Oases of Israel excellence at IASA and elsewhere

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-19-11

Tragically, an Israeli epidemic of mediocre teachers, undisciplined students, unsupportive parents, unyielding bureaucrats and unchallenging curricula is spawning many dysfunctional classrooms and failing schools. Although we also see fabulous teachers, stimulating classrooms and well-run schools, the educational mediocrity my children have experienced has been our greatest disappointment in Israel. Shrieking teachers, wild classrooms and pointless tests demoralize students. 

When I complain about Israeli education, most Israelis say, yiheyeh beseder, it will be OK. They insist good families nevertheless raise good children; besides, the army straightens every one out. This characteristic insouciance, while admirable, also yields a sloppy improvisational ethos celebrating the cut corner over the job well done.

Traditional Mapai socialism confused individual ambition with indulgent elitism, high standards with bourgeois values. Today, while Israel could use more Ben-Gurionesque collectivist idealism, Israel needs centers of excellence to stretch our minds, our souls, our selves, individually and collectively.

In Jerusalem, poetically located between the Malcha mall symbolizing modern Israel and the Biblical Zoo, lies one oasis of excellence, the Schusterman Campus of the Israel Center for Excellence through Education. The campus honors the Oklahoma-based miracle-workers Lynn and the late Charles Schusterman. This marvelous initiative unites American philanthropic do-gooders like the Schustermans and IASA’s founder Robert Asher with visionary Israelis to change the world. 

Visitors most notice the 200 or so students attending the Israel Arts and Science Academy (IASA, “Madaim ve’omanuyot” in Hebrew). This high school is a magical mix of Zionist summer camp and Harvard. Students hail from 100 different communities, including Christians and Muslims, religious Jews and secular Jews. Tuition assistance guarantees that anyone admitted can attend, harmonizing excellence with egalitarianism. Even with high standards, frequent tests, and crushing workloads, the school is a surprisingly happy place, featuring class talent nights, silly bonding games, and a warm family feeling uniting students and staffers. 

“This school is much more intense than other schools I attended,” says one satisfied student. “The teachers have high expectations. There are consequences if you don’t do your work.” But students feel motivated, she explains, because these teachers are so creative and dedicated: “they don’t just teach to the bagrut,” the matriculation exams that undermine so much high school learning, “they are teaching for the sake of learning.” Science entails intensive lab work supplementing classwork. Literature class often involves following authors’ footsteps. Recently, Meir Shalev guided students through the battle sites in A Pigeon and a Boy. Describing the volunteer work in distressed communities, and the dormitory life with its group-building and values-clarifying activities at night, she sums up the school’s mission: “To be excellent in every way.”

Recently, when the Army’s Chief of Staff Gabi Ashekanzi visited, the students followed through on their school’s culture of voluntarism by protesting cutbacks in pre-army volunteer opportunities. 

“This commitment to excellence in all dimensions is an expression of our Zionism.” Hezki Arieli, the chairman of the board explains. “When we founded the school twenty years ago, excellence was a dirty word in Israel, considered elitist. Today, Israelis – and people around the world – look to us, and to Israel in general, as a center of excellence.” 

Arieli spearheads the Center’s other initiatives, which include running educational summer camps; organizing in-school enrichment programs, Excellence 2K, in 250 Israeli schools; developing curricula; and teaching teachers. The Center now exports excellence to India, Singapore and North America, where 150 schools, half Jewish, half not, use the Center’s math and science curricula. “Once educators from Singapore asked me ‘how do you do it?’” Arieli recalls. “’We don’t just want to teach our children to pass tests, we want them to be creative like you, to be considered for Nobel Prizes like you.’” Arieli explained the Zionist ethos of “ein breira.” “We have no choice but to use our wits. If we lived in a rainforest we would not need this,” he said, stopping at one of the ubiquitous drip irrigation systems that make this desert bloom, “But without water, you devise a solution. Lacking natural resources, our only major exportable resource is brainpower.” 

Seeking a new image, early Zionists considered the People of the Book too passive, vulnerable, victimized. Today, as the Israel miracle matures, we understand that the secret of Israel’s success has been remaining People of the Book, surviving and thriving with our collective smarts. But what kind of book will our foundational text be? We fear our children are becoming the people of Facebook, addicted to false friends, fleeting experiences, virtual values. We need a new Torah for today, rooted in the best of our tradition, responding to contemporary realities, and facing the future boldly, creatively, humanely, Jewishly, virtuously. 

Fortunately, the Israel Center for Excellence through Education is one of many brilliant flowers blooming in Israel today. We see the zeal for aesthetic excellence in the renewed Israel Museum, which its director James Snyder explains, “not only brings together the best of the East and the West, but has become a model for other museums. Even before the economic downturn we decided to make our recent ‘campus renewal’ project a $100 million refurbishing initiative rather than a half-billion dollar or billion-dollar tear-down-and-rebuild project. Now, colleagues worldwide are studying our alternative model.” We see the zeal for spiritual excellence in cutting-edge synagogues like Jerusalem’s Shira Hadasha, which, while pioneering an Orthodoxy empowering women, has top quality volunteer cantors and sermon-givers. We see the zeal for intellectual excellence at the Shalom Hartman institute, which runs its own superb schools while pushing Israel, the world’s start-up nation, to become the world’s values nation too. 

I have firsthand knowledge of each of these oases of excellence, representing this growing trend. For, I am not only a happy Zionist but a proud (and relieved) parent. The satisfied IASA student is my oldest daughter.


Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is the author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” and “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.”

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