ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 138

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Education Ministry assigns NIS 1b for new infrastructure

‘Pop-up schools’ aim to tackle education for 52,000 evacuee students

Hotels, institutions and campuses around the country are embracing the opportunity to serve as temporary schools to help traumatized children and teens regain a sense of normalcy

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

  • Class being held in front of the iconic stained glass windows at the old National Library of Israel building in Jerusalem, in an undated photo. (courtesy)
    Class being held in front of the iconic stained glass windows at the old National Library of Israel building in Jerusalem, in an undated photo. (courtesy)
  • Math class held outdoors at a temporary school set up at Kibbutz Nahshonim, on November 15, 2023. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)
    Math class held outdoors at a temporary school set up at Kibbutz Nahshonim, on November 15, 2023. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)
  • A classroom set up in a hotel ballroom in Eilat, in an undated photo. (courtesy Education Ministry)
    A classroom set up in a hotel ballroom in Eilat, in an undated photo. (courtesy Education Ministry)
  • Students play ping pong in the lobby of the old National Library of Israel building, in an undated photo. (courtesy NLI)
    Students play ping pong in the lobby of the old National Library of Israel building, in an undated photo. (courtesy NLI)
  • A class held in a temporary school in Eilat, in an undated photo (courtesy Education Ministry)
    A class held in a temporary school in Eilat, in an undated photo (courtesy Education Ministry)
  • Class held in a temporary  tent classroom, in Kibbutz Nachshonim on November 15, 2023. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)
    Class held in a temporary tent classroom, in Kibbutz Nachshonim on November 15, 2023. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)

The pastoral grounds of Kibbutz Nahsholim rang out with the sounds of laughing children as they dashed from class to class. Against a backdrop of the sparkling sea and green grass, the kibbutz hotel had been converted into a temporary K-12 school for children evacuated from communities around Gaza, complete with a principal, teachers, volunteers and support staff.

“There isn’t one child here who doesn’t have a grandfather who was murdered, or a friend from class who was killed, or knows someone who was taken prisoner… they all can tell stories,” said acting principal Hili Hachami as she showed The Times of Israel around the various classrooms, which were scattered around the hotel structures and inside the kibbutz proper.

The effort at Nahsholim, which lies on the coast of northern Israel near Zichron Yaakov, is just one of the some 350 “pop-up schools” that have been created around the country in response to the unprecedented displacement of some 200,000 citizens from their homes as a result of the Israel-Hamas war.

Of these, about 52,000 are K-12 students, according to Education Ministry figures released Tuesday.

These evacuees hail from the communities bordering the Gaza Strip and along the northern Lebanon border, including the cities of Sderot and Kiryat Shemona. They have been scattered to various locations throughout the country, mostly staying in hotels and kibbutzim, and largely have remained intact as communities.

In a science class in a recently erected tent at Nahsholim, a group of elementary school children were learning about Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut who died in the 2003 Columbia Space Shuttle disaster.

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

Nearby, a small math class was being held under a grove of trees, with a group of parents observing, as ocean waves crashed in the distance. Elsewhere, classes were being held in bomb shelters, cafeterias and whatever rooms were available.

The student evacuees had been there since shortly after the October 7 Hamas massacres, which set off the Israel-Hamas war, but it took “some time” for the school to get up and running the way it is currently, Hachami said.

She explained that the school now operates with “wonderful cooperation” from the parents and volunteers. Most of the families are from Karmiya, a kibbutz just a few kilometers north of the Gaza Strip, and are living at the Nahsholim hotel or in the neighboring Moshav Dor.

Educator Hili Hachami at a temporary school at Kibbutz Nahsholim, on November 15, 2023. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)

Hachami, who previously worked as a principal and administrator in the Haifa area school district, said she gets up “at 5 a.m. and I am here until 6 or 7 each evening. It’s crazy, we don’t take days off.”

