Thursday, February 03, 2005

Rock and Roll Junior High School

Who ever said that getting into junior high had to be such a production? But that’s exactly what it was – a full theatrical production – at the Jerusalem Girls’ School for Torah and the Arts.

Let’s step back a moment…

My wife Jody and I recently accompanied our eleven-year-old sixth grader Merav to two “open houses” of Jerusalem junior high schools. Elementary school in Israel only runs through sixth grade. Most grade schools feed into a particular intermediate school which covers seventh and eighth grades and usually (but not always) a four year high school after that.

All of this is scheduled to change if the Dovrat Commission implements its recommendations (which call for, among other things, the abolition of two year intermediate schools). But for now it puts an inordinate amount of pressure on the kids. Why?

Because what if your child doesn’t want to go to the junior high that’s “connected” to her school? Then she’s run through the ringer with tests and psychometric exams and waiting lists and way too much stress for one so young.

We already knew the drill – we’d been through it two years ago with now-eighth grader Amir. But most of the religious schools in Jerusalem are sex-segregated after sixth grade. So we couldn’t rely on our experience with Amir. We were starting over from scratch.

We had always assumed that Merav would go from Efrata, her elementary school, to Evelina de Rothschild (named after the wife of Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild...isn’t it great how in Israel, even school names evoke history).

Now, even though Efrata does not feed automatically into Evelina, and so would entail the aforementioned tests, it always seemed the most “like us” – moderate religiously, good academics, well balanced.

But when we attended Evelina’s open house, we discovered another adjective attached to the school we didn’t expect: boring.

I hate to be rude, but there’s no getting around it: the open house was a major league snooze-fest.

The principal monotoned on and on, barely cracking a smile, while parents and prospective students alike squirmed in their seats. The PowerPoint – and by this time, I was excited to see anything potentially more dynamic up near the dais – was as flat as the rest of the evening.

Now, it’s true that Evelina has been through some tough times in the last year. Its former headmaster was suspended in what the Jerusalem Report reported as a vindictive power struggle waged against her by the outgoing administration. The new principal was clearly nervous at the open house; maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on her.

Still, it was like they weren’t even trying.

At the following evening’s open house at Omanuyot – the Emunah-run Torah and Arts school I mentioned earlier – the contrast couldn’t have been clearer. From the second we walked into the foyer, there was electricity in the air. The principal was working the crowd. Girls were dressed up in costumes, handing out stickers and sweets. Art covered every wall.

Instead of sitting for an hour and a half lecture, we were led on a guided tour of the school which as its name implies encourages – no requires – its students to “major” in the arts. And we’re not even talking about college here.

We visited the sculpture room and the animation studio. In a demonstration of the music program, four girls performed a song they’d written themselves – two vocalists, guitar and piano – that could easily have been a hit on Galgalatz (Israel’s top pop station).

In the film room, we learned that girls can specialize in cinema as we watched a student video project. Theater students acted out a dramatic reading of what they were learning.

It was only at our last stop of the night – the dance studio – that we hit a snag.

“Sorry, but the men will have to leave during the performance,” the instructor explained.

“What?” I muttered to Jody, feeling like I’d just taken a punch for God.

Merav grinned and waved goodbye as I made my way to the door. But I was feeling anything but nonchalant.

Why should men be excluded from this? I go to movies and plays and watch TV…I have long disagreed with the dictum in the ultra-orthodox world that men need special “protection” from the weakness and urges inherent in our sex.

I was coming up against the “Torah” component of this school for Torah and the Arts, and the administration’s interpretation of religiosity had been nagging at me all night..

Indeed, hadn’t the Rabbi made a point during brief opening remarks of saying that he discouraged graduates from serving in the army (though, to his credit, he did sanction sherut leumi – national service)?

And what about those rumors I’d heard that this was a school that ran spot checks on girl’s skirt and sleeve lengths. Girls, it was murmured, were forbidden from wearing pants – both in school and out. From my experience in the dance room, that didn’t seem so far off.

Moreover, I couldn’t decide if the innovation of having a school where religious girls could express themselves creatively was an impressive step forward towards equality between the sexes …or if what was really being implied was that girls couldn’t compete on the academics, so let them indulge a little in the arts.

As Merav and Jody walked out of the mini-dance recital, Merav picked up on my predicament.

“The girls were in tight leotards,” she said. “They would have been uncomfortable. It has nothing to do with you.”

Smart cookie that one.

Whether we choose Omanuyot in the end or give Evelina the benefit of the doubt, there will be compromises. There is no perfect place. But it certainly is good to have so many options.

And Evelina seemed to have learned from its mistakes by the time Merav went in for her written entrance exam – 12th graders had posted great big “welcome” signs; they were passing out cookies and practically leading cheers, Merav reported.

Omanuyot, however, does have two more things going for it that may very well tip the balance in its favor. First, it is the school connected to Merav’s elementary school – that means no tests. And second: it’s walking distance from our house.

To avoid having to deal with a carpool for the next two or maybe six years, I suspect I could probably live with having to step out of a dance recital every now and then.

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