Top of­fi­cials are study­ing our star per­form­ers in a bid to raise flag­ging stan­dards

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - BY SANDY RASHTY

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


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