Lessons in home truths

Reprinted from Haaretz Magazine

About thirty families in Israel are taking advantage of a clause in the compulsory education law which allows them to teach their children at home. Some of the parents reveal why they are so set against formal education

By Ella Komar

August 13, 1999

It is hard to imagine that Hani Ernestoff is only eight. Her wild, curly hair, her ruddy, tanned complexion, her fiery temperament and her independent free-thinking ways (not to mention her understanding of advanced mathematics) set her aside from other girls of her age. Hani’s mother would argue that her daughter’s development is not exceptional, but rather the product of a natural education outside of the stultifying methods and expectations imposed by the classical, institutional framework of the school.

Hani Ernestoff doesn’t attend school because her mother, Sara Rivka Ernestoff of the West Bank settlement of Tekoa, near Bethlehem, refuses to send her as a matter of principle. Part of the wide, though non coercive, education Hani receives takes place beneath the vine-covered pergola in Tekoa’s public park. There Hani can be found sitting with Genadi Morvin, a pensioner from the former Soviet Union. Morvin comes to the park twice a day and teaches differential calculus on a volunteer basis. Hani is one of his regular students and she usually comes in the morning, while other children are at school. Morvin says his student solves problems at a seventh grade level. “She has a good head for math,” he says.

Sara Rivka Ernestoff herself is the product of home schooling. When she was in seventh grade, in Boston, she stood up one day in the middle of a lesson and shouted that she was going on strike and would no longer study English and mathematics, because they were irrelevant for her. The reaction, of course, was swift. She was thrown out of the school and went happily home. Her parents sent her to an open school in Massachusetts, where, in her own words, she spent her time recovering from her previous traumatic experiences under the auspices of the educational system.

After a year and a half there, at age 14, the school closed down and Ernestoff, who had tasted freedom, was unwilling to return to a regular educational institution. At home she wrote stories, went to California, discovered karate at age 17 and within three years became U.S. champion in the sport. Only then did she decide that she wanted to attend university. “I was curious, I wanted to study, and I thought it might help me with my karate career.” She prepared herself for the entrance exams, was admitted and graduated with a B.A. Honors.

Ten years ago, when her first son, Kobi, was three years old, Ernestoff found herself pondering the education issue once again. Until three years ago the family lived in Boston and Ernestoff searched for an alternative – a democratic nursery school for Kobi, with a religious bent, where the children could do what they want. Then a friend told her about an article she had read on home schooling. Ernestoff, who until then had never thought of home schooling in terms of a method or an ideology, read the article and decided that it was just the thing she was looking for.

Hedva and Rani Kasher, from Rosh Pina, in the Upper Galilee, the parents of Raz (seven), Ro’i (five), Noam (two and a half) and Amir (10 months), made the decision in favor of home schooling at an even earlier stage. The Kashers ignored the registration form from the Education Ministry for standard schooling, and even though no unequivocal decision was made not to send Raz to school, it became clear soon enough that this was how it would be. “When Raz got older we understood that all of us, not just her, could stay home,” Hedva Kasher says.

The H’s, a family of two teachers with eight children who live in the North, have nothing special against the educational system, but over the years they have become aware of its shortcomings and of the difficulties children have within it. “Among the main things that are important to me in education are responsibility, trust and security – and I didn’t feel that the children could acquire those assets in school,” the mother explains. “In fact, school could sabotage those elements. Take homework, for example. When they told me in school that one of the children wasn’t doing his homework and they asked me to ensure he did it in the future, I told them that doing homework is the child’s responsibility – that’s how I understand it.”

Three years ago the H’s came to a decision not to send their children to school. “In the first year, we spoke to them and told them that we had written to the Education Ministry requesting authorization to keep them at home. We thought it was important to show the children that we were respecting the law – we considered that an educational lesson.” They received the authorization from Education Minister Zevulun Hammer faster than they expected: before the idea had taken root in the children, the mother says. Finally they decided to let the children make the decision: the older ones, who were already in high school, decided to stay in school and complete their matriculation. The others were divided: one girl was against, one girl vacillated, the rest gladly stayed home, worked in the garden, drew pictures and cooked.

Understanding the phenomenon

The Kashers and Ernestoffs are just two of about 30 Israeli families who have decided to educate their children at home. But what can we understand and what lessons can we learn from those parents who claim to have taken responsibility for raising their children instead of entrusting them to strangers? The idea of home schooling was first put forward in a systematic way by the American educator and philosopher John Holt, who published his articles at the beginning of the 70′s when the movement of radical education in the U.S. was in full swing. In reaction to the frequent reforms that American schools were undergoing, Holt said: “Instead of looking for ways to change the schools, they should be closed down.” In the U.S.according to figures put out by the Ministry of Education in 1998, the home schooling movement was estimated then to encompass some two million students, while a total of some 53 million students were said to be entrenched in the public and private school system. In other words, some 4 percent of the student population were said to be homeschoolers.

