Journal Entry: Despite the Bombs, Students near Sderot Persevere, Learn Not to Hate at ORT “Smart School”

SHA’AR HANEGEV, ISRAEL, March 29, 11 a.m. – I stood on a hill next to the new school being built at Sha’ar HaNegev near Sderot – yes, the place where thousands of bombs fell just three years ago. You could see Gaza to the North just behind a line of trees.  I sent my brother an email with the Subject Line, “3 mi. from Gaza.” My message read, “We’re building a school and there’s a waiting list!” 

What a statement… could there be a better example of the drive and determination of the Israeli people? After thousands of bombs, including one that fell into a classroom at the school’s current location (which fortunately resulted in no deaths or injuries), the community is pressing forward with a state-of-the-art school, which will house 1,200 students in grades 7 through 12. More than 150 children are on a waiting list to get in. 

What’s going on here? 

“When a Kassam missile fell on a classroom here three years ago, we received a call from World ORT within a few hours, offering their assistance,” said school principal Araleh Rothstein. “They asked me, ‘Where are the children?’ I said, ‘They are back inside the classroom.’ 

“How can I explain this? We are standing. We are breathing. Let’s continue,” he added. 

Standing up, standing strong in the face of terror.  Enough said. 

*** 

Our group visited the current school location at Sha’ar HaNegev.  After an introduction by Rothstein and Jeff Kaye from World ORT, a Federation agency which has provided extensive computer equipment in the school, our group of marketing directors met with individual students, who toured us through the school, past clusters of students talking, eating, playing soccer or just hanging out on a beautiful day. 

Omri, 15, a shy, soft-spoken ninth-grader from the Ashkelon area, took us to an eighth-grade class located in one of the school’s many free-standing classrooms – tiny fortified square buildings marked with distinct blue paint, indicating they are safe havens in case of emergency (Rothstein, in fact, told us if we heard sirens, we would have 15 seconds to “run to blue”). Inside the classrooms, it’s a different story. With SMART boards provided by World ORT in full action, the students held a discussion about Greek mythology, specifically about how the story of Pandora’s Box may have applied to the life and legacy of David Ben Gurion.  Hands were waving wildly as the teacher challenged her students, and the exchange was lively and intense. 

It is precisely this kind of educational scenario that Rothstein wants. The better the school, the more likely it will stay full and the community will stay put.  “We have to build the very best educational system in order to keep people living here.” 

I’d like to take it a step further… Could there be a better microcosm of the Israeli plight?  A small group of people existing in a tiny fortified space, under constant threat if not under siege, yet thriving, learning, debating, and not compromising on the tools it takes to stay on the leading edge in all aspects of life. Leading edge… not living on the edge.

*** 

Araleh Rothstein may be a man approaching his 70s, but between the lines on his face are eyes just as bright as those of the students around him.  He is passionate about “his” children learning not just the lessons of math, literature and science, but the lessons of life as well.  No doubt the most important lesson taught at the remarkable Sha’ar HaNegev School is the most challenging one for these children – not to hate, despite the hostility that looms just a few miles from their home. 

“Someday, on the other side of the border, those shooting at us now may become our neighbors.  We hope the current situation is only a temporary one. Someday, there will be peace,” said Rothstein. 

“Everyone is taught to wake up and ask who you are and why you are here, and look at the other side,” he explained. “The terrorist organizations don’t represent everyone and a lot of people there don’t think like that.” 

The principles of what he calls “humanistic learning” apply when it comes to the politics of Israel as well.  “We need to keep the dialogue open within our own culture.  Someday, our students will be on the right side or the left side, but they will know why and be able to explain it.”

Rothstein talked about the school’s mission of “building a society, not careers” and outlined the building blocks toward that ideal: “Defining ourselves” through the study and creative application of Jewish texts together in a diverse, heterogeneous environment where all students can thrive. 

“This way, they will know who they are and why they are here,” the principal said.

Although Sha’ar HaNegev is secular, the school will be building a synagogue in the center of the new campus.  “Being Jewish is at the center of everything we do.”  

As a student and as a Jew, Omri struggles with the concept of learning not to hate. 

“I don’t understand why they do it,” he said. “I’m trying hard not to hate.” 

*** 

One footnote:  A day after our visit, a bomb hit Sderot and fortunately no one was injured.  Classes were cancelled for the day. My guess is that the lessons of life resumed as quickly as you could “run to blue.”

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