“A Home Away From Home”: Amsterdam’s Kehila Is Educating Children And Connecting Adults
When we talk about the Jews of Europe, what we’re actually talking about are two distinct groups: the established Jewish communities, and Israelis.
By Liam Hoare
AMSTERDAM, Netherlands – When I visited the Kehila Sunday school in Amsterdam in early March, children across all classes were undertaking preparations for Purim.
In Kita Aleph, the class of thirty children was making costumes. As Ruti Shalev, the director of the Kehila Sunday school explained while she showed me around the school – the walls lined with children’s drawings and floors covered with boxes of donated Hebrew games and puzzles – each child was required to bring in an old T-shirt from home that they could cut up, doctor, and augment to make something new. It’s a low-cost way to create a costume, she said; to make something that is modest, not off-the-shelf, and that allows the children to express themselves without overdoing it.
Established independently in early 2012 by Israelis living across the Netherlands, the Kehila Sunday school is a fascinating initiative. It meets biweekly to provide a Hebrew education to the children of Israeli expats. Whether they come from two Israeli parents or a mixed relationship, be it at home or at school, Hebrew will likely be the child’s second or even third language after Dutch or English. While some children will be able to both speak and read Hebrew, some might not be able to read it, while others might have very little comprehension of the language at all.
In that sense, Kehila creates an environment in which the Hebrew language can be preserved outside of Israel. Literacy and comprehension of the alphabet is taught alongside vocabulary. There is an emphasis on active learning; as Ruti explained, getting students out of their comfort zone and making choices. As well as there being Hebrew lessons, other classes including music, Judaism, and free play are conducted with Hebrew as the lingua franca of the group. Those students identified as falling behind receive help from a speech therapist, who also talks to the parents of these children about how best to help them outside of class.
More than preserving the Hebrew language, Kehila recreates the secular Israeli environment in Diaspora. The tenor of the education the children receive is distinctly Hebrew and Jewish but also pluralistic, democratic, and humanistic. Kehila “endows them with universal and humanistic values, while nurturing leadership and social-environmental responsibility, all in an open-minded approach and with a curriculum that encourages tolerance and multiculturalism,” the school states.
“Pluralistic means that everyone is welcome. It’s open to children with all kinds of parents – parents who were originally Orthodox; gay couples – and it is a place where they feel they can belong,” Nir Geva, a co-founder and member of Kehila’s board, told me. Kehila is not associated with any one stream or ritual – the members of the community directly influence and shape its common culture.
As of today, Kehila – made up of 70 families – essentially functions as a parents’ cooperative. All of Kehila’s activities are organized and carried out by its members, who pay either an individual or familial annual membership fee. (In 2015, the annual membership fees are set at €60 for a family and €30 for one person.) Adult members have the right to participate and vote on the community’s assembly, as well as to elect and be elected to the community’s board. Teachers at the Sunday school – whom are typically student teachers – receive a salary, but much of the work of Kehila relies on parents donating their time and resources.
Aside from dues from the members of the community, Kehila receives financial assistance from Maror. Founded by the Dutch government in 2000, just over €180 million was made available to the Jewish community of the Netherlands as part of restitution from the Second World War and the Holocaust. Maror has allocated funds for collective Jewish projects in both the Netherlands and Israel.
Meanwhile, money from the Pincus Fund for Jewish Education – an initiative of The Jewish Agency for Israel in partnership with the World Zionist Organization, the Government of Israel, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee that provides start-up support for creative educational projects in the Diaspora – goes towards funding Kehila’s next big project: the Kehilot Institute. Its premise is to spread the Kehila model across the continent by providing advise and support to Israeli communities in Europe who wish to found their own collectives.
Nir Geva and Keren Friedman, director of the Kehilot Institute, discovered that across Jewish Europe there was and still is a need for Israelis to have their own educational community institutions, not just for reasons for language or culture but also because many of their children come from mixed marriages and cannot access regular Jewish education. In the Netherlands, for example, even though Orthodox Jewish schools receive support from the Dutch government, if your child is not Jewish according to halacha, they have the discretion not to accept them.
