Israeli Teens and Elders Hit the Books Together

High school experiment helps generations build ties and share life experiences

Wouldn't it be nice to go to high school without exams but with the wisdom of maturity?

Eleven senior citizens in Tel Aviv are doing just that as part of a pioneer program. They learn in the same classes as teens jittery about matriculation exams and mandatory Army service.

"It's our privilege to learn for sheer enjoyment," says Leah Kali, a retired finance officer for the Histadrut trade union.

The program, at the New High School in upscale north Tel Aviv, was launched in January. It is free of charge, and could spread to other Israeli schools.

The idea of allowing the seniors - called adult students by faculty - into the 1,379-strong school arose from talks between leaders of a local municipal borough, known in Hebrew as Rova Dan, and Tami Gordon, principal of the school.

"We're very community-minded in the school," says Ms. Gordon in her office, which is adorned with a plaque designating her as the outstanding principal in the city last year. Students are strongly encouraged to volunteer in a nearby hospital and work with the elderly, she says. "We wanted to know what else we could do and this idea came up."

Welcoming the seniors into school is drawn from Jewish religious values, she says. The school, though secular, is trying to translate into action a prayer: "Do not cast me forth in my old age" and a dictum, "You shall esteem the faces of the elderly."

"Instead of talking about these things on a theoretical basis, we are doing something that shows the students how we feel about the elderly people," Gordon says. "Sharing the classes gives them an opportunity to respect the old and be aware of their needs and capacities."

The adult students choose among classes including psychology, computers, and law. Each is assigned a "buddy" from among the high school students, who makes sure they know if class will be cancelled or if there will be a student strike, as there was in February.

The adults learn of the program by word of mouth and they are allowed to take only those classes that are not filled to capacity. In the law class, there are six teens and six retirees.

"These classes take me back to my childhood," Mrs. Kali says during recess. "And the students remind me of my grandchildren."

Another adult, Yehudit Robszyc, says: "I got awkward looks when I first came in the corridor. But I'm so grateful for the opportunity, I really couldn't care less."

The young and old students are friendly but, as would be expected, have very different styles. In the law class, high school seniors call out responses based on their reading and vie raucously to be called on by the teacher, Etty Stein. "Time out. This is not the Knesset," says Ms. Stein, referring to the Israeli parliament and trying to keep order. She strikes a balance between prepping the teens for exams and keeping the attention of the adults.

The senior citizens are more subdued, but when they participate, everyone listens: Their examples are drawn from real life. Teens and adults sometimes work together in teams on classroom exercises.

"When we're talking about rental agreements, they bring actual examples of how landlords duped them," says Roni Hitron. "It adds something."

"They're not a burden," she says. "It makes it much more interesting, with more interaction and not just listening to the teacher talk and taking a test."

According to Robszyc, "Nobody is asleep in that class. It's bright and breezy. I look forward to every Tuesday."

For teachers, having older students in class poses a challenge. "It puts you under pressure," says Stein, who has been teaching for 22 years. "The high school students have to study, but the elderly don't. They have expectations. They ask each other if your class was interesting, and you want the answer to be yes."

And teachers also must bear in mind that the senior students don't have reason to look up to them as authority figures. In fact, they often have illustrious careers behind them. One student who hunches around a computer with 17-year-olds is Zimra Arnat, a veteran of the legendary Palmach military unit that fought Israel's 1948 War of Independence.

"I missed high school," Ms. Arnat said in a recent interview with the daily paper Yediot Ahronot. "When I was high school age, I studied for only a year because it cost money that my parents did not have. "

The Education Ministry is weighing expanding the program to other schools. "This is a very positive initiative," says Avi Katzover, spokesman for the education ministry in Tel Aviv. "We're not talking about a day program for grown-ups, but rather a place for the elderly in certain classes, in certain schools.

"Expansion will be gradual - two, three, or four people here and there and always a small percentage of the classes," he says. "After all, our main goal remains to educate the younger generation."

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