Every Tuesday at 10:15 a.m. for close to a year Elisha Wolfin, 42, a Conservative rabbi with a goatee and a green kippa, arrives at the Arison School of Arts in the heart of secular Tel Aviv to teach a group of 20 seventh graders a little Yiddishkeit.
But the school principal would rather keep it a secret.
"She doesn't want you to shake things up at such a delicate stage in the program," Dr. Eitan Chikli tells me after having a conversation with Arison's principal, who refuses my request to watch Wolfin in action with the pupils.
Chikli is the executive director of the TALI Education Fund, which has set as its goal to introduce, in cooperation with parents, teachers and pupils, a pluralistic, liberal version of Judaism and prayer into the secular state school system.
TALI is a Hebrew acronym for Tigbur Limudei Yahadut, or Enhanced Jewish Studies.
"If it were up to me I'd let you sit in," says Chikli. "But the principal is nervous. She wants to work quietly and slowly," Chikli adds. "The last thing she wants is for a parent to read in the newspaper that there is religious coercion at Arison."
But Rabbi Wolfin tells me what he teaches his pupils.
"We talk a lot about God," says Wolfin, whose bright blue eyes dominate his face. Wolfin, who was raised on Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi, spent time in Ireland as a representative of the Habonim-Dror youth movement and later learned at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.
"Spirituality. Reincarnation. Open discussions about lots of subjects. My pupils tell me, 'you are our favorite teacher because you teach us to experience, while they teach us data.'
"But I always tell them, 'do not believe because I believe. Think for yourselves.'"
Wolfin says that in his last meeting, he prepared his pupils for Shavuot.
"I asked them if anyone knew the meaning of Shavuot. Some said it was the milk holiday. Others mentioned harvest season. But no one said it commemorated the giving of the Torah."
Wolfin says he blindfolded one of the boys to demonstrate the importance of the Torah. "'Try to find me' I told him." The boy bumped into fellow pupils, chairs and tables. He mistook a friend for Wolfin. Afterwards, Wolfin discussed with his pupils what could be learned from the blindfolding experiment.
"'We hear all kinds of voices,' I told them. 'Feel all sorts of feelings. How do we know which are false voices and false feelings and which are true? The Torah is an example of a moral code that can guide us in our lives. It's not just an abstract set of laws. The Torah is practical. It commands us to act. And we received it on Shavuot.'"
With its minimal load of Jewish studies and its uneasy approach to introducing Judaism, the Arison school is far from a model TALI school.
It's 8:15 a.m. at the Frankel School in Jerusalem's French Hill. Frankel, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year, is the oldest TALI school.
Sounds of prayer, indistinguishable from an Orthodox school, emanate from the classrooms into the corridors of the school, which are decorated with pictures of the ancient Cochin synagogue and Independence Day projects.
Batia Bar, Frankel's new principal - who took over from Barbara Levine, Frankel's legendary founder - prods Shunit Bergson, a dark, thin serious-looking fifth grader we meet in the corridor, to tell me how she read from the Torah scroll this week.
After about 20 minutes of prayers, pupils shuffle over to a small auditorium for the Jerusalem Day celebration. Most of the boys wear kippot or baseball caps.
Parents arrive to watch their children put on a short play. Mothers wear short skirts and tank tops; fathers are all without head coverings.
I ask a group of parents how they feel about their children praying to God.
"We think it is terrific," says one mother with plucked eyebrows and highlighted hair.
A father concurs, seeming to not fully understand the question.
"But isn't this supposed to be a secular school?" I ask.
"Sure. But there is nothing wrong with a little bit of prayer. Everybody prays sometimes."
Established TALI schools in Jerusalem such as the Frankel School in French Hill, Masorti High School on Rehov Betar and the Gilo and Bayit Vegan schools, and TALI schools in Hod Hasharon, Ra'anana and the Haifa area have fully integrated TALI programs and often have ties with Conservative or Reform congregations or are based in communities that keep basic traditions such as kiddush on Shabbat.
