Jewish Exponent Feature
When dozens of preschoolers at the Tatzpit Kindergarten in Jerusalem returned this week following their Chanukah vacation, the familiar faces of teachers, staff and the ever-present security guards welcomed them back to their classrooms.
A relatively calm oasis amid the bustle of Jerusalem's Talpiot industrial district, the school and its very young children seem an unlikely target for a terrorist attack. But after two years of violent attacks on both military and civilian targets - including schools - providing security for students of all ages has become a top priority for school administrators.
Across the country, hundreds of new security guards have been hired through funds raised by the United Jewish Communities' Israel Emergency Campaign, which so far has generated more than $300 million in emergency aid for the Jewish state. The Philadelphia Jewish community has contributed $1.5 million through its own local Israel Emergency Fund campaign toward the $8 million that is currently required for the school-guard program. Approximately $1.2 million will be used to hire fulltime guards and the remainder will pay for extended hours at secondary schools with guards already in place.
Using a priority system established by the police and Ministry of Education, funds are being used to provide security at all kindergartens with at least three classrooms and at small schools with fewer than 100 pupils. Many of these schools previously had no security or were paying guards out of their own budgets while seeking private donations or asking parents to chip in.
Schools with enrollment greater than 100 students are already eligible for government assistance to meet security needs, under a government decision dating back to 1995. Funding is limited to six hours per day, however, and does not cover the cost of extending guard hours beyond the normal school day to protect students who remain on campus in enrichment programs or special after-school activities. Additional funding is being provided to bring the total up to eight hours per day.
"Thanks to the Jewish community worldwide, we have the ability to protect these kids as well," said Boaz Herman, a spokesman for the Jewish Agency for Israel.
There are 12,000 educational institutions in Israel, and some 80,000 preschoolers and 320,000 students ages 4 and 5 are enrolled in programs across the country. Some programs have as few as 20 students, making it impossible to provide a guard at every school, Herman said. "The idea from the beginning wasn't to hire thousands of people with guns at every kindergarten or school with 20 kids," he said. "We prefer to create a combination of guards at the entrance plus mobile units that are available in the event of a threat to a particular school."
Jerusalem residents Ruth and Richard Winacour are the parents of three school-age children, including a daughter in kindergarten and a son in preschool. Last year, after going one whole school year without any security, their daughter's kindergarten hired a guard, but could only afford to pay the salary for five of the six days each week in which children were present. Parents were asked to contribute to allow the guard to remain on duty six days a week, Ruth Winacour said.
"I felt safer in some ways," she continued, "knowing that if anything happens, there's someone there to protect my daughter." Her school is in a location where there have been scares, she said. A bomb was discovered in a nearby restaurant and safely detonated and there had also been reports of a possible suicide attack. "On the whole I feel better, but just knowing that a guard is needed at your child's school makes you worry more about it."
Though her daughter is now under the watchful eye of an armed security guard, the school her 3-year-old son attends six days a week is unguarded. Because there are only two classrooms, it doesn't meet the current funding criteria.
Still, Winacour said, she hasn't considered taking her son out of the school. "You find what you need, and then you hope and pray they'll be safe."
The effort to implement the program at the beginning of the school year was complicated by a three-week-long government strike in November. The need to train guards for the specific task of guarding schools also slowed the process down, Herman said. However, he said, "We are almost at full implementation."
How to Help
You can contribute to the Israel Emergency Fund of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia in the following way:
Send a check to IEF, c/o Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, 2100 Arch St., Philadelphia, PA 19103; or pledge online at: www.jewishphilly.org .
For more information, call Robert Meyer at 215-832-0585.