Inside story'It didn’t feel like a normal year at all'

Difficult senior year at war not deterring Israeli high school grads from IDF service

Some 110,000 students finish 12th grade on Thursday; Education Ministry went to great lengths as post-October 7 conflict upended routine, but some students say efforts fell short

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

Illustrative: High school students, along with bereaved families and IDF soldiers, attend a memorial ceremony remembering fallen soldiers, overlooking ancient Gamla and the Sea of Galilee in the Golan Heights, on May 13, 2024. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)
Illustrative: High school students, along with bereaved families and IDF soldiers, attend a memorial ceremony remembering fallen soldiers, overlooking ancient Gamla and the Sea of Galilee in the Golan Heights, on May 13, 2024. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

Ariel Ohayon, a 12th grader from the city of Kiryat Shmona on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, couldn’t have imagined that he would graduate high school the way he’s doing so now. Ohayon is a wartime evacuee living in a Tiberias hotel with his family, uncertain as to when he will be able to return home.

“We didn’t expect our 12 years of learning to end like this. It’s a bit frustrating, but that’s the reality,” he said pragmatically, speaking to The Times of Israel ahead of his graduation this week. “It’s war, and it affects everything. Being negative won’t change the situation. In the beginning, we were in shock, but now we are used to it and are finding the good in the situation.”

Ohayon, 18, is one of about 110,000 seniors to graduate high school on Thursday, the official end of the school year for 7-12th graders. Ohayon and his peers are now moving on to the next phase of their lives, capping off a tumultuous end to their high school careers in the shadow of the Israel-Hamas war.

Ohayon attended a religious high school in Kiryat Shmona, but when the city was evacuated after October 7 his class was “spread out all over the country” and he was enrolled in a similar school in Tiberias, where he said the city “welcomed us wonderfully. They made us feel like regular citizens there, like anyone else.”

He said was able to “feel a bit at home” in his new circumstances and despite the challenges of the year, he completed his matriculation exams and now plans to enlist in the IDF in a few months and “get into the best unit I can, according to my abilities.”

“There is a lot of awareness about the state of the country, and the existential danger. Everyone is affected, not just the evacuees or those in the south. Everyone wants to do what they can, and I think before the war, people weren’t so aware, or not as much,” Ohayon said.

Illustrative: Keshet high school students in Jerusalem on May 20, 2019. (Courtesy Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“Being a 12th grader here isn’t like other kids around the world, who aren’t dealing with these kinds of existential issues,” said Ella Mozes, who in her capacity as director of secondary education in the Education Ministry oversees Israel’s middle and high schools.

“Most of them are moving towards the future. [The war] didn’t break their faith; we see the teens volunteering, working, wanting to serve in the IDF… in the end, the kids need to become adults and be ready for what is expected of them,” she said.

In a phone conversation this week, Mozes described to The Times of Israel how the ministry attempted to deal with this year’s “very broad challenges.”

“There were a few stages. In the first days, everyone was in shock. There were events and we had to respond. We had evacuees, teachers in reserve duty… I don’t remember it all,” she said.

“Then we moved to active management. We understood that the ministry has a role in creating stability, that there was a traumatic event and we need to go forward. We were busy with well-being, with helping people, with finding the evacuees and aiding them,” she said.

Math class held outdoors at a temporary school set up at Kibbutz Nahshonim, on November 15, 2023. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)

“Then we needed to start learning. The children needed to have content, and to have stability… after a few weeks, more than 90 percent of the schools started to work again. For the evacuees, we began creating new schools and temporary frameworks,” Mozes said.

A year of war

Nearly the entire school year, which began on September 1, has taken place under the shadow of the Israel-Hamas war, set off on October 7 when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists butchered 1,200 people in southern Israel and kidnapped 251 into the Gaza Strip.

Immediately after, schools across Israel were shuttered as residents of the north and south were evacuated amid rocket fire from Gaza as well as Lebanon, from where the Hezbollah terror group continues to launch rockets in solidarity with Hamas. In addition, Israel’s unprecedented callup of roughly 350,000 reservists left much of the country’s commerce and infrastructure shorthanded — including schools.

Most schools quickly implemented some form of distance learning, a system already in place from the period of COVID pandemic lockdowns. As the war progressed and fewer rockets were launched from Gaza, schools in different areas were able to open again, according to notifications from the Home Front Command.

Because the huge callup of reservists included thousands of teachers and administrators, many schools had to rearrange schedules, subjects and curriculum, concurrent with an expansion of psychological and counseling services. Educators also began to integrate material about October 7 and the war into the classroom.

Additionally, the important — and notoriously challenging — high school matriculation exams were delayed, and in some cases changed, because administrators felt students had less time to prepare due to the chaotic nature of the school year.

By late November, most schools had fully reopened, except in the evacuated areas surrounding Gaza and along the Lebanon border. The evacuees from these areas, scattered in hotels and communities around the country, at one point numbered more than 250,000. Around 50,000 of these were school-age children, according to the Education Ministry.

Illustrative: Education Minister Yoav Kisch, center in black, inaugurating a new school for evacuee students, in Eilat on November 16, 2023. (courtesy Education Ministry)

Many southern residents were eventually permitted to go back home and schools in Sderot officially reopened on March 1. With the escalating and deadly tit-for-tat fire between Hezbollah and the IDF, however, communities evacuated from the north haven’t been allowed back. It is unclear whether schools there will be able to open on September 1, the start of the next school year.