Zehavit Hakmon, a mother of three from Karmiya, was a teacher at Yad Mordechai, another kibbutz near Gaza that has been evacuated. It’s “exciting” to see what is happening at Nahsholim, she said as she observed one of her high-school children in a math class.

Having a regular schedule with familiar faces is very important for traumatized students, she stressed, but she said that after school, “my daughter sometimes cries. Three kids from her class were killed, and the father of one of her best friends was also killed. The trauma doesn’t end.”

Being in a familiar kibbutz environment and near the ocean helps, said Hakmon, and is “better than being in a building or a big hotel.”

Most of the residents of Yad Mordechai, where she used to teach, are all in “a big building in Hadera,” she noted.

“We are going to be here for at least a year,” Hakmon said pragmatically. “It’s best to accept this.”

Southern climes

At the other end of the country in Eilat, where the majority of Gaza-area evacuees have been relocated, there are around 15,000 new students, according to Education Ministry statements. It is estimated that Eilat, a resort city of around 53,000 residents, has absorbed an additional 60,000 people after October 7, more than doubling the population.

Educator Gila Nagar (courtesy)

Creating educational frameworks for the newly relocated students was challenging, admits Gila Nagar, the Education Ministry official put in charge of the effort in the Eilat area.

“During the first weeks the government offices were working slowly,” she told The Times of Israel. “Civil society mobilized to set up tents for kindergartens and informal learning spaces. After two weeks we had an administration… we work well with the organizations, which show civil society at its finest.”

Nagar, a retired high-level ministry official from Jerusalem, moved to an Eilat hotel with her husband a few days after October 7, after being tapped to oversee education for the evacuees there.

“I didn’t have the privilege of staying home,” she said, and noted that she has a son and a grandson currently serving in the IDF.

After thousands of Hamas terrorists stormed the border on October 7, brutally killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking another 240 hostage in the Gaza Strip, Israel vowed to remove Hamas from power and secure the release of the hostages.

Ahead of its ongoing military campaign, the country issued the largest call-up of IDF reserve forces in the country’s history, some 360,000 people. This call-up has caused additional stress on the education system in general, as many thousands of teachers and staff are among the reservists.

The Education Ministry has issued a general call for new teachers and has hired some 300 in the Eilat and Dead Sea areas alone, according to a statement sent to The Times of Israel.

The reservist call-up also means that there are hundreds of thousands of families with only one parent at home, which educators say creates additional complications for children to succeed academically.

In Eilat, educational frameworks were at first created in rented offices, hotel spaces, large tents, and other makeshift locations, Nagar said. There was an attempt to run the currently existing schools in shifts, with the evacuee students attending in the afternoons after the local students finished, but that proved impractical.

Later the ministry formally organized these efforts and opened several K-12 schools in dedicated, newly built facilities with prefab buildings. Last week, two new schools were opened in the city: one for special needs students, and one specifically for K-12 evacuees from Sderot.

In Eilat and elsewhere where evacuees have settled, an effort is made to keep communities together so that displaced residents can continue to live in a group and attend the same schools. This is largely overseen by the original local governments working in conjunction with the “host” authorities.

A classroom set up in a hotel ballroom in Eilat, in an undated photo. (courtesy Education Ministry)

Pedagogically, Nagar said, they are working to teach regular subjects as much as they can, but echoing what many interviewed for this article have stressed, she felt it was more important to create a regular, daily structure for the students than to focus solely on traditional academics.

“For this generation, there will be a lot of challenges. There is no quick band-aid” for dealing with the effects associated with the students’ recent experiences of war and displacement, swiftly following the educational disruptions of the COVID-19 lockdowns of a few years ago, she said.

Nagar expressed confidence in the “Yiddishe kop,” a Yiddish phrase literally meaning a “Jewish head,” a reference to the tradition of Jewish intellectualism.

“We are a smart, strong nation,” she said.