Haya Heller Degani is currently completing a doctoral dissertation on home education in Israel, under the tutelage of the just-appointed Minister of Immigration Prof. Yael (Yuli) Tamir. Previously, Degani researched the phenomenon in the United States. Degani comments that from what she has seen so far, “the Israeli phenomenon clearly does not indicate another form of education, it’s a way of life. People who go in for home schooling in Israel are not emulating the school. In Israel, it is part of a quest for authenticity, an outcry for meaning; it involves people who want to live their lives their way and not become part of the high-pressured Israeli society. These people are always trying to find a different way to live – the women give birth at home, most of this group eat natural foods, they don’t live in the cities, and many of them have the kind of jobs that enable them to move around. Their whole way of life reflects their desire to be other, to be authentic. And since a child is the parents’ creation, it is only natural that the [parents] should want to educate [their creation] at home.”

Last week the “support group for home education in Yesha” (the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza) met at Tekoa. A merry group of three women and nine children gathered in Ernestoff’s home in order to spend the afternoon together and talk a little about education. “Every time I see Sara Rivka, I end up talking about education, says American-born Zvia Brickell, who lives in the city of Ma’aleh Adumim, south of Jerusalem. “Who else can I talk to about the problems and difficulties without being asked, ‘So why don’t you send the kids to school?’

Although only three women turned up for that session, about 25 women and men attended a lecture on home schooling delivered by Ernestoff in the town of Efrat, near Tekoa. But on that afternoon in Tekoa the group refreshed itself with soft drinks and then proceeded, together with Kobi’s mule, to the public park to play on the grass and get pizzas at the kiosk.

Shaina Ben-Gershom, a teacher from Tekoa, has decided to join Ernestoff in not sending her children (Yosef, nine, and Hila, three) to school and nursery school for the next school year. While reflecting on her son’s formative years under the educational system, Ben-Gershom comments, “.. his curiosity began to decline even though he was sent to an excellent school in [the nearby settlement of] Alon Shevut. When Yosef was a little boy he was so curious, and I want to pique that curiosity again.”

Brickell came to the meeting with her three children, Eliezer (10), Yamin (seven) and Michal (three). She and her husband are also from the U.S. They arrived in Israel in 1987 and afterward spent three years abroad, returning a year ago. When Eliezer reached first-grade age, Zvia Brickell opted not to send him to school. “We were going through a period of moving from one place to another, and I thought I would teach him at home during that time. Afterward he went to school, but I didn’t care for the change: I felt that I was no longer my son’s teacher and guide, and that I had to pay for his schooling and also pull him out of bed in the morning.”

Brickell is the only person in Ma’aleh Adumim who is educating her child at home, and she says she doesn’t think her boy is socially isolated because of it: “As it is, he is an introverted boy who needs the family above all.”

Stretched out on the grass in the cool summer air of Tekoa, the women try to explain what they perceive as the close connection between breast-feeding and home education. Eliezer was breast-fed until he was five, Zvia reveals, and only then did she wean him – mainly due to social pressure. Ben-Gershom says with regret that she did not breast-feed her children long enough – only a year and a half. The connection, as they see it, is abundantly clear: You are used to supplying your child’s needs and to feeling that you know what is best for him and what he requires. Home education is the natural continuation of that.

Bialik is not sacrosanct

The Kasher family seems to be a perfect model for Degani’s thesis: they live in the rural village of Rosh Pina, eat healthily, use cloth diapers, did not circumcise their little boy and educate their children at home. Except for one thing, Rani Kasher laughs naughtily, “We have four television sets in the house.” Like the other families I spoke with, the Kashers are not following any prescribed curriculum in teaching their children, and in fact what they are doing is known as “unschooling.” They do not hunt out teaching material, there are no lessons, and they do not wake their children in the morning as a matter of principle. “If the children ask something or show an interest in something, we will explain it to them and teach them about it,” they say.

While I was at their home the children were always around. Playing, being breast-fed and running wild. At no stage were they asked to be quiet or to leave the living room for the convenience of the adults. Suddenly, and without explanation, silence fell. The two small children had fallen asleep and the two older ones had disappeared into what later turned out to be “a room with a television set.”

“Our point of departure is that our children are normal,” Hedva Kasher explains. “Most learning defects come from exaggerated expectations. In Sudbury Valley, an open school in the United States, they say that because they don’t force the children to read or write, there is no dyslexia of any type.” She and her husband do not believe in a sacrosanct curriculum. “Bialik is not sacrosanct, neither is Tchernikhovsky and neither is English literature,” Kasher says. “The fact that someone up top decided that a certain poet should be studied is meaningless to me.”

