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 transoformations. 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, all attempts resulted in resounding failures.
Let me relate to the underlying weakness of 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:
I. 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 on Jewish education, the illustrious 20th century thinker, A.J. Heschel wrote:
“When a person is brought for heavenly judgment, they say to him… did you designate times for Torah study? (Shabbat 31a). They do not ask of him: How much did you learn and what do you know? The trait that marks the Jewish person is not love of knowledge, but rather, love of learning. It all depends on the person standing before the students. Teachers are not an automated source of life from which one can extract spiritual nourishment at any time and at any hour. They stand either as a witness before the students, or as a wreath. They cannot lead their students to the Promised Land if they have not been there themselves. ..What we need more than anything else is not books to learn from, but, rather, people to learn from. The teacher’s persona is actually the text students study: the text they will never forget.”
When the Israeli education system trains teachers like this, it will know that its job was done faithfully.
I. 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.
III. 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 over 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, and does not merely suffice with acquainting the student with the Judaism of his forefathers, but nurtures a modern, open, tolerant, deliberative and embracing Judaism.
When it comes to the training of principals and teachers TALI focuses on selected schools, creating the ideal circumstances for enhancing the educational teams: academic plans, spiritual mentoring, pedagogic guidance, supplementary professional training, adapted learning tools, opportunities for experiential learning and more.
Jewish studies must touch the heart of the teachers and students for the curriculum to gain traction and make a true impact on the State of Israel. Only when a school principal and his or her staff believe in the importance of the matter and choose to engage in it on their own volition, can the longed-for change be achieved.
Dr. Eitan Chikli has been the Susan and Scot Shay Director General of the TALI Education Fund (Enriched Jewish Studies) since 1994 and lectures at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
You can also read this first which first appeared in The Times of Israel: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/how-jewish-education-in-the-secular-space-can-succeed/
Eitan Chikli has been the Executive Director of TALI since 1994. He holds a doctorate in Jewish Education from JTS, an MA in Jewish Studies from the Schechter Institute, a MPA from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University as a Wexner fellow and rabbinic ordination from the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary. Dr. Chikli was born in Tunisia and made aliyah from France in 1977 at the age of 19. He is married with three children and three grandchildren.