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TALI Schools: Fostering “Unconditional Love”

Dr. Brenda Bacon
| 12/07/2009

During the second week in July, we note the seventeenth day of Tammuz, the day on which the walls of the city of Jerusalem were breached by Roman forces almost two thousand years ago. This event hastened the destruction of the Temple three weeks later, on the ninth day of Av, 70 C.E., which occurs this year on July 30.

These distant events take on contemporary meaning as we contemplate the reasons our Sages gave for this disaster. Prominent among them was the prevalence of “baseless hatred” among the Jews of that generation.  To counter this phenomenon, which to our consternation is also a contemporary one, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the Land of Israel, has suggested the cultivation of “unconditional love” among the Jewish people, despite their differences of opinion. In the highly politicized and ideological climate that exists in Israel, then as now, this is not an easy endeavor.

Fostering “unconditional love” is an educational challenge, not only for families and communities, but also for teachers and students.  In this short article I will focus on two TALI teachers, one religious and one secular, and the change they underwent, in both their personal as well as professional lives, as a result of teaching in a TALI school. I will bring the voices of these teachers, and use pseudonyms in order to protect their privacy (This article is a variation and abbreviated version of an article by the author entitled “Change in TALI Teachers: Two Case Studies,”Journal of Jewish Education 68(1), (2002)).

Rivka: From Religious Towards Religious Pluralist
As a graduate of religious education, Rivka had to adjust to aspects of TALI which challenged her conceptions of the purpose of Jewish learning and of the nature of her students’ commitment to Jewish tradition:

In the beginning I felt a certain frustration [about teaching what the children don’t observe]. It was a bit of a problem because I was educated that one learns in order to do, and here [in TALI] one learns to know and maybe to do…  It took me the whole first year to understand that this is the way to teach it…The frustration lessened with time, because I saw that something stays with the children…deep within their heart.

In making a professional commitment to teaching in TALI, Rivka decided that being a TALI teacher committed her to the task “with her whole heart,” even if it included participating in activities outside the norms of her experience and that of her family and community.  However, she learned to value certain aspects of this experience on a personal level, such as being asked to say the prayer for the welfare of the soldiers, which is not done by women in Orthodox synagogues.

The view among large sectors of Israeli society, that one must be defined as either religious or secular and anything else is not authentic became unacceptable to her.    As an observant Jew, Rivka values that fact that TALI gives the students enough knowledge to participate in religious activities, even if the students are not religious.

I see TALI as a school with a religious dimension, because there’s prayer and because we teach what needs to be taught before the holidays in the most respectable way …and you do it, out of joy, and not out of coercion…TALI… relates to the experiential part of religion.  I say to the students. “When you get to the army and someone will ask you if you can complete a minyan, you won’t ask, “What’s that?”; you’ll know what it is.  And if someone asks if you can join the kaddish, you’ll know what it’s about and even if someone will ask you a question on a television [quiz show] you will not demean yourself by not knowing what Kol Nidrei is (This actually happened on an Israeli quiz show)… you’ll know.  It’s impossible to be a Jew without knowing something about our religion. We’re not just Israelis, we’re Jews and even if you don’t observe you must know what it is that you’re not observing (Although the theme of prayer figures prominently in the interviews with both Sarah and Rivka, only one-third of TALI schools have instituted daily prayer. In half the TALI schools, prayer is not dealt with at all, and the emphasis is on gaining knowledge of Judaism).

Rivka greatly values TALI’s success in building a school culture in which the Jewish tradition permeates every school activity:

Everything is done through the prism of love for the tradition. If we visit old people it’s not just because we are a community school.  “Show deference to the old” is what’s behind this.  [In] the animal corner in school, there has to be a verse from the Torah that tells us how to relate to animals.

Teaching at TALI influenced her not only in her role as teacher, but also as a person. Rivka notes the influence of TALI on the way she views her fellow Jews and their various religious beliefs:

The openness [in TALI] stems from a clear intention to accept the children as they are, with their background, with everything they bring with them.  There’s no one good and no one no-good.  You too can participate in this community.

She found that this newfound openness to different forms of religious expression influenced the way she related to her own son, a soldier:

Many times there’s something that’s on the border of religious non-observance, like my son not praying, or his wearing jewelry, or a ring with his initial on it, which I don’t like, but upon which I don’t comment. They [my brothers] say, “It’s because you teach in TALI.  You learned to be more forgiving about things connected to religion, and that’s why this is happening”.. .They’re right that it made me more tolerant.  It’s a fact. .. I think I have the openness that everyone should have. If it didn’t come to me this way, it might have come to me a different way, maybe, but maybe not… I can be stringent about my own practice, but not about someone else’s.