Neither do university studies appear as essential to the parents. Kasher speaks harshly of the educational system, saying: “In elementary school you prepare for junior high, in junior high you prepare for high school and in high school, for university. I don’t buy the idea that in life you are always preparing for something. I went to a middling high school and in our family when we didn’t want to go to school we didn’t go, and we called it a ‘growing up day.’ When I wanted to attend university, I sat and memorized all the material for the exam, because it was important to me. When someone does something that is important to him, he does it well. The problem is that we take 14- and 15-year-olds and force them, and nothing comes of that.”

Rani Kasher, the husband, states that, “Most of what I know doesn’t come from school, and the things in which I consider myself an expert I learned on my own. I studied differential calculus three times and I remember nothing about it, but I know all about bees, because I was internally motivated to study that subject.”

Recently, for example, their daughter Raz decided to join a ballet group. Her mother went to see what it was all about. “Most of the girls in the group chatter during the lesson because [for them] it’s one more extracurricular group, one more thing to get through,” she says. “But Raz is completely serious, she takes in every word the teacher utters and she doesn’t even look around her to see if her exercises are good compared to the others. It just proves to me once more that when a child acts out of interest and not out of coercion, he achieves the results.”

When asked what they do at home all day with four children and no organized curriculum, they try to reconstruct what they did the day before. Hedva Kasher recalls that she did a few loads of laundry, Rani repaired some shelves, after lunch they went to the pool, and “Raz played tag with Moran, the neighbor’s daughter.”

The Kashers have often been confronted with allegations that their children are socially isolated, but they insist that Raz has no such problems. She plays with the other children in the neighborhood, with her siblings, and above all she spends a great deal of time with her family. Her peers are not the ideal society for Raz because, her parents maintain, in the real world we form ties with people of all ages, so children who are educated at home are closer to what goes on in the real world than those who go to school.

Irrational opposition

Article 5b of the Compulsory Education Law permits the education minister to exempt families who so wish from the obligation to send their children to school. For years the article remained a dead letter. However, when former Education Minister Amnon Rubinstein found 10 such requests on his desk, he set up a committee, headed by Dr. David Gordon, at that time the chairman of the ministry’s Pedagogical Secretariat, to examine the matter. After studying the professional literature and considering various aspects of the subject, several principles were formulated to enable the system to be implemented in Israel; these were based primarily on the results of having supervised parents who educated their children at home.

The minister accepted the recommendations, but the director of the ministry’s Northern District, Dr. Doron Mor, objected, and in his wake so did other district heads. Their main complaint was that it was impossible to supervise all the families due to a shortage of inspectors. But supervision wasn’t the only problem they raised. Mor outlined his objections to home schooling in a letter he sent to Gordon: Concern that radical anarchist tendencies will develop, anxiety that home schooling will simply become a cover for the establishment of private schools, fear for the children’s social life and apprehension that they will not be able to cooperate with their peers.

Dr. Mor recalls that the requests he received at the time from parents were frivolous: “Most of the requests took the form of ‘I am angry at the local council head or at the school principal,’ or ‘I refuse to send my child to that school.’ One application came from parents who wanted to educate their children to follow a circus career. The only serious family was from the Safed area. But there were problems. I remember that children who were educated at home and wanted to return to their school in the Jordan Valley were tested and found to be living in a completely different world – they couldn’t read or write and they didn’t know the four basics of arithmetic.”

Immediately after the recommendations were submitted, says Education Ministry spokeswoman Rivka Shraga, the elections of 1996 were held and afterward Prof. Ozer Schiller was appointed the chairman of the Pedagogical Secretariat. “Prof. Schiller”, she says, “annulled everything that had been agreed upon concerning this matter. And ever since, it has not been on the agenda. Our office has no data concerning this phenomenon.” Prof. Schiller denies this allegation, saying “I remember that in my first year as chairman we approved four requests for home schooling and denied one where the parents were found to be earning a living from their children.”

Whatever the case, the Education Ministry has no clear criteria as to how to educate children at home, and therefore each family had to deal with the annual authorization request in the dark. For some of them it was relatively simple, particularly during the term of office of the late Zevulun Hammer, but other families encountered serious obstacles. S., for example, who lives in a small locality in the North, had a file against him opened by the police for violating the Compulsory Education Law. Parents complain about authorizations that were delayed and about inspectors who promised to come but never showed up. Some of them have already submitted an authorization request for the school year that starts next month, and even though they have not yet received a reply, they intend to go ahead with home schooling.

