Volume:2, Issue: 1

Apr. 1, 2010

The Just Community Approach in Israel: Process of Adaptation
Yael Barenholtz [about]

DESCRIPTORS: just communities; social education; involvement in the community; a model of supervision;  models of implementation;  organizing principles; structured forums; school-wide intervention; direct participatory democratic communities; mixed-age students forums; social education curriculum; problems of implementation; a sample moral dilemma.

SYNOPSIS: The author describes the goals, the process and the problems of implementation of Lawrence Kohlberg’s Just Communitiesin Israeli schools.  The article presents a detailed overview and a deep analysis of the changes in social education created by just communities. Many insights provided by the author will be equally challenging for researchers and school practitioners.

The Just Community Approach in Israel:

Process of Adaptation

Need and Goals

The Just Community was introduced to schools in Israel by the Social Education Department of the Youth and Society Administration of the Ministry of Education. This Administration specializes in implementing informal education in the education system in Israel, both in formal and informal settings. The Israeli school system is centralized and has a national curriculum, but the aspect of social education (i.e., moral education and value education) is not included in the mandatory structure of Israeli curricula.

One of the goals of social education was defined as follows:

“We strongly believe that practicing involvement in the community is a good way to teach our youth the democratic and moral values on which our society is based.” 1

Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory and practice of Moral Development and Education seemed very relevant for addressing this goal. The appeal of his educational approach was in its visible, practical applications.

We adopted the methodology of moral dilemmas discussion, as developed by Edwin Fenton and colleagues (1980). Prof. Fenton was invited by the Ministry of Education and the Van Leer Academy of Sciences in Jerusalem in the fall of 1981 and summer of 1982, to lead a workshop of moral dilemma discussions for supervisors who were policy makers in different areas of curricular expertise. The goal was to implement this methodology in the Israeli school system. I was one of the social education representatives participating in this workshop. Later I was responsible for implementing the methodology of dilemma discussions nationwide in social education frameworks and the Just Community approach to moral education in the high school system in Israel.

Following this experience, the Social Education Department at the Youth and Society Administration decided to introduce the methodology of dilemma discussions to high school educators throughout the country.2 At that time I was in charge of teachers training in social education. While translating the Fenton Teacher’s Workshop Manual, I wrote along with a group of supervisors and teachers, Israeli-based moral dilemmas in addition to the dilemmas included in the original workshop manual.

Teachers’ positive feedback reinforced our view of the relevance of Kohlberg’s moral education approach to our work in value education and to social education in general. The hypothetical dilemma discussions addressed the need for a non-indoctrinating way to discuss issues of conflicting values in Israeli society.

We felt, however, that dealing only with the American-based hypothetical dilemmas was not sufficient when there were pressing daily life issues in our schools and in Israeli society to be confronted daily. I presented our concerns to Kohlberg. Following our talk, he invited me to participate in his 1983 Summer Institute in the Center for Moral Development and Education at Harvard University School of Education. Kohlberg’s Just Community approach to moral education was a major focus of this institute. At that stage, Kohlberg and his colleagues were in the process of developing an approach to complement his theory of moral development and education. This was one of his ways of responding to critiques of his work relating to the issue of relevance to school reality, to every day life conflicts, to the connection between moral thinking and moral behavior.

I found this approach relevant to the needs in our work in Israel and presented the idea to the policy makers in our Administration. At that time the Social Education Department was experimenting with various approaches stemming from theories in sociology and social psychology to promote the social dimension of school life.

In this context, implementing the Just Community was an answer to the practical need to find a way to educate towards values of justice, fairness, and democracy in a democratic country in a non-indoctrinating way.

Process of Nation-Wide Implementation

A support system was developed on a nationwide basis, and a steering committee comprised of national and regional supervisors was formed. The group members were trained both in the theory and practice of the Just Community approach and methodologies for supervising and implementing change. Among others we invited Dr. Ella Wasserman to lead a seminar based on her own experience in the Cluster school. The group met periodically once every three to five weeks and operated as a support group for about three years. The roles of its members were:

  • To guide and supervise the first experimental schools in the district units
  • To develop models of implementation according to realities in the Israeli field
  • To develop curricula for classroom interventions with site-based modular components that would allow for meeting local needs.

Developing a Model for Supervision

With the expansion of schools, new groups of teachers and local supervisors were trained as consultants. As experience accumulated, we developed a model of in-school supervision by a teacher-coordinator who worked along with staff members. Just Community coordinators were trained by social education supervisors prior to starting the program in their school. The coordinators then participated in an annual support group.

