Adjusting to New Norms as an Israeli Parent

New immigrant Rachel is undergoing culture shock on behalf of her children.

A friend once told me that I do my children a grave disservice by delaying their attendance in gan until they are 3, 4 or 5. She claimed that they need the gan experience in order to develop that tough exterior so useful in Israeli society. I don’t know if she’s right or not, but every action involves a tradeoff. If you only associate with American families, they will not learn Hebrew as quickly nor the ins and outs of Israeli society. And Israeli culture has positive values such as love of the land, close extended families, and less materialism. Even “protektzia” is positive when you are the beneficiary.

Rachel raises three specific issues.

  1. Neglect and benign abuse that are considered normal. Stick by your American standards regarding safety issues. Make sure the mother giving your kid a ride puts a seatbelt on him, and isn’t planning to leave the house when he is visiting. Check who is supervising your kids’ school trips and youth activities. Some parents will give you a hard time, but others will thank you even if it’s only in their “hard” (as my 4yo puts it). Schools are allowed to release kids after 12:45 (not sure from what age, but definitely upper elementary grades) without notifying the parents. Your kids have to know what to do in that situation.
  2. Junk food. I’ve gathered that junk food is also a huge problem in the US. I’ve given up this battle for the most part, I’m sorry to say. My first-grader’s classmates are constantly reminded not to bring junk, but the quantity given out at school makes up for this. I still control what I buy, but not always what comes into the house. My 4yo told a playgroup mother that we had had homemade pareve ice cream with food coloring and chemicals on Shabbat. In reality, a guest had brought cookies filled with colored gel. My kids know what’s healthy and why we don’t buy certain things.
  3. Manners. When we see others push into line, we can explain to our children how it feels to be pushed and the prohibition against “gezel zman” (stealing the time of others). Saying thank you and you’re welcome is important. However, our ultimate goal is for children to feel gratitude and be sensitive to others. I don’t insist that my children use these words, but hope they will follow my example. And they generally do. But that is more about my parenting approach than cultural difference.

Here are more tips on keeping kids close.

  • Send them to gan as late as possible. Less junk food and bullying, fewer parent meetings and birthday parties–what more could you want?
  • Look for like-minded parents, including Israeli ones. Find people who will teach you about the system, in order to understand and influence it.
  • Focus on the positive–both in your children and in Israeli life. Israel has improved in many areas such as safety awareness and handicapped access.
  • Limit the amount of time your kids spend with friends until you know the parents. Remember that just because someone is “Anglo” doesn’t mean they have the same values and standards as you.
  • Invest time in building up a support network for your family.
  • Depending on where you live, you may be exposed to a much wider variety of cultural experiences and mindsets than you were in the US. The parents who are unaware of safety issues may have grown up in a home where those issues were not on the radar screen.
  • Limit time spent in gan, daycare and afterschool programs, hugim (afterschool activities), and youth groups, and stay on top of what happens there.
  • Let your kids know why you do things differently, without criticizing other parents. Their approaches may be valid, especially in a different cultural system.
  • Be realistic and avoid stereotypes. Are kids in American dayschools always welcoming to new kids? Do teachers always have complete control of the class? Do all American parents put their kids in seatbelts every single time?
  • Teach children to respect their own individuality and that of others. Give them the confidence to withstand negative social pressure.
More posts on acclimating to aliyah:


  1. thanks for such a comprehensive answer!
    I am a stay at home mom and the majority of people here don’t understand why I do it. They think it will hurt the kids… They are shocked when I tell them that I am not looking for a fll time job. Maybe I’ll start a new movement where I live.
    I agree with you that things in America aren’t perfect either, and that Israel has many many positives. I guess it’s just colture shock, especially after I tried to teach one class in a local school (mamlachti dati, 7th grade)

  2. Limit TV as well!!!

  3. I have learned to ask, both here and in the States if parents are HOME when a child invites one of my kids over. Most of the time the answer is NO (who is home at 2 pm) so… they playdate is pushed off.
    It’s interesting to note Rachel’s culture shock. I was brought up here and life was so… free. Really, even though I have American parents. They drew the line at Bnai Akiva vs our family Shabbat meal (we ate early and Bnai Akiva in the mornings went till late) but basically, us kids could come and go as we pleased. It was a HUGE culture shock when I came to America as a young parent, to see people actually scheduling play dates, sometimes nanny-to-nanny. You had to call before going over to someones house. It’s gotten that way here too, much to my chagrin.