Degani, the doctoral student, relates that she heard some extreme views while conducting her study. “When people asked me what I was working on, I told them without hesitation about home schooling. Some people had a severe emotional reaction when they heard that – beginning with parents who didn’t feel comfortable with the idea and had placed their children in a day-care center at the age of three months, and ranging to teachers, who were furious.”

That is irrational opposition, Degani argues. “Society has no reason to become hysterical over the phenomenon – because it is marginal and does not herald a revolt.” She emphasizes that according to her findings it is another manifestation of individualism, in education as in any other sphere of life, and is not an insurrection directed against the educational system.

The boy asked to learn

Kobi Ernestoff learned to read at the age of eight. His mother attaches no importance to the age at which reading is acquired. “Some children are ready to read at the age of three and others at the age of 10. If Kobi had gone to school he would have been labeled a dyslexic, but I say it’s the school that has a problem.”

Before he learned to read, Kobi used to “write” stories with his mother’s help. “He was very verbal, but it was hard for him to sit in one place, so he would tell me stories, I would write them down and he drew the pictures. In the yard he was like a little scientist, examining the worms and the insects, standing for hours by the pond catching frogs and bugs. I didn’t have a curriculum, except for one thing: I wanted the children to pray. The trouble is that sometimes the children are so worked up by a game that they can’t sit quietly and pray, so I told [Kobi], ‘Say thanks to the Holy One blessed-be-He somehow, and go play.”

Ernestoff would read the children religious texts that are related to the holy days and to the weekly Torah portion, and afterward they would talk about what they had heard. “When we went to Florida once, to visit my in-laws, we were invited to a rabbi’s house for the Sabbath. Kobi was then four or five and he told a story about the weekly Torah reading. He spoke so deeply and with such self-confidence that the rabbi said he would like to send his children to the same school that Kobi attends.”

Two years ago Kobi decided to go to school. His mother was not disappointed. “It’s known that when children become teenagers they want to be with their [peer] group. Kobi was also very serious about religion and he needed a rabbi to teach him Gemarra – I couldn’t do it. Today he attends a school for religious studies, and in the second part of the day, which is devoted to secular studies, he comes home.” Also at home are Ma’ati (11), who spends most of the day sewing, knitting and playing the piano, and Hani, who has shown a great aptitude for mathematics and whom we have already met.

Ernestoff asserts that “children who learn at home develop a strong tie with the family, they are more mature. When Kobi started to attend school he began using all kinds of words about the toilet and nonsense like that.” Asked whether the freedom she has arrogated to herself has the authorization of a rabbi, she replies, “In Israel I don’t have to ask rabbis about this, I have the authorization of the Holy One blessed-be-He, I am in harmony with that.”

Myth of the clean house

Raz Kasher has second grade workbooks at home, and she uses them as she pleases. No one goes through what she has done and no one checks. Her parents admit that she showed an interest in school and wanted to go, but they simply didn’t take her. “People build themselves large, expensive houses that are empty for most of the day,” Hedva Kasher says. “We built a house in order to live in it and we had children in order to educate them, not for them to be taken away at the age of three months and returned to me at the age of 18.”

Home education, the Kashers say, should not be considered on its own terms, but in the context of the other systems that make up our lives, such as the home. “People don’t like to come to our place because it’s always a mess, and it’s a mess because people live in it. Our culture attaches tremendous importance to the house always being orderly and clean. A mother who stays home with her children and also has to be in charge of straightening up the house will probably collapse from overwork. A house that is lived in can’t be completely clean.”

Besides the myth of the clean house, the Kashers like to put down the myth of working. “People ask me what I do,” Rani says. “I have 10 jobs that I am addicted to and from some of them I make a living.” Until two years ago, they lived in the Hermon Field School on Mount Hermon and Rani worked full time. When they built the house, about two and a half years ago, he took part of the contracting work on himself and all the interior carpentry. “When people didn’t see me leave in the morning and return in the evening, they couldn’t understand what my job was, but what I did at home, the carpentry and the contracting, saved us a lot of money as a family, so isn’t that work?”

“A woman who wants to leave the house,” Hedva Kasher says, “has moved a long way from her instincts. Society sends a message to mothers that it’s not important to be with the children, that a woman should fulfill herself. I don’t think of myself as sitting at home – I sit only when I breast-feed.”

Nevertheless, she says, there are disadvantages to remaining at home. “The problem is not the burden of raising the children but the loneliness a woman experiences if she decides to stay home with the children. Once it wasn’t like that. Once all women stayed home together, cooked together and cleaned together. When both spouses go out to work, then it starts being a burden and then you start hearing the talk about ‘quality time.’”

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