Models of Implementation in Israel

As we realized, importing ideas from a different culture and language demanded not only literal translation but some “cultural translation” as well. Adaptations for the Israeli implementation model were done in keeping with the following convictions:

  • The educational process will be based on the Dewey-Kohlberg idea of “development as the aim of education.”3
  • Schools will have structured forums4 for conflict resolution discourse and educational intervention. This would allow students exposure to actual moral conflicts, challenges, and considerations.

Four key organizing principles were re-defined, based on the goals of the Just Community approach to moral education developed in the United States:5

  • Social moral growth
  • Relations based on caring, respect, fairness, and justice
  • Sense of belonging to a community
  • Student accountability and empowerment

Defining these key principles helped the supervisors both in presenting the idea to school leaders and in helping the school make decisions about how the Just Community approach might correlate with their educational credo.

Structured forums:

Several forums were used as bases for discourse concerning these principles:

The Class Unit

Most schools in Israel are structured in a similar way; students are divided by age into groups of 35-40 into homerooms. Until tenth grade the students are in the same group for most of their subject-matter classes.

Each homeroom class has one teacher who is in charge of student affairs. These teachers have responsibilities and tasks in addition to the regular role of teaching and for which they are paid for an additional four hours per week. The homeroom teacher has a special title: “mehanekh.”6 The students consider the mehanekh as “their” teacher-educator and the homeroom is considered “the student’s class.”

In addition to taking most of their classes together, the “class” has one or two sessions per week that serve as a “class meeting” in which issues of personal relevance are discussed. This is the “home-base” of the students. In their meetings they may develop their class climate, get to know each other better, “coordinate their expectations” of one another as individuals and as a group, and set rules and norms of behavior.

We realized that this characteristic of the Israeli system, which is essentially a human hub, with group interaction as its main purpose, may be the natural venue for developing a Just Community in school. Experience, however, has showed that without deliberate efforts to make the homeroom into a social unit, it would not serve as one. Considerable attention and effort were dedicated in the social education unit to meet this need. We felt that the kind of discourse employed in the Just Community, based on the values of caring, fairness, and mutual respect, would be a relevant contribution to our goals. The students might then find the opportunity to discuss their values and beliefs, debate about moral aspects of current events in their class and in school, and become involved in fulfilling the decisions they make. Experiencing role-taking would both enhance problem solving in a more just manner and promote students’ moral growth.

School-wide Intervention

When issues of school-wide interest were on the agenda, public forums of representatives were formed:

Age-group councils7

The councils are made up of representatives from each homeroom. Discourse in the councils was designed to focus on issues of concern to all. The agenda would be set either by class unit suggestions or by council members. Each issue would be discussed in the homerooms, and the main ideas would be voiced by their representatives in the age-group forums or in a school-wide forum. Forum members would deliberate about the different opinions and prepare a resolution to be discussed and voted upon in each homeroom. The representative body would then reach the final decision considering the needs and suggestions of the homeroom decisions. In this way, the idea of stage differences as a challenge for development, the main vehicle for promoting moral growth, would be imbedded in the process of decision-making. Students would be exposed to the claims of other homeroom students through the systematic back-and-forth discussions by their representatives. Still, the representatives were not only informing about their class-mates ideas, but also holding a discussion with all students. Taking into account the legitimate needs of others involved in a situation meant putting moral role-taking into action.

“Meet the Faculty” Forum

forum for discourse between students and all subject-matter teachers. This would occur one to three times a year or as needed.

Student-teacher Joint Committees

to discuss issues of mutual concerns and to allow teachers’ participation in joint decision- making and educational intervention. The committees were formed according to needs: Fairness Committee, Social Activities Committee, School Regulations Committee, etc.

Student Council

In most of the schools, there was an elected school-wide student body. This body served as the community decision-making forum while maintaining constant communication with the entire student community in the classes’ weekly social education session.


Quite early in the process of building the Israeli model of Just Community, we realized that introducing the approach in Israel would need more than just literal translation to Hebrew. Even the title of the program was an issue for debate. The literal translation of the word “just” in Hebrew has a rather “formidable“ connotation in Hebrew, as if relating to a court of justice. We preferred using the term “fair community.” Also, when using the title “Just Community School”, it sounds as if the goal has been already achieved. To emphasize the process and strive to reach this goal, we named the experience, “Towards a Fair Community in School.”

Unique characteristics of the public education system in Israel would necessarily have an impact on the Israeli adaptation of the model.

