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Education in Israel: Early Hebrew Schools in Eretz-Israel

by Judith Cooper-Weill

The person most responsible for the renaissance of Hebrew as a spoken language, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, traced the revival of the modern tongue to an autumn gathering at the home of the writer Yehiel Mikhal Pines in 1882, where it was decided that discussions would be held exclusively in Hebrew. Seven years were to pass before the first school in the world ever to establish its teaching curriculum entirely in Hebrew was founded in Rishon Lezion in 1889. Soon after came a short lived private Hebrew school in Jaffa, whose director was Yisrael Belkind, one of the founders of the noted youth villages of Shfeya and Ben Shemen.

The Zionist Hovevei Zion movement in Russia, founded by Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginsburg) in 1889, had a secret order known as Bnei Moshe or "Sons of Moses." Established in Jaffa in 1893, the movement never exceeded 160 members, but they constituted the elite of political Zionism and were influential in promoting modern Hebrew education and publications. In a continuing language war, German vied with French and English as the preferred language of instruction, while Russian and Yiddish also had their promoters.

The disciples of Ahad Ha’am had a specific agenda. They proposed establishing a "national college" in Jaffa to meet the needs of European immigrants who preferred urban life to farming but did not want their children to be educated in the ultra-orthodox Talmud Torah (heder) schools, which had a virtual monopoly in the towns. Neither did these immigrants wish their children to be educated in the Christian mission schools. Rather, they aimed for a Hebrew and general education, similar to that provided for the children of the agricultural settlements, where general subjects were already being taught in Hebrew.

The founders of the Jaffa school had to look abroad for funding since this was impossible to find in Eretz-Israel. The only available source was that of the Alliance Israélite Universelle in Paris, the one Jewish international organization that had established schools, especially for students in Arab countries. The Alliance decided to include Palestine in its worldwide network of French-language schools, the main aim of which was to produce competent administrators and civil servants. Graduates of the Mikve Yisrael agricultural school, founded by the Alliance in 1870, often served in neighboring countries: one became manager of the royal gardens in Egypt and another took up a position managing an agricultural school in Tunis.

So although the aims and outlook of the assimilationist Alliance were actually quite different from those of the nationalistic Jewish settlers in Eretz-Israel, a branch of the Alliance was opened in Jaffa and an application made to open a school there.

The Alliance’s school for boys, Kol Israel Haverim, was opened in 1892. The Jaffa branch of the Alliance applied to Hovevei Zion in Odessa, which allocated a yearly budget for the school. The Jaffa group hoped to be able to withstand ideological pressure from the Alliance in Paris, in view of the financial contribution from Odessa and the assumption that they could control the school’s curriculum. Due to their not being subject to Ottoman authority, the group was known as the Avtonomia Russit (Russian autonomous entity).

The school for boys was followed shortly by a school for girls, headed by Rosa Yaffe. Most of the 78 pioneer pupils were sephardic girls who had been enrolled at the Scottish Mission in Jaffa. By 1897, there were 250 students. The governing committee was pleased with the rapid growth of the school but the Hebrew teachers at both institutions wanted nothing less than to create a "national Hebrew school in curriculum and spirit." One by one, they substituted Hebrew for French instruction in general subjects. This enraged the directorate in Paris, which demanded that things return to the status quo ante. The principal of the boys’ school did not demur, but Rosa Yaffe staunchly defended the Hebrew teachers’ standpoint. The dispute pitted Jaffa and Odessa against Paris. Eastern European Hebrew newspapers debated the issue, Bnei Moshe members discussed it, and the controversy swelled until, one decade after the founding of the schools, it was accepted that no compromise could be reached.

In 1902 the property was divided: the boys’ school, together with two-thirds of the land, remained with the Alliance, while the girls’ school was transferred in 1903, together with its principal, to the sole authority of the Odessa Hovevei Zion. French was confined to being taught as a foreign language. In 1920, following the establishment of the British Mandate in Palestine, it was supplanted by English.

The "Avtonomia" school was established in 1906 in the Neve Shalom quarter, which arose alongside the first Jewish neighborhood of Neve Tzedek (founded 1887) beyond the walls of Jaffa. The school soon became a lively cultural and educational centre. The teachers lived on the second floor, above the classrooms, and were involved in the activities of the developing Jewish political movements and national institutions. Some edited general and youth magazines while all joined forces in translating a play into Hebrew, tackling one act each and even taking part in the production. In fact, the Hebrew theatre had its beginnings here in the form of "tableaux vivants" and "flying posters" - using a balcony for a stage - as well as the first drama studio. Inevitably, the local religious forces voiced vehement disapproval, branding the street where the school was situated Treifengassl (Yiddish: treif = impure), just as they condemned other "immoral" places in the developing yishuv, (the pre-state Jewish community of Palestine.

The building was also used to house immigrants who could not afford to stay at an inn or hostel, and there was even space for a printing press, adult evening classes, and synagogue services during the festivals. Teaching methods were assessed and parties, ceremonies, and readings were held. The Hapoel Hatzair and Poalei Zion ideological movements met there, as well as numerous other associations and political groupings. Jerusalem schoolchildren came for holidays and scribbled on the walls. Even a fledgling secret service used the premises: it was called Ma’ash, the acronym for Mishma’at-Avoda-Shtika (Discipline-Work-Silence).

