Schools Proposed for Religious, Secular

By Elli Wohlgelernter

Published November 28, 2003, issue of November 28, 2003.
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JERUSALEM — The proposed creation of a network of Israeli schools is being hailed by supporters as a move that could revolutionize relations between the religious and secular populations.

A Knesset bill calling for the creation of a government-sanctioned educational track is set to be introduced next week by a Labor lawmaker, Rabbi Michael Melchior.

The goal is to create schools that would put religious and secular students in the same classrooms, with a curriculum that features both secular studies and liberal Orthodox teachings.

Not counting the separate school systems for the ultra-Orthodox and Arab populations, Israel currently offers only two main educational tracks: the state secular system and the state religious system. Both, says Melchior, are failing in their mission.

“We have two educational systems, where you have all the answers up front,” Melchior said, at a one-day conference last month calling for the establishment of the new system. “One nearly chemically free in substance from any kind of Jewish choice; and one more and more free from any kind of commitment to universal values of democracy and so on. This is intolerable, that a society only has those two choices.”

“Therefore,” he said, “the third choice — which is the real choice, the choice where the children are put in the center, and their needs and their quests and their searches, and the questions we don’t know all the answers up front — I think that is what education is about in a democratic society. It’s not a totalitarian state, where the state knows the answers and gives them to the children.”

What Israeli education needs, said Aryeh Geiger, founder and principal of the pluralistic Re’ut school in Jerusalem and organizer of the conference, is a curriculum that recognizes that literature, history and art are as important as math, that community service is as fundamental to Jewish identity as Talmud.

“Children, as adults, have different passions, different strengths, different intelligences,” Geiger said. “And the way the system is set up here, it doesn’t recognize and give full credit to the different intelligences. It creates stumbling blocks.”

Geiger’s school and the proposed educational track are modeled on the day school structure used among Modern Orthodox schools in the United States. “We are something like Ramaz,” he said, referring to a prestigious Orthodox school in New York, “but it wasn’t intended that way.”

Born in Israel, the 49-year-old educator lived in Miami from age 5 to 14, and learned in what seemed to him an obvious educational environment. “I went to the Hebrew Academy in Miami, and when I came back to Israel as teenager, I realized what I had gotten in the States seemed to be such a natural model for Israel,” Geiger said. “We received an Orthodox Jewish education, but certainly a lot of the people who were there were secular, didn’t come from the [Orthodox] background, did not observe the Shabbat; but the families wanted them to have a Jewish education. But in Israel, because of the two-track system, religious or secular, it became so difficult to implement.”

Other Israeli schools are attempting to develop an integrated curriculum to appeal to a diverse range of families. The Tali schools, a track in the state secular system sponsored by the Conservative-movement, offers general studies and religious instruction to a secular or religiously liberal population.

Geiger said his school differed because it attracts Orthodox and secular families. “The nature of the population is very mixed, and the teachers — not just the math teachers, but the homeroom teachers — are also secular and religious,” he said.

In Keshet schools, another state track, the student body is equally divided between religious and secular, with each half doing its own thing — for example, in the morning the religious half prays, while the secular half pursues other activities. “That’s almost a perfect example of what I don’t believe in,” Geiger said. “The very notion of trying to force someone to define oneself as either religious or secular is against our philosophy. All of our students in the morning have to be at prayer, whether you are secular or religious. You can’t force people to pray; they don’t have to pray. They have to be there, they have to have a siddur in their hand. Period. That’s it.”

It is that integrated philosophy which is attracting many families. Tirza Arzi, who grew up religious and then dropped her observance for 20 years, says she does not want to pigeonhole herself with a label, nor force her son to do so. Arzi said she and her husband, who comes from a nonreligious background, “wanted an education that would give the boy roots, give him access to scriptures, be able to read Talmud, Jewish poetry, but on the other hand not be dogmatic, or force [him] to choose a way we think he should choose — let him choose.”

Her husband, Yitzhak Hayut-man, said only a school system like Re’ut can bridge the gap between the two halves of Israel’s polarized society.

“The concepts that are so essential for the religious people are, on the whole, unknown among the secular,” Hayut-man said. “And on the other hand, most of the religious cannot appreciate the ideals and the strengths and the honesty often found in the position of people who are secular by decision.”

Shelly Landau-Weisburd grew up in a Modern Orthodox home in New York, but later felt that her community was drifting rightward. In Re’ut, she said she has found a balance.

“The gifted students — who don’t easily fit in — and the others are all in the same classroom, doing their own paces, and nobody is frustrated,” she said. “They are taught to respect each other. It’s very moving to see, it’s real. There is also the quality of the teachers, the people who are attracted to a school like this. For example, I have a son who has a learning disability. The first year he started, the history teacher called me to ask, ‘How can I test your son in history so that it’s not a reading and writing test?’ He was conferring with me, already having the awareness of how to find the best way for such a student.”

Geiger and Melchior maintain that the new school system would not cost the state more money, as it would require just cutting the pie differently to include the new stream, which would be siphoning off students from other schools.

It is that siphoning off that will be the crux of the battle to have the legislation pass in the Knesset. There has been positive feedback from members of Likud, Shinui, Labor and Meretz. The real fight will come from the religious Zionist camp, Melchior said.

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