(JTA) — On the day Israel was attacked, one of Hannah Asnafi’s first-graders from the southern Israeli community of Kfar Maimon hid for hours in a cramped attic.
Now, seven weeks later, the child has joined Asnafi and the rest of his class in a makeshift school housed at Israel’s Holocaust museum, which has opened its doors to evacuees from the south as part of a widespread repurposing of available space across central Israel.
The symbolism of educating children whose experiences echo famous stories from the Holocaust isn’t lost on anyone involved in the enterprise.
“We’re all inspired about what we teach and learn about the Holocaust, about how people were there for one another, about how educators in the Holocaust taught,” said Shani Lourie-Farhi, who heads the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem and is serving as the acting principal of the newly established school, called B’shvilei Hachinuch.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had a discussion about it but it’s an unspoken inspiration,” Lourie-Farhi said. Using the Hebrew word for mission, she added, “We’re very connected to our past and there’s something there that brought us into this shlichut.”
The impromptu school at Yad Vashem is part of a sweeping effort to make sure that the children among the estimated 300,000 people evacuated from Israel’s southern and northern communities can continue learning while their home schools are closed. Students are not obligated to attend school right now, and the national high school exam has been postponed. Even in areas that were not hit hard on Oct. 7, schools remain shuttered or limited in their operations, particularly, if they do not have adequate bomb shelters for their students. But families and educators know that getting back to school is a key element of providing stability for children at a time when it is gravely needed.
To fill the gaps, individuals, nonprofits and local organizations have turned fallow space into classrooms, gathered school supplies, collected donations to pay educators and even volunteered to teach themselves. The newly reopened National Library of Israel, for example, is using some of its seminar rooms to host evacuated students, while educators have held lessons for students living in Dead Sea hotels at Masada, the site of a first-century resistance by Jewish patriots.
Asnafi was off work for three weeks after the Oct. 7 massacre but returned once Yad Vashem made the decision to convert its unused space into a regular school for some 400 children, ranging from grades 1 through 12, who were evacuated from Kfar Maimon and three other southern border communities to Jerusalem and the surrounding areas.
Yad Vashem chairman Dani Dayan said in a statement that he felt it was the Holocaust memorial’s “duty to extend a helping hand and do what we can to support those affected.” The museum’s public display remains open.
The metamorphosis didn’t come without snags. Despite its name, the International School for Holocaust Studies is more of a teacher training institute than a school and its 25 classrooms are more suited to seminars than activities for children.
“The educational space is actually geared towards adults,” Asnafi said, adding that the Yad Vashem staff were making “tremendous” efforts to adapt it in the maximal way possible.
To that end, the first things to go were Holocaust posters and memorabilia — a move that aimed aimed at turning the building into a “safe zone,” Lourie-Farhi said.
“Bringing first- and second-graders, and even high school kids, into a place like this when they went through such a traumatic event [led to] the choice to say that while of course our role is to commemorate the Holocaust, we’re excluding the Holocaust in this building for this period,” Lourie-Farhi told JTA.
When the school initially opened, many of the children struggled with separating from their parents as the school bus departed each morning from the hotels where evacuees have been staying. While Kfar Maimon was not directly infiltrated by Hamas, the majority of children were traumatized from the ordeal of hiding upwards of 12 hours and then having to escape in a hurry, especially with the presence of terrorists in the vicinity in the days following the attack. Asnafi said she and her children and grandchildren were in her safe room for hours, with one son training his gun on the door.
Lourie-Farhi said she believed the new school could help the children recover. “We want to make the school part of their process of building resilience and finding some sort of routine.”
But staffing has been a challenge. While some teachers, like Asnafi, have continued in their roles as usual, many were unable to for a range of reasons. Some were too traumatized to teach; others relocated elsewhere within Israel and could not get to the school; others yet had spouses called into military service, making it impossible for them to work.
Some 50 Yad Vashem staff members volunteered to fill in the gaps.
“Suddenly you’ve gone from being [a Holocaust studies] educator to a second-grade teacher,” Farhi said. Her staff members took on the onus of adapting into their new roles themselves, including reaching out to other educators to learn the curriculum and how to teach it.
“They’re all very invested. Everybody’s heart is in this project,” she said. “We’re a link in the chain. Some time when this is over — and it will be over — at least this aspect will not be broken.”
Lourie-Farhi said she was also inundated by calls and messages from people wanting to help, including retired teachers or those on sabbatical, some of whom came on board.