  4. As a long-time olah “chadasha” let me reassure you that culture shock is not something new – I remember feeling totally at sea when my children first went to gan and school (these children are now married with children themselves, which shows you how long ago this was). It took me quite a long time to work up the nerve to question certain practices in school and in the kids’ youth movement – but when I did I found that the Israeli parents were on my side, and together we managed to change things. I was very pleasantly surprised.
    So my advice to Rachel (and all you other new-timers) is don’t be afraid to open your mouth (politely of course!) and ask the school/gan/other parents why they are doing whatever it is that you don’t like. Try constructive criticism, suggesting an alternative. And get other parents onside first if at all possible.

  5. Even in America there is a huge push towards pre-school. People have told us our children won’t be academically prepared, won’t learn to socialize (as if seeing me socialize isn’t a better example than a fellow 2, 3, or 4 year old), etc.
    Sometimes when we are out, I’m approached by parents who are impressed with a particular child’s social skills, academic skills, or whatever. They want to know what preschool he goes to. It is becoming more and more fun to say, “Mommy’s pre-school.”
    Goodluck in Israel. We have friends who made aliyah of a similiar mindset, so I know you aren’t alone!

  6. We made Aliyah when the girls were almost 5 and 6 (we came in July, they had their birthdays in August).
    By Purim they were fluent enough in Hebrew to have friends but they still had problems in school/gan so they repeated their years. The thing was, it wasn’t that they couldn’t do the work, they just didn’t have the language to understand what the teacher wanted from them.
    We’re an English-speaking only household since my husband barely speaks Hebrew. We plan on sending the baby to Ma’on in September so he can start getting a basic grasp of Hebrew.

  7. My 7-month old is home with me, and I will put her in gan when she’s 3. It’s a half-day program, so it won’t take away my place in her life, but it will help her Hebrew develop before she’s expected to master skills and pass tests.
    More importantly, it will give me a break, and my sanity is a serious consideration.

  8. Pesky settler:
    I started my oldest in a Hebrew speaking mishpachton at 16 months and my second in a Hebrew gan at 2. We are also an english speaking house (though my husband is fluent in Hebrew, we speak English to each other and he speaks to them in English 90% of the time).
    I’m really happy I did that, because Hebrew was never a second language for them, which I think always makes things easier.

  9. I agree that there are advantages to making sure that your child socializes with Hebrew speakers early on, but that doesn’t have to mean gan or maon. It can also mean going to a chug once or twice a week.
    I think it’s sad when a kid raised in Israel has an American accent in Hebrew. Especially because they likely won’t have the English level of a native speaker either.

  10. Here in America I enrolled my children in a school where they have a Hebrew immersion program taught by Israelis.
    They’re learning how to speak without an American accent. Wish that I could drop mine.

  11. Mother in Israel, the pressure is TREMENDOUS for sending kids in gan. When my twins were 2 to 2 1/2 I tried to not send them. I got so much flack that I had to keep it a secret.
    I was secretly keeping my own children with me! How crazy is that?!
    Finally, when the next one came around, It was better to send them in gan. i.e. I had a reason to send them to gan. But that didn’t matter. It seemed no matter what or how many projects and tiyulim I took them on, I had this guilt over my head for keeping my own babies with me.
    Now, they are stuggling but slowly learning the Hebrew.
    What say you about playing in the sand boxes?

