Teachers’ college: Israel’s new melting pot

Israel and the United States are both nations of immigrants. But whereas America’s much-vaunted melting pot became a mosaic of hyphenated identities decades ago, Israel’s national ideal remains the cholent — a comfy stew of well-blended ethnic ingredients.

That’s the ideal. But the mechanisms put forward for achieving it, from the kibbutz to the Israel Defense Forces, all had their drawbacks — chief among them that they did not include Arabs or the ultra-Orthodox, the two fastest-growing segments of the Israeli population.

Last week I heard another proposition: a teachers college. More specifically, Beit Berl College, established in 1949 in the new state and now supplying teachers for three of the country’s four educational systems — secular Jewish, haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and Arab. (The fourth system, for national religious Jews, has its own separate teacher-training institutions.)

Sarah Kreimer was in my office promoting the idea. I’ve known Sarah since the early ’90s, when I interviewed her in Israel for a story on the Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development, which she founded in 1988 and co-directed for 14 years. A native of Pittsburgh, she’s lived in Israel for more than 30 years, devoting herself to Arab-Jewish coexistence. I was surprised to see her in her newest incarnation as director of development and external relations for Beit Berl College, until she sat down and told me it’s a different way she can work for the same ends.

The college is one of the few places in Israel where religious Jews, secular Jews and Israeli Arabs come into close contact with each other over prolonged periods of time, she told me, working together toward the same goal: changing the educational model for the next generation, which still learns in siloed taxpayer-funded school systems.

Beit Berl graduates make up 20 percent of the country’s public schoolteachers, she said. The Arab teacher-training track was added some time ago, but the haredi track is just 2 years old. A group of young ultra-Orthodox teachers approached the school, she says, “because they believed their children need to learn the Israeli core curriculum,” a foundation of secular subjects required by the country’s Education Ministry but not taught in most haredi schools.

Today, 200 haredi students are enrolled, along with some 10,000 Arabs and non-haredi Jews — a real microcosm of Israeli society, and the teachers of tomorrow’s citizens. Courses are offered in Hebrew and Arabic, but more than that, cultural cross-pollination is built into the system. For example, few Arab schools in Israel have an arts curriculum, so there are no Arab arts instructors at the college; thus you have classrooms of Arab student art teachers taught by a Jewish arts instructor. An added benefit: Those freshly minted teachers lobby for arts courses in the Arab schools where they are later employed.

Another example: Haredi men cannot be taught by a female instructor, so some end up in courses taught by Arab male teachers. “It’s fascinating, and highly unusual,” Sarah said.

Sarah has high hopes for the Arab female students. “They have chosen to learn on a mixed campus, with men and with Jews,” she says, “making them well placed to be agents of change for Arab girls.”

Arabs and Jews partner on several educational initiatives at the college, including an honors program where Arab and Jewish student teachers do site visits to each other’s public schools. Few Israeli Jews speak Arabic, so the Jewish partner has to rely on the Arab colleague (who invariably speaks Hebrew) while visiting Arab schools — upending the usual power relationship.

Learning together helps all three groups see each other as part of the same civic society, Sarah argues, which is crucial as social and ethnic divisions continue to deepen elsewhere in the country. She points to the recent national elections in March where voting, as usual, followed demographic lines.

“Education has a role to play in teaching that we are all in one polity together,” she says. The timing couldn’t be more urgent, “given the animosity that is so present between so many groups in Israel, especially between Arabs and Jews.”

 

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Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at sue@jweekly.com.