In another case cited by Asnafi, the Holocaust memorial’s bookkeeper became the person who greets the children every day on their arrival. “If she doesn’t come to the bus, the kids cry,” she said.
The warmth and dedication of everyone at Yad Vashem went some ways in mitigating some of the challenges, Asnafi said. She did, however, issue sharp criticism of the Israeli’s education ministry, which she said had not adequately supported the schools or their students as they reestablished themselves in new locations.
Anati Manshury, a spokesperson for the ministry, said the government had allocated millions of shekels to setting up new schools for students who were displaced across hundreds of locations. The ministry has hired new teachers, added psychologists, delivered thousands of computers to families and authorized the construction of new buildings in a handful of locations, she said.
For B’shvilei Hachinuch, the challenges are ongoing and speak to the ongoing nature of Israel’s current crisis. The student body comes from existing schools and a yeshiva high school from four religious communities from the Eshkol Regional Council, but new children from other evacuated areas are joining every day, including from the north.
“We have to integrate new kids all the time and it can be disruptive,” Asnafi said. “Not only do they not know their peers, but they’re from completely different backgrounds.”
Asnafi gave an example of a boy who had joined her class from the northern border town of Kiryat Shmona. He sat crying silently and it was a while before Asnafi was able to decipher that the boy, who hails from a secular family, was upset that he was one of only a few boys without a kippah.
“When I came the next day with a kippah my daughter knitted for him, he was overjoyed,” she said.
With exams delayed and so much in turmoil, some in Israel say they would be satisfied with a school year in which children simply feel safe and supported. But while Lourie-Farhi recognized the significance of warmth and support from ancillary staff, such as counselors and psychologists, in creating a secure environment, she stressed the necessity to “emphasize that this is still a school.”
“It’s about being serious, there’s math, there’s English, we’re going to learn,” she said, adding that she saw her new role as a part of the country’s war effort.
“So many people have been recruited, everywhere you go there are people wearing uniforms,” Lourie-Farhi said. “This is our call to duty. This is what we know how to do. We know how to teach.”
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Major Israeli Tech Entrepreneur Gil Shwed Retires
Gil Shwed, one of Israel’s wealthiest entrepreneurs, announced his retirement on Tuesday, bringing an end to his 30-year tenure as CEO of Check Point, an Israeli software firm.
“This year Check Point celebrated 30 years since its establishment, in which we managed to generate growth and reached a peak in almost every parameter. I feel that this is the right time for me to focus on Check Point’s next leap,” Shwed, 56, said. “We are now looking for a replacement for the position of CEO. It’s a process that will take time and even when it ends I will remain involved. I want to focus less on the daily work, and more on the future of the company.”
Check Point was founded in 1993 by Shwed, Shlomo Kramer, and Marius Nacht. Shwed and Kramer were friends from their time together in Israel’s elite cyber unit 8200.
The company provides AI-powered advanced software and hardware for cyber security to more than 100,000 customers globally, bringing in more than $2 billion per year in revenue.
Headquartered in Tel Aviv and publicly traded on the NASDAQ, Check Point has a market cap of more than $19 billion dollars, making it Israel’s second most valuable company, $2 billion less than automobile giant Mobileye Eye. Shwed’s role as CEO has allowed him to amass a fortune of $4.4 billion due to his 20% share ownership in the company.
Shwed is also a recipient of the Israel Prize, an annual award given to Israelis who have shown a high level of excellence in their specific fields. Shwed was given the first award in the technology field when it was introduced in 2018.
Israel’s Leading Hotel Chain Expands Internationally
Israel’s leading hotel chain Isrotel has announced the opening of their first hotel outside of the country.
The brand, under a new division called ALUMA, meaning “ray of light” in Hebrew, will open its Skylark Hotel in Athens, Greece next month.
“We succeeded in doing the best in Israel, creating a culture that people love, so if you know Isrotel you will want to visit,” Benny Levy, the VP of sales and marketing at Isrotel, told The Algemeiner.
Levy says just because they are expanding outside of the Jewish state, “We aren’t stopping opening in Israel … Outside of Israel the potential is endless, it is a significant opportunity.”
Lior Raviv, CEO of Isrotel, added, “ALUMA is an international chain of hotels that will benefit from Isrotel’s longstanding experience and uncompromising standards of excellence, offering global travelers a wide range of city hotels and leisure resorts to choose from, and providing unique hospitality experiences. As a sister company of Isrotel, ALUMA is guided by our approach to hospitality as a way of life.”