In Tel Aviv, in contrast, besides a few older TALI schools such as Magen in Maoz Aviv, TALI's standing is shaky.
"Adopting TALI in its entirety is difficult for Tel Aviv schools," says Valerie Stessin, manager of TALI Projects. "Tel Aviv has a very secular image. Even if Tel Aviv citizens' lifestyles may not be that much different from other parts of Israel, there is something about Tel Aviv that makes people more resistant to Judaism."
The Los Angeles Jewish Federation, which has chosen Tel Aviv as its twin city, is interested in seeing more Jewish learning in Tel Aviv's schools. The Federation donated an unspecified sum to Arison to provide a salary for Dan Keinin, who is responsible for Jewish studies and a bar and bat mitzva program.
Thanks to the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, TALI has managed to make some inroads at other Tel Aviv schools as well. Besides Wolfin, Rabbi Roberto Arbib and Rabbi David Lazar, who, like Wolfin, were ordained at the Conservative Movement's Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, are all involved in teaching Torah to the impressionable minds of 2,500 Tel Aviv youth in six schools.
"We are trying to expose these schools to a taste of TALI," adds Stessin. "But we are walking on eggshells."
TALI's involvement in Tel Aviv demonstrates the tension resulting from the conflation of secularism with Judaism. But this tension is by no means restricted to the Tel Aviv area.
"I don't want my child to be forced to wear a kippa," says Michal Shamir, whose son is a second grader at the Alona elementary school, a TALI school near Zichron Ya'acov. Shalom Terem, the school principal, requires boys to wear kippot while learning Bible, on Holocaust Remembrance Day and on Remembrance Day for fallen soldiers and during other Jewish-oriented school events.
Shamir thinks mandatory kippa-wearing is religious coercion.
"My family is completely secular," Shamir says. "No one ever wears a kippa. Not even when we mourned my cousin, who was killed in Lebanon. I think Shalom is a terrific principal, but I think his kippa policy is wrong."
In contrast to Shamir, Hedva Ariel, a former member of the religious Kibbutz Tirat Zvi who leads an Orthodox lifestyle but has chosen Alona as a more liberal and open option to what she calls the "parochialism and closed-mindedness" of the state religious school system, thinks Shamir's behavior is no different from a religious fundamentalist.
"I asked her if she would take off her shoes before entering a mosque out of respect or dress respectfully when entering a church," says Ariel.
"I told her that I had much more at risk by sending my kids to a TALI school. Maybe they'll be influenced by their friends to be secular," adds Ariel, whose brother-in-law is National Union MK Uri Ariel.
Hedva, who has two children learning at Alona, says she insists on kosher food when one of her children's friends has a birthday party.
"I explain to them that if people see my son sitting in a non-kosher restaurant with a kippa on his head, people will think it is kosher. I also insist that no parties be scheduled for Shabbat. People are very understanding and usually respect my request."
With 254 pupils, Alona serves three moshavim in the area: Amikam, Aviel and Givat Nili. Principal Shalom Terem, of Yemenite origin, is a product of the state religious school system but has since abandoned an Orthodox lifestyle.
"I had a lot of questions," says Terem. "I felt stagnated in Orthodoxy."
"I believe someone should pray or make a blessing when he feels the need to, not when he has to force himself," says Terem. "But I also think it is important to teach children how to pray, how to use the prayer book, so that when they do have the desire to pray, they know how."
"The Jewish learning and tradition that I received as a child is like a pistol that I can draw if I have to. It's there when I need it," says Terem.
In contrast, parent Michal Shamir, who is married to a non-Jew from Holland, sends her son to TALI because, in her eyes, Judaism is an important cultural asset.
"I want my children to learn Mishna and Talmud, along with Bible," says Shamir, who has an advanced degree in Bible studies from the Hebrew University. "The Bible is not the property of Orthodox or even religious Jews. It belongs to secular Jews just as much. It has nothing to do with faith in God."
The TALI network of schools was founded in 1976 by the Foundation for Masorti (Conservative) Judaism in Israel, which was dominated by immigrants from America. Frankel was the first school they established.