“It doesn’t matter if they aren’t doing regular learning… It’s true we want more, but it’s still a great success,” said Liat Shmuel from Moshav Shuva, who has an elementary school-age daughter in the new system in Eilat.

Shmuel said that despite experiencing numerous traumas since October 7 — the Hamas assault itself and ongoing war, fleeing their homes with no possessions, adapting to city life in Eilat — she felt that after a deeply challenging period, her daughter was now “flourishing… they are helping them to return to themselves.”

Non-governmental actors in the field

Immediately after the war began, various NGOs and other groups sprang into action to help the evacuees. It was part of the now well-documented volunteerism phenomenon in Israeli society during this crisis.

One of the main NGOs working to create educational spaces is the international emergency relief group IsraAID. By October 8, the group, in its first-ever deployment inside Israel, had set up evacuation centers in the Dead Sea and Eilat, complete with parent/child spaces, trauma therapists and free play areas, IsraAID told The Times of Israel.

In the subsequent weeks, the NGO, now working in conjunction with the Israeli government, set up some 10 “temporary educational frameworks” and playgrounds, located in already extant buildings or field schools in the Eilat and Dead Sea areas.

In this, IsraAID was following its normal operating procedure of “working closely in partnership with local authorities to bridge the gaps” in providing aid during a crisis. It’s normal for the NGO to make a swift initial response and then wind down operations as local governments are able to step in, the IsraAID spokeswoman stressed.

New use for an iconic building in Jerusalem

The new educational spaces being created by the government are being housed in a wide variety of public and private institutions. Most of the major universities have donated campus space to the effort, as have smaller colleges and foundations.

Class being held in front of the iconic stained glass windows at the old National Library of Israel building in Jerusalem, in an undated photo. (Courtesy)

One striking example of this is the old National Library of Israel (NLI) building in Jerusalem, which has partially been converted into a secondary school. This iconic building serendipitously became free in mid-October, when administrators decided to go ahead with a long-planned move to the library’s new location despite the war.

Most of the students are from the northern town of Shlomi, whose families are now scattered around eight Jerusalem hotels, said Neta Shapira, NLI head of education. The new school, called Kedem, has a core group of students, teachers and parents who all knew each other previously, she said.

“It’s very interesting that this is the new reincarnation of the National Library because the library itself is bound up in the history of the Zionist movement. It’s a special experience [for the students] to be in Jerusalem” during this historical time, she said.

“There are a lot of students who want to learn math, chemistry, Bible studies, history,” she added. “We feel like we are their foster family, and we want to return them in the best condition [academically].”

New government initiative for evacuees

On November 21, the Education Ministry announced a NIS 1 billion ($268 million) “Education for Revival” project to provide new schools and educational infrastructure for the communities evacuated from areas around Gaza, including Sderot.

About 31,000 students have been evacuated from these areas, out of the 52,000 total displaced students. The program, which is to be implemented in three phases, aims to provide both immediate and long-term solutions to their educational needs, the ministry said.

From left to right: Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi, Education Minister Yoav Kisch, and Eilat Mayor Eli Lankri inaugurating a new school for evacuee students, in Eilat on November 30, 2023. (Eran Dolev/GPO)

“The national program focuses on formulating a unique pedagogical program, which includes an emotional, social, educational and informal response tailored to these students, who have had to face horrific situations, destruction and loss in the face of the murderous attack that was perpetrated by the Hamas terror organization on October 7, 2023,” the ministry said in a statement.

Besides the already extant new educational frameworks, the ministry announced last week a dedicated program to reintegrate into the educational system children who have been returned to Israel after being held captive by Hamas.

Back at Kibbutz Nahsholim, last week the elementary and high schools were to be moved to two new, dedicated school facilities that were recently constructed in nearby Kibbutz Maagan Michael.

This is what Omri, a father of three, has been waiting for.

“It’s not exactly school here… it’s activities, that’s what they do. Like they used to have in the afternoons,” he said. “We have been waiting for real school to return.”

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