Photo Credit: Andy Levy-Stevenson
Candy-laden bulletin board greets children on their first day of school in the lobby of an Efrat apartment building. Sept. 1, 2014. The message reads: "To our dear children ... may it be a year of fun and happiness in your studies." 

Chances are, no matter how much you love Israel, if you are not Israeli, you have no idea what a big deal September 1 is in Israel.

Every year on September 1, all of Israel wakes to the sound of “school days” songs on the radio. Every child lucky enough to have one, is accompanied by at least one parent to the first day of school, especially if the child is in first grade (kitah aleph).

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If you have an appointment with a doctor or a lawyer or a landscaper for the morning of September 1, the appointment ain’t happening until much later than the usual 8:00 or 9:00 a.m. slot. And the traffic is impossible near any school for the half hour before and after the beginning of the school day.

In a country in which most children will be entering the military at the conclusion of their high school career, the years during which the children are still living at home are ones in which the parents treat each first day of the school year, at least through middle school, as if it were a national holiday. Which, in Israel, it pretty much is.

The grand procession into the school building on September 1 is followed, just a few hours later at 11:30 a.m., with nearly as grand a recessional. That’s right, the school day ends on September 1 at 11:30 a.m., except for the students in kindegarden (gan). For those youngsters, the school day on September 1 is a full day. That is because transitions are so difficult and the little hatchlings need to have special care taken so as not to make that first day any more stressful than it already may be.

This year just over two million Israeli children had their first day of school on Sept. 1. The school children in the south of the country, the area that bore the brunt of 50 days of a bruising war that disrupted everyone’s lives, had special visitors to herald them as they entered the school buildings.

Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s President Reuben Rivlin and Education Minister Shai Piron visited schools in Israel’s south. The officials were there to make as strong a showing as possible that the government stands firmly committed to the security of the south, and in recognition of the enormous stress the citizens of the region endured this summer.

For Piron, the day must have been especially bittersweet. On Aug. 31, just the day before school started, the Israeli cabinet approved a two percent budget cut to the Education Ministry. The money was needed elsewhere to help offset the enormous costs of this summer’s Operation Protective Edge.

Yair Lapid, Israel’s Finance Minister, promised Piron that the nearly 500 million NIS cut from his budget to cover the defense shortfall would be returned to the Education Ministry during this school year, according to Israel’s Channel 2.

But regardless of wars or budgetary shortfalls, nearly all parents of Israeli school children treat September 1st as one of the most important, ritualized days in the secular calendar.

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