Israelis Living in the U.S. Find a Special Place To Learn

By Jill Suzanne Jacobs

Published January 23, 2004, issue of January 23, 2004.
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Children lugging backpacks rivaling their own weight trudge slowly up the stairs on a typical Monday afternoon at Temple Sinai in Brookline, Mass. At first glance, it looks like another session of an ordinary afternoon Hebrew school is about to begin.

But leaning one’s ear closer, one hears children kibitzing in a mixture of English and Hebrew spoken with a beautiful native Israeli accent. Reshes roll. Chets emanate from the depths of their throats. The cadence of sabra Hebrew lilts about the building.

A guard sits at the entrance, greeting parents as they deposit their children for two hours of learning and rush off to their frenzied lives. Students, teachers and administrators jostle in the crowded halls exuding a familiarity with each other that precludes the formality of the occasional “slicha”—excuse me. This is no ordinary Hebrew school; it is the Israeli Complementary School.

Upon moving to the United States — temporarily or permanently — Israelis often find American expression of Jewish identity, with its focus on synagogues, alienating. Some affiliate with their local Jewish communal institutions, particularly Jewish Community Centers. But for many Israelis, finding an institution that caters to an Israeli perspective on Jewish education and teaches Hebrew at an appropriate level can be a challenge.

The Israeli Complementary School attempts to fill this gap. Founded in 1969 by Israeli parents living temporarily in the United States, it is the oldest and largest school in the area that educates children entirely in Hebrew. An independent entity, the school rents space from Temple Sinai for its sessions on Monday and Wednesday afternoons. The school enrolls 64 students representing 42 families, and boasts a faculty of nine. Tuition costs $1,080 per year.

Students include native Israelis living in the United States, American-born children of native Israelis, Russian Jews for whom Israel was a way-station before arriving in America, and a family of “black Hebrews” who at one time made their home in Dimona, Israel. There are even a few American-born children of American Jews, who simply want to immerse their children in a Hebrew-language environment.

At home — and in the public and private schools they attend by day — the children speak a variety of languages. But once they walk through the school’s doors, Hebrew reigns.

In the kindergarten class students sit on the floor surrounded by Hebrew letters. Their teacher, comfortably clad in jeans and a purple sweater, vivaciously engages the children as they crawl about the floor, prattling away in Hebrew, in search of the Hebrew letters that start their first names.

This introduction to the Hebrew letters forms the basis of an educational program that begins in kindergarten and runs through the year preceding bar or bat mitzvah. The curriculum emphasizes reading, writing and speaking modern Hebrew. Biblical studies start in the second grade. Students also study Israeli literature, Jewish holidays and values in an Israeli context.

Jewish prayer is not taught. “Zeh lo zeh” — “It’s not the thing” — said Nava Eisenberg, head of the parents’ organization at the school and an Israeli whose two American-born children attend classes there.

Jewish holidays are celebrated with food, stories and song. Visits to a Jewish home for the elderly are a regular part of the children’s educational experience. Jewish life is something that is not only studied, but celebrated. “You need to do it,” said Eisenberg.

In Israel — where all education is public, compulsory and free — Jewish families choose from three systems: mamlachti dati schools, which provide an Orthodox education; mamlachti schools, which offer a more secular perspective on Jewish culture; and ultra-Orthodox schools, which receive funding from the Israeli government yet do not conform to governmental curricular standards.

While the Israeli Complementary School closely follows the mamlachti curriculum, it offers a unique hybrid of religious and secular education not found in typical Israeli schools. For example, children approaching their bar or bat mitzvah year are taught to lay tefillin, something unheard of in a typical secular Israeli school. And a recent Sukkot celebration featured a Chabad rabbi explaining the religious significance of the lulav and etrog.

“As a teacher and as a principal I want to open up the children to a variety of ways of being Jewish,” said principal Erella Kedem. “We can think of it with an open mind.”

This is a departure from the norm in Israeli society, where Jews are faced with a dualistic identity choice: You are either religious or secular, and there is little in between. The two communities often have tense relationships and, due to the segregated school system, little contact with each other.

“We have teachers who are religious and teachers who are not, and we find it very easy to be under the same roof,” Kedem said. “When I go back to Israel, I always emphasize this experience.”

The educational focus is on the students’ Hebrew skills — a linguistic knowledge that forms the bedrock of their identity as Jews and Israelis. It is also a skill that allows them to communicate with their Israeli friends and relatives and perhaps return to Israel someday. “Sometimes,” Kedem said, “the families follow these children back to Israel.”

The school originally was founded to help Israeli children living in this country keep pace with their counterparts in Israel, ensuring a smoother transition upon their return. But today, Kedem notes, many of the students are here to stay.

“It’s a very sensitive question, a very delicate one,” said Kedem, who recently returned from a two-year stay in Israel while her second of four children served in a combat position in the Israeli army. The school hopes to foster an Israeli and Jewish identity that can coexist with an American one.

As Kedem tells her students, “You are American too, but first of all, you are Israeli.”

Jill Suzanne Jacobs, author of “Hebrew for Dummies” (Wiley & Sons, 2003), is a freelance writer and Jewish educator in the Boston area.

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