I tell them [my brothers and sisters] that there are things that we see now and there are things that we can see only as the years pass.  And if in the years to come I’ll feel that my children are not religious as I would like them to be, I still think I was a good mother, and I don’t think that education by coercion is a better education.  I don’t believe in that kind of education.

In sum, in the course of teaching at a TALI school, Rivka’s religious identity expanded to include the component of a pluralistic outlook.

Sarah: From Secular Toward Traditional Secularist
When Sarah began teaching at TALI, she had a clear sense of her identity, considering herself secular.

I think that I was secular because of the extreme of Orthodoxy…as a reaction…to their viewpoint about religion, to their fanaticism.  There is only one way, this is the way it’s supposed to be, and left and right are not possible.  There’s no compromise, no middle, no understanding…I knew about the existence of the streams of “knitted kipot” [a reference to those belonging to the national religious camp], but I didn’t talk to them. They didn’t interest me.  My reaction was of not talking and lack of interest, that is, distancing.  I didn’t want to meet this and deal with it.

Sarah had no desire to explore different viewpoints within Judaism until she came to TALI. Interestingly enough, even though her father went to the synagogue, prayer to her was an act connected to the ultra-Orthodox.  Like all the women in her family, she attended synagogue only on Yom Kippur.  Now she was teaching at a school where she had to pray with the children, and she saw this as part of her job that she had to learn to do right.  She relates:

In the beginning it was a little strange, because there were prayers and at home we’re secular.  Then I didn’t know the prayers but after I experienced them and I saw how it was done, in a different way, not the way I thought it would be done…[What I had seen about prayer was] through the media.   Seeing the haredim [ultra-Orthodox] and how they pray…and the meaning of prayer for them, that’s what I thought it is… [In TALI] it’s done differently, with changing tunes for all the prayers. We discuss the prayers, there’s room for the children to say their personal prayers; they’re not something closed and limiting.I got into it.  I’m a person who adjusts. Maybe deep inside, the tradition from my house and the prayers remained and I connected to them.

Thus, what might have been a daunting endeavor proved to less so, not only because of Sarah’s flexible personality, but also due to the support of her colleagues and to the in-service education [training the TALI Education Fund provides to all TALI schools] she received :

I had to understand what the silent devotion is.  I had to pray with the children – indeed I did pray.  I didn’t understand the meaning so much, but after the in-service courses I understood what’s happening… Today I teach the silent devotion differently from previously, with the meaning, not just technically, which was to sing it and have them imitate me.  To teach the contents is to talk about each and every prayer in it…  What’s the meaning for the children.  To connect it so it should be authentic for their everyday life.

This new self-definition expressed itself not only in Sarah’s new appreciation of the Jewish tradition and in her ability to teach it well, but also in her relationships with her family:

The change is that when we make kiddush at my parents’, I’m part of it.  I’m also the initiator in singing zemirot, and also encourage everyone to join me, which was not true earlier [before TALI]. Before it was a burden, another kiddush.

Sarah would like all state schools to be like the TALI school in which she teaches, for

it teaches Jewish values and it wrestles with all sorts of dilemmas and difficulties, like Sabbath observance and belief in God, and doesn’t try to escape from them… The secular avoid them and the religious deal with them, but not in the way I would like. I think that all Israeli children should be connected to their roots.

Sarah began to confront her own Jewish identity, and began questioning her own self-definition:

Until I came to TALI there were either religious or secular, and I was secular…After I came to TALI I saw that we can be Jews in different ways.  There are additional movements and one doesn’t have to be at the extreme of secularism or religiosity. I underwent a revolution. It became very difficult to define what I am.  Am I secular? Am I religious? Am I traditional? I had a lot of difficulties with these questions since I came to TALI.

She sums up, “I’m a traditional secularist”.

As we approach Tisha B’Av, the commemoration of the destruction of the Temple, may the experiences of Sarah and Rivka become the “norm” for more and more teachers in the Israeli school system,.  Indeed, in the past decade the number of TALI schools has grown to encompass more than 10% of all Israel’s elementary public schools. As these teachers influence the families in which they come into contact, the antagonism among various groups in Israeli society will be replaced by a willingness to live together in peace, as expressed in the aspiration for “unconditional love.”

Dr. Brenda Bacon is a lecturer in Jewish Education at the Schechter Institute.

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