Pluralistic school in Jerusalem pushing change, director says

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The application to the Re'ut School in Jerusalem doesn't take much time to fill out. There are no essays, no exams, no references.

"We just ask the kids, 'Do you want to change the world?'" said Irena Graziani, a music teacher and one of the school's founders.

Re'ut, which means friendship, is an upper-division school for seventh through 12th grade. Its mission is to provide a pluralistic education, which is an anomaly in the Israeli school system, where schools are primarily either religious, meaning Orthodox, or secular.

"There is no doubt in my mind that Re'ut is effecting a national change," said Aryeh Geiger, the school's director, when he was here last week as the guest of the Israel Center of San Francisco. Re'ut is not only spreading friendship, it's putting the word out that there is an educational alternative that ultimately can change Israeli society.

Geiger estimates that a news story about the school appears at least once a month. "Everything is national news in Israel. They know about us in Safed and they know about us in Eilat."

Last week's news was that Re'ut students staged a teach-in, holding their classes outside Jerusalem's municipal offices. The city is responsible for finding a new, larger site for the school and is dragging its feet.

According to Geiger, who is Orthodox, the current system favors the religious schools, but Re'ut is getting people to think about an alternative approach. The next step will be to actually create a recognized pluralistic educational alternative.

Currently he and Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement's Religious Action Center in Israel, are strategizing over whether to go the legislative or legal route to get this accomplished. Geiger thinks pluralistic education has a better chance of success with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's broader-based coalition than it did under the government of Ehud Barak, where he said the fervently religious Shas Party had more sway. Geiger is also putting together a coalition of other schools that support a pluralistic education and would sign on if it were recognized by the government.

One of the highlights of the Re'ut is the young leadership program for 11th- and 12th-graders. The program, which is funded by a grant from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, prepares students to take stronger roles promoting pluralism in their communities.

Ironically, it was the Orthodox school system that unwittingly spawned the Re'ut school. For seven years, Geiger had been the principal of a religious school. During the year after Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, his students conducted an inquiry, interviewing Knesset members, government officials, media people, religious leaders and others about how such a thing could happen. At the end of the year, they wrote a report and, among other things, concluded that the religious Orthodox school system bore some responsibility for Rabin's death.

As a result, the school was ordered to change its policies and become more conservative. Geiger was fired. When he left, many students and teachers followed him. For the teachers that meant closing the door on being able to teach in the religious school system again.

The group found an empty apartment building in Jerusalem, renovated it and turned it into a school. The students and teachers who followed Geiger interviewed new students and hired new teachers. Everyone worked to scrape together some funding. It was a frantic summer but Re'ut opened its doors at the beginning of the 1999-2000 school year with 120 students. By the end of that school year, enrollment had grown to 150 and this year there are 200 students. For the next school year, 250 students have been accepted and twice that number had to be turned away.

In 18 months, Re'ut has come a long way.

"We opened without money [but with] a lot of belief that there must be a way to educate [children] in a non-coercive manner in Israel. There must be a way to enable young people to be part of a spiritual search without it being rammed down their throats," said Geiger. "There must be a way in which people of all streams can experience Jewish education together."

During a visit to the Jerusalem school last year, teachers and students spoke enthusiastically about being part of an educational experiment.

Graziani estimated that 70 percent of Re'ut's students come from religious background and the remaining 30 percent are secular. But pluralism also means having a student body that includes those with learning or physical disabilities, students from different economic and racial backgrounds. For the majority of the Orthodox students, this is their first experience being in coed classes where girls can wear pants and boys can spike their hair. And the religious education is radical by Israeli standards because it includes modern Torah commentaries as well as the traditional ones; everything is subject to questioning.

"It's incredible for teachers to be part of this," said Rabbi Yehoshua Rubin, who gave up a tenured position at an Orthodox school to come to Re'ut. Rubin taught his students meditation, something he never could have done at his previous school. "You take your spiritual essence seriously but do it as you wish."

Not only has Re'ut already made a name for itself, but it is serving as an educational model.

"The school hosts educators from within Israel and from North America on an almost daily basis," said Geiger. "We provide a kind of mini-training session on pluralistic education."

But most importantly, Re'ut is doing what it set out to do. As students are getting to know each other, minds are opening and attitudes are changing.

"There are not so many differences between us," said Nina Avigad, a student who comes from an Orthodox family. "The other school was very religious. [Re'ut] has a homey atmosphere. It's opened a lot of new doors."