  • The Israeli school system is centralized, and more than 90% of the student population studies in public schools. Even private schools are committed to the national core curriculum.
  • The Ministry of Education led this experiment, as is the case with most educational initiatives in the country.
  • Implementing the Just Community in Israel was not going to be based on research findings from American models, nor would it further the aims of theoretical research. It would take the form of a practical implementation of a theory that showed potential for contribution to the local needs. Our goal was to see if this approach would apply in a constructive manner to regular mainstream Israeli public schools.

The following is a chart of the issues of implementation that were deliberated upon in the Israeli steering committee and the ways suggested for adaptation to the Israeli condition.

Issue of Implementation and Adaptation




Moral Dilemma Discussions

Not all dilemmas in the American kit were found relevant to Israeli situation.

Revisions in the translated handbook, including Israeli based dilemmas along with the original American ones

American programs operated In small alternative frameworks, as direct participatory democratic communities.

The Israeli centralized school system has difficulty in operating small alternative programs on a national scale.

Organizational Adaptation

  • One experiment of a school-within-a-school model, not as an independent unit.
  • most implementation in sub- units of large schools, a whole age-group at a time
  • Methodological Adaptation
  • representative community participation
  • focus on homeroom as social unit
  • joint representative forums for community discourse, with educational support and preparatory discussions in homerooms
  • school-based curricula, created by school faculty to promote social-moral growth

Voluntary participation of all, students and faculty, in a sub- unit in school (Cluster)

Administratively difficult to implement

Partial voluntary participation

American experiments were with the 14-18 age-group; in Israel, more interest in the junior high school level

Concern about sufficient moral maturity among younger students for participation in shared decision making for the entire school community

Starting program with 8th and 9th graders and not the 7th.

Closer supervision and guidance by adults in the forums of decision making

Mixed-age student forums

Administratively difficulty to implement

Creating new kinds of representative mixed-age student forums.

American Just Communities supervised by Kohlberg and colleagues, growing along with the experience.

  • Need for substitute guidance locally.
  • Lack of written classroom materials available. None in Hebrew
  • Contact with Harvard Center for Moral education for occasional consulting, updating in research, publications, and practices.
  • Consulting with local academic experts in related areas of expertise
  • Forming a steering committee of supervisors working with the schools


Adaptation Deliberations – Elaboration of the Chart Presentation

Direct participatory democratic communities

The American programs operated in small alternative frameworks as direct participatory democratic communities. Most of them were independent units of a school-within-a-school.8 In Israel, the one “Cluster model” did not operate as a separate independent school. Rather, the school principal and key leading figures took an active part in leading the Just Community. From the very beginning it was clear to the principal that the small community of 100 students and teachers would serve as an experiment, with the intention being to implement the principles among the entire school population if it would prove successful.

Another school decided to start implementing the Just Community approach within a sub-unit of one age-group, while aiming for gradual expansion until the entire school functions as a Just Community. Choosing a representative participatory model made it necessary to find “space” for direct educational interventions to promote social-moral growth. This was done in the “class unit” lead by the mekhanekh, similar to the core groups in the American model.

The process of decision-making concerning issues of school-wide interests included discussions in the class-unit, in committees, and in the school councils. In each of these forums, the discourse was based on role-taking strategies, considering the legitimate needs of the people involved, and trying to reach a just solution.

Participation by students and faculty on a voluntary basis.

The motivation in Israel was to find an answer to the need to educate for democratic values in a non-indoctrinating way. The sites for experimentation were regular public schools, so it was not possible to allow for voluntary participation on the part of all parties. The adults who were to change their way of working in school were consulted about the model and were given the freedom to choose whether or not to take part in the experiment. One of the ways to enable this freedom of choice was by implementing sub-units in the school so a teacher could either work in that unit or in another unit that did not take part in the experiment. Thus, even once a decision was made in school and accepted by the majority of teachers, the approach was never implemented in the entire school at once.

Students, on the other hand, could not be granted freedom of choice. Israeli junior high schools are regional, and students cannot choose in which one to enroll. Breaking a school into smaller units entails budget increases, which were not available for most of the time. We looked for other ways to foster a sense of voluntary participation on the part of students who would be part of a Just Community.

Mixed-Age Student Participation in the Just Communities

The Cluster Model of Cambridge was initially introduced to the entire Israeli school system in a conference sponsored by the Ministry of Education to enhance education for democratic values.

