Israelis back Steiner schools

By Nathan Jeffay, July 1, 2010
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The Tel Aviv mayor has slammed Waldorf schools such as this one, saying they “undermine state education”

The Tel Aviv mayor has slammed Waldorf schools such as this one, saying they “undermine state education”

Israelis are clamouring to send their children to schools and nurseries run according to the dictates of an Austrian philosopher who was obsessed with karma, reincarnation and the contribution of Jesus to humanity.

This year, three new high schools opened which run according to the principles of anthroposophy, the "spiritual philosophy" of Rudolf Steiner, who died in 1925. In total, Israel now has 50 nurseries, 14 primary schools and four high schools run according to these principles. Plans have just been drawn up for another primary school for Tel Aviv in September.

Anthroposophy institutions, sometimes referred to by the name applied to Steiner's educational ethos, Waldorf, now account for some 4,000 Israeli children, double their roster five years ago.

The anthroposophy method is a holistic approach that stresses education as a means to developing creativity, initiative, social responsibility and moral awareness in a child and plays down the importance of learning facts.

Despite Steiner's Christian faith it does not involve the teaching of Christian theology, and it even has a foothold in the modern Orthodox community, where there are two anthroposophy nurseries. Yet there is concern in the Charedi community. The anti-missionary organisation Yad L'Achim is "alarmed" by the growth of anthroposophy, which it deems "a new-age pagan cult", according to Aaron Rubin, one of the group's leaders.

Gilad Goldschmidt, director of the Israel National Waldorf Education Forum, the umbrella organisation for anthroposophy schools, said he is "surprised" by their sudden growth.

"When I founded the first school in 1989 I said there would only be one or two in Israel." He believes that they are popular because "we offer a good human education".

This is the reason cited by Yigal Effel, a father-of-three from the Galilee moshav Beit Lechem Haglillit, for sending his children to anthroposophy schools.

"They don't push your children to race for grades as much - the process of learning is more important in this kind of school," he said.

Yotam Hotam, a lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Haifa, said that enthusiasm for anthroposophy education is a symptom of Israel becoming "post-secular". People brought up in secular schools want a "spiritual education" for their children but without buying into religion.

In his view, the schools are also benefitting from concerns about mainstream education. "Generally, there is growing dissatisfaction with the education system - with what kids learn, the level of education, the curriculum."

But Zvi Bekerman, lecturer in educational anthropology at Hebrew University, said that anthroposophy's growth has more to do with "social mobility in the middle and upper classes".

Although the schools are within the state sector, he explains, they appeal only to a wealthy niche, and effectively offer class-specific education. There is no private school sector in Israel (except for Catholics). They represent "the new type of segregating moves which the upper classes make whenever they have chance to put their children at an advantage," Mr Bekerman claimed.

According to Ha'aretz, Tel Aviv's mayor Ron Huldai slammed "the rich and wealthy, who take advantage of the laws enabling them to undermine state education".

A spokeswoman for the municipality said that it would not give permission for the new anthroposophy school planned for the city to open.

Mr Goldschmidt said he is aware of the opposition but believes that the municipality will eventually cave in as "always in Israel the parents win".

    Last updated: 1:59pm, July 1 2010