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Beverly Gribetz: Reforming the Israeli Education System

There are teachers and there are educators. And once in a while, a visionary comes along with a dream to transform an entire education system. Manhattan native Beverly Gribetz is all of the above.

Gribetz studied education in New York before making aliyah in 1977. Her first education job in Israel was as a Talmud teacher at the Pelech High School for Girls in Jerusalem. At that time, there were only a handful of high schools in Israel that offered Talmud study to girls, and classes were taught solely by men. Gribetz became the first female Talmud teacher in Israel, and she paved the way for the flourishing of female Talmudic scholarship that would follow. Gribetz’s contribution to the Israeli education system did not stop there. She returned to Manhattan for a decade where she worked at the Prozdor High School of JTS and then at the Ramaz upper school and high school. In 1996 she returned to Jerusalem where she served as the director of the Mekor Chaim High School for Boys, under the leadership of the prolific scholar Rabbi Adin Even Steinsaltz. She then spent nearly 20 years at the Evelina de Rothschild High School, including nine years as its principal. It was at Evelina where she was exposed to the inequalities in the Israeli education system.

When Gribetz entered the Evelina school, about 90% of its student body was girls from a Sephardi background, many of them from low socioeconomic backgrounds. The staff taught only the basics that were required for matriculation exams. Gribetz transformed the school from its curriculum and culture to its current standards and student body. She created a new society in the classroom whereby Sephardi and Ashkenazi, wealthy and poor, slower and advanced students study alongside one another. She upgraded the minimalist curriculum, adding more general and Judaic studies classes as well as social programming. And she instituted a “can do” attitude, whereby students were pushed to the maximum and encouraged to reach their potential, regardless of their academic level.

Students who had only met peers from their own ethnic backgrounds became exposed to the diverse tapestry of Jerusalem and forged friendships that crossed social lines. During weekend excursions, Friday prayers were conducted in the Ashkenazi tradition and on Shabbat in the Sephardi tradition. Every Rosh Chodesh, the students were taken to a different synagogue and a student was invited to present on her family roots. “My attitude was when we are together, we are all here to learn something about everybody else. When you are home you can do as you please. No one ever thought of that,” Gribetz shared.

The early years were a challenge for Gribetz. Many parents refused to send their children to a school where Sephardi and Ashkenazi students sat together. Others were concerned that their more advanced children would suffer while learning alongside slower students. Critics doubted her vision, and she was pushed out of Evelina for a number of years before she was invited back to run the school. “I should have left and taken another job. But I felt that I was fighting for the underprivileged and that I had a contribution to make to education, to society and to modern religious Judaism for girls. I knew I wasn’t finished and that’s what kept me going.”

Indeed, the results speak for themselves. Gribetz returned to Evelina, and the school flourished under her leadership. The school had a 100% matriculation rate seven years in a row, whereby the entire 12th grade passed the prerequisite exams to continue to higher education. Evelina was also a six-time recipient of a prestigious certificate that the Ministry of Education bestows upon stellar schools. Only one other school in the country won the certificate more times. “Usually it is the schools with the wealthier parents that win the awards,” Gribetz explained. “At Evelina, the weaker and poorer students whose parents could not give them opportunities got what they needed and the brilliant students got what they needed. They told me it couldn’t be done. It wasn’t true.”

Gribetz’s background in the American education system certainly contributed to her drive for a more just classroom setting in Israel. “I was a colorblind liberal American. When I came to Israel I found total inequity of opportunity because the Sephardi girls weren’t getting the same opportunities as the higher class Ashkenazi girls. This was a fight for me because it just can’t be this way in the Jewish state. This was total racism.”

Gribetz has retired from the education system yet is aware of the challenges that still exist in the Israeli school system, from overcrowding of classrooms to low salaries to a shortage of guidance counselors and school psychologists. She hopes to see more innovative pedagogy and greater attention placed on humanities. And while more work is yet to be done, Gribetz believes that Jerusalem schools are more sensitive to ethnic diversity, thanks to the model she created. And she is proud that many of the young women she taught Talmud to over 40 years ago have become scholars and trailblazers in religious education for females. Gribetz sums up her career aptly: “I was changing the world one girl at a time.”


Alisa Bodner is a Fair Lawn native who immigrated to Israel a decade ago. She is a nonprofit-management professional who enjoys writing in her free time.

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