiny sentinels slowing traffic with the small but powerful Israeli hand gesture known as the “shnia.” Shiny faces chirp greetings to one another as they enter school and the menahelet passes out candies to sweeten the new year.
For our family, this day held extra wonder. Our youngest was entering Kita Alef — first grade — the start of elementary school and formal education in Israel. Our other four kids reached this milestone in a small, sweet San Diego day school, so it was our first time experiencing the full “Shalom Kita Alef” phenomenon of Israeli public school.
Our little son was a knot of nerves. While he had spent one year in Israeli gan chova after our aliyah last summer and his Hebrew continues to come along, he still was petrified; going to a large new school in a haze of Hebrew was understandably daunting for a 6-year-old oleh. I feared tears would erupt when it was time to say goodbye this morning at the new classroom, but he kept a stiff upper lip as he hugged me tightly and watched me go.
A couple of hours later, I returned, husband in tow, for the annual Kita Alef tekes, the school ceremony to welcome the first graders into the fold. The gymnasium was brimming with camera toting parents and jazzed up students waiting to celebrate the first graders. And then the ritual began, the eighth graders forming a tunnel of hands tayesh style and the first graders marching through to the claps and cheers of their parents and new older peers. The principal welcomed the 805 (!) students and marveled at the 140 new first graders.
My husband and I beamed as our 8th grader spoke in front of this crowd and helped welcome this year’s new olim families, reassuring them that our school would assist with their adjustment to this new chapter in their lives.
And inevitably, the tears came, as each of the six new kita alef classes stood under a chuppah held by smiling 8th graders as the mayor bestowed upon them the priestly blessing:
May God bless you and guard you
May God make His face shed light upon you and be gracious unto you
May God lift up His face unto you and give you peace.
While I know our second year here will have a fresh set of challenges as our kids face greater expectations in school and will have less help, I reveled in the moment. As I stood next to my husband, looking at our “baby” under a chuppah in Israel on our last first day of first grade, our voices blended with our school family as we sang “Ani Maamin,” and then “Hatikvah.”
In America, singing Hatikvah felt like a yearning, the promise of a dream, but in that gym today filled with Israel’s future, a dream come true.
Shalom, Kita Alef.