In Djerba, Listening To and Learning From Tunisian Jews

When Riki Aridan began working with educators in historic Djerba, she found teachers committed to innovating Tunisian Jewish girls' education.

By Rivka (Riki) Aridan - JDC Educational Consultant | January 24, 2021

Riki Aridan, center, poses for a photo with Tunisian Jewish women who serve as teacher at Djerba's Kanfei Yonah school.

Education is the key to modern life — that’s something I’ve always known, but I’ve come to understand it in a new way since I began working with the Jewish community of Djerba, a Tunisian island of about 160,000 people that’s home to approximately 1,200 Jews.

Twelve years ago, I began partnering with this ancient and somewhat isolated Jewish community, which traces its history back to the exile following the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. At the time, I was still working for JDC-Israel as its area head for early childhood, and I spent my time developing innovative solutions to close achievement gaps for Ethiopian Israelis, ultra-Orthodox Israelis, and other at-risk groups.

After three initial trips to the community, all before the Arab Spring, I thought my work with Tunisia’s Jews was done. I had advised some early childhood educators and other community professionals, and I’d enjoyed the experience. I love working with Jewish communities around the world, and my career has taken me everywhere from the Philippines to the United States. 

Kanfei Yonah teachers pose for a photo at a meeting with Riki Aridan, third from right) in December 2019.

But Djerba is unique, and it took hold of my heart. Though I hadn’t been back in years, I jumped at the chance to return when Sam Amiel, JDC’s country director for Tunisia, invited me to work with two educational activists looking to professionalize Kanfei Yonah, the community’s all-girls Jewish day school. The longtime dream of sisters-in-law Alite and Hannah Sabban, Kanfei Yonah serves more than 100 students and employs 22 teachers. My job is to work with these inspiring women to build local capacity, train the educational team, and ensure high-quality instruction for pupils. JDC has operated in Tunisia since the 1950s, and its early investments in education in Djerba’s Jewish community have paved the way for today’s new platform for change.

From the get-go, I wanted to be attuned to the cultural realities of the Tunisian Jewish community, and I worked hard to develop an approach that both moved Kanfei Yonah forward and was sensitive to Djerba’s way of life. I didn’t want to import a program from the Western world and force it on them. Rather, I wanted to listen and learn — and develop a strategy that respected Djerban culture and autonomy.

We began by training the principals — Alite and Hannah, two women I think the world of. Alite is incredibly wise and intelligent, and she’s always asking questions and looking to learn. She’s curious about everything: science, geography, medicine, and more. She’s the one whose vision for Kanfei Yonah started it all, and she was born with the soul of a leader. Her sister-in-law Hannah is a teacher’s teacher — she’s focused on pedagogy and is the longtime leader of a women’s midrash (Torah commentary) study group.

They are driven by their core belief that if girls can access new knowledge and a top-notch education, their lives will be better.

Alite and Hannah complete each other, and luckily, their husbands and families respect and support their drive to improve girls’ education. They are leaders in the Djerba community, not just in education but in all things. If someone has a problem, the Sabbans will always volunteer to help. I’m always impressed, too, with how open they are to change and how willing they are to cooperate when I present a new idea. They are driven by their core belief that if girls can access new knowledge and a top-notch education, their lives will be better.

Together, the Sabbans and I have worked to introduce new methods of teaching to Kanfei Yonah — working to ensure that education goes beyond listening to the teacher read from the textbook, with little room to ask questions or hold discussions. An approach like that leaves students with little incentive to develop a passion for knowledge or intellectual curiosity. But step by step, we’re exposing teachers, students, and families to new ways of thinking — always in a culturally sensitive way.

Teachers at Kanfei Yonah are usually former star students. They’re smart and eager to teach, but they’d never previously received formal training. We’ve been working to change that, and now the Sabbans and I meet with teachers on Zoom each week, discussing theories and paradigms related to psychology and child development — everything from Freud to attachment theory. We don’t read straight from a textbook; instead, we explain it all on a human level, connecting these big ideas to the teachers’ life experiences as mothers.

The feedback we’ve received is just amazing. Everyone’s talking about our curriculum, and now many people in the Djerban Jewish community know more about how to help children fulfill their potential, along with how educational games and toys can stimulate learning and development. One teacher even told me our session on “nature vs. nurture” prompted her to have her first real conversation with her father — not just “Do this. Go there. Don’t do that,” but a real back-and-forth about her ancestors and what made them tick. We are helping Djerbans connect with their own history, on their own terms. 

Children in the Djerban Jewish community gather for a Chanukah activity.

Our workshops are very active, and the hope is that Kanfei Yonah’s teachers will apply what we’re doing together — lively discussion, paired text study, and so on — to their own classrooms. The teachers are so open and curious, always wanting to learn and know more and always devouring  the books and materials I bring them. I feel like I’m bringing them resources that help them develop a new language for understanding their own lives, and that makes me proud.

I do this work — thankfully with the investment and partnership of JDC — because I believe in giving women the strength to stand up for themselves and chart their own destinies. I’ve done this with Ethiopian Israeli women, Haredi women, and now in Djerba. My time in Tunisia has reminded me of something I’ve missed, something very important that’s sometimes lost in our day and age — the value of “Kol yisrael arevim zeh l’zeh,” that all Jews are responsible for each other.

You definitely see that in Djerba. Everyone supports each other, and everyone worries about their neighbor. The whole community is like one big family with an open heart. Working with them has made me more sensitive and a better listener. I may have years of educational expertise, but my role is not to bring what I think a community needs but rather to listen to what they’re asking for. “You’re my partners, and we’re doing this together,” I tell the teachers. “I’m here to give you a hand and maybe show you a different approach, but you’re the ones doing the job.” I learn more from them than they’ll ever learn from me.

Jewish life has a different rhythm in Tunisia than in Israel, but I don’t mind. I slow myself down, and push where I can, taking care never to patronize the community. My parents came to Israel from Morocco, and it’s important to me that we support and recognize the historic and inspiring Jewish communities still found today in Muslim-majority countries.

My background is in early childhood, and I still often think in those terms. As parents, we want to give our children all the skills and support they need to succeed. When it comes to Jewish community, it’s a little different but it comes from that same place of love and caring — every person has the basic right to choose where they live, and we must do our part to ensure that Jews the world over have the tools they need to survive, grow, and be happy on their terms.

That’s an education I’m grateful to have received from Djerba’s Jews.

Rivka (Riki) Aridan is an expert in early childhood program development. Her experience includes developing programs and initiatives for children, parents, and communities, as well as training professionals in education and welfare. She currently serves as the head of early childhood for Na’amat, an Israeli women’s organization, coordinating 200 daycare centers across the country. After working for JDC for 18 years, she began serving as its educational consultant for the Jewish community of Djerba, Tunisia in 2019. She has an B.A. in Education from Ben-Gurion University and an M.A from Derby University.

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