“Today, I see the northern evacuees as my biggest worry, besides all the rest,” Mozes said. “In the middle of July, we are supposed to know if they will be able to return or not. It depends on the situation and what develops.”

The ministry has a plan for either circumstance, she said.

Learning from chaos, looking ahead

There were three main strategic goals for the educational system drawn up at the beginning of the war, Mozes explained: building students’ resilience using various methodologies; managing the staffing and human resources issues exacerbated by the war; and advancing students’ academic proficiency in general.

Ella Mozes (courtesy)

Many of the changes that were put into place — such as better psychological services, a greater understanding of the benefits of active learning and holistic educational philosophies, expanded engagement with parents and local communities, thinking “out of the box” to find educational solutions, and emphasis on the benefits of volunteering and social interactions — will hopefully be continued, Mozes said.

Because the year was considered an “emergency situation,” there was greater flexibility in making changes to curriculum and teaching methods, she said. “I think during the regular schedule, we will continue with some of these things. We had good results… there isn’t any reason why they shouldn’t continue next year.”

“In the last few weeks, we have had many graduation ceremonies. I have to say, these 12th graders have dealt with many difficulties — the coronavirus, strikes, the war… I was happy to see them on stage. I think we succeeded in helping them to finish this period in a positive way.”

A mixed bag

Not everyone agreed that the school year ended successfully, however.

“This was a terrible year. A lot of us are feeling we didn’t learn. It didn’t feel like a normal year at all. This war affected everything,” said Shahar Silfin, 17, from Hadera.

In Hadera, a small coastal city south of Haifa, “we don’t feel the war directly, but during the Zoom learning and in classes, we didn’t really get enough. I think many of my friends feel that we didn’t get support from the Education Ministry. They tried, but there are limits,” she said.

Because of the rescheduled matriculation exams — some of which were pushed back to the end of July — and because she and her friends were trying to study more advanced material, there is a feeling that “the year won’t end,” but simultaneously, “we haven’t had enough time” to study for the exams, Silfin said.

Silfin is set to enlist in the IDF in March of next year and hopes to serve in the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.

“We see how important it is. Even though it’s difficult, very few don’t want to enlist. It’s great to see,” Silfin said.

“For all of us, it was very difficult to learn. There were a lot of changes and delays for the exams, with left out or added material,” said Ido Sharabi, 18, also from Hadera.

Ido Sharabi (courtesy)

“We all wanted to succeed, it’s our last year and we really tried,” he said. He did well academically and feels good about it, he added.

“In the beginning, it felt very much like a bubble in Hadera and we were very stressed. We started to learn with Zoom, and there was a feeling they wanted us to talk, and open up about these difficult subjects. That was important,” Sharabi said.

Sharabi plans to study dance in Tel Aviv next year and if he succeeds in receiving a rating of “excellent” from the IDF, he will be able to combine his military service with his career as a dancer, much as top musicians can join one of the IDF military bands for their service.

For Noa Okanin, 18, from Sderot, the school year was “really terrible” and “psychotic.”

“No one could ever think we would have a year like this,” she said. She described how her family left Sderot for Jerusalem before the official evacuation order and therefore she wasn’t together with her classmates, who relocated to Eilat.

“By then there wasn’t room in Eilat, but at least we could be together in the end” when residents returned to Sderot in March, she said.

Because of a health issue, Okanin isn’t able to enlist in the IDF, but she plans to study medicine and become a doctor, also “a good way to be of service.”

Ori Tinsit, 18, also from Sderot, said that coming back to the city in March was “a shock.”

In Eilat, “it was like the first grade and having to make new friends,” but “after we returned, we were very happy but it was very difficult. Suddenly we were back in a serious period of learning. We returned to regular life after living in a hotel and we had a lot of things to finish,” he said.

For Tinsit the year was “mixed.” Because of the war, his class missed out on a lot of normal 12th-grade experiences, including the traditional class trips to former Nazi concentration camps in Poland, which were canceled.

But, he said, “we also learned things about ourselves that we never would have otherwise… We learned how to deal with the situation. There is a positive aspect to that.”

“Personally, I was okay,” Tinsit said. “But I think a lot of us were traumatized. I know that in our hotel in Eilat, there were a lot of youths who stayed locked in their rooms and didn’t want to come out, but there were people to help them.”

Rom Milshtein (courtesy)

In Tiberias, Rom Milshtein, 17, described how in addition to the war, the school year had “a big twist” because of the evacuee students who suddenly joined his class.

“It was hard for them, it was a new environment, but in the end, we became good friends and connected,” he said.

The teachers “worried about us and wanted us to feel comfortable talking with them. They also tried to teach us about what happened” on October 7, he said.

“Listen, we have to deal with it. We are about to enter the IDF. In a few months, I will have a weapon to protect the state and my family,” Milstein said, and noted, like all the graduating seniors interviewed for this article, that among his peers there is “a great feeling” of wanting to enlist in the IDF and go into combat units or serve the country in another way such as national service.

“High school is a wonderful time for teenagers, and we have to understand that these times won’t return. This is my personal experience: I had a great time, and I had a lot of wonderful friends whom I will keep for life. High school in Israel is really fun. Even this year with the war, with suddenly having 50 more evacuee students, it was great,” he said.

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