Home-schooling a rarity in Israel, but some like it

"Mommy, you're a hypocrite," Channi accused her mother one day.

"Why?" asked her mother.

"Because you don't send us to school, but you go," the little girl replied.

Sara Rivka Ernstoff, Channi's mother, laughs as she recounts the story. "I was finishing my college degree at the time," she explains, "and it just didn't make sense to Channi that I went to school and they didn't."

The idea of school is an alien concept to Channi because she, her brother, Kobi, and sister, Matti, are all being educated at home by their parents. Home-schooling has only a few adherents in Israel, but is growing in popularity.

According to the home-schoolers willing to be interviewed, there are only a handful of parents in Israel currently teaching their children at home.

However, the Education Ministry puts the figure much higher. "We've had dozens of requests to teach children at home," says Judith Danilov, coordinator of the Pedagogic Center at the ministry. She believes that many are probably doing so without formal permission.

One thing is certain: Those who teach their children at home feel passionately about their choice.

"Every parent gets excited about his baby's first step or first word," points out Ernstoff, also a karate instructor and member of the national karate team. "I was privileged to be there when my kids did their first multiplication, and when they wrote their first sentence."

In the United States, home-schooling has become commonplace. Ernstoff, who edited a newsletter in the United States for Jewish parents home-schooling their youngsters, estimates that up to 2,000 American Jewish families home-school their children.

"In the U.S., home-schooling is socially acceptable; it's legal; it's common. Here, no one has heard of it, so I feel very isolated," she says.

When Ernstoff, her husband Moshe and their three children moved to Israel several years ago and settled in Tekoa in the Judean Hills, at first they thought they would give the school system a chance.

But Ernstoff became disillusioned, particularly with the schools' approach to the arts and creativity. She cited how youngsters were given a mimeographed picture of the Torah and instructed to color it in.

Ernstoff also was unhappy with the way schools treat different children as one identical unit. "Kids were not allowed to develop on their own timetable," she said.

After hearing about home-schooling and reading about educational theory, "I felt this was right for us."

Ernstoff's husband Moshe, a computer engineer, was initially not as convinced about the importance of educating the children at home. But he was won over by his wife's determination. He teaches the children math and reads to them, but the Ernstoffs do not follow any specific instructional program.

When asked what they do all day, Kobi responds: "We play poker." His parents laugh indulgently.

Kobi brings in a hat that he has made, a large silver foil creation. The two girls run to the other room to find their books. Channi's, titled "The Cat's Adventure" — a few sentences long, and written with her brother's help — is surprisingly neat for a 5-year-old. Channi learned to read at the age of 4. Matti's book, with the same title, is slightly longer.

"There's no such thing as a typical day," Ernstoff says. "We don't get up at a specific time. They do a lot on their own. They have all written or are writing books." Art projects are frequent.

The Ernstoffs are not completely isolated from other home-schoolers. They subscribe to Ba'ofen Tiv'i ("The Natural Way"), a newsletter edited by Orna Shafrir. She and her sister Hedva Kasher, both home-schoolers, produce the newsletter twice a month.

Shafrir, who lives in Kiryat Shmona, has five children, ranging in age from 2 to 13. All have been educated at home.

Her children use the Internet as a learning resource and read the daily newspaper Ha'aretz — "the parts that they are interested in," says Shafrir.

"Modern life has separate times for work, play, study. We feel it should all be one whole," she says.

Each home-schooler has a story about a brush with the authorities.

When Ernstoff arrived in Israel, a representative of the Jewish Agency told her she had to send the children to school. Ernstoff told her that she had written the Education Ministry seeking permission to educate the children at home. The representative tried to get tough, warning her that she could face two months in jail or even deportation. Ernstoff stood firm and was eventually left alone.

Once in Tekoa, the Ernstoffs were reported by the local school to the local authority, and a truant officer called. They sent her a copy of the letter written to the Education Ministry. The Ernstoffs didn't hear back after that.

"I put a lot into educating my kids and it's not always the easiest way," Ernstoff said. "To be accused of doing something wrong is difficult."

Nava Malkiel, the principal of the Tekoa school, said the school did its utmost to try to absorb the Ernstoff children.

"I believe it's an ideological choice that they have made, to teach their kids at home," Malkiel said. "If they get a permit [from the Ministry of Education], then fine; that's their choice."

According to Danilov, coordinator of the pedagogic center at the ministry, an earlier policy of allowing children to be home-schooled for a one-year experimental period has been reversed.

"Now, to educate your child at home, once again you need special permission from the minister himself," Danilov said. But she added that there are dozens of people yet to receive a reply after asking for permits to educate their child at home. There are no guidelines or curricula set by the Education Ministry for those choosing home-schooling.

According to Ernstoff, "here the situation is legally and socially the same as it was in the U.S. 25 years ago. There will be more and more cases until the ministry finally makes it legal. As far as I am concerned, I'm not breaking the law; the kids are attending school in my own home."

One education expert said he supports "giving parents more responsibility for educating their own kids." But Prof. Dan Inbar, dean of the School of Education at the Hebrew University added, "I wouldn't advocate it for everyone, or make it compulsory.

"Friendships are part of the socialization of the child," he said. "I am not in favor of total isolation."

Both Ernstoff and Shafrir insist their children have plenty of interactions with other youngsters. Ernstoff says her children play with each other and with the other children in Tekoa. Shafrir's children attend after-school clubs.

Inbar also is concerned that if home-schooling is eventually made legal, the right supervisory framework is set up.

"If the situation is formalized in Israel, then you have to be sure to create the right system," Inbar said. "You don't want kids being kept at home and exploited for example, being made to help with their parents' work."

Ernstoff and Shafrir are convinced they've made the right choice for their children.

"We knew we could educate the children with love," said Shafrir.

Said Ernstoff: "It's definitely a choice in values. In our family, we want to put the kids first."