OpinionU.S.-Israel Relations

Jewish education and the urban kibbutz model

The revitalization of a run-down Jerusalem neighborhood is a lesson in how to support Jewish schools around the world.

Renewal in Jerusalem's Kiryat Menachem neighborhood, helped by urban kibbutz Reishit. Credit: World Center for Jewish Education.
Renewal in Jerusalem's Kiryat Menachem neighborhood, helped by urban kibbutz Reishit. Credit: World Center for Jewish Education.
Mickey Katzberg. Credit: Courtesy.
Mickey Katzberg

Kiryat Menachem in southeastern Jerusalem used to be known as the Israeli capital’s “skid row.”

In the 1970s, the Israeli government invested great efforts and millions of dollars in a grandiose program called Shikum Shchunot (“neighborhood renewal”). But, while a large percentage of the funds was spent on enhancing the buildings and physical surroundings in the relevant neighborhoods, including Kiryat Menachem, the problems afflicting their communities remained unsolved.

Real change finally began to take place in the neighborhood when a small but effective group of activists arrived and set up Kibbutz Reishit, the first urban kibbutz. Its members quietly became integrated into the neighborhood and, by forging personal relationships with residents, developed an accurate understanding of the community’s needs. They created new and collaborative educational frameworks, transforming the neighborhood in such a way that families from all over Israel now want to live there.

The local educational network established by Reishit has won many accolades, and the neighborhood has been lauded by Israeli school principals, CEOs and politicians. The late former President Shimon Peres was so impressed by the successful social integration of children of Ethiopian descent at the Reishit School that he wrote a poem about it, and asked Israeli composer Idan Raichal to set it to music.

So, what can we learn from the Reishit urban kibbutz?

Its activists came to live with us in the neighborhood. They made changes from within while living as members of the community. They showed us that the most effective social change comes through collaboration and partnership. They maximized small budgets with smart, long-term thinking and creativity.

Community projects are not glamorous or easy. It is often difficult for donors to visualize the impact of their long-term investment in a community in the same way that they visualize their names on new buildings.

Jewish day-school education deals with building the identity infrastructure of the future generation of the Jewish people; the idea being that leaders will emerge to benefit the Jewish people as a whole. Over the past two decades, informal Jewish education has received huge budgets, through glamorous projects such as Birthright and MASA, which effect a visible transformation on young adults who are ready to make transformative life decisions. At last, funders are starting to invest in formal education, which is a marathon rather than a sprint, and which requires a longer-term commitment to supporting children and families.

Three years ago, the Hirsch Foundation for Jewish Education tasked the World Center for Jewish Education with conducting a survey to understand the problems faced by Jewish day schools. We have met with hundreds of teachers and school principals around the world, and work in collaboration with veteran leaders in the field of Jewish education to implement their recommendations. From the feedback we’ve already received, it seems that there is a great demand to continue on this path.

I was born in Israel, and I still live here, but all of my working life has been devoted to Jewish education in North America and around the world. My team of veteran educators and I are constantly engaging the teachers and principals of Jewish schools in constructive dialogue.

One of the lessons that I have learned as an “outsider” is to listen. Instead of “parachuting in” with ideas, we need to pay close attention to what each Jewish community needs.

Effective transformation requires a thorough understanding of the needs of an organization and a commitment to supporting its staff. It is crucial that we invest wisely in Jewish education because we are in this for the long haul. I believe that we should follow the collaborative model pioneered by Kibbutz Reishit, in order to engage in entrepreneurship, innovation and community involvement.

Mickey Katzburg is the founder and director of the World Center for Jewish Education. See: www.jewisheducation.net.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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