One junior high school principal was particularly eager to implement the model in school. This raised a new question, because Kohlberg’s experiments had taken place not in junior high schools but in high schools. We were not sure if the younger students were mature enough to be part of a Just Community in which they would have to consider the legitimate needs of others in a non-egocentric way.9

Mixed-age students forums

The aim of structuring multi-aged groups was to promote moral growth. Rather than having teachers being the only ones to challenge students’ moral thinking, Kohlberg thought it would serve democratic thinking if students’ opinions would be challenged by their peers. Adaptation in this case meant looking for alternative, multi-aged forums in which students could be challenged by peers as well as by teachers.

We thus created new kinds of representative bodies from all age group classes. In each of the forums, members were exposed to claims, interests, needs, opinions, and moral reasoning of those who may be more mature in various ways. The discourse, both in the forums and in the class units, then would relate to a wider scope of opinions and a possibly greater sophistication of moral thinking. The teacher would be informed of the discussion in the contributing forum and help the representative in presenting the topic and issues of concern, clarifying the conflicts and moral aspects, and directing the discussion towards reaching a resolution that would take into account all classes’ suggestions.

American Just Communities were supervised by Kohlberg and colleagues, growing along with the experience.

The missing link here was not just in guidance or supervision. The American model was developed in a dialectic process between the field and academia, implementation and adaptation. Due to differences in school system structure and administration, and due to Israeli cultural differences, it was clear that adaptations were called for. We realized that we needed a substitute for Kohlberg’s “steering committee” and created a practical steering committee based on Kohlberg’s teachings, on Israeli academic writings, and on practitioners’ expertise. In this process of deliberation, we developed the Israeli models of Just Community, and a manual for teachers’ classroom interventions.10

Following is the discription of adaptations and implementations of Kohlberg’s approach, both in Just Community schools and beyond:

Social Education Curriculum as Support for the Just Community

In Israel,11 we found it necessary to develop a social education curriculum as support for the Just Community experience. In fact, schools that chose to implement the Just Community were those in which social education was valued and more fully developed, with a wide variety of projects and activities.12 Introducing the Just Community approach in these schools was consistent with their overall approach to social and values education.

The first phase of implementation indicated that Israeli schools were struggling with problems similar to the ones experienced in American schools:13 school regulations, discipline, cheating, teacher-student relations, and debates over school uniforms.           

In the first three years of the experiment, it became clear that the schools viewed applying the Just Community in sub-units only as a feasible starting point. They developed a vision of “going school-wide,” while thinking that the real test of the approach is in its possible application to the school as a whole.

The developments in the schools encouraged us to expand the implementation process. Since the early 1990’s we explored the experience with many kinds of new schools: vocational, residential, religious, rural and Arab schools.

Difficulties and Conclusions

In the process of implementation we faced some difficulties:

1. An important feature of the Just Community approach was a voluntary enrollment to the program.  Although we offered an adaptation which allowed for the educational process to take place, still the fact that neither teachers nor students could choose to participate did cause some problems. Teachers, for once had to invest much more time in training and in preparing for the changes in their daily tasks.

2.  School principals and the Ministry had to invest much more in training teachers and supervising while discussing their daily issues of concern. They had to add more sessions for the school community to operate. The budget was granted for 3 years and then was made it up to the schools to fund.  Teachers’ ongoing training was still granted by the Ministry but reduced hoping the leading staff members would take responsibility gradually.  This did not happen easily; so little by little some of the more demanding forums ceased to operate.

3. The integration between “school community life” and ‘’school work” was not as in the Cluster school or at Scarsdale. Maybe the school system in the 80’s and 90’s was not ready enough to such an open and dynamic approach. The idea of moral dilemma discussions in the subject-matter classes, along with allowing for students’ participation in the decision making process in the important aspect of school-in curricular matters,  was considered in conflict with the need to cover the curricular duties.

Still, some of the core ideas of the Just community approach to Moral Education remain an important part of the rationale of  Social Education  in Israel.

 The Impact of Kohlberg’s Theory and Practice of Moral Education on Social Education in Israel

Since we first employed the dilemma discussions methodology, we implemented it in many curricular programs, such as “Preparing for Army Service,” which deals with potential moral dilemmas in the army. “Dealing With Current Events” is a model for dealing with current events and issues in the community and in the Israeli society at large: attitudes in a pluralistic society, immigrants, minorities, religious and secular people. These programs include either explicit moral conflict situations or conflict with a moral aspect, as the case evolves. The central methodology would be using the Kohlberg-Fenton Socratic questioning, which invites participants to consider the ethical aspect of events. This was a solution to the problematics of indoctrination when dealing with ethical issues.