  12. mominisrael says

    Rachel, more women do work here. Like you say, you’ll eventually find a group of women who appreciate what you do.
    Jameel-absolutely. We currently don’t have one.
    Tamiri, sad that things have changed.
    Annie, good advice. Thanks you.
    SL, after six kids I can find the support that I need, when I need it. If people start to open their mouths I just refuse to take the bait.
    PS, I can understand holding them back when they have August birthdays. On the other hand, if it’s only a question of language and not academic or social maturity, kids manage to catch up. As for your baby, children who learn the language before 12 or 13 have the capacity to speak it like a native, so I don’t think you have to worry at 7 months. We are also an English-speaking household, and my oldest didn’t learn Hebrew until 4. He had an American accent until age 11 or so, but his Hebrew is stronger than his English now, at 17.

  13. mominisrael says

    Trilcat–If you survive the toddler years age 3 will be a piece of cake.
    Jack, they will learn Hebrew but I’m skeptical about them retaining the accent. Also, what might sound like a native accent to you might not sound like one to an Israeli.
    Miriam, they will learn Hebrew. You are in Beit Shemesh right? There are home-schoolers there so there must be others with pre-schoolers (how ironic to use that term) at home. I think I know some. Email me and I’ll direct you. Sandboxes don’t bother me, but don’t let them eat in one or they might get pinworms. My kids seem to be hardy.

  14. Dear Miriam,
    When we came to Israel, our then-youngest was 4 and had no Hebrew. He went to gan at the ripe old age or 4 years and 3 months and… learned Hebrew. We even got him some kupat-cholim subsidized Speech Therapy (a bargain at 20 NIS/session and great fun for the kid) which helped his Hebrew. Within aoubt 6 months he was fluent. Now, in 3rd grade his American English is… Hebrish.
    His younger brother, no the last child was 3 on Chanuka and does not go to gan. I cannot describe the pleasure we get from having him around, not having to worry about schedules, pinworms, lice, illness etc. They don’t exist in our house. He is growing at his own pace, and when he needs TLC, it’s here for him. He does not have to work out his baby issues with a group of children his age. (I don’t work outside the home, this cannot be done, obviously, if you go to work). He can play with what he pleases, draw when he wants and he has the total attention of one or two adults. He does not have to share, if you can call being the youngest of 5 not having to share. It’s a joy. So what if everyone else sends their kids out, do you know how many people view us wistfully? Do what you feel is best for your kid, you can never get another chance to be home with your children like this. As far as language: he picked up some Hebrew at playgroup as the other kids are bilingual and yes, prefer to chatter in Hebrew despite the fact that their mothers speak to them in English. I don’t worry about him managing with language, and I hope they will send him, like his brother, to speech therapy.

  15. All my kids were born in Israel and I kept them at home, in an English speaking environment, until age 4.
    At 4, they went to Israeli pre-school (trom hova) for a year. At 5 they entered gan hova.
    Now (my youngest is 9) they all speak Hebrew fluently and are completely Israeli. They all read Hebrew better than English.
    Staying at home for 4 years didn’t adversely affect their Hebrew. (It’s their English that is below par)
    Keeping them home allowed me to be their primary educator. (not to mention that they were fun to be with!)

  16. Mother in Israel,
    I’m not in Beit Shemesh. More around the area of Giv’at Shaul, Har Nof area. I’m not sure what to do re: school yet. I have an interesting circumstance.
    (my kids are bi-racial so I have to account for that and send them somewhere where it won’t be a drudge or a staring issue)
    Tamiri – thanks for that positive messages. I now have an almost two year old in the house and hope to have him home as long as I can.

  17. My oldest is 3, and her Hebrew is now better than her English. When she’s tired you can really see it. Since I work from home, she’s out all day – gan in the morning and tzaharon in the afternoon. It’s perfect for her. Last year, when she was at home in the afternoons, it was not a good situation for either of us – we ended up fighting all afternoon. The only issue is – I feel like her friends are more important to her than I am… And as for healthy food, etc – she was addicted to candy, but we slowly finished the candy in the house and now try to encourage fruit and vegetables, or “real” meals as much as possible. Slowly, the change is happening…

