Jerusalem — The Israeli public scored a victory over the government this week after it thwarted the Education Ministry’s plan to shorten the upcoming summer vacation.
Last week Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar announced that the school year would begin on Aug. 26 rather than Sept. 1 to enable students to integrate better into their studies before the start of Yom Kippur and the subsequent holiday vacation, and provide educators more time to teach about the holidays.
But in press conference Monday, the minister reversed his decision following a wave of criticism from ordinary citizens whose plans would be disrupted.
Since the minister’s initial announcement, parents’ groups had been lobbying the Knesset Education Committee to postpone the plan till the summer of 2011. Several online petitions were also circulated. The National Parents Committee was even considering a petition to the High Court of Justice, Haaretz reported.
The ministry also received flak from people in the local tourism industry, which stood to lose millions of shekels due to cancellations.
While no one disputes that the country’s nine-week summer vacation is too long, many parents and teachers were angered that Sa’ar made the decision at the end of May, knowing full well that late August is peak season for the local tourism industry. Parents argued that children entering new schools — especially first-graders — would be adversely affected.
The ministry will implement a shorter summer vacation in 2012, Sa’ar said. To parents’ dismay, the lost vacation days will be added to the already long Sukkot, Chanukah and Passover vacations.
Were the change to be implemented this August, tourism officials said, tens, or even hundreds of thousands of thousands of Israelis would have been forced to scrap their vacations and incur high cancellation fees; reschedule, assuming space is available; or send their kids to school almost a week late.
Hoteliers, and especially the owners of “tzimmers,” the Israeli equivalent of bed-and-breakfast establishment, were anticipating heavy losses.
In an interview before Monday’s reversal, Mark Feldman, the owner of Ziontours, a popular Jerusalem travel agency with both Anglo-Israeli and native Israeli clients, said within three days of the ministry’s announcement, 50 families had called to learn whether they could reschedule their return flights back to Israel.
“Not one family changed its reservation” after discovering it would cost anywhere from $100 to $300 per ticket, Feldman said. “The vast majority booked their flights early to take advantage of cheaper fares.”
Feldman said teachers were in a particular bind because they would be expected to prepare a week earlier than anticipated.
In Israel, like many countries, there are no daycare facilities and few summer camp options from mid-August, so working parents have traditionally reserved this time for family vacations. Most make their hotel and plane reservations months ahead, and rescheduling can be difficult to impossible.
In contrast, those who can’t afford to send their kids to camp — which usually runs in three-week cycles and is very expensive by Israeli standards — say they would welcome any plan that gets their kids out of the house and back to school, especially during the miserably hot month of August (even though many schools aren’t air-conditioned).
Rachel Selby, a longtime teacher and mother of a toddler, said there are good reasons to shorten the summer break, but not this year.
“From an educational point of view, it is much better for the children to have a shorter break in the summer, when they forget everything and get out of good routine habits, and have more days off to break up the long winter semester.”
Furthermore, Selby said, if parents have to take the same number of days off during the school year, “I would rather take odd days when the weather is cooler and we can go out and do something, rather than have a week in August when it’s too hot to move.”
But this year, “it would have been chaos with teachers as well as students away until September 1. I wonder how you get to be a government minister and have so little common sense?”
Dov Lipman, the creator of one of the online petitions, called Sa’ar’s decision to keep the summer holiday intact “heroic.”
“It’s not easy to admit that a mistake was made and not the norm in Israeli politics,” Lipman told The Jewish Week by e-mail. “But the minister saw the facts — thousands of families who’d already made their summer plans” before the change was announced.
“I applaud Minister Saar for hearing our call and making the correct decision,” Lipman said.
Surie Ackerman, a mother of six originally from Brooklyn, had already decided for financial and logistical reasons not to reschedule her 15-year-old daughter’s Aug. 31 reservation back to Israel.
Her daughter will be attending an American Orthodox girls’ sleep-away camp owned by Ackerman’s aunt.
Ackerman, who had called her travel agent in a panic after the earlier announcement, said she thinks her agent got it right.
“She told me, ‘People used to say that Israel was run like a summer camp. Well, that’s wrong. Summer camps are much more organized.’”
Allison Kaplan Sommer, a mother in Ra’anana, said her family was actually able to save some money thanks to the “balagan” (chaos) spawned by Sa’ar’s first decision.
“I have to thank my husband. Everyone was saying around Passover, ‘Buy your tickets for the summer now! The price of fuel is going up!’ and I was in a big panic pressuring my husband to buy the tickets already.”
Sommer said her husband predicted that Saar would give in to the pressure and reverse his decision, but not before the airlines dropped their prices for the last week of August.
“This year it paid to procrastinate,” Sommer said.