EDUCATING ISRAEL LESSONS FROM UK
Top officials are studying our star performers in a bid to raise flagging standards
WHEN IT comes to game-changing start-ups or culinary excellence, Israel is a world leader. Yet the same cannot be said of its educational system, with experts warning of slipping standards at both primary and secondary level.
The latest OECD school rankings place Israel 39th among 76 economically developed countries — the UK and the US are respectively 20th and 28th. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment survey, Israel has the largest gap between highest and lowest student achievement of all OECD countries. And the OECD Education at a Glance 2014 report shows that its spending per pupil is among the lowest of developed countries — largely because Israel has more children in education.
It reveals that in 2011, Israel spent around £4,400 annually per pupil in primary education and £3,700 for those at secondary school — the respective average is £5,300 and £6,000.
It is not just the budget that’s an issue. Jewish education at state schools has been impacted by tensions between religious and secular communities in Israel. Parentshavetochoosebetweensending their child to a religious school where mainstream education is of secondary importance, or a state school that ignores Jewish studies.
Now Israeli educators and government ministers are turning to the UK for advice with London-based educational philanthropist Benjamin Perl — who has backed Orthodox school projects in the UK and Israel — being a key facilitator.
Mr Perl has shown Israeli officials around top performing London area Jewish schools such as Beit Shvidler, Sacks Morasha and Yavneh College. He emphasises the importance of uniform, discipline and basic manners — all of which he says Israeli children lack.
“There is no question that Israel is a third-world country when it comes to education,” he maintains. “It has severe problems. There is no discipline in the schools. The teachers don’t control the classes; students call their teachers by their first name; they don’t stand up when the teacher walks in. They haven’t got the tradition that Great Britain has.
“All the ills of non-Jewish state schools in England are rampant in state schools in Israel — lack of discipline, drugs [use] and sex.”
Mr Perl’s sentiments are echoed by David Blachman, the chairman of Shuvu UK, which raises funds for the organisation’s 64 schools and kindergartens across Israel and their affiliates.
He claims Shuvu’s Charedi-run but inclusive schools are closer to those serving UK Jewry. Driving me to Shuvu’s Petach Tikva High School near Tel Aviv, Mr Blachman says UK Jews overestimate the quality of Israeli education — “the school system is terrible here” — possibly because Israel boasts some of the world’s greatest minds. But Shuvu is bucking the trend,. Born out of a need to accommodate the influx of olim from the former Soviet Union when the Iron Curtain came down, the schools’ principles are based on secular excellence. It also promotes the Jewish values that were lost under Communist rule.
And although children descended from the former Soviet Union still make up 70 per cent of intake, Israelis, Americans and the new wave of French olim are also now sending their children.
Shuvu students stand behind their desks when a teacher walks into a class. They line up ahead of entering a classroom. And girls, in particular, are required to dress modestly. On a tour of the Petach Tikva premises, a striking feature is a metal fence that separates Shuvu from an Israeli state school.
“During breaktime, you
Shuvu pupils’ academic results are 20 per cent higher than those in mainstream schools
see the difference between the children on both sides of the fence,” Mr Blachman points out. “On the other side, they stand in the corners and smoke; they carry around school bags, afraid they will get stolen if they leave them in the classrooms.
“We are not talking about east and west Berlin here, we are talking about people who live on the same roads.”
Back in a classroom, I learn that, on average, Shuvu pupils perform 20 per cent better academically than those at mainstream Israeli schools. Their primary schools’ syllabus is two years ahead and lessons fuse Jewish education with mainstream knowledge. For example, they’ll write an essay on the Maccabees during Chanucah — or paint a picture of a pomegranate on Rosh Hashanah.
It’s a method long deployed in diaspora Jewish schools, yet, ironically, alien to those in the Jewish state.
“The aim of Shuvu is to use our religious beliefs to empower high secular education,” Mr Blachman adds.