The Just Community had an impact on more holistic social education interventions in school. I will elaborate in this paper on one of them. Youth and Society Administration has developed youth leadership programs for years, believing in the importance of active youth involvement in school and in the community. One of the programs related to youth councils that operate in schools. Efforts had been made in the past to help schools by training teachers and student representatives in ways of operating their student bodies. However, in many cases, both students and faculty were critical of the ways they had been operating. They felt that the youth active in the student councils did not really represent their fellow students’ wishes; some were opportunists, functioning like the negative adult role models of national politics.

In implementing the Just Community approach, there was a shift in the schools towards involving the entire student body, rather than only the representatives. In this way, all students would take part in decision-making and conflict resolution processes, based on fairness, justice, and democratic values.

These experiences had an important impact on the development of the Youth Leadership Program. The idea that leadership is about service to the public and, at the same time, an arena for moral thinking and behavior became a motto for the program. Youth representatives were urged to see themselves as committed to considering the legitimate needs of the youth that elected them. They thus aimed to develop a culture of leadership that respects the voters’ and the leader’s needs alike. The training program included moral dilemma discussions as a means for both ethical conflict resolution methodology and developing moral thinking. One of the examples is the hypothetical dilemma composed for training youth representatives for their roles, which became a key story in the training courses.

I-4 “Yossi’s Dilemma in the Student Council” – Youth Leadership Training Case

Yossi was elected to be his homeroom class representative in the school student council. The principal of the school proposed the implementation of a “self service” cleaning system in school. The basic cleaning would be done by students, and only the heavy duty jobs would be done by paid workers. The principal believed this would encourage students to care more about school appearance and maintenance. In return for the students’ services, the principal offered to grant the student council extra budget that could be used for their needs and according to their decisions. The principal proposed the idea to the student council, which was to involve the entire student body in the decision. The members were to present the idea in their homerooms and come to the next meeting with their classmates’ opinions and ideas for discussion and resolution.

The discussion in Yossi’s homeroom did not proceed to his liking; most of his classmates did not approve of the idea and expected him to present their position and vote against the principal’s idea. Yossi thought the idea was good. He believed it would create a more aesthetic environment in school and allow the student body to enjoy the kinds of extra activities they had wanted to arrange in the past but could not afford. He thought his classmates were selfish and only cared about losing thirty minutes each on a cleaning shift.

Yossi debated with himself about whether he should act as a representative, voicing his constituents’ will, which meant advocating against the “self service” idea. Was he not then only a means of passing on messages from his classmates with no say of his own in the council? Yossi was not sure if he should he resign from his role in the council if he could not voice his own opinion. Should Yossi vote for the “self service” project or not?              

1 See Shlomo Achituv and Yael Barenholtz, The Youth and Society Administration (Jerusalem: Ministry of Education), 3.

2 The head of the Social Education Department at that time was Tova Zur, who initiated the idea to adopt this methodology in social education and later to adopt the Just Community approach in Israeli schools. One of the teachers who participated in the first dilemma discussion workshops, Haya Peleg, later became one of my staff members and a leading force for implementation and development of teacher training.

3 Kohlberg, Philosophy.

4 These will substitute for the original direct participatory model.

5 Elsa Wasserman, “Development”; Reimer, Poalitti, and Hersh, Promoting Moral Growth.

6 mehanekh – Heb., “educator, homeroom teacher”

7 Schools with more than 150 students in each age-group usually formed an age-group council to discuss and coordinate their activities.

8 The Cluster model in Cambridge and the Brookline high school.

9 As Kohlberg found, most junior high school students would not reach stage three thinking, which means they may not have a sense of belonging to community or understanding the needs of an entire community. Only later was the theory developed further and the notion of +2 stage thinking introduced. This means that in a situation dealing with a real life dilemma, one can understand reasoning that is two stages above one’s stage of thinking and not just one stage above.

10 Barenholtz and Peleg, unpublished teachers’ manual for Just Community schools, Ministry of Education, Youth and Society Administration (Hebrew).

11 Similar to the German experience of implementing the Just Community approach (Oser, 1995).

12 Such as, “youth leadership,” “personal commitment – student service for the community,”  “on the agenda” - dealing with current events.

13 Wasserman,1977, Kohlberg, Higgins, and Power, 1987.

Yael Barenholtz – Ph.D., Expert in leading Just Community Interventions in the High school System, Teachers training in Moral Education and in Social Education-Social Learning, National Research and Evaluation Coordinator at the Youth and Society Administration, Ministry of Education, Israel.



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Melinda R. Pierson, Ph.D. (Apr. 22, 2011)
This detailed article really describes the curriculum used for social education and that is quite appreciated as it will be more generalizable! Thank you for presenting this program. It is interesting to see how you adapted materials to fit the Israeli situation.

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