In the late '70s and '80s, the late education minister Zevulun Hammer of the National Religious Party was enthusiastically supportive of TALI. But Limor Livnat, the previous education minister, halted all funding. Stessin says that TALI's 10 percent average annual growth would be much higher if TALI had more money. In 2005, TALI's budget was $1.72 million, $460,000 of which came from the Jewish Agency, TALI's most generous supporter. The single largest expense is teacher and pedagogic training at $434,000.
Today, there are 70 TALI elementary schools and another 50 classes of preschool across the country with a total of about 25,000 pupils.
From the beginning, a conscious effort was made by TALI founders to separate the schools from the Conservative Movement. TALI founders wanted to allow each school maximum freedom to create a hand-tailored educational program without getting bogged down with the rigors of Conservative practice and ideology. TALI leaders also wanted to skirt ideological clashes with, among other groups, Orthodox leaders and rabbis who see Conservative Judaism as a direct threat to Orthodoxy.
In an op-ed in 2004, Chikli wrote that TALI schools are not Conservative. Nevertheless, he said the TALI educational program is connected with and influenced by world views that have their roots in Conservative thought.
"Conservative Judaism provided the inspiration for introducing an alternative educational narrative to the discussion in Israeli society regarding what is the desirable Jewish education that should be offered in state schools," writes Chikli.
TALI's connection with the Conservative Movement does not disqualify it in the eyes of mainstream religious Zionists who reckon that it is better for secular Israelis to receive a little bit of Yiddishkeit - even from Conservative or Reform educators - than nothing at all.
Avi Gissar, rabbi of Ofra and chairman of the Council of the State Religious Educational System, with 260,000 pupils from pre-school through high school, thinks all secular state schools should belong to TALI.
"It's sad that for many secular teachers, Judaism has become some kind of foreign culture that needs special expertise. Teacher training colleges are to blame. You can be sure that 40 years ago a teacher who graduated from David Yellin knew how to teach prayer. Today teachers are completely ignorant.
"TALI fills the vacuum created by sloppy teacher training programs that do nothing to educate teachers who are completely alienated from their Jewish roots," states Gissar.
In answer to a question, Gissar says he is not particularly happy that TALI is influenced by Conservative Judaism, but adds that TALI is able to gain access to schools that Orthodox institutions could never reach.
In contrast, Israel Eichler, a Belz Hassid and former United Torah Judaism MK who has since returned to his previous post as publicist, likens TALI to a pestilence that threatens Jewish continuity.
"Teaching artificial Judaism is like giving a sick person poison instead of medicine," says Eichler. "Look at the US for proof. Reform and Conservative did nothing to stop the horrible rate of assimilation. They teach kids that Judaism is just a bunch of folklore and they leave God out of the equation.
"Now they are importing it to Israel. Kids that are in TALI today will marry gentiles tomorrow, either here in Israel or abroad."
Rabbi Yosef Toledano, chief rabbi of Jerusalem's Givat Ze'ev neighborhood, agrees with Eichler.
"We are very concerned about the influence of the TALI school that was opened here in Givat Ze'ev," says Toledano. "Distortions of Judaism by the Conservative and Reform movements can cause terrible spiritual damage."
What is the solution according to Eichler and Toledano?
Embrace Orthodox Judaism.
"Chabad and Breslev and other Orthodox organizations have outreach programs for people looking for real Judaism," says Eichler.
IN 1994, the sorry state of Jewish education in secular state schools was thrust to the forefront of public consciousness when Prof. Aliza Shenhar, then rector of the University of Haifa, published a report entitled "People and World: Jewish Culture in a Changing World," which found Jewish education in secular schools sadly lacking.
The Education Ministry, which had commissioned the Shenhar report, established the Headquarters for the Implementation of the Shenhar Report. A special teachers' training center in Beersheba called Beit Yatziv was created. The HQ supported dozens of organizations that, like TALI, are aimed at enriching Jewish education.
