Personal Essay / Keren Epstein

On September 1st, 1980, I arrived with my mom to the third grade at Bechor Levy Elementary School in Rehovot. For days, I planned what I would wear and how I would do my hair; I decided on a beige corduroy skirt with a matching vest, a white shirt and shiny black shoes with a tiny heel, that made a “click-clack” sound when I walked. I tied my hair in a half-ponytail with a ribbon.

My mom and I walked into class 3b and stood against the wall, to the right of the door. The world that unfolded before me was not the one I was used to: boys and girls ran, played around, and hugged. When the teacher came in, the pupils rushed to talk and hug her.

All the girls except for me were wearing ponytails, a t-shirt, sports shorts, and sneakers. I felt I did not belong. The tears started to stream down my face. I looked up and left to my mom, and saw that she was also crying.

Some girls from class who noticed us, immediately came and asked if they can help. My mom explained in broken Hebrew that I did not understand Hebrew, and that we were new immigrants from Germany. The girls immediately offered assistance.

Immigrating to a foreign country is an unsettling experience. The move does not amount only to learning a new language, but also requires learning a whole set of gestures, customs, traditions, and norms. Usually, the family fabric also changes. Children go through new experiences that are unfamiliar to their parents, delineating a divide between what is acceptable at home and what is acceptable outside.

I had to grow up in a day. In Germany, girls my age still played with dolls and board games. In Israel, by the third grade they already acted like teenage girls. I developed acute senses that allowed me to read my surrounding and meet others’ expectations of me. I buried my inner world, saved it for the moments I was alone at home.

Many of the residents of Jessy Cohen neighborhood know the feeling of a divide between them and Israeli society. For the most part, this feeling is also accompanied by a sense of shame, suspicion, discrimination, and otherness. Many of the neighborhood’s residents live in marginalization. They are “transparent” and their voices are not heard. Devoid of power and influence.

It took me many years before I felt a sense of belonging – to myself, to my family, and to the State of Israel. When I grew up, I learned to recognize my uniqueness and distinctiveness, which stem in part from my unconventional life story. I want the children of Beyahad Elementary School at Jessy Cohen neighborhood to experience this process: for them to not create a divide between their inner world and their home and the outside world, and to feel a sense of belonging to Israeli society without giving up who they are.

Isaiah Berlin, the 20th century philosopher and historian of ideas, saw pluralism as a way of life and political construct. For him, pluralism is not just about tolerance and moral recognition of multiculturalism. He saw multiculturalism as an advantage, and found value in diversity. He argued that there is no one proper way to live, but a myriad of ways. Each person must choose what is right for them. The pluralist recommends interacting and engaging with multiplicity.

Isaiah Berlin also coined the concept of “positive freedom.” Unlike negative freedom, which is non-prevention, positive freedom is a person’s basic freedom for self-fulfillment.

In the multicultural Israeli society, where many children grow up into socio-economic inequality, education plays an important role in achieving the goals worthy of a pluralistic society and in giving each individual the freedom to realize his or her personal potential. For this to happen, there is a need to instill and encourage critical thinking, among other things, through teaching philosophy and the arts. Throughout history, art has always taken on a critical perspective, challenging what has been taken as a given, unafraid to express anti-establishment beliefs.

To allow each child to realize his or her potential, it is not enough to strive for equal opportunities. Equality of opportunity prevents discrimination against certain populations, and is what Isaiah Berlin would define as “negative freedom,” but in order to reach the full potential (and excellence) of every child, we must strive for equality in achievements. This can be accomplished by over-investing, compensating for lacks, and showing real respect that stems from an interest in the child’s community of origin.

My personal opinion – which of course is also rooted in my own biography and familiarity with the divided and torn Israeli society – is that we will not be able to minimize disparities and guarantee equal opportunity without striving for real pluralism.

My biography is also what brought me to Beyahad Elementary School, which has been working for years to allow all its students to reach their full potential while maintaining pluralism.

In recent years, the school has had the opportunity to receive pupils, who largely do not feel they belong to Israeli society. It manages to create a sense of home and belonging for them and for their parents. It strives to allow a unique self-expression for each and every one of the pupils, and does so while striving for excellence and emphasizing the Hebrew language and heritage. It sets out to give its pupils a foot in the door to Israeli society.

Some of the school’s success can be attributed to the support of the local authority and its collaboration with the Lazarus Community Center and the Israeli Center for Digital Art that operates in the neighborhood and takes care to include the school children in authentic artistic activities that open a window to their inner world.

Unfortunately, over the years the school has had to prove its importance and great benefits of having an excellent community school to the establishment and to the residents of Jessy Cohen neighborhood. A high level and pluralistic school in Jessy Cohen could be the thing that breaks the divide and invites Israeli society to recognize the qualities of the neighborhood and its residents.

translated by Maya Shimony