Israeli push to teach Judaism as culture

By Nathan Jeffay, May 30, 2014
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Noa Shabtay teaches subjects she never even heard about when she was at school. And it is not because she is teaching technology — her field has been around for centuries.

“When I was at school I didn’t learn any of what we learn today — I just studied Bible and history and that’s it,” she said. These were the only Jewish subjects studied alongside the secular curriculum — wider Jewish culture, including Talmud and rabbinics, was absent from her schooling.

Today, courses in Jewish philosophy and culture are non-compulsory parts of the national curriculum, and Ms Shabtay, 30, is part of a new generation of teachers championing Jewish studies as a field that transcends Bible and religion.

She is one of 80 graduates of Tel Aviv University’s Ofakim Programme, which is funded by UK-based philanthropist Felix Posen and his Swiss-based son, Daniel. The programme just celebrated its 10th anniversary with a special reception on the Tel Aviv campus.

“Most people in Israel and most Jews in the world recognise Judaism only as a religion, which is causing a lot of tension — there are a lot of problems from this,” said Yael Nakhon-Harel, director of the Posen Foundation in Israel.

“What the programme is trying to do, and succeeding in, is bringing Judaism as a culture — saying it’s not only a religion but also literature, humanitarian values and more.”

Ofakim chooses around a dozen students each year, and pays for them to get a bachelor’s degree and a teaching degree in the space of three years. It also supplements their studies with special Jewish studies courses, and because the workload is so much greater than that of a normal student, pays them a stipend so they do not need to work during university.

Eshel Kleinhaus, head teacher at Hof Hasharon High School where Ms Shabtay works, said that Jewish culture classes have become compulsory since it took on its first Ofakim graduate four years ago (it now employs four graduates) and the subject has become “part of the DNA of the school”.

Until four years ago, Mr Kleinhaus said, Jewish culture was obscured “somewhere between history and literature but never connected to the children’s’ identity”.

Surprisingly, in a country where issues related to Jewish identity are often highly charged, there has been no notable controversy over Ofakim’s work. This is because the religious and secular school systems are almost completely separate, and the religious take minimal interest in the secular system.

Ms Nakhon-Harel said the Orthodox have no cause for concern about Ofakim. “We are not against religion or Orthodoxy at all; we just believe that Judaism belongs to everyone.”

Last updated: 4:45pm, May 30 2014