The new school year began in my hometown this year with two special guests on hand to welcome First Graders - Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Gideon Saar.
It's not every day that the leader of your country shows up a block from your house. It was a very big deal!
Of all the schools from Metulla to Eilat and everything in between, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Minister Saar picked Efrat's Aseh Chayil School for several positive reasons.
* Aseh Chayil is a past recipient of the Israel Prize for Excellence in Education.
* It has a Tanach (Bible) Room where children learn about the Bible experientially.
* Aseh Chayil's Button Museum has collected 1.5 million buttons from people all over the world in memory of the 1.5 million Jewish children murdered in the Holocaust.
* The school also has a therapy petting zoo that has helped many children.
Waiting for Bibi
Guests were asked to arrive at the Efrat Community Center at 9:45 AM, and wait for the Prime Minister's arrival at about 10:30 AM. Security was so tight around Efrat, the town was closed up like a can of tuna fish. Police, guards and who-knows-what kind of uniformed guys were everywhere. Their common denominator was the serious look on their faces.
The Community Center basketball court filled up with students, parents, grandparents and recognizable community figures.
It was a great place to touch base with the folks you hadn't seen all summer. And it was a nice change to see most of folks all dressed up, as they should have been, for the Prime Minister.
While roads throughout Efrat were closed to all traffic, the Prime Minister arrived by helicopter at the Efrat concert grounds, now to be known as the Efrat concert grounds/helicopter landing field. [We hope one day it will be the Efrat Swimming Pool Complex.]
Just when the room reached the intolerable- ility level of stuffiness, the Prime Minister arrived, escorting on to the basketball court a little blonde first grader.
All the Right Things
He blessed the many more than 100 first graders, who sat as quietly as possible in their clean white first-day-of-school T-shirts. He told them that their learning adventure was about to begin in everything from math and reading to Tanach (Bible Studies) and Moreshet Yisrael (the heritage of Israel), because "everything is interconnected."
With an education, the Prime Minister said, "the sky's the limit."
Yes, the Prime Minister said all the right things here in Efrat. "Efrat will always be an integral part of the State of Israel... We are building Efrat with energy and responsibility."
Everything upbeat was referenced from this year's programs for free nursery school to school-book lending. The Prime Minister didn't mention any current events that are troubling the State of Israel today - most prominently, the fate of the village of Migron in the Binyamin Region. And no one brought it up.
Thanks for Everything
When Efrat's Mayor Oded Revivi spoke, he thanked the Prime Minister for the computers for the Aseh Chayil School, the six new preschool classrooms, and the four new day care center classrooms from the government. He thanked the PM for the 40 housing units promised on the Dagan Hill, the 217 promised on the Zayit, and the 140 housing units promised on the Tamar. He stopped short of asking the Prime Minister to okay future building on the Eitam Hill, which is the hilltop that has always been reserved for our future generation. Over the past few years, Efratians have been struggling to keep hold of its eighth hill, even as the Separation Wall inches nearer to Gush Etzion.
Blessing the Children
Minister Saar, Mayor Revivi, Prime Minister Netanyahu and assorted older students and parents took hold of the corners of tallitot (prayer shawls) and covered all the first graders. A parent of the school recited an ancient prayer, "May the angel who redeems me from all evil bless the lads, and may my name be declared upon them - and the names of my forefathers Abraham and Isaac - and may they proliferate abundantly like fish within the land." (Genesis 48:16)
It was a moving and teary-eyed moment, made more so when I realized that the tallit that the Prime Minister was holding had belonged to Captain Hagai Lev, o'h, an officer from Efrat who had lost his life in Gaza, uncovering smuggling tunnels in Rafiah. The beautiful tallit is often used as the wedding canopy at Efrat weddings. This was the first time I had seen it used as a canopy to escort little children into the world of learning.
[I have since been informed that Hagai's tallit is used every year in the Welcome to Kita Alef Ceremony. And at this year's ceremony, two of Hagai's nieces entered first grade in Aseh Chayil. They stood under their uncle's tallit, while all the children were blessed.]
The wait for the Prime Minister had been long and tiring, but the event was short and sweet. And for a brief time, everyone was united in their good feelings - feelings of optimism in the future, hope in the eyes of six year olds, and of course, dreams of peace for the next generation.
Good luck to first graders in Efrat and wherever you are. We're expecting to hear great things from you. We know you won't disappoint us.
Photos by Sharon Katz, except the tallit photo, which was taken by the renowned photojournalist Gershon Ellinson.