September 28, 2000
Jerusalem's Re'ut School aims to expose students to cultural diversity.
In Israel, Re'ut School is unique: a religious school that's part of the nonreligious school system, and committed to halachic practice and a completely pluralistic curriculum at the same time. Its activities include not only traditional prayer morning and afternoon, but also meditation, yoga and tai chi. It mounts interfaith meetings with Muslims and Christians, and programs that bring its Jewish students into contact with both Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.
It's no wonder Jerusalem's Re'ut ("friendship") attracted both interest and funds from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which for the third year in a row has allocated money for institutions and organizations in Israel which promote "pluralism and diversity." In each of the first two years, $250,000 was allocated; this year, the amount was reduced to $200,000. Grants given this year will fund a program to provide Judaic studies to 15 secular public schools in Tel Aviv, a series of egalitarian Shabbat retreats, creation of an M.A. Judaica program under Conservative auspices for Tel Aviv-area teachers in secular schools, a program under Orthodox auspices to increase commitment to tolerance and democratic values in the religious school system, a family education center in Jerusalem, and the Tali Jewish content enrichment programs in Tel Aviv secular schools.
Re'ut, now in its second year and serving grades seven-12, is all about diversity. The students come from both secular and religious homes. The school boasts a department for cultural encounters whose purpose is to expose students to other cultures, and providing language courses in French, Amharic, Japanese and sign language ("to indicate that deafness is a culture, not just a problem," explains school principal Dr. Aryeh Geiger).
On September 7, Jake Farber, campaign chair, and his wife Janet represented The Federation in presenting to Re'ut a check for $23,000 to fund a special course, mandatory for all 10th-grade students, titled "Pluralism and Streams of Judaism." Israel's first year-long academic attempt to teach pluralism, the course endeavors to construct a new kind of conversation among Jews.
"The old dialogue is dead," asserts Geiger. "The words Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, secular have lost their clear meanings. The labels have simply become a problem now. Everyone is on some sort of spiritual search. Re'ut School is meant to be a haven that gives everyone a place to deal with their Jewish spirituality and identity."
In the course on pluralism, students not only learn about the history and traditions of other Jewish options but, more important, are educated to tolerance for ideas they don't agree with, learn to argue both sides of an argument and talk about public issues and personal concerns that will help them define their identities as Jews.
Geiger's aim is to replace the lost definitions with unlabeled spiritual searching (hitchabrut), connecting oneself to the search for self-knowledge and meaning. That includes not prayer (students must attend prayer, but are not required to pray) and tastes of other spiritual disciplines, but a strong emphasis on community service.
Each student is required to perform community service weekly. The students staff a soup kitchen, work with new immigrants, the elderly, single parents and the handicapped and volunteer in a shelter for battered women. Students like it, and so do parents. "The children learn to be members of a community - not only to take but to give," enthuses Shlomo Cohen, who has two sons in the school.
For Geiger, the quest for spirituality and the development of character comprise a form of education at least as important as the academic system on which the Israeli high-school system is based. This system of year-end bagrut (matriculation) tests measures students' learning in specific subject areas and to a large extent define their future academic possibilities. The effect of the system is that students often don't want to hear anything that is not connected to the tests, narrowing the learning process into a memorization exercise."Academics certainly have importance here," says Geiger, "but we're not great supporters of the bagrut system. We aim to create an environment in which students not only study together but learn to live with one another and appreciate one another."
Geiger, who speaks accentless American English and in conversation projects a low-key California style, is a native Israeli from a seventh-generation Safed family. He grew up in Miami, returned to Israel at age 14, completed high school and went through the army and later returned to America to earn a Ph.D. in educational psychology from Temple University in Philadelphia in 1975.
A clinical psychologist as well as an educator, he headed schools in the religious-school system for 20 years, until two years ago, when he was dismissed from his position as principal at a state religious high school in Jerusalem sponsored by the Amit Women's organization.
Geiger says that his programming at Dror became "too avante-garde" for Amit - he names women's tefillah as one area of dispute - and then confesses that the whole episode was so "painful" that he doesn't want to talk about it.
Re'ut, which has grown quickly from 120 students to 200 and could expand its population by another 75 if it had the space, had to battle at first against both the religious-school establishment and the local political establishment. The municipality, Geiger recounts, which assigns buildings and supervises schools, initially took a strong position against the new school. That wound seems to have been mostly healed, and Geiger says that the secular-school system, to which Re'ut is now connected, is pleased with his pluralistic agenda and a curriculum much richer in Jewish content than ordinary secular schools provide.
Though some parents complain about some laxity in the school environment and a nonreligious attitude among the students, most are pleased with the new school. Mindy Kornberg, whose daughter Elisheva is in ninth grade, calls the school "a miracle that saved her soul. She was anti-school and anti-Jewish learning. She needed an atmosphere that was warm and open-minded, where she could ask whatever she wanted." Shlomo Cohen says simply, "Both my sons are glad to go to school every day."
The students themselves speak glowingly of an atmosphere of trust and helpful personal relationships between students and teachers.
As its principal, Geiger's vision directs the school. Ultimately, he says, his aim is to create a cadre of ambassadors who will influence Israeli society at large. "We want students to come out as committed searchers - to be on a spiritual quest, with a basic knowledge of Jewish texts, basic skills in general knowledge and a commitment to use what they know for the benefit of others."
A large part of the curriculum, he adds, is aimed at creating a pluralistic approach, which he defines as "a recognition of the right of individuals and groups with different perspectives to exist and fulfill their own identities and aspirations. Pluralism implies that we don't have 100 percent certainty about of who is right. It requires being humble, and we work on that."