Respecting ‘The Other’ At The Next Desk
Tue, 05/29/2012
Israel Correspondent
Ofer Gordon, who is religious, and Ella Gal, who is secular, study together at the Keshet School. Photos by Michele Chabin
Ofer Gordon, who is religious, and Ella Gal, who is secular, study together at the Keshet School. Photos by Michele Chabin

Jerusalem — For 15-year-old Ella Gal, “the other” isn’t an Israeli-Arab teen from Jaffa or a Palestinian high schooler in Ramallah. He’s the boy in the kipa sitting next to her in class.
Gal, whose father was raised secular but whose non-religious mother was brought up Orthodox, attends the Keshet School in the Katamonim neighborhood of Jerusalem, an oasis of religious pluralism in an increasingly divided Israeli society.

“My mom wanted me to taste both worlds, to know people different from me,” Gal told me when I visited the school recently. “She wanted me to learn about the Bible, to have a choice to pray or not.”

When I asked some of my Facebook friends to suggest religious-secular programs in Israel that promote coexistence, a couple recommended well-known programs involving Jews and Arabs. 

When I pointed out that I had asked for “religious-secular” programs, these friends admitted that for them, the word “coexistence” always brings to mind Arabs and Jews, not Jews from varying religious backgrounds.

That says a lot about the perceptions of many Israelis on the subject of secular-religious relations. While many have religious and secular co-workers, and are cordial to the greengrocer regardless of whether his head is bare or covered by a kipa, few actively go to the trouble to get to know “the other.”

Actually, there are several programs that enable Israelis from different streams to spend time together; most revolve around occasional meetings or joint activities.

The exception: there are more than a dozen Israeli schools around the country where religious, traditional and secular children learn together, day in and day out. Thanks to dedicated staff, open-minded parents and trusting students, they’ve managed to bridge the gaping religious-secular chasm plaguing Israeli society.Keshet School

One such bridge builder is the . The name itself, which means “rainbow” in Hebrew, is an indication of what it is trying to accomplish in an increasingly black and white Israeli world. The school began with a single first- grade class just two months before Yigal Amir, an Orthodox Jew, assassinated Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, sparking religious tensions that are still felt today.

Now housed in a modern building with lots of air and light, it has 700 children in grades one through 12.

During a tour of the school, Idan Snir, a longtime Keshet teacher who now heads the school’s nonprofit organization, said Keshet was founded as an alternative to the public education system, which offers two tracks at its respective schools: secular and Modern Orthodox. Secular students receive a couple of hours of Torah study each week, while the Orthodox are immersed in religious subjects, but with fewer secular subjects.

Traditionally, parents have had to choose between the two, he said, which is especially problematic for families where one of the parents is religious, the other secular; it’s also problematic for parents who want a pluralistic education for their children.

Tova Avihai-Kremer, Keshet’s elementary school principal, believes the school succeeds “because everyone on the staff cares deeply about religion and finding a meaningful way to experience Jewish values and life by making it come alive and making it relevant.”

The school is based on the belief that no one way of practicing Judaism is better or worse than any other — a downright radical concept for many Israelis.

When I asked how religious and secular kids can study Judaism together, Snir explained that each grade has two classes, one headed by a religious homeroom teacher, the other headed by a secular homeroom teacher. Though religious and secular kids study in both classes, the religious kids (and a few secular ones) join the religious teacher for morning prayers while the secular kids participate in discussions about Jewish identity. When the Orthodox kids are engaged in Torah study, the secular kids study the same text from a non-Orthodox perspective.

By the older grades the religious students continue to pray separately, but join with secular students for just about everything else.

As it turned out, the day I visited, all the second graders were preparing for their “Misibat Chumash,” a ceremony where students receive their own Bibles. I watched as the children — some girls dressed in skirts, others in pants; some boys with kippot, others without — practiced their songs. Later that day, they would be joined by beaming parents and grandparents.

Snir explained that for Keshet to thrive, “we need to convince parents their kids are in a safe place where they will be able to maintain their identity,” and that tends to be a bigger challenge with religious families who are accustomed to religious schools with a religious atmosphere.

At religious schools, parents don’t have to worry about immodest clothing or a secular child bringing and sharing non-kosher food to school against Keshet school policy.

Although the majority of secular students don’t socialize with religious kids on Shabbat, it can be awkward when it happens.

Ofer Gordon, one of the religious students (he transferred from an Orthodox school to Keshet in seventh grade because he wanted to meet new people) admitted “it can be hard when my secular friends go out and I stay home.”

But when I asked Gordon whether he wants to join his friends for a Friday night movie or a Saturday day at the beach, he said, “No. I like to spend Shabbat with my family.”  

Ella Gal said it’s been fascinating to learn with and become friends with religious students.

“In my house, Shabbat is watching TV. With my religious friends, it’s reading a book and going to synagogue,“ she said.

She said she enjoys visiting religious friends on Shabbat and has started saying Kiddush in her own home because it symbolizes family time.

“You learn to respect the other,” she told me.

“Respect” is the word most often heard at Keshet.

Snir, who is secular but married to a religious woman, recalled the time a religious student asked him to write the words “B’ezrat Hashem,” “With God’s Help,” at the top of the blackboard, as is done in religious schools.

“I took me a few seconds to formulate an answer,” Snir said with a grin. “Should I respect the student and write the words or ask the student to respect my decision not to?”

In the end, Snir wrote the words “With God’s Help, We Are All Responsible,” a way of merging respect for religion with human responsibility.

The students’ shared sense of responsibility came to the fore when another student’s father died suddenly in a parachuting accident. Both secular and religious students asked and received permission to join the student for mourning prayers at the shiva house.

“Everyone felt comfortable. They had the tools,” said Snir, “and it was the right thing to do.”