Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett made headlines this week when he said that “studying Judaism and excelling in it is more important to me than studying math and sciences.”
It is fitting that he made the statement at a program honoring the 40th anniversary of the TALI schools in Israel, which provide classes in Jewish moral teachings and values to children in secular schools, from pre-kindergarten through sixth grade. Founded by a group of Conservative rabbis in the U.S. who made aliyah and wanted to give their children a fuller Jewish experience, the program has grown and now accounts for about 10 percent of the Jewish state’s students in those early grades.
In a country with four separate school systems — charedi, religious Zionist, secular and Arab — and where secular students normally receive only two hours a week of Jewish studies (from third through eighth grade), instilling Jewish youngsters with a strong sense of their history, heritage and ethical teachings is vital. Under the aegis of the secular system, the TALI schools offer additional hours for Jewish teaching, with some schools including prayer and others studying prayer.
Scott Shay is a New York businessman who attended the TALI event and who has been a supporter and advisor for its schools for almost 20 years. He told us he is involved because “the biggest national security issue for Israel is Jewish identity,” the glue that helps bind the society together through shared values.
Similarly, Bennett praised the TALI schools, saying “you know that Judaism belongs to everyone.” To his credit he has increased spending for Jewish studies, especially within the secular schools. “This is the next chapter in our Zionist vision,” he proclaimed. May that vision be fulfilled.