Creating an Alternative in Israel
How can we help kids develop their own Jewish identity and maintain respect for their family’s practices while creating a public space where all feel comfortable and respected?
Our school, Yachad Modiin, offers a unique educational track within Israel’s bifurcated system. Yachad is the realization of a dream of a group of diverse parents who, ten years ago, wanted their children to study together despite the families’ differing approaches to Jewish life. Yachad’s founders also strove to create an active community where they, as adults and families, could live a rich Jewish life together.
Ten years later this dream has become a lively, growing reality. The Yachad community has about 1,300 students in its educational system. Starting from a gan for three-year-olds, Yachad offers a complete path from elementary school through high school, including next year its first twelfth grade class. Yachad has a beautiful campus that contains the elementary school and the new high school building. The Modiin Township’s special education school, Gvanim, was also placed on campus to further express Yachad’s ideology of integrating the “other” in a full and real sense. Yachad kids share classes and activities with the Gvanim students, and this year in the elementary school’s final ceremony, students of Yachad and Gvanim performed in a special and very moving joint celebration.
The Yachad community includes over 600 families from Modiin. Members can join the many activities that Yachad offers for adults and families; in this sense, Yachad is an Israeli-style JCC. There are two minyanim on Shabbat and chagim, communal ceremonies and events for chagim and special occasions, lectures, Jewish learning for adults, and many workshops and activities such as a choir, drama group, and sports. This helps foster a sense of belonging in a suburban community where members don’t live in the same neighborhood and don’t necessarily know the other families.
The Yachad community is committed to helping others: the elderly in Modiin, schools from deprived areas, Israeli soldiers, kids from broken homes and members of the community in times of need—both on happy occasions and in times of sorrow. This is, we believe, the full meaning of living together as a strong community in the spirit of “kol Yisrael arevin ze laze.”
We are challenged by the unique needs of a community of families that practice Judaism in different ways. Yet we believe this challenge is an essential part of the journey for one who chooses to join Yachad—to think, ask questions and learn together as we grow. Sending a child to the Yachad school means that the family has joined the larger Yachad family. It means the kids come home and ask questions about their own family’s Jewish identity. It means that when you celebrate, you consider how to make other kids feel comfortable. In school, we invite parents to take part in events as an integral part of the educational process, so they can understand better the special Jewish language we’re trying to create: How can we help kids develop their own Jewish identity and maintain respect for their family’s practices while creating a public space where all feel comfortable and respected? Where do we draw the line between the private sphere and the public?
In order to tackle these big questions that lie at the heart of Yachad’s vision, a tradition of having a community process has developed. This process finds various forms of expression, such as evening learning programs, lecture series, dialogue groups, panel discussions and open deliberation. We have found that by opening major questions—such as the structure of school prayer—to community discussion, we stimulate new ideas and eventually create stronger support for collective decisions. As Yachad celebrates its tenth year and the number of families grows rapidly, we find that this inclusiveness has become even more crucial.
As is characteristic of many such ideological communities, some new members have joined the “hard core” founders for reasons other than those that united the community from the start. We therefore find community discussions vital for two main reasons: to rethink foundational points as the community grows—assessing what is essential to Yachad’s existence and what needs to change—and welcoming new Yachad members to take an active, committed part in the community journey.
One challenge we face is that the same 200 families, already committed to Yachad’s mission, tend to attend the community events and discussions. How can we encourage the other 400 families to come? One direction we have found successful is to create an evening discussion that isn’t just philosophical, but rather has a practical impact on the children’s education at Yachad and touches upon a dilemma we feel a big part of the community is already struggling with.
We ask ourselves many questions, including, What is a Jewish language that is rich with masoret but not judgmental?
For example, we recently held an evening to discuss the question of opening a new, separate track for the religious kids in the junior high school. At Yachad, as the name implies, all kids—religious, secular, and the broad spectrum in between—have always learned together. This was the first time we considered separating kids according to their religious commitment. The matter brought into question a basic tenet of the Yachad philosophy: Is this a community of tolerance, built to include Orthodox, secular and traditional members, or does Yachad strive to encourage a wider, more pluralistic approach to Judaism?
We were happy to see that many were passionate and participated in the debate, even if the question did not have a direct impact on their own children at this stage. People came to hear and to be heard. We held a public session and then separated into smaller group discussions led by a facilitator. Next we assimilated all opinions into a chart that helped achieve resolution. (In the end, we decided to incorporate a separate track for certain subjects.) Through this process, we were able to come to a decision in a manner sensitive to the different voices that were expressed.
Looking forward, we are debating which questions should be addressed in this way. How do we use this public forum most effectively without turning to the community too often? How do we involve two other important elements of our community in these discussions, the students and the educational staff? Though parents may not feel free to speak their mind while their children are around, they are the ones for whom the decisions will apply. Students’ participation is also the right thing educationally and gives us a reality check. Moreover, we believe active participation of the educational staff in our process is crucial, as they are the ones who implement the vision day in and day out in the classroom.
Our teaching staff, like the community, represents a range of different Jewish backgrounds and practices. As no special training was available for teachers to deal specifically with our reality, we developed an in-service program, currently under my direction, with study groups, mentoring and individualized learning tracks. Moreover, in cooperation with Meytarim, a network for democratic Jewish education, we created a year-long hishtalmut (professional development program) to explore what distinguishes a Yachad class or event. We ask ourselves many questions, including, What is a Jewish language that is rich with masoret but not judgmental? How can our teachers enable an open and respectful discussion regarding questions of emunah and Jewish identity? By what name do we refer to G-d in class? What about the teacher’s personal beliefs—should she talk about them, and if so, how?
We insisted on practical application of the discussions, with model classes followed by peer feedback. In this way we continue to clarify the challenges and the opportunities and build a Jewish educational language that is appropriate for Yachad. Through the hishtalmut, we managed to distill three main points that help us assess every class and activity at Yachad:
- Kri’ah yechefah (“Barefoot reading”): This philosophical and methodological approach puts the focus of educational activities and teaching of texts on the encouragement of critical reading and thinking. This allows the student to develop a personal approach towards the issue or text and its broader cultural, social, and identity-building implications.
- Ribui kolot (“Multitude of voices”): Discussion of ideas in an open-minded way that broadens the spectrum of thought and therefore the complexity of the matter, whether theoretical or practical. This is achieved by bringing varied opinions, people, texts, and activities that allow for the expression of diverse voices in order to present different options as legitimate to the discussion and parshanut. This educational tool is an expression of Yachad’s ideology, emphasizing the legitimacy of different ways of thinking about our Jewish lives and identities.
- Relevance: The principle of turning the educational experience into a prism through which the student will evaluate and experience social and ethical behavior in their day-to-day life and in building their personal, familial, and community identities.
These communal and educational processes are creating a common Jewish pluralistic language that Yachad’s community as a whole strives to speak and live by. The phenomenon of mixed religious and secular communities and schools is growing in Israel. We believe that such language and education respectful of different ways and choices of living our tradition will impact broader Israeli society, engendering a more tolerant, vibrant and complex Jewish education and culture. ♦
Hila Zeira-Weinstein is the Jewish Studies coordinator at the Yachad Modiin elementary school. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.