We leave Jerusalem for the airport in two hours and I don't even know if it's worth going to sleep. It's almost midnight here and and cab is coming at 2 AM. So much has happened that I've been too tired to write most of it down. I guess I'd better chronicle it somehow though.
This was one of my favorite moments of our trip. It's almost dawn at the Kotel (Western Wall of the old Temple) and a young boy and his father prepare for morning prayers. This day is the first that he will "lay tefillin "-- wear the special prayer objects on his arm and forehead to follow the commandments by placing reminders on the arm and "between thine eyes" - on his forehead. They've chosen to celebrate this very significant pre-Bar Mitzvah moment in the early morning - a sunrise service where the Amidah - a critical prayer - is recited just as the dawn arrives. A loving and very impressive family of four girls, two boys and two remarkable parents, they all joined to offer moral support and presence to someone they love as he takes this first step to what I guess you'd call "religious adulthood."
I know the photo is blurry but I don't like to show faces of other people's families -- they deserve their privacy. I just want you to know how lovely it was. An animated and intelligent young man, his father at his side - his sisters, mom, cousins, friend - and a couple of us -- watching him make his way. I told his mom, whom I very much admire, that it was a privilege to be there. Probably sounds like hogwash but it isn't - watching all this take place as the sun rose to illuminate us all was a true blessing.
Of course we couldn't watch everything because much of the ceremony took place on the "men's side" of the mehitza (divider between men and women) where we weren't allowed to be. We peeked through fence dividers though, so we did get to see a bit. I've been living a fairly observant, Orthodox life for a couple of years now, moving forward month by month, holiday by holiday, and I continue to be amazed at the levels of intolerance I manifested before I learned about observant life from the inside. Days like this one remind me of how much of the world we can't judge without living it - or at least being willing to come along as others do. This day was a perfect example of that.
That same day, a cousin of the family at the Kotel invited me to visit the school her kids attend - K-8 - near the town of Efrat, on the grounds of a kibbutz called Rosh Tzurim.
Founded by an amazing woman named Noah Mandelbaum, it began as an effort to accommodate a single Downs child by mainstreaming him, along with a special teacher, in a "regular" classroom. It was so successful that within months she had 4, then 6, then finally, so many kids that she launched a school where such mainstreaming would be policy. This photo shows the school in action. There are many classrooms for Downs, autistic and other developmentally affected kids study alongside the rest of the class. I didn't want to take photos there and distract them. In this nursery class is another phase of the program. The young woman whose back is to us is fairly seriously compromised but she is permanent staff in the classroom and is learning to be a preschool aide able to get a job and work outside the school. That smiling girl in the blue sweater is today's "guest" - another child with serious developmental issues who will work in the classroom for the day. The program helps these young people find a place of their own in the world - and teach all the kids at Reshit School the value of every human person.
This is Noah, the school's founder. Surrounding her is part of the farm where every child - "normal" and otherwise, works each day - together. You can see the colors, the free-form murals - all the stuff that reminds me of schools we all dreamed of in the 60s. In many ways the tone of this school is similar - but this is a real "put your money where your mouth is" environment. Parents have to believe that the things their kids learn here are more important than super-competitive environments where the only standard is how far their children are from the next step on the ladder. Learning to be moral, caring human beings is an actual mission here.
The kids are pretty free (it's kind of Summerhillish), across ability spectrum, and the curriculum is designed to allow each to learn in her own style at her own speed. When I asked Noah about kids like mine, who had needed and appreciated structure, knowing what was going to come next, her reply was startling in its good sense. Basically - and I'm paraphrasing here - the idea is that "for some kids, especially more intelligent ones, that may be true. But for kids with less ability it is especially important that they learn to live without an institutional structure every minute because the world doesn't have that kind of structure - and the world is where they will have to live." By the way, after years of fighting with the educational establishment, Reshit has been designated a model and its efforts to mainstream all kinds of kids will be emulated in schools throughout the country.
I have more to write - about exploring ancient tunnels under old Jerusalem and more - but this is enough for now. I'll try to have the rest in a day or two.