Mideast: A Waldorf Education in Israel

It is 8:15 a.m. in the first-grade classroom in Jerusalem’s Adam School. Ice cream-colored walls surround a large room decorated with silk cloths, woven rugs, stones, seashells, driftwood, sheaves of wheat, plants and hand-sewn dolls and animals. The blackboard is covered with a large, multicolored chalk-drawn tree with a bird’s nest in its branches. A small, cozy room off the main classroom, painted in lavender and white, contains rugs, mattresses covered with Indian spreads, a doll cradle and a basket of small hand-stitched beanbags. The children sit quietly at their tables while their teacher, Eyal Bloch, moves from pupil to pupil, slowly shaking hands and greeting each one with a smile, pausing at times to exchange some brief words.

Bloch then asks the children to run, one by one, out of the room, around the yard and back. As they re-enter the classroom and breathlessly take a drink and find their seats, the children are greeted by the music teacher, who’s playing a song on her recorder. They begin to sing to the music, with lyrics first in Hebrew, then in English, then Arabic. At the teachers’ signal, the children get up and retrieve their own wooden recorders from homemade containers found in a basket in a corner of the room.

While the first-graders are having their daily recorder lesson, the second-graders down the hall are standing in a circle, throwing beanbags to each other as they orally practice addition and subtraction problems. The third-graders are in the schoolyard, working on the roof to the small house they’ve built as part of their unit on housing. The fourth-graders are getting ready to go to the Valley of the Cross to pick olives, which they will pickle. The fifth-graders are taking their Bibles out of their homemade wrappings in order to begin a reading lesson. Across town, in a related nursery-kindergarten, 4-, 5-, and 6-year-olds are sawing and sanding wooden blocks, weaving dolls’ blankets and embroidering small, hand-sewn bags.

The Adam School, with 138 pupils in grades 1 through 5, is a Waldorf school, one of 2,000 such institutions around the world (including the Southland) and part of a growing phenomenon in Israel’s alternative-education scene. There are two other Waldorf schools in Israel, as well as about a dozen kindergartens, several special-education institutions and two teachers’ colleges. Altogether, more than 1,000 pupils, students and teachers are involved in Waldorf institutions around the country.

The schools are successfully struggling to find their place within the state education system. Last year, four years after its founding, the Adam School received official recognition as a state school. Last year, too, the Waldorf Teachers’ Seminary in Jerusalem became part of the prestigious 83-year-old David Yellin Teachers’ College. Dr. Itay Zimran, head of David Yellin, is pleased to have them aboard.

“They are wonderful people — people you can talk to,” he says. “But I do have some doubts. We are an academic institution, and their worldview is very artistic. The question is, can we make a synthesis of the two? If we can take the atmosphere of a Waldorf school and integrate it into a regular school, we will have gained a lot.”

Parents of children in the Adam School are generally positive about the Waldorf experience.

“I like the fact that there is education here and not just learning,” says Tali Shoshani, a founder of the Adam School and parent of a fourth-grader. “The children learn to respect their teachers. They learn to help one another. They learn to respect the Torah. When Gal received her Sefer Torah in third grade, she came home with her eyes shining. The first thing she did was take a piece of silk and sew a bag for it.”

Shoshani’s love affair with Waldorf education began eight years ago, when she pulled her son out of his local nursery school in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem neighborhood after the teacher informed her that he was “wicked.” A friend told her about the Waldorf nursery/kindergarten in Baka, and she went to investigate. Like many parents, Shoshani was enchanted by the kindergarten’s physical appearance. “I liked the fact that it felt soft and calm; that children played and no one yelled at them; that they went for a lot of walks,” she says.

Shoshani could see that her son was healing after several months in the new nursery. “There was a lot of warmth and intuition,” she says. “I felt the teachers understood him deeply.” Shoshani decided her son must continue in a Waldorf setting. She and another parent lobbied the Ministry of Education and the Jerusalem Municipality for two years and finally got approval to open a Waldorf school in the city.

Not all parents give glowing reports. One mother, who transferred her child to the Adam School and then took her out after two years, attributes her dissatisfaction to the teachers’ lack of experience. “The idea of Waldorf education is to find yourself and your connection to your soul through creative activity in order to serve society,” she says. “I think Waldorf schools in Europe do this. But it’s too new here. It seemed to me the creativity was becoming an end in itself. I felt it was too laid back, there wasn’t enough focus.”

Efrat Tenenbaum, an educator, sent her daughter to a Waldorf kindergarten in Jerusalem but decided not to continue on to the Adam School. “There’s a lot of talk about freedom, but I encountered a lot of dogma,” she says.

Waldorf education began in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1919, when Emil Molt, director of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory, asked the philosopher-scientist Rudolf Steiner to start a school for the workers’ children.

Through his attempts to reconcile science and his personal extrasensory experiences, Steiner had founded anthroposophy, which he called a “spiritual science.” By the time he died, in 1925, Steiner had written some 50 books and given some 6,000 lectures, many of which were later published.

In the early grades in a Waldorf school, everything — including the alphabet, reading and math — is taught through movement, stories, art, music and crafts. Life skills, such as sewing, knitting, baking, gardening and making music, as well as the development of the child’s imaginative and creative powers, are emphasized as much as academic subjects. As much as possible, the children learn by doing. They plant wheat, harvest it before Shavuot, winnow the wheat and grind it into flour to bake their own bread. They skip, jump, hop and run as they multiply and divide.

“When you do something, you absorb it in your whole body,” says Eyal Bloch, the teacher. “You integrate it much more deeply than you do if you’re just working with your head.”

Critics say that Waldorf schools, with their emphasis on arts and crafts and their delay in teaching reading and computers, do not prepare children for the real world. Adherents like to quote a 1981 German study of 1,460 Waldorf graduates, commissioned by the Department of Education in Bonn and published in Der Spiegel, showing that Waldorf graduates did three times as well as others on exams to place out of introductory courses at university.

Invective has occasionally been hurled at the Jerusalem Waldorf school by haredim because of elements from other spiritual traditions — including Christianity — that are found in anthroposophy. But teachers, parents and education authorities say there are no Christian elements in Waldorf schools in Israel. Those involved say Waldorf schools adapt to the culture in which they teach, so the Waldorf school in Egypt teaches from within the Islamic tradition, while a Waldorf school in India will focus on Hinduism.

When a Waldorf school in Europe or the United States would teach about saints in the second grade, the Adam School teaches about Chassidic masters. Before each Jewish holiday, teachers gather to study the holiday and choose an aspect of it most meaningful to them to pass on to the children.

In the kindergartens, children spend up to three weeks preparing for Chanukah, Purim, Passover, Shavuot and other holidays through songs, stories, art projects and t
he making of candles, matzo, bricks and other holiday items. Shabbat is celebrated with songs, candlelighting and blessings over bread and wine.

Tami Emanuel, the parent of a fifth-grader, says that the children receive a religious education in the basic sense of the word. “They are given the essence of faith in a very powerful way,” she says. “The prayer or recitation they say every morning for years is the best autosuggestion a person can have for developing a feeling of self-confidence and of feeling good in the world. It’s a beautiful way to start the day — and to start life.”

Ruth Mason, formerly of Los Angeles, writes from Israel.

All rights reserved by author.