“Israelis have lost their Judaism — it comes from trying to be too politically correct. If you lose your identity, yo u do n ’ t st a nd fo r anything.”
S u p - porting Mr Blachman’s views, school vice-principal Tzila Harstein says the aim is to “combine an Orthodox edu-
David Blachman cation with a European one. In other schools, there is no kavod [respect]. The Israelis wanted so much freedom. Now they have to pull it back as they see what’s happened to the youth.” Petach Tikva is one of two Shuvu establishments among 100 “experimental schools” being monitored by the Israeli government in its efforts to improve the state curriculum. Its emphasis on mainstream education is perhaps the reason Shuvu is the only Charedi school included in the programme.
Academic adviser to the Ministry of Education, Talya Birkhahn, admits Israel has struggled to adapt a religious model of schooling on a national level. “In my view, there is a lot of tension between the Jewish and secular world in Israel — issues in our society, on ‘who goes into the army’? These tensions make people anti-Jewish and resistant to religion.”
It was Shuvu director, Rabbi Chaim Guttermann, who took the decision to open Shuvu schools to Israelis and non-Russian olim. He recalls that “one day an American mother came up to me and said: ‘In America, I sent my child to a Jewish day school, but in Israel, the education is not Jewish. Can’t you open Shuvu for nonRussians?’
“So we saw that Shuvu was a concept in our country that is a must. Our vision is that this can make a change for the country in a big way. We want to bring the concept of UK Jewish day schools into Israel.”
Satisfied Shuvu parents include Isabella Tachalo, who made aliyah 23 years ago from the former Soviet Union.
She says that when the Iron Curtain was lifted, the situation worsened for the community. “Jewish life was good before that. After, I was not allowed to go to university because I was Jewish. Where could I go except for Israel?
“We came here with nothing. No house, no money, no food. I had a fight with my husband — he wanted to send our children to a normal Israeli school, but I wanted to send them somewhere with a Jewish education where they would learn about the mitzvot. I won.
“My daughter now works in the prime minister’s office. She would not have done as well without Shuvu’s education.”
Uzbekistan-born Ilana Moshayovo credits Shuvu with helping to give her children the Jewish education her family never had. “They teach Judaism without forcing it down you. Because of that, we love it.
“My parents came from a background where they were afraid to be Jewish, where they were oppressed. They came here and felt a release — they could bring up their children as Jews. That’s what we appreciate.”
I also meet students from the girls’ school whose family hail from the former Soviet Union. They have excelled academically and become more religious than their families. They have also decided not to serve in the IDF, instead carrying out national service through the Sherut Leumi programme.
“Being here has changed me a lot,” says Suzanna Khalatian, 16. “I’ve come from a family that didn’t keep anything at all. Now I have a Jewish identity.”
Sarah Leviashvili, 17, adds: “I have a few friends in non-Shuvu schools and they learn a lot less math, English and religion than we do. They only have the basics.
“Here, we also learn how to be polite and respectful to elders. It shocks me that others don’t respect that.”
Graduate Diana Ulmayev, 18, whose family made aliyah from Uzbekistan in 1994, is set to volunteer in the national service programme for a local hospital this year.
“My Shuvu friends are not going to the army, but friends who didn’t go to Shuvu are,” she says. “Most people do go to the army, but I want to keep my religious life.
“I want to keep Shabbat and my modesty. In the army, with public showers and so on, it’s hard to do that.”
I am later told that although Shuvu girls tend to not go into the army, their male counterparts largely serve with the IDF.
But not all Soviet immigrants support the Shuvu credo. En route to Ben Gurion, my Russian-born taxi driver informs me that his five-year-old daughter has just started school. A Shuvu school? “No. I did not want my daughter to be part of anything that’s too religious — or too Russian. This is our country. So why shouldn’t she go to a normal Israeli school?”
‘If you lose your identity, you don’t stand for anything’
Girls not aloud: Shuvu pupils are taught respect and discipline, urged to dress modestly and benefit from a mainstream education
A group of Shuvu boys