“This situation leaves a lot of us outside and not belonging to any community,” Nir said. “This was the drive behind forming this community and bringing it to other places.” That these schools are specifically community initiatives, too, is because for decades the Israeli government neglected its Diaspora, taking no interest in Israeli communities in Europe, principally for ideological reasons connected with the shame of living outside Israel. Only in the past few years, as attitudes towards emigration have evolved, have institutions such as the Israeli Ministry for Education and The Jewish Agency for Israel taken a real interest in Israeli life in Diaspora.
In speaking to Israeli communities across Europe, Nir and Keren also concluded that while there was this need, people did not know how to translate their needs into a concrete project or institution. “We invited twelve people from six different countries to see Kehila, to inspire them with the idea of our community. We raised important questions about themselves: their identity and being Israeli in the Diaspora,” Keren explained. They visited classes at the school and spoke to parents, “and you could see in their eyes that this was the answer to their needs.”
The Kehilot Institute is now working with groups in Stockholm, London, and Berlin to help form their own educational initiatives. It has been Keren’s role to advise the interested parties and provide them with materials, but only remotely – Kehila has been on the ground in Stockholm, holding their hands every step of the way. The whole point, after all, is that the shape and structure of the school reflects the values and ideas of the community membership itself, as opposed to the specific wants and needs of Israelis in the Netherlands. “It’s about empowering people,” Keren said. “It should be their community.”
The hope is that in two to three years, there will be between five and seven Sunday schools for Israeli communities in Europe that use the DNA of the Kehila model. Aside from Stockholm, London, and Berlin, Copenhagen, Vienna, and Bucharest are muted as possible sites.
When we talk about the Jews of Europe, what we’re actually talking about are two distinct groups: the established Jewish communities, and Israelis. Separated by language, culture, and approach to religion, Israelis and European Jews usually exist day-to-day in two separate spheres that rarely interact with or bump up against one another. These two sub-groups have their own formal or informal organizations – for Israelis, this is usually only Facebook groups as opposed to the representative councils organized by established communities – and social events.
Especially for secular Israelis, at the root of the divide between European Jews and Israelis in Europe is that European Jewish life – indeed, Jewish life in Diaspora – continues to move through and revolve around the synagogue (even considering the proliferation of JCCs and other secular or peoplehood organizations and initiatives). The ancient Jewish kehila is reconstituted in Diaspora within the boundaries of the synagogue as community center. Secular Israelis, meanwhile, have no use for the synagogue. Israel is the kehila reborn – it is the synagogue. Secular Israelis tend to take a buffet approach to Judaism as religion, using the synagogue or the rabbinate when they need to – brit mila, bar mitzvah, marriage, and so on – and functioning without it otherwise.
What Kehila does, then – for the children but especially for the parents – is create a space within which the spirit of Israel as a community or an idea can exist. The school is a place where the social structures and atmosphere of home can be remade. “When you’re living, far away from your friends and family, you miss that community and togetherness,” Hila, who travels into Amsterdam with her family from Utrecht every other Sunday, told me, when I sat down with the parents of Kehila during a quieter moment in the middle of the school day.
In Utrecht, Hila couldn’t find a way within the established Jewish community to celebrate the holidays, be it Orthodox, Reform, or Chabad, which was recognizable to her as a secular Hebrew-speaking Israeli. “It’s important for the children to be together and to learn but, for us as adults, we also need to feel that we belong. It takes a long time as an expat to feel at home in your new place of residence and this community really gives us an anchor and helps us find a place in this country,” she said.
“For me, this is a place where I feel in the zone. It’s what I’m used to, hearing Hebrew around me – it’s how I grew up. I feel at ease, and as an immigrant you don’t get many chances to feel like that,” Gal said. Nir added the connection between the members is very compelling, a partnership of interests that is unusually strong. Tamir characterized it to me as a family, where the relationships change and evolve over time.
For the parents, an extension of that idea – recreating home far from home – Kehila is about making sure their children keep a linguistic and cultural attachment to Israel. “I’m an Israeli, my wife is an Israeli, and for us this is a way to ensure our kids will be about to communicate and feel comfortable when they come to Israel,” Tamir, whose daughter was playing and crawling at his feet, said “They understand what’s going on: the songs, even the slang. It’s an attachment to Israel but also our family.”
“We were just five or six families in the beginning, but slowly it has grown and taken on a life of its own,” Gal told me, as he bounced a child upon his knee. “Originally, it was for the children but it has become a home away from home.”
“That’s the title for your article,” Keren said. With that, it was time for hummus.