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Why I Have No Choice But to Be a Momma Bear in Israel

israeli education

Israel is a land of contrasts—a land of immense beauty, kindheartedness, and warmth but also of abrasiveness, outright rudeness, and chaos. After a three-year furlough in California, I returned to Israel with four children in the midst of various developmental stages.

My daughter entered third grade without knowing how to read or write Hebrew, the eighth grader returned with the same learning disabilities that he left with (no duh) and with one less foot (but one awesome prosthetic leg!), and the tenth grader is about as teen as teen gets. His eleventh grader brother is a typical firstborn, our parenting “experiment.”

“So what subject interests you?” the elegantly dressed, middle aged, administrator adorned in her very wine-red lipstick asked my very adolescent, soon to be tenth grader, who was slouched in a chair, avoiding eye contact.

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“Dunno,” he answered. The administrator sighed loudly, making no attempt at hiding her contempt for us consuming her space and air.

“Really,” she growled, “there must be something you like to study.”

He shrugged. “Dunno,” he muttered again in his barely audible teenage grunt, “sports, maybe.”

She looked at me, her eyes conveying her annoyance and her body language conveying the urgency to accelerate our exit from her domain. “OK, take three point math,” she hissed. (There is a three to five point matriculation system in place here.)

My inner momma bear awoke from its slumber. “No. We discussed that he’ll take four point math.”

“Fine,” she hissed back. “You have the right to register him for whatever you want,” and then she continued, slowly, pronouncing each word, “BUT, YOU WILL SEE… we shall meet again in the middle of the year when I drop him to three points.”

During the following six months, I was thrown into the Israeli education system, full force, experiencing the good, the bad, and the ugly. I admit that I am still new at the game, but in this Wild West world, my intermediate conclusion is that it all comes down to the individual educator and administrator.

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My experience in California was different. Federal and state laws provide some sense of uniformity to the system, especially in cases of kids with learning and/or physical disabilities. There, in California, the rules and different available options were clear, and I quickly learned how to navigate and how to advocate. My previous experience with the Israeli school system also helped, and I can safely proclaim that navigating the California school system is a piece of cake compared to Israel.

Here, things seem to me like a maze of maybes requiring constant negotiation, but I suppose that should not be surprising because the same situation exists in other life facets—including the supermarket, the pharmacy, and even parking lots.

Back to my first story of Math Hell, my typical teen may very well end up dropping down to three-points. During the first semester, he did as little as possible in all of his classes, a fact that is obviously noted in his grades. While he didn’t say much during that first fateful meeting with the school official, he must have certainly absorbed her (in my opinion) very inappropriate and unwelcoming welcome. That specific kid (#2) has no learning issues but adolescence is not easy terrain, especially for a middle child returning from three years abroad. It could have been so different.

Case in point: Kid #3, AKA, Amit. He is one heck of a package deal—evolving adolescence, physical disability, learning disabilities, and a fiery personality. Nonetheless, he was blessed with a number of exceptional people in his new Israeli school life; foremost is Orly, a private afterschool teacher who is more in the realm of miracle worker than teacher. We are fortunate to be able to afford her services, and I understand all too well that the majority of children with learning disabilities in Israel would not be able to.

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And then there is Amit’s homeroom teacher. Similar to the administrator whose 30-second assessment of my tenth grader determined his academic fate (temporarily, I hope), Amit’s homeroom teacher is middle aged, but apparently, age is where the similarities end. She possesses the dedication, passion, and energy of a new recruit and the experience that decades of teaching provide. With patience and love (yes, love) she made Amit her ally and today he is slowly becoming a student and an integral part of her class.

In this land of contrasts, to be or not to be a momma bear is not an option, and I unwillingly relent to this role. However, unfortunately for many potential momma and poppa bears that lack the means and skills, assertive advocacy for one’s children is impossible. In today’s Israel, with the highest poverty rate among OECD countries, rapidly widening gaps between rich and poor, and a chaotic educational system dependent on the whims of the current minister (never a professional educator), children’s futures are all too often left to the hands of fate. Or their moms.

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