By Jacob Kamaras/JNS.org
Low enlistment rates in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). High rates of poverty. Communal resistance to traditional schooling. Difficulty finding employment or a lack of motivation to be employed. These conditions are shared by two sectors of the Israeli population that the casual observer likely wouldn’t group together: haredi Jews and Bedouin.
Through its operation of schools for each population, however, the Israel Sci-Tech Schools Network seeks to give haredim and Bedouin a brighter future in the Jewish state and help them buck their respective stereotypical reputations as yeshiva dwellers and desert nomads—starting with the vocational training they need to enter the workforce. From Dec. 1-3, board members of Friends of Israel Sci-Tech Schools, the U.S.-based group of supporters of Israel’s largest education network, took their first mission to Israel to witness the schools in action.
The Sci-Tech network operates 206 institutions that serve more than 100,000 students across the Jewish state. Ten percent of Israeli high school students attend a Sci-Tech school, and more than 60 percent of students across the network study in science and technology tracks.
Haredi society prioritizes Torah study over general education, but for those who don’t fit the traditional yeshiva mold, the Kfar Zeitim Vocational Yeshiva—one of the stops on the itinerary of the December mission—offers the unique fusion of a “yeshiva vocational village.” This high school track, in which all students live in on-site dormitories, is a way forward for yeshiva dropouts who “see themselves as a total failure,” said school principal Rabbi David Bloch.
At the 126-student school near the northern Israeli city of Tiberias, students follow their morning Torah studies with core curriculum subjects (Hebrew, English, math, and civics) and vocational studies (electrician training, computers, carpentry). The unwritten requirement to join the high school, as Bloch referenced and other school officials echoed, is not a traditional metric.
“You have to fail, first of all,” said David Atmor, head of the Sci-Tech network’s northern region. “If not, then you can’t be here.”
As a result of the fact that they did not make it through the traditional yeshiva system, the students at Kfar Zeitim and similar Haredi vocational schools in the Sci-Tech network can have self-esteem issues.
“We have to convince [our students] that they can achieve great achievements in their life,” said Bloch.
“We are dealing with the neshamot (souls). Every face is a story,” he added.
For this purpose, a psychologist works at Kfar Zeitim to help students make the connection between dormitory life and school and to re-establish their belief in themselves. That has been the case for student Aviel Halevi, 18, who studies computer networks and plans to attend college.
“Before I came here I was lost,” said Halevi, who explained that prior to attending Kfar Zeitim his dilemma was “not knowing where I’m going to go next.”
Nineteen-year-old Yossi Schaecter of Antwerp, Belgium, is studying to be an electrician at Kfar Zeitim and speaks six languages. He plans to join the IDF—a path taken by 80 percent of the school’s graduates, despite the haredi community’s traditional resistance of military service. In fact, the IDF wants Kfar Zeitim students “very much” due to the technical skills they gain in high school as well as their sense of discipline and knowing how to fit into a system, said Itamar Pozan, a public relations representative for the school. That being said, the school does not specifically encourage its graduates to serve in the army.
This past March, the Knesset’s passage of the Equal Sharing of the Burden Bill mandated an increased number of haredim either enlisting in the IDF or carrying out national service starting in 2017. According to the law, yeshivas can decide which of their students go to the military, but will face sanctions if they do not meet the draft quotas. The bill also allows any serving Israeli defense minister to defer military enrollment from age 18 until 21, and to grant exemptions.
Before the requirements imposed by Israel’s current government, Bloch explained that the haredi community was not specifically opposed to the drafting of non-yeshiva students but only sought to prevent students from being taken out of yeshiva. Then, if haredim do join the military, the community’s preference is for them to join haredi-specific units.
In contrast to the haredi community’s increased IDF enrollment, the service rate of Israeli Bedouin has decreased over time as a result of southern Bedouin intermarriage with Palestinian women from Gaza—leading to a society that is increasingly defined by Islamic religious observance and less connected to the state of Israel, explained Dr. Shai Lewinsohn, director of resource development and external affairs for the Sci-Tech network. Adding to that disconnectedness is the fact that southern Bedoiun in the Negev desert, unlike Bedouin living in northern Israel, reside in villages that are not recognized by the Israeli government.
But the Sci-Tech network, Lewinsohn said, is “trying two connect the Bedouin back to the state, through education” and by giving them a future in the form of a profession—much like the haredim.
“You first educate the children, so that the children have a future,” said Lewinsohn.
In the Arab, Druze, and Bedouin sectors of Israeli society, Sci-Tech operates 23 schools that cater to more than 11,900 students. The December mission visited two Bedouin schools: Al-Saeid Technological School and Um Batin High School.
At Al-Saeid, most students come from weak socio-economic backgrounds, and a large number of the pupils have learning disabilities as a result of intra-family marriages. Boys study the vocation of electricity—which is ironic, given that their school runs on a generator because the surrounding village, not recognized by Israel, is not connected to the national electrical power grid—and girls study to be kindergarten teachers. Enrollment in Al-Saeid has grown from 46 students in 2011 to 131 in 2014.
Both the Al-Saeid and Um Batin schools are situated in the El-Kasum municipality, which is comprised of seven villages with a total of 45,000 residents—two-thirds of whom are younger than 18.
“It’s incumbent on us as a municipality to help the young population get employment,” said Itzik Tomer, the mayor of El-Kasum.
Along those lines, the municipality and the Sci-Tech network are developing a plan for all high school graduates to continue to a 13th grade in the same school. Different tracks for the additional year will include preparation for university studies, practical engineering, and vocational training (such as air conditioning, computer technician training, and a to-be-determined discipline for Bedouin girls, whose families do not allow them to work outside of their home village). Educating Bedouin youths in their home communities after high school—and then getting them jobs in those same communities—is a priority because 1,300 Um Batin graduates have left the area to study in the Palestinian city of Hebron, where they become estranged from Israeli society.
Mays Abukaf, 18, faced this post-high school predicament when she recently graduated from Um Batin.
“I didn’t have anything to do,” she said, which prompted her to take a psychometric exam in order to facilitate her entry into the workforce.
A hallmark of Um Batin High School, which was founded in 2009, is a slate of volunteer projects and extra-curricular activities that rivals that of any Western high school. Amir Abukaf, a 16-year-old electronics student, has participated in the school’s community clean-up days.
“I want to educate the pupils about the importance of keeping our village clean,” he said.
The U.S. State Department-funded Access program provides Um Batin students with three extra hours of English-language enrichment per week, in addition to multicultural education.
“I’m a girl who loves history, and in Access we learn about people who change the world,” said 16-year-old Hanin Abukaf.
Music in Common, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit, introduces Um Batin students to youths of different backgrounds for the purpose of collaborating on songwriting and multimedia projects.
“It just brings the kids together within moments,” said Lauren Ornstein, Israel programming director for Music in Common. Eman Alasad, an English teacher at Um Batin High School, said Music in Common is “like a language that brings [students] together and helps them forget about their identity.”
Other activities at the high school include sports, theater, martial arts, guitar classes, Bridges of Peace (which arranges meetings between Arab and Jewish students), and more.
Whether it be haredim, Bedouin, or any other sector within Israeli society—in the mainstream or on the periphery—the Sci-Tech network has the same strategic goal, according its Research Development & External Affairs Division: “To ensure that all students receive a strong value-based education including learning about their own traditions, heritage, and culture, and the importance of volunteering and giving back to the community.”
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