In early 1904, the Odessa committee had managed to bolster the girls’ school with new forces: Mordechai Krishevsky (Ezrahi), a brilliant Hebrew teacher, was brought in from Jerusalem, while from Russia came Yehiel Yehieli – an outstanding teacher and director, whose name soon became synonymous with the successful and prestigious Hebrew school for girls. Its renown even reached Irkutsk, Siberia, where a Jewish philanthropist was inspired to finance – through the Odessa committee – the construction of an impressive new building for the school along the seam dividing Neve Tzedek and Neve Shalom. This building, with its large assembly hall, became the pride of the community. In later years the revisionist leader, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, would stand on its balcony to address new recruits to the Jewish Legion, which served in the British army in the First World War. Prior to the establishment of the state, the Haganah (precursor of the Israel Defence Forces) had its headquarters there. The charismatic dancer and choreographer Baruch Agadati organized his legendary Purim balls during the thirties in this building which received a new lease of life when, in 1989, it became the Suzanne Dellal Dance Centre.

At the end of 1903, the Herzlia High School (Gymnasia Herzlia) had been founded with bravado and 17 pupils in the apartment of Fania and Yehuda Metman-Cohen near the Jaffa clocktower. Eventually housed in a landmark building in Tel Aviv only to be torn down in the 1960s to make way for the city’s first sky-scraper, the Gymnasia Herzlia would serve as a model for Hebrew secondary schools all over the world.

While more and more parents chose to send their daughters to the Yehieli school rather than to the Scottish Mission, the girls were limited at first to just four years of education. Moreover, the week was curtailed: on Fridays they helped their mothers at home. On the eve of the First World War, 160 pupils studied at Kol Israel Haverim, while the school for girls had ten classes with 450 pupils.

A Teachers’ Seminary was built in 1913 by Hovevei Zion and named after the activist writer Akiva Levinsky. When the seminary and its attached trainee-school moved away, the girls’ school under Yehieli took over the building. A mixed school (boys and girls together) was housed in the Chelouche complex comprising factory, synagogue and residence which adjoined the Street of the Schools in Neve Tzedek.

The first teachers’ seminary in the country had been established by the German-Jewish Hilfsverein (Ezra) charitable organization. In 1906 it founded an Ezra school in Jaffa. The Jerusalem-born director, Elazar Yehuda Halberstetter, had graduated from the Ezra college in Cologne but was the first native-born school principal in Jaffa. Ezra students had the opportunity to study commerce or train to be teachers within the organization, which expanded to include a school for girls and a kindergarten, at the height of the language conflict and consequent "persecution" of the German loyalists. At its peak, Ezra - with the help of Hovevei Zion and the Jewish Colonization Association (ICA) - managed 27 schools in the country.

The First World War, however, put paid to the struggle for German-language domination. The national Hebrew school network by then encompassed 3,200 pupils. Some still remember the "language patrols" (Yehudi daber Ivrit - "Jew, Speak Hebrew!") which urged people to speak Hebrew in the street.

A religious charitable and educational association in Jerusalem called Ahva set up a branch in Jaffa, where some of its members founded a new neighborhood alongside Neve Tzedek. Their "progressive" leaders were unhappy at the idea of educating their children in the existing talmud torah schools, where instruction was mainly in Yiddish, so they started what became a fully-fledged Hebrew school supported by the religious Mizrahi movement from Frankfurt-am-Main. This was the first religious Hebrew school in the country and its name was Takhkemoni. In 1913 it had 250 pupils.

The Sha’arei Torah talmud torah was founded by Rabbi Naftali Herz Halevy near his pioneering home in Neve Shalom. Named for the visionary spiritual leader, Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, it was soon augmented by the addition of the first vocational school, where mechanical engineering and handcrafts were taught, combining Torah with learning a trade.

The decision to teach in Hebrew occupied many educators in writing and translating textbooks. The Jerusalem rabbis "excommunicated" these "modernist" tendencies, especially at the school for girls which was turning out the mothers of the next generation.

Swiss university graduate Nissan Turov was principal of the school for girls until 1912, when he took over the teachers’ seminary. Turov’s staff included the finest Hebrew educators of the day; together they set syllabuses and curricula, composed and published textbooks which were in use for years. some of the staff were among the founders of the Hebrew Teachers’ Association, the first professional union in the country.

Rabbi Kook, who became the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Eretz-Israel, was a man of action with the soul of a poet. Blessing the moon as the Sabbath went out, he was often to be seen dashing from his house into the nearby street to pick up a discarded newspaper so that the sacred Hebrew letters would not be trampled in the dust.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry

* Judith Cooper-Weill was born in Britain and immigrated to Israel in 1964. A translator and writer on literature and art, and contributor to several English-language magazines, her most recent work is a book on the neighborhood of Neve Tzedek in Tel Aviv, where she lives.