  18. mominisrael says

    Tamiri, my youngest had lice as a newborn–don’t ask. Fortunately we haven’t had any in a few years.
    RivkA–my kids’ Hebrew is also stronger than their English, and they laughed when I asked them if they planned to speak English to their children. I’ve noticed a big jump in their vocabulary since I started making an effort to use a minimum of Hebrew words and a rich English vocabulary. And they mostly translate easily between the two languages.
    Miriam–good luck. That can’t be easy. Different neighborhoods have different attitudes about kids being home. There’s universal pressure, but some places are more conformist than others.
    SS–It must have been frustrating to want to give your daughter your time, only to spend most of it fighting. I hope things are better now. Regarding her friends the book, Hold On to Your Kids by Gordon Neufeld, talks about the theory of “peer attachment.”

  19. I guess it’s conforting to know that I’m not the only one who feels so much pressure to send younk kids to maon and gan. I feel that in so many ways Israel is 20 years behind the states.

  20. Rachel, in the (orthodox) Jewish communities I lived in during our 16 years in the States (4 communities in all), I NEVER encountered pressure to send babies out of the home before the age of 2, and even then only for a 2 day a week/2 hours per day program. Israel has more of a “head start” (read: disadvantaged children need to get out of the house early on) and socialistic (everyone should be working to better society) outlook when it comes to sending kids off at a young age.

  21. Rachel, that’s funny, I feel Israel is in many ways 20 years ahead of the states. I think women in the states have much fewer options because quality childcare is so expensive. I think it’s very backwards not to have a framework that at least gives women the option to work. You don’t have to opt in, but I think it’s important that it at least be available, for both women’s and children’s sake. (I personally know of a few women in the US who are very frustrated being home and make themselves and their children miserable).
    SS- feel free to email me at abbi.adest @ gmail. com because I’m in the same boat ( I work from home with small children).

  22. I guess it’s conforting to know that I’m not the only one who feels so much pressure to send younk kids to maon and gan. I feel that in so many ways Israel is 20 years behind the states.
    rachel | 02.17.08 – 4:17 pm | #
    Rachel, Abbi, I’ve felt both ways! Like Israel took some of the “old ways” and blended it with alot of “modern ways”.

  23. First, I agree that the option of being able to have your kids in daycare early is important.
    Second, some mothers thrive on being “camp mommy” or “mommy’s nursery school.” and have new ideas for great activities each day. Some really don’t.
    As parents, we have a responsibility to know ourselves and make our choices based both on who we are and on what we want our children to be like.
    I’m far from thrilled with certain aspects of the Israeli school system, but I look on the bright side – elementary school kids are home by two each day. That leaves plenty of hours for parents to teach them the things their school doesn’t.

  24. mominisrael says

    Trilcat, by the time your daughter is 3yo she will have to go until 4PM. That is the direction we are going.

  25. mominisrael says

    Trilcat, I am not a “camp mommy” and I don’t believe it is a requirement for staying home with your kids. If you like elaborate crafts, fine, but kids will also do fine with a box of crayons and a pair of scissors at the appropriate age.
    It was not easy in the beginning; I was bored out of my mind with my first. But it was important to me, so I found ways to make it enjoyable. I also knew that juggling a job around my kids was not the life I (we) wanted.

  26. trilcat: Very well put and I agree completely.

  27. MII: In the previous comment, who were you referring to by “we”? It’s unclear, but I’m guessing you mean Israel in general?
    Even if they made all schools run till 4 (the chances of this ever really happening are pretty slim, at the rate things are going with school reform) only gan chova would be affected. I haven’t heard of a plan to make trom and trom trom extended and/or mandatory.

  28. mominisrael says

    I meant my husband and myself. The Dovrat plan made full-time education mandatary from ages 3-18, please correct me if I’m wrong. By requiring everyone to do it it makes it more efficient.

  29. Excellent advice, Mother in Israel. And I can assure you, as a parent in the US that your penultimate point on not stereotyping is quite true. Some parents here are lax, and some children emulate their parents’ cliques in their social interactions.

