Sha’ar HaNegev: A School Fit for Heroes

A view of the World ORT EMQ Science and Technology Center.

For most of the 1,200 students at Sha’ar HaNegev High School scrambling for cover amid the wail of sirens has been a mundane part of growing up for as long as they can remember.

“These kids are the heroes of Israel these days,” said World ORT Director General and CEO Robert Singer.

Now they have a school fit for heroes, the rocket-proof realization of its principal’s dream to create a community in which Israel’s next generations can not only attain educational heights but probe deeper truths.

Because last week saw the inauguration of the school’s new 14,000 square-metre campus, just a few seconds rocket flight from Gaza, which includes two buildings provided by World ORT and its partners at the ICA Foundation and Ministry of Education with the support of British ORT, ORT Zurich and private World ORT donors in the UK and Canada: the academically oriented EMQ Science and Technology Center (bearing the initials of the family which funded it) and a mechanics center for vocational training.

Explosions punctuated the night air as nearby Netivot again came under rocket attack but the people gathered in the open-air auditorium for the inauguration ceremony – including Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, whose ministry funded more than half of the NIS 105 million ($27 million) project – remained calm: the design of the campus meant that they were surrounded by reinforced concrete buildings and so could easily and quickly find shelter should the terrorists decide to target them.

“The school provides us with security and provides an opportunity to give a much better structure – physical and pedagogical – for education in our area,” regional council head Alon Schuster told The Jerusalem Post.

The campus, which will be operational in time for the opening of the new school year in September, has been cleverly and sensitively designed not only to maximize protection from terrorist attack but also to foster the openness and transparency of the school’s communal culture.

“This openness is quite the opposite of what you need when you need protected buildings. But in the martial arts you take the energy from your enemy and transform it into new energy so we looked for ways to make something positive out the negative situation imposed on us,” said architect Yuval Geni, whose firm designed the campus together with Mansfeld-Kehat Architects and Israel Prize winning architect Dan Zur.

The reinforced concrete buildings are oriented at a 45-degree angle to the direction of fire from Gaza so that only two of a square building’s four walls would face the full force of an attack; windows and doors are blast-proof; and small, brightly colored shelters dot the grounds so that no matter where you roam you are never more than 15 seconds away from safety. Each grade class has its own ‘home’, identified by color, and teachers have rooms by the classes so that they are always close to the children.

And at the heart of the campus are World ORT’s buildings, whose $1 million cost amounts to less than half the organization’s investment in the school’s new site, as well as an art center provided by the San Diego Jewish Federation and, uniquely for a secular Israeli school, a synagogue.

“The whole process of schooling is based on a search for your identity – your Jewish identity, your Zionist identity, your human identity,” said Principal Aharele Rothstein. “You can’t ignore the fact that any place around the world which is associated with Jews has a synagogue.

The goal is that our students will be able to answer two questions when they finish school: ‘who am I?’ and ‘why am I here?’. If you know who you are then you know much better what you want to study, and when you know why you are here you are here you will be much more able to be part of a community. We have a very high standard of academic achievement and it’s because of this.”

Determined to stem an exodus of students during the darkest days of attacks from Gaza, Mr Rothstein spent two years working out every detail of his dream campus. Spurred on, he says, by the support he received from his partners at World ORT, he presented his plan to the Ministry of Education contrary to the normal flow of the Ministry setting guidelines to which a school must find a way to conform.

“Here, the layout of the school fits the philosophy of the school – not the other way round,” Mr Rothstein said.

The result has delighted Minister Sa’ar who said at the ceremony, “This is a project carried out by the mobilization of a number of partners and reflects the values of solidarity, unity and common destiny. All these are reflected in a very special school with a depth of innovative educational approaches.”

And the energy put into developing the school over recent years, including World ORT’s investment of smart classrooms and teacher training, has helped to create a situation where, despite the on-going rocket attacks, the local population has doubled and student enrollment has surged.

As World ORT’s Mr Singer says, “What keeps people in the area is if the parents have jobs and the kids have an education that they can’t receive in any other place.”

And that is certainly the case at Sha’ar HaNegev; as Yuval Geni said, he would not only have liked to have sent his own child there, he would have liked to have studied there himself! It is a project which has clearly given him tremendous satisfaction.

“People say that architecture is frozen music. But I think architecture should be a social instrument and in this case it was very clear,” he said. “It has been a really Zionist project because in providing reinforced structures what we are really reinforcing are the people who live there – that’s the best part of it.”

courtesy World ORT