by Lee Wunsch
Eight years ago, catastrophic events were shaping the beginning of the new Jewish year. Hurricane Katrina had struck New Orleans and thousands of refugees were pouring into Houston, including 5,000 members of the Jewish community there. The Jewish Federation of Greater Houston mobilized its resources, galvanized the community and launched the greatest local relief effort in the history of the Houston Jewish community. I recall those days with enormous gratitude for all that participated in our collective response yet with melancholy for those that experienced devastating losses from the impact of the storm.
In the midst of the chaos and tumult of those difficult weeks and months, two other things occurred which went totally unnoticed but which shaped a vision for tomorrow.
Article after article were appearing in the Israeli press decrying the poor state of education across the country, particularly for first generation Israelis and for other individuals marginalized by Israeli society. For those of us whose hearts and minds are embedded in the Zionist ethos, it was difficult to imagine that our beloved Jewish state could be challenged by something so fundamental to our faith and our people.
And, during those fateful days, something else happened. I was invited by one of our community leaders to visit KIPP. KIPP is the “Knowledge is Power Program” that was revolutionizing public education in America. KIPP is a national network of free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory public charter schools with a track record of preparing students in underserved communities for success in college and life. I had heard a little about the program but had never seen one of the schools. In the midst of Katrina relief activities, I seized a moment of tranquility and went to see the flagship KIPP School in Houston.
Mike Feinberg, one of the visionary and now widely recognized and honored founders of KIPP, escorted me on the visit. I encountered a public school culture that focused on going to college and that embedded a robust, palpable relationship between school, parents and students. I witnessed first-hand the five core principles of the KIPP system: creating high expectations, making choices and commitments, spending more time on learning and study, seizing the power to lead and focusing on results.
And, I experienced something else. I saw first generation Americans, where English was not the primarily language of the home, breaking through to the excitement of learning and to the dream and goal of being the first in their family to go to college.
Eight years ago, KIPP was already having a profound impact across America – what started as a nascent group of schools nineteen years ago has expanded to 141 schools across the country educating 60,000 students. KIPP has created a game changing paradigm for public education in the United States.
A dream was born.
If KIPP could transform public education in America, why not bring KIPP to Israel, whose immigrant population reflected similar demographics, cultural and social challenges as the students enrolled at KIPP?
A dream was realized.
On August 27, 2013, the first KIPP-inspired school opened in Kiryat Bialik, Israel. The school will be officially dedicated on November 12, 2013.
This has been an arduous yet valuable eight years. We enlisted our long-standing friends and partners at the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa to dream with us. And, dream they did. They embraced the possibility of bringing the KIPP concept to Israel, dispatched their deputy director to Houston for a year to learn the KIPP methodology and philosophy and welcomed a leadership delegation, including KIPP founder Mike Feinberg, to Israel to explore the various avenues to insure the opening of the school. Meetings after meetings were held: with funders, members of Knesset (Israel’s Ministry of Education approved the permitting of the school), and leaders of Israeli municipalities that might agree to host the school. There were many starts and stops. There were many obstacles thrown in the path of progress. But, the tenacity of Leo Baeck and its leaders and supporters in Israel and America proved to be an enterprise that was unwilling to give up. The leaders of KIPP, and most particularly Mike Feinberg, provided focus, consultation, enthusiasm, and experience as the project unfolded.
And, the Jewish Federation in Houston, where the vision was expressed and the dream was birthed, lent its significant network, its political capital and its shared vision to support Leo Baeck’s efforts. And, we invested financially, along with individual funders who were already supporters of Leo Baeck and KIPP, in fashioning an idea that has now been brought to fruition.
All these years later, a school has opened, two more will open in Jerusalem a year from now and a fourth will open in Netivot. The singular goal is to create a network of KIPP-inspired schools across the Jewish state and truly transform the lives of underserved children in Israel. KIPP has made aliyah!
Dreaming, persevering and unrelenting energy drove Leo Baeck to open the first KIPP-inspired school in Israel. Is this the first step on the path to changing education in Israel? Im tirtzu ein zo agada – if you will it, it is no dream.
Lee Wunsch is the President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston.