It’s back-to-school season in Israel, too, with about 2.2 million Israeli students heading back to class after summer vacation. The typical American high school experience includes dances, sports games and college applications, but in Israel they forego those frills for a three-year cram session focused on the “bagrut,” or high school matriculation exam. Here are nine other facts you might not have known about Israeli high school.
1) Jews and Arabs attend separate high schools.
Israeli society is diverse but divided, and high schools are no different. Students go to schools depending on what “tribe” they belong to. Most Jewish students go to secular state schools, while others attend religious schools that focus on Jewish studies and observance. Arabs and Druze attend their own high schools with instruction in Arabic and an emphasis on their own culture, history and religion. A tiny minority of high school students go to mixed schools, like the Hand in Hand schools for Jews and Arabs.
2) Bible study is mandatory.
Unlike in the United States, where religious instruction is barred in public schools, Jewish Israeli schools have mandatory bible study. Even in secular high schools, students learn at least two hours of bible study per week, plus courses on Jewish philosophy and texts.
3) High school is three years long and starts in 10th grade.
Students attend primary school from grades one through six, and then middle school from grades seven through nine, before starting high school. After high school, Israeli Jews are drafted into the military. Many Druze also serve in the military.
4) High schoolers have the same homeroom class and teacher all three years.
The homeroom teacher, known as a “mechanech” or “educator” in Hebrew spends an hour with the group each week. Homeroom classes are spent delving deeper into topics the school administration deems important, like current events and issues in Israeli society. The “mechanech” also serves as a counselor to his or her cohort, helping students navigate the school system or deal with thorny social problems that might come up.
5) Students text with their teachers, too.
Most homeroom classes have groups on WhatsApp, the social messaging platform that is super popular in Israel. There, students can communicate with each other and with the teacher about scheduling and homework. Just like a classroom, homeroom WhatsApp groups have rules. Profanity on WhatsApp can get a student kicked out of the group.
6) Hiking is on the curriculum.
Hiking is a national pasttime for Israeli Jews, and has roots in the early Zionist settlement in Mandate Palestine, when young Jews were taken on hikes to connect to the land and their Jewish biblical forbears. Every year, high school students look forward to the annual hike, where they spend up to a week in nature, sleeping in youth hostels or field schools.
7) Volunteering is a requirement.
Students must complete 50 hours of volunteer work per school year in order to graduate. Students might volunteer in the Ethiopian-Israeli community, with special needs or homeless individuals, or they might help out at with Magen David Adom, the Israeli paramedics.
8) Many students have shot a gun before they graduate.
In 11th grade, Israeli Jews spend a week at Gadna, a program to help high schoolers acclimate to the army. Students wear army uniforms, wake up at the crack of dawn, and get a feel for army discipline. Participants learn weapon safety, and many even fire M-16s.
9) Prom is a new tradition, and not everyone goes.
Proms are a relatively new phenomenon in Israel since the 1990s when teens were exposed to the American tradition on television and in the movies and decided to start their own. Israeli proms are private events, not sponsored by the schools, and they are seen as a way to celebrate graduation. Israel’s former education minister, Shai Piron, was been critical of Israeli proms, urging students to find a more “healthy way” to celebrate their graduation than an expensive party.
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.