I heard a story this week from one of my lecturers that really made me think. He told us of his first Shabbat in the yeshiva high school his parents sent him to, Yeshivat Nahalayim in Petah Tikvah, back in those days a distinctly Ashkenazi yeshiva. In honor of his first Shabbat, his mother bought him a new shirt, a beautiful colorful shirt that he was very excited to wear. When he entered the synagogue for Shabbat prayers, he was greeted by an unexpected scene; all the students were wearing white shirts and dressed exactly the same! He had never known such embarrassment.
The story is a clear example of how many from the Mizrahi community felt at that time, and still feel on some level today. There is a sense that their laws, customs and culture have no place in the Ashkenazi-ruled spaces that dominate the mood and consciousness of our national educational institutions, institutions that determine national religious views and the public student body learns as a mixed community (as opposed to the ultra-Orthodox education institutions, that are sectarian and blatantly separated, but this is another topic.)
However, the intensity of these feelings has diminished in recent years as a result of three factors: the system itself has become increasingly more open to new voices, the Mizrahi community has grown in political, economic and cultural strength, and the lines between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi have become blurred, as seen by the rising number of mixed families. However, those sentiments, that Mizrahi are being pushed away or that their traditions are lesser, are still prevalent throughout various areas of Israeli society, and it is especially so in the field of education.
In the religious sector, this rejection has a powerful expression due to the deep differences between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi halacha and prayer. In the high school that I worked with, this was reflected in the fact that the prayer services were always conducted according to the Ashkenazi tradition, with no regard for the fact that approximately 25% of the student body was Mizrahi. While throughout the year these differences are small, during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur the changes are far more dramatic and very few places offer separate minyanim that would allow students to pray according to the traditions of their forefathers. This led to a majority of those students choosing to stay home with their families instead of being with their friend for a special experience. To the credit of those institutions, they did not require those students to remain at the school during the High Holidays and allowed them to return home.
Another point that proved problematic in this regard was that at this same institution the educational staff, from the Rosh Yeshiva to every teacher, was Ashkenazi. Additionally, what I believe is the most significant thing that creates a distance between the students’ traditions and the school’s are the values, culture and figures that they learn about. All three of these take on a distinct Ashkenazi orientation.
Everything that I mention is not unique to the one yeshiva highschool. Rather, you can see them in some shape or another in most yeshiva highschools, ulpans, public institutions and even kindergartens. It is true that MP Bennet, as education minister, made the decision to begin illuminating and educating students in Mizrahi culture and heritage, but, in my opinion, this has not been enough. We must strive for equality steeped in respect, to create a place and way for teaching that is different from what we are used to. There are quite a few students today that find themselves in constant conflict regarding their identities. They are not sure whether they should rebel against their tradition, or the traditions of the society they live in. These students need to be shown that the two traditions can live side by side, each bringing their own beauty into the fabric of Israeli life, without sacrificing their identity. Only thus can mutual benefit and enrichment for all be created.