The students of Tel Aviv’s Bialik-Rogozin school are no strangers to the concept of a melting pot. They kind of are Israel’s melting pot.
The unique K-12 school, which was featured in the Oscar-winning documentary “Strangers No More,” draws Muslim, Christian, and Jewish students from every corner of the world — Congo, Chile, Uzbekistan, the Philippines, Ghana, Eritrea, Turkey… and over 40 more countries.
So when the British Ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould, hosting an Olympics celebration at Bialik-Rogozin Tuesday, asked the kids if they knew what the games and their school have in common, they shot their hands up immediately and answered a unified “yes.”
From the back of the auditorium, one outspoken girl shouted: “It’s Kibbutz Galuyot!” The term refers to the biblical concept of gathering Jews who live in the diaspora into the land of Israel — and it’s also modern Zionism’s version of a melting pot.
“Yes, exactly,” Gould responded. “The Olympics are about people from all over the world coming to do their best. It doesn’t matter if you come from the US, Ethiopia, France, or Israel. Only one thing matters — and that’s whether you’re the best in the world,” he added.
“The lesson that you learn here [at Bialik-Rogozin] is the same lesson we learn from the Olympics: If you work hard, if you believe in yourself, if you train, and if you’re dedicated, you can succeed — regardless of your religion or what country you come from or where your parents were born… And that’s why we wanted to come and watch the Olympics here with you today.”
Despite the classic teenage-boredom look on some of the kids’ faces (it is summer recess after all), the idea was generally well-received. The envoy’s message, that all these kids can get there too — despite all odds — is one the staff and volunteers at Bialik-Rogozin often emphasize.
The school’s principal, Eli Nechama, explained the ethos of Bialik-Rogozin this way: “Most of the students don’t have an Israeli ID. They’re here illegally — they’re kids of foreign workers or asylum-seekers. But we don’t ask questions. We are a school for everyone.”
“This is a good school,” he continued. “We have an 87% rate of passage of matriculation exams and we stay open late so the kids can take part in extra-curricular activities” — which would otherwise be out of their reach.
“We have a lot of volunteers who help, and donations, and some assistance from the government,” Nechama explained. ”You see, the same government that wants to deport some of my students also funds part of their programs,” he noted wryly.
Sports for everyone
One of Bialik-Rogozin’s star programs is its new sports department — just for girls. “This year, they won the Lioness [Tel Aviv basketball] Competition,” Nechama boasted. “And we now have 100 girls participating in three basketball teams.”
As for the boys? “They usually play sports on their own. So we’re focusing on girls, and empowering them through sports,” he explained.
The second- and third-grade girls who were crowding outside while the Olympics were being broadcast inside didn’t seem to love basketball, or at least not yet. When asked what Olympic sport they liked best, or who they were rooting for, Shayna, a 9-year-old Filipino girl, a leader-of-the-pack type, turned to her camp counselor to ask her quietly who it was that they liked.
“Lee Korzits,” she turned to say. Why? “Because she’s pretty. And she wins medals,” a sentiment the other girls agreed with. (Not on Tuesday, unfortunately.) “But I love swimming best.”
One of the other girls, Chantal, who goes by Shantie, is a 7-year-old student at Bialik-Rogozin. “My favorite activities are music, folk dancing, and the Torah,” she said in flawless Hebrew. Shantie was born in Israel to parents from Congo, and as with many other of her friends, she has an Israeli ID — but her parents don’t — which poses a unique hurdle for families that want to stay in the country.
“Misrad Hapnim [the Interior Ministry] doesn’t give us permits… It only gives them to Filipinos,” she said quietly, as if she was repeating a secret she’d heard one of the adults say.
Leveling the playing field
Sari Levy, who is in charge of the volunteers at Bialik-Rogozin, describes their efforts as a full-time operation that thrives thanks to hi-tech companies and other businesses and individuals who donate their money, and time, so that the children can have meaningful extra-curricular activities.
“When my kids were in school in Tel Aviv, I paid for English lessons and tutors. I paid for sports. I paid for dance lessons,” explained Levy. “Israeli parents generally have to pay for these activities. I probably paid NIS 3,000 per year for my daughters – and that was 10 years ago… But these parents [of Bialik-Rogozin students] can’t afford to pay that type of money.”
It is from the goodness of organizations and volunteers of all ages and backgrounds that Bialik-Rogozin is able to provide its students with tutoring and extra-curricular activities. THe school stays open until 7:30 p.m., and it provides two meals a day. (The kids can’t concentrate without food, Levy added).
In Levy’s words: “We don’t provide these kids with anything special. What we try to give them is the same benefits and experiences many other Israeli kids have.”
But the ambassador’s choice of the school for an Olympic celebration underlined his conviction that Bialik-Rogozin is special. More than a school, it is an environment devoted to ensuring that its students, gathered Tuesday to watch the striving athletes in London, are given their opportunity to prove themselves.