Fifteen Israeli high school teachers have been coming to the University once a week to learn to be good teachers of Jewish tradition. They are teachers in “Tali,” a Hebrew acronym for a program in intensified Jewish studies. The special course is being run by the University’s Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, headed by Prof. Emerita Miriam Ben-Peretz.

Most of the participants in this course come from one of the two Tali schools in Haifa. The program, meant to supplement the paucity of Jewish subjects taught in the state secular stream, was set up in Jerusalem 20 years ago; it came to Haifa ten years ago. Nationwide, it is found in only 1%-1 1/2% of the schools, though it is said to be in demand. Tali teachers must first undergo rigorous preparation to teach in the program.

According to one participant, Tali presents Jewish heritage in a tolerant attitude. Whether one wants to be religious or carry on with the heritage should be a matter of choice, in her opinion, and the only way to make a rational choice is through knowledge.

In the state secular school system, she charged, too many of even the Toshba teachers are ignorant of their tradition. Toshba refers to classes in Mishna and related Jewish texts, which in the secular stream generally are not given on an intensive level and may be taught by teachers untrained in the subject. The result is often a marginalization of such studies and pupils’ lack of knowledge of their tradition. Like all the participants in the course, this teacher is not Orthodox in religious practice.

Parents are the ones who decide whether their children’s school will adopt the program. Because of the limited number of teachers available for it, the program has to limit enrollment. The only male participant in the course, who comes from a rural area south of Haifa, said that his school could accept only 30 pupils, but that scores had applied.

“I cannot comprehend a Jew who doesn’t know the basics of Judaism,” he answered when asked why a nominally secular person would be interested in teaching in the program. “There is so much ignorance among the population in this area.” He, too, stressed the open, cultural approach that Tali takes.

Miriam Naftali, a school principal and responsible for introducing Tali into her school, explained that children in the program “receive values, culture, not just some information three days a week.” Like the teacher in her school, she pointed to knowledge as a key for decision-making. “If you want to become a newly repentant (hozer bitshuva),” she said, “then first know where you are going to, or where you are not going to.”

Still another course participant said she sees differences as early as the third grade between those who take a Tali program in her school and those who do not. The program, often run after regular school hours, is voluntary. “There is an awareness [of things Jewish],” she said of the Tali pupils, “a depth of meaning lacking in the others.” She, too, believes that a Jew should be educated and taught “at a level of one’s choice.”

Ben-Peretz outlined the rationale of the course, the first of its kind at a university, which will bring a range of lecturers on various topics covering teaching and curriculum development in Jewish subjects and texts, and various aspects of Judaism. She wants to make the Tali program a utopia, she told the students.

At an evening reception for the Tali course participants,

Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, told of his community’s struggle to bring about a “serious Jewish renaissance” in learning. He then added, “We need partners to accomplish this, but if Israel forgets its heart and soul, then it will be disastrous.”

He reminded the audience, which included officials from the Ministry of Education and the Tali Foundation, that Jewish tradition describes teachers as “guardians of the city.” But, Shrage continued, “the biggest challenge is ourselves.” This challenge is not to be so fundamentalist as to “close minds and hearts to humankind,” he said, but also for secular adults “not to lose consciousness of being the guarantors of Jewish tradition.”

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