They said most of the workers will be Israelis, ensuring the culture of the brand remains. “Israeli tourists, and especially loyal guests of Isrotel, who return to us time and again due to our hospitality experience and high standard of service, will find those same qualities and sense of a ‘home away from home’ at ALUMA, backed by the international standards of perfection and excellence,” added Raviv.
According to Isrotel, the Skylark hotel will be followed by the Anise Hotel, also in Athens, a month later. An additional hotel in Athens and one in Thessaloniki will open by the end of 2024. They said the total investment in the project is 70 million euros, with plans to expand elsewhere in Europe in the future.
Isrotel has 23 hotels across Israel, including eight in the resort town of Eilat in the south of Israel. Their international move comes as Israel’s National Planning and Construction Council announced this week the changes to the city’s height limitations for hotels, allowing up to 20 floors from the previously permitted eight floors.
Tourism Minister Haim Katz praised the move, saying, “We are bringing good news to Eilat. Hundreds and even thousands of rooms will be added in the city. The move will encourage competition, remove excess bureaucracy for a hotel that wants to renew itself, and allow entrepreneurs who have not yet built to increase supply.”
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Investment Firm Announces Recommendations for Preventing Corporate Anti-Israel Bias
Morningstar, Inc., a Chicago based investment firm managing over $250 billion in assets, has issued a report including several recommendations for reducing anti-Israel bias in the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) ratings its Sustainalytics subsidiary assigns to corporations.
For several years, Sustainalytics gave poor ESG ratings to Israel affiliated companies, a practice that led Jewish civil rights groups and lawmakers to suspect that the company was violating state laws against engaging in the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to isolate and weaken the Jewish state.
The firm denied the allegations, but a review of the its ratings by JLens, a leading Jewish investor network, found that Sustainalytics created “BDS blacklists” and used in its internal reports “politicized anti-Israel language” to describe Israel. JLens’ work, which was the first to raise alarms about the issue, led to Morningstar’s cracking down on the practices and adopting policies for ensuring that Sustainalytics does not become a BDS collaborator.
Released on Jan. 31, Morningstar’s new report builds on that commitment, outlining several policy changes, including: eliminating a designation which identified companies as being involved in “occupied territories/disputed region,” quashing reliance on disinformative media reports aimed at distorting a company’s ESG rating, and appointing legal experts to examine matters relevant to international human rights law.
“We welcome Morningstar’s commitment to eliminate anti-Israel bias in Sustainalytics research products,” Anti-Defamation League (ADL) CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement on Wednesday. “We look forward to ongoing engagement with Morningstar to ensure the expert recommendations are fully and effectively implemented.”
The ADL took a leading role in combating anti-Israel bias in ESG ratings, incorporating JLens in Nov. 2022. ADL noted at the time that BDS activists target firms managing ESG rated funds, which attracted over $500 billion in investments in 2021, a 55% increase from the previous year, according to JP Morgan. During 2022’s proxy season, a time when publicly traded companies hold annual meetings to assess performance and weigh suggestions from shareholders, Israel was named in eight of 20 resolutions targeting foreign governments, “making the country only second to China.”
Morningstar’s recommendations will shield ESG from political bias and increase its reliability, Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law founder and chairman Kenneth L. Marcus explained in a statement applauding the report.
“Anti-Israel external forces are doing everything they can to infiltrate campuses, boardrooms, the [United Nations]., sports leagues, and the securities industry,” he said. “We commend Morningstar for engaging with us, examining their ESG product, and committing to make the changes necessary to ensure that their rating system is apolitical, objective, and honest. We believe that implementing the experts’ report is critical to achieving this goal.”
Ari Hoffnung, managing director of JLens, added that “investor are entitled to research that is both objective and devoid of any anti-Israel bias.”
Last July, Morningstar removed 109 negative “controversy ratings” that Sustainalytics subsidiary had given to companies operating in Israel. The firm has also stopped referring to the West Bank and East Jerusalem as ‘Occupied Palestinian Territory’ or ‘occupied territory” and committed to educating its employees about antisemitism and amassing information about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from “independent, recognized experts.”
Morningstar, however, has repeatedly denied that it ever supported BDS. In June 2022, Morningstar CEO Kunal Kapoor issued a statement arguing that an external review of Sustainalytics found no evidence that it “encouraged divestment from Israel” but acknowledged that at least one of its departments singled out businesses “linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and “sometimes used inflammatory language and failed to provide sourcing attribution clearly and consistently.”
Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.
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