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Opening a Window

Israeli students learn to reconnect with Judaism.


by Marc Ballon

February 27, 2003 | 7:00 pm

Thousands of Israeli students are learning what it means to be good Jews. To help Israeli teenagers better understand Jewish values and the foundations upon which their religion is built, six secular Tel Aviv-area high schools have injected their curriculum with a dash of Torah, Talmud and other classical rabbinic texts. The goal: to help pupils find meaning in ancient texts that could help shape their actions in the present.

The three-year-old program, partly underwritten by an annual $50,000 grant by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, has become so popular that schools throughout Israel have expressed interest in it, said David Zisenwine, a professor of Jewish studies at Tel Aviv University and the father of the program.

And why should Jews at public schools in the Holy Land need to study such things as the meaning and history of Bar Mitzvah? Zisenwine said that without such training children risk losing their identity, the glue that holds the Jewish State together.

"In Israel, as in America, we've seen students moving farther away from their roots," Zisenwine said. "We've created a Jewish nationalism, but we've left behind, in many cases, Jewish values."

To Zisenwine, Israeli students reading classical Jewish texts is akin to young Americans perusing the Federalist Papers. In both instances, they gain a window into their societies, and, by extension, into themselves, he said.

Aryeh Barnea, principal at Herzlia Hebrew Gymnasium in Tel Aviv, said students receiving the training at his school feel more connected to their roots.

"In Israeli society, we're seeing a lot of ignorance and a weakening of the emotional linkage to Judaism and to Jews in the Diaspora," he said. "It is our educational obligation to reinforce Jewish identity in our youth. We don't trust the media, friends and the Internet to do it for us."

Students in the program receive at least one hour of formal Jewish education per week from seventh grade on. The school's regular teaching staff, not rabbis, oversee the classes, which have so far educated an estimated 12,000 students.

About three-quarters of Israeli schools are nonreligious, giving most students little or no exposure to rabbinical literature. Classic Jewish texts, such as the Bible, are studied in historical and literary, rather than religious context, Zisenwine said.

Herzlia seventh-grader Ben Peleg said the bar mitzvah course has taught him the importance of human rights. "We've learned that everyone is equal, that it doesn't matter whether he's a king or slave, rich or poor," the 12-year-old said.

Peleg's teacher, Avivit Ronat, said her goal is to connect the Jewish religion and human values. In the bar mitzvah class, for instance, she teaches her students how the human rights codified by the Israeli Declaration of Independence mesh with values embodied by being a bar mitzvah.

Isca Mayo, an 11th-grader who also attends Herzlia, said a course she took two years ago about values and Jewish holidays encouraged her to behave less selfishly. She used to play the piano at all hours without any regard to her neighbors, but she now practices only in the late afternoon.

"With all this Western culture around me, I didn't understand the importance of Judaism and Jewish values in my life," the 16-year-old said. "Now, I see how they apply."  

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