Three Jerusalem high school students participating in the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Be’eri program recently enthralled the Institute’s Lay Leaders with their experiences. Asked by one adult if he felt like he was missing out on other activities by participating in Be’eri’s four hours of Jewish learning, he said, flat out, that he was not. The time in Be’eri is well spent, he said. The Be’eri program is expanding beginning this fall to additional schools throughout Israel.
That’s why it’s gratifying to see that the Israeli Knesset has approved legislation that will establisha full-fledged program of enriched Jewish studies for pupils in Israeli secular schools. The program directs 34 million shekels (about $10 million at current exchange rates) over three years to set up additional class hours and to hire Jewish education specialists. Eight schools will participate in the upcoming 2008-2009 school year.
As is often the case in politics, the measure is not quite what it was when it started. It was “watered down” from a truly joint secular-religious school system (something that exists now only in a few experimental schools), and the new law does not to name it as such. The law enables secular schools to beef up their Jewish studies programs. But Yair Sheleg also celebrates its triumph: “That does not mean the law is not important: It does reconnect the secular community to Jewish studies.”
Other problems, however, include limited funding and the possibility of the law’s expiration without the continued involvement of its founder, Rabbi Michael Melchior (see below for more on Knesset Member and Rabbi Melchior)
The new law, and the focus it directs to bringing Jewish enrichment to secular schools, should only add interest and involvement to programs like Be’eri and others that the Hartman Institute operate. The Institute’s Be’eri program for secular high schools, under the direction of Rabbi Ariel Picard, has been a notable success. It adds fours hours a week of enriched Jewish learning to secular high school students’ curricula.
The Institute also runs programs for teachers and principals in secular high schools that enrich their own understanding of Jewish ideas, themes and history, with the goal being that they enrich their schools’ Judaic content. Finally, the Institute has developed official curricular material for teaching Jewish content in secular Israeli high schools.
One more thing: the bill’s success is a personal triumph for Knesset Member Rabbi Michael Melchior, who introduced it and campaigned heavily for it. The Jerusalem Post has a lengthy interview with Melchior in which he talks about his vision for a more unified country where secular and religious Israelis actually talk to and understand each other.
Melchior is a friend of the Institute and participant in programs. Click here to see his lecture from last summer, titled, “Major Educational Challenges of Israeli Society.”