Religious Education and Aliyah: Some Suggestions for New Olim

Michelle Berkowitz, Yoel Finkelman, Ari Shames, and Dodi Tobin

Education can be one of the most challenging aspects of aliyah. In "Religious Education and Aliyah: Some Suggestions for New Olim," the authors help prepare parents and children for the move by identifying some of the more significant differences between the Israeli religious educational system and that of hutz la'aretz. It reports some of the facts, evaluates certain trends and attitudes, and makes suggestions for finding the right school for your children. It can serve as an important resource for families planning the move to Israel.

Education and Aliyah
Education is Critical to Successful Aliyah

The advantages of aliyah for religious education are obvious. Your children will be immediately and directly involved in the center of the Jewish world; they will learn Hebrew as a matter of course, opening up to them the world of the Jewish sources; concern and commitment to ‘am yisrael is woven into the very fabric of the culture and its educational system. Yet, there are challenges. Successful aliyah can depend on your children's acclimation to their new schools. You are moving across the world, changing language and culture. Acclimating to the new school environment can be particularly challenging, and the older the student the harder the adjustment. We have spoken with numerous educational professionals, parents, and students, and have collected some of their insights and suggestions. We hope to provide some pointers to ease the adjustment period and help make for a more successful aliyah. (This hopes to supplement the Association of American and Canadians in Israel [AACI] fine pamphlet, "The Israeli Educational System," which describes in great detail the technical aspects of Israeli education and provides helpful advice. Contact AACI at 6 Mane St., Jerusalem, +972-2-561-7151, or at

The better you understand the Israeli system, the better you will be able to communicate with teachers and schools. Many olim assume that the ways familiar from Jewish education in the Diaspora are "correct," and the differences that they encounter are a "incorrect." This can create unnecessary frustration and a sense of helplessness. To get the most out of the Israeli educational system, recognize that the Israeli schools provide different education: sometimes better, sometimes worse, and sometimes simply different.

Hebrew Language and Culture

Children in Israel, especially younger ones, pick up Hebrew very quickly. This gives them a tremendous educational advantage over their counterparts overseas. They have much easier access to the sources they learn in limudei kodesh, making their religious education potentially much more fruitful.

At the same time, the first few weeks or months can be very trying, both because of the language and because of the larger issues of social and cultural integration. Even good students may have trouble understanding the class material simply because of the language. Speak to your children about these potential frustrations, and be understanding if they have trouble making the grades you expect early on. It can be advantageous to work on Hebrew with your children before making aliyah, either by speaking Hebrew at home (if you can) or through tutoring.

Keep a Positive Attitude

As a parent, your attitude will rub off on your children. Frustrations and setbacks are inevitable, as you change from one social and educational culture to another. If you are positive, upbeat, and forward-looking, this will rub off on your children.

Religious Education in Public Schools

Most Israeli religious schools belong to the Mamlakhti-Dati (religious public schools) stream, which combine limudei kodesh with general education in a Zionist setting. A minority of religious public schools are considered Mamlakhti-Dati-Torani (Torah oriented religious public schools). These schools place greater emphasis on limudei kodesh, employ a school rabbi, have a stricter dress-code particularly for girls, and may have longer hours than the mamlakhti-dati schools. An even smaller minority are semi-private schools. These schools follow most of the same regulations as the fully public schools regarding administration and curriculum. However, they usually offer some unique element – like an emphasis on art or science, a particular religious or educational outlook, smaller class sizes – which is paid for by moderate tuition. Each school, no matter what stream it belongs to, is different. Pay close attention to the nuanced differences between the different schools in your area, even those schools that officially belong to the same official stream.

Fundamentally, all of these streams are public schools, which make them different than the private Jewish schools typical of hutz la'aretz. Even Israel's semi-private schools, which maintain a greater measure of autonomy than the fully public schools, remain intimately connected to the existing public school bureaucracy, under the control of the Ministry of Education.

Public School is Less Expensive Than Private Schools

Public school is considerably cheaper than private schools. The regular religious public schools are virtually free, excepting payment for various kinds of insurance, special events, transportation, and books. By law, schools may charge no more than about $200 per year per student for these services, but some schools may bend this rule, or find ways around it. Even exclusive semi-private high schools in Israel charge only a small fraction of what private religious schools in hutz la'aretz charge. In general, tuition for semi-private elementary schools range from $60-$150 per month, while some exclusive high schools may charge as much as $450 per month.