One of the best known and largest is Heled, which has been around for 30 years. Heled's most ambitious endeavor is called the Key Program, which introduces basic Jewish concepts in an experiential way for fourth and fifth graders one hour a week.
Heled director Hadar Sofer says over half of the country's 800 secular state schools receive the learning kits, a large percentage of which set aside the hour a week for the program.
However, Heled is much less demanding than TALI. Each member of the teaching staff at a TALI school, normally a minimum of 15 teachers, is expected to devote 167 hours to Jewish studies over a period of five years. In contrast, Heled obligates a training period of just five hours for the one teacher who will teach the Key Program. TALI also expects its schools to gradually but steadily increase the emphasis given to Judaism. This includes not only the time devoted to teaching the weekly Torah portion, moral lessons learned from rabbinic sources and daily prayer, but also the integration of Judaism into other subjects such as ecology or history. The TALI ideal is to make Judaism and Jewish studies high on the list of priorities set by the school.
Stessin says that in most full-fledged TALI schools, in the fifth and sixth grades about three hours a week are dedicated to Bible and another two hours are devoted to prayer, Mishna and Jewish stories.
In the textbook We Care, selections from the Mishna and Talmud teach third and fourth graders basic moral lessons. The lessons are presented with colorful cartoon characters.
"How do we praise the bride?" asks the Talmud. "Shamai says the way she is [without lies] and Hillel says as if she were beautiful and elegant [even if she is ugly and deformed]." TALI children are then asked to discuss whether it is sometimes legitimate to lie or whether one must always tell the truth.
But more than the teaching of Talmud or Bible or even the weekly Torah portion, the most volatile part of the curriculum is prayer. Of the 70 TALI schools, only 28 have regular daily prayer.
"Prayer used to be mandatory," says Stessin. "But it was too much of an obstacle for a lot of schools. So now we leave it for a later stage in the development of the school, with the understanding that at some point it will be incorporated in some way."
Eight-year-old Amit Sofer is a third-grade pupil at Ne'urim elementary school in Kiryat Bialik. Ne'urim is a secular school, but Amit prays every day.
I ask Amit to recite by heart for me some of the prayers he says every morning.
"Let's begin the day with good and end the day with good, amen. Let's learn well and answer the teacher's questions, amen. Let's respect friends and speak nicely without violence, amen. Let's solve problems with words not with blows, amen." Other prayers, that include God, are also recited from the Orthodox Rinat Yisrael prayer book.
Amit says he enjoys prayer time.
According to Yehuda Wagner, Ne'urim's principal, children are more open to prayer than the teachers.
"One teacher told me she could not say the Moda Ani prayer [a part of the Orthodox prayer regime that thanks God for returning our soul to the body after sleep]," says Wagner. "She decided to substitute something else that does not mention God."
Poetry by Leah Goldberg, Naomi Shemer and other classic Israeli songs and poetry are incorporated into children's prayers.
"Prayer is problematic for teachers and parents because it is worship," says Rabbi Hagit Sabag, the first woman rabbi of a TALI school, who works in Ashkelon and Yavne.
"Unlike Jewish studies, which are academic and abstract, in prayer you need to be active and be emotionally involved on one level or another. Interestingly, children have no problems with prayer. They take to it naturally.
"The real difficulty is with the teachers. One teacher told me prayer brings back negative memories of her religious childhood. Another said that she was secular and opposed in principle to the idea of prayer."
Asked what God's place is in TALI schools, Chikli has an answer ready.
"In the state religious school system it is taken for granted that God exists and in the secular school system it is taken for granted that there is no God," she replies. "At TALI we humbly admit that there is no single answer. God is an open question with many answers. We invite our pupils and the teachers we train to discuss God in a critical but respectful way.
"Faith or a lack of it is not the most important thing in my eyes, rather it is the ability to ask the right questions."
Chikli says his educational motto is encapsulated in the title of a book by the Stanford Professor of Education Nel Noddings called Education for Intelligent Belief or Unbelief.
"Who can say for sure whether He exists or not," says Chikli. "Till this day I struggle with that question."