Children at Sha’ar HaNegev High School were among the happiest Israeli kids to be going back to school this week: after 12 years of sprinting into shelters whenever a “ﾘred alert’ was sounded, they can now safely ignore the air-raid sirens and continue with their lessons. Israeli President Shimon Peres joined the 1,200 students for their first day in the new rocket-proof campus built next to the old one in a defiant message to the terrorists in nearby Gaza who have been trying to render their home uninhabitable “ﾓ efforts which continued this week with the bombardment of Sderot, where many of the teenagers live.
“I’m proud of you,”? the President wrote on a special message board, saying later that the students had displayed “steadfastness in learning, achievements and creativity”? in the face of the barrage from their neighbours.
World ORT Director General and CEO Robert Singer said: “President Peres’s pride in the school community’s stoicism is something we all share. These kids are true Israeli heroes and it’s a privilege to be in a position to support them as they strive for success.”?
The school’s new $27.5 million, 14,000 square-metre campus includes two buildings provided by World ORT and its partners at the ICA Foundation and Ministry of Education with the support of British ORT, ORT Zurich and private World ORT donors in the UK and Canada: the academically oriented EMQ Science and Technology Centre (bearing the initials of the family which funded it) and a mechanics centre for vocational training.
It has been cleverly and sensitively designed not only to maximise protection from terrorist attack but also to foster the openness and transparency of the school’s communal culture.
Each grade has its own colour-coded building and concrete shelters dot the open spaces so that no-one is ever more than 15 seconds from safety in the event of a rocket attack. The reinforced concrete buildings are oriented at a 45-degree angle to the direction of fire from Gaza so that only two of a square building’s four walls would face the full force of an attack; windows and doors are blast-proof and teachers have rooms by the classes so that they are always close to the children.
“You can finally teach without constantly worrying about what to do when there is a rocket attack. You can concentrate on your studies. It used to be that even before you said hello in the morning you were telling people where to run,”? said World ORT Innovation Leader and Principal of the Junior High School Zohar Nir-Levi.
At the heart of the campus are World ORT’s buildings, whose $1 million cost amounts to less than half the organisation’s investment in the school’s new site.
“President Peres told me he highly appreciated our contribution,”? said Avi Ganon, CEO of World ORT’s Kadima Mada programme in Israel.
And, uniquely for a secular Israeli school, there is also a synagogue.
“The whole process of schooling is based on a search for your identity “ﾓ your Jewish identity, your Zionist identity, your human identity,”? said Principal Aharele Rothstein. “You can’t ignore the fact that any place around the world which is associated with Jews has a synagogue. The goal is that our students will be able to answer two questions when they finish school: “ﾘwho am I ‘ and “ﾘwhy am I here ‘. If you know who you are then you know much better what you want to study, and when you know why you are here you are here you will be much more able to be part of a community.
We have a very high standard of academic achievement and it’s because of this.”?
Mr Rothstein started planning the new campus four years ago out of a desire to stem an exodus of students during the darkest days of attacks from Gaza. And the energy put into developing the school over recent years, including World ORT’s investment of smart classrooms and teacher training, has helped to create a situation where, despite the on-going rocket attacks, the local population has doubled and student enrolment has surged.
The strategic and symbolic significance was not lost on President Peres. “I see here a wonderful and strong stance in the face of rockets. This fortified school is the least that can be done for you. In response to the rockets you are making a strong statement,”? he said.
Although the new campus takes protection to a new level, it is not a panacea.
Shani Cohen, a Sha’ar HaNegev mother-of-three, told Israel Hayom: “It’s true that the schools themselves are fortified, but having the children actually reach the schools is enough to worry me.”?
But it has been a remarkable collaboration between Israel’s Ministry of Education, the school, the municipality and Diaspora organizations to bolster a beleaguered community.
As architect Yuval Geni, whose firm designed the campus together with Mansfeld-Kehat Architects and Israel Prize-winning architect Dan Zur, said: “It has been a really Zionist project because in providing reinforced structures what we are really reinforcing are the people who live there “ﾓ that’s the best part of it.”?