Find a School With an Ideology Similar to Your Own

Israeli religious schools are closely tied to particular religio-political ideologies, and the political parties which represent them. It is critical that parents find a school which closely reflects their own religious approach. Dissonance between the religious messages the student hears at home and in the classroom can create educational problems for any child, but particularly for new immigrants.

Cultural Diversity

Public schools derive their student population from all the socio-economic subgroups within their geographic area. Expect the socio-economic and cultural heterogeneity in your school to parallel that of the religious community in the geographic area upon which the school draws.

Be a Postive Influence, but Be Realistic

Public schools depend on a national bureaucracy. Parents should learn to work with the system. Especially in the first few years, try to figure out how to best adapt yourselves and your children to the resources available. If there are things about your children's schools which you feel you can influence positively, try to gain that influence by working within the existing bureaucracy. Do your homework. Find out what parent committees exist in the school, – Va'ad Horim (PTA), Va'ad Kitah (Class councils), etc. - how you can be involved, and what influence these can have. Find out what aspects of the school's curriculum and regulations are mandated by the system, what is deeply engrained in the school's tradition, and which can be reasonably changed. Even working with the system can be frustrating, especially for parents who are used to private schools of hutz la'aretz, which are small and less bureaucratic, and where the high tuition payments "buy" a certain amount of influence.

Mehanekh/et and Yo'etzet/et

The system of mehankhim may be the single biggest advantage of the Israeli educational system. Each class has a "mehanekh/et" which is ill translated as a homeroom teacher. Beside teaching various subjects, the mehanekh/et serves as the class social coordinator, keeping track of the social dynamics in the class, helping to organize extra curricular activities, and keeping a particular eye on each student. The mehanekh/et also teaches a course entitled "hinukh," which meets about 1 hour a week, and often deals with values education, social issues, current events, and other topics which the mehanekh/et considers critical. Although there is no formal training required for this job, most teachers do not start out as a mehanekh/et, but are promoted to the position if the administration feels that teacher has the kind of personality, commitment, and concern that are demanded of a mehanekh/et.

Parents can reasonably expect to have regular contact with the student's mehanekh/et, particularly if problems arise. When dealing with almost any issue that arises in school, parents should be in contact with the mehanekh/et before anybody else (principals are generally not involved in the day to day concerns of each student, particularly in larger schools). Once you have chosen a school for your child, be sure that the mehanekh/et knows that your child has just made aliyah (or any other concern), so that he or she can plan accordingly. A good mehanekh/et can have a profound effect on a student's successful integration into Israel, and on his or her educational success in general.


Each school also has a "yoetzet," an advisor, who deals with individual and social issues where the mehanekh can not. She (there are almost no men in this job) has a university degree in yi'utz, and is part of the school's administration. She serves as an advocate for the students within the administration. She advises teachers, staff members, students, and parents who are struggling with any educational or social problem. She also serves as the contact person between the school and other psychological or social services that might be called in when the need arises. If there are issues that parents, students, and mehankhim can not solve adequately, the yoetzet is the next stop. The mehanekh and the yoetzet should be excellent resources for evaluating your children's integration and academic success and for dealing with problems before they become too severe.

Idiosyncrasies of Israeli Schools
Jewish Calendar

Israeli schools follow the Jewish calendar. There are particularly long vacations before Pesah and Sukkot and during Hannukah, which can be particularly trying if both parents are working. Public and private camps are available in some places to fill the children's time. Camps of various kinds are also available during the long summer vacation (hofesh hagadol), but there is almost no organized activity available during the last few weeks in August. Take this into account when planning your work and vacation, or when scheduling relatives' trips from overseas.


In order to be eligible for college admission, high-school students must pass a series of matriculation exams in various subjects, called bagruyot. Exams in some subjects are mandatory, while exams in other subjects are optional. There is an elaborate point system, in which more difficult exams in a given subject are given greater weight. Each student must receive enough points to graduate with a teudat bagrut (bagrut certificate), which are calculated by the number of tests and the difficulty of the tests. Higher grades on bagrut exams are an important factor in determining college and university admission. If your children have begun high school before aliyah, be sure to be in touch with the school to determine how to make up the missing work.