  30. I can understand them making them making the ganim long day, but since trom trom and trom aren’t currently mandatory, I can’t see why they would want to burden the system even more by making them mandatory.
    But I haven’t read the report, so i really can’t say if it’s here or not.
    Also, I really can’t see Dovrat ever passing through as is. It will take a lot of political wrangling just to get the schools to go long day, let alone the ganim.

  31. Trilcat:
    I agree with you that the option of affordable daycare here is a plus. Also in America many women have to work full time to get insurance. In those aspects Israel is 20 years ahead of the states. However, I find that here you have the mentality that kids in school are better than at home. I know that in many cases that it’s true, there are plenty of parents who neglect their kids. The new Dvorat plan seems to follow that logic (I haven’t followed the school reforms too closely, maybe a good topic for a post?).
    However, up to the age of 5 kids aren’t learning anything in gan/school that they can’t learn at home (I don’t believe in learning how to read before the age of 6-7, the current trends in the US). At that age they develope language skills, motors skills, and basically play in unstructured manner. Any mother who wants to keep kids at home can teach them to count, colors, shapes, (and manners) etc. have playgroups for social skills and have them ready for gan chova.
    In any case, since kids will be returning home at 2ish, any mother should be able to plan activities for the kids regardless of whether she is a SAHM or not.

  32. One thing that is really nice here in Israel vs the US (from what i’ve heard about there) is the fact that K is still play/experience based learning and not a frontal classroom situation.
    The fact that kids in the US are expected to be learning to read in K is something I’m glad to be missing. My kids have been able to enjoy gan hova without any pressure – no homework, no reading, nothing but what they are ready for. (N.B. I have a son in gan hova now who has started to read – but he picked this up on his own interest and I’m more than happy it won’t be expected of him nor worked on in the classroom).
    This is one point i remind myself of constantly when i see other things I don’t like as much – like the long day gan hova. This despite the fact I’m work full time so my kids go to afterschool care – but there they had nap time and other things my 5.5 year old wasn’t really ready to skip at the start of this year. If i had my choice, I’d definitely have been back the way it was a few years ago but… I still try to look at the bright side that at least the long day K here is not sitting at desks.

  33. I can’t imagine that a full-day kindergarten wouldn’t have nap time.
    That would be a really poor idea.

  34. About not teaching reading until first grade – it’s starting to be a pressure here for the kids to already know how to read by the time they enter first grade. I know that the gan my daughter is in (has a mixture of 3 and 4 yo) does work on letter recognition with the 4 year olds, and in the boys gan, they really do work on having them ready to read by first grade. That said, I’m not really so upset with that. My daughter already recognizes a couple of Hebrew letters and maybe one or two English ones, and this is only from my husband sitting with her for a few minutes a day a couple of months ago with the Hebrew, and me going through the English with her a few times, too. She is bright, and I know that not all kids would pick it up, but it’s not a pressure, and she really enjoys learning…

  35. trilcat: most parents don’t like their kids napping so they can go to sleep at a normal time.
    Personally, i try to make sure my little one is up by 3:30 pm, if she chooses to take a nap. Otherwise, it’s difficult trying to get her to bed.
    My 4.5 year old can still nap with the best of them, but if she does, we can’t think about bedtime till 9 pm at least.
    She manages very well without naps. Her long day gan has rest time after lunch.

  36. Here in the U.S. the jury still seems to be out regarding when to start formal reading instruction. I’m sending Ann (turning 5 this summer) to an elementary school where they will not formally teach reading until the following year, first grade. Some of the other schools do teach reading at 5 years old (called kindergarten or Pre1A depending on the school).
    For me, as an ESL teacher and a reading specialist, the fact that the current school doesn’t teach reading yet was a major plus. I prefer that they wait that extra year, until the kids are more ready and it hopefully clicks, rather than put on the academic pressure early on.
    I’m more worried about her Hebrew pronunciation. She learned the color orange as “Kuh-sowm” to which I said, “Huh?” a few times before I finally understood that she was referring to “Ka-tom.” Yikes. I hope we can make aliyah before she’s 7 or 8. I think that after 8 or 9 years old, it is very unlikely that a child will acquire native-like intuition in a language (or shake off the American accent).