It was my first ever visit to what I like to call the best kept secret in the world of kiruv: the Shaarei Zion school of Ramla. No, that is not a typo. I am not talking about some weirdos who want to convert the Arab children living in Ramallah to Judaism. Ramla (usually pronounced “ramleh” here in Israel) is a city that lies about 40 minutes northwest of Yerushalayim.

I had the good fortune of arriving at pick-up time for students of the youngest grades, so there was a lot of hustle and bustle going on. In fact, it became a bit too exciting when one of the bus drivers started expressing how upset he was that at first there had not been any room left for him to park his bus next to the curb. He started shouting at some of the other drivers, but the latter quickly brought his attention to the fact that there were guests visiting the school (I went along with some other people) and he was making a scene.

But I wasn’t at all fazed by the angry, bareheaded bus driver’s outburst. In fact, I thought, “This is exactly the type of person I want to speak to.” He was clearly a live wire and I figured I could ply him for some non-sugar-coated information. I went right over to him, introduced myself, and asked him how long he’s been serving as a driver for the Shaarei Zion school. “A good few years,” he told me. Of course, my next question was, “And what do you think about the kids here?” Ramla is known to have some tough elements to it, so this was a pretty important question.

“The best in the world!” the now-much-calmer driver responded.

I was actually expecting such an easily riled person to have a few choice words to say about the kids. After all, who doesn’t remember what it’s like to be a kid on a school bus, and how often it can happen that the driver gets driven crazy by dozens of kids creating a cacophony of commotion!

“Really?!” I said, not just a bit incredulous at the emphatic statement of this erstwhile riled up driver.

“Absolutely!” he reiterated with even greater emphasis than before. And he added for good measure, “I’ve been a school bus driver for many years, and I’ve been around the block. I can tell you with certainty that these kids are the best there are!”

Well, by that point I was convinced as to his sincerity, and I was thoroughly pleased with myself for having initiated this conversation with him. All in all, it was an absolutely fantastic first impression of Shaarei Zion without my having even walked through the outer gate into the courtyard yet.

But the biggest surprise – once again, while I was still standing on the outer side of the gate, so I hadn’t even entered the school property yet – was still waiting for me.

“In fact,” the bareheaded – now quite pleasant – driver added after a brief pause, “my own daughter attends this school.”

Ok, I’d had enough. He was clearly pulling my leg. I mean, I was told plenty of information in advance about the school, and I knew that it is a kiruv school, but still. I mean, come on. The guy seemed like a very nice man, but as secular as could be. There did not seem to me to be an iota of religiosity in his appearance or demeanor. Yes, I know. I’ve been living in Israel way too long to say such a silly thing. But, still. It can be awfully hard to shake off strong impressions of external appearances.

After my initial shock, I realized that, of course, he is not pulling my leg and he is being completely serious. So, I said back to him, “Really?! You send your daughter to this school?!” And, yes, once again, I know that I should not have allowed my sense of incredulity to seep into my tone of voice but try to understand. This was my first time ever coming face to face with this practically miraculous phenomenon called Israeli kiruv schools.

“Yes,” the driver reiterated with verve and vigor, “and this is her right here,” he said as he looked down towards his tiny little six-year-old daughter.

I had been so transfixed by everything that this man was telling me that I had been completely oblivious to the presence of the pint-sized human being clinging to his leg. When I finally noticed her – only as a result of her father bringing the attention of my eyes earthward – I almost gasped out loud. It was all just a bit too much for me. The surprises, coming so fast and furious, were shocking my system. You see, this little girl was dressed like a Beis Yaakov student. She looked every bit the part of a girl growing up in a fully frum home.

And her father – bareheaded and with nary a string of tzitzis as he may have been – was beaming, absolutely beaming with pride.

Therein was my introduction to what I like to call one of the best kept secrets in the world of kiruv: the Shaarei Zion school of Ramla. And what an introduction it was! Boy am I happy that I decided to talk to the “angry bus driver”…