Large Classes/ Shorter School Days

Classes in Israeli schools can be large, up to 40 children. If this concerns you, take into account that some schools – usually smaller semi-private schools – are designed to have somewhat smaller classes.

The school week is six days long, Sunday to Friday. In general, the school days are shorter than the average day in American yeshiva day schools, although the semi-private schools may have longer days.

Early Departmentalization

Israeli schools begin departmentalization early. Even elementary school students have different teachers, and even different classrooms, for different subjects. This can be confusing, particularly for younger students, but it also provides the children access to teachers who know their fields particularly well, and are excited by their topic.

A student's schedule may change at various intervals. Courses are not arranged in any particular order, like Judaic studies in the morning and general studies in the afternoon. Therefore, be sure that your children understand their often complex ma'arekhet (weekly schedule), but don't be surprised if this causes some confusion early on.

Teacher Breaks

Many male teachers do miluim (reserve duty). They can miss as much as 5 weeks per school year - sometimes a few days at a time, and sometimes weeks at a stretch. The government's National Insurance pays for three months of maternity leave for female teachers, although some mothers take more time off. Schools will find substitutes, but these interruptions can be disruptive.

Early Independence

Children in Israel are treated as relatively independent at a younger age than their peers in English speaking countries. There tends to be less formal supervision of recess time and bus rides (although this has been changing in recent years). This can be jarring to immigrant parents, but it is reflective of Israeli culture in general. Much of Israeli culture assumes that children will be treated as older at a younger age (many will be soldiers by age 18).

Staff Strikes

Staff strikes are not uncommon in Israel, particularly during the first week of school. Usually, teachers will make up missed days during the course of the year by eliminating scheduled vacation days. The strikes usually do not effect special education, and often do not effect students preparing for the bagrut exams.


Israeli schools do not provide books. You will be given a book list, and will be expected to purchase the books from local stores. Israeli schools usually do not provide lockers for students. Buy a large backpack for students to carry their many books and materials back and forth from school.


Israelis often eat their main meal during the day. Lunch is often a meat meal, and many schools, especially those with long school days, offer a catering option in schools that have a long day. Besides regular meals, children usually eat a 10 AM snack ('aruhat 'eser).

Practical Advice for Researching Schools
Schools are Critical in Successful Klitah

When choosing a community to live in, take the schools into account. This is particularly important if you are making aliyah with older school-age children. Place school visits and research high on your agenda for a pilot trip, and when visiting potential communities. Your child's adjustment to his or her new school can have a significant impact upon the success of your klitah (absorption).

Different Schools for Different Kids

Each child has his/her own educational needs. It is not unusual for families in Israel to have their children in a number of different schools. It is also not unusual for olim to switch their kid(s) to different school after a few years, at which point the child's needs and the reality come into more clear focus.

Planning a School Visit

If at all possible, visit the various schools you are considering in advance of your aliyah. Arrange appointments with any or all of the following: the principal, mehanekh/et, yo'etzet (counselor), teachers. Ask questions and express your concerns. Sit in on classes, and speak to other students (they often know more about what school is really like than anybody else). Speak to parents and school activists – especially new olim - whose children attend the schools you are researching. Ask to see a book list for the grades you are interested in. A book list may give you the most accurate picture of what the students are learning and reading.

Youth Movements

Many Israeli religious children are involved with youth groups, like Ezra, Benei Akiva, Ariel, and Tzofim Datiim. These youth movement do quite a bit of informal character education, focusing on Zionism, the Land of Israel, responsibility to the community, and social activism. A child who does not participate in one of these groups may miss out on much of the social life of Israeli kids. These youth movements can be critical educational tools to supplement the education provided in schools.

Benefits for New Olim

The government, municipality, and the schools offer olim hadashim certain forms of educational assistance: for example, special tutoring hours in the school setting, eligibility for home tutoring, and allowances to take certain exams in one's mother tongue. The details of these benefits change from time to time, are available in different ways in different areas of the country. We spoke with many people with various different jobs in various different settings, and were not given consistent information about what olim are entitled to, and what they are realistically likely to receive. Consult the local branch of the Absorption Ministry, the local municipality, the school administration, and other parent olim for realistic picture of what is available in your area or school.

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