Outreach on the mountain

The Leo Baeck Education Center is far more than a school. It is a hub of outreach and social action programs designed for the immigrant population.

Sprawling over the slopes of the French Carmel, the Leo Baeck Education Center is the largest campus of its kind in the north of Israel. Its unique location linking the wealthier neighborhoods on the peak of the Carmel with the disadvantaged quarters at its base, symbolizes its message of outreach, tolerance and coexistence. By any standards, the Leo Baeck kindergarten and high schools are prestigious and attract a high caliber of student. Ironically, although it was established and continues to be administered by the Progressive Judaism movement, which is shunned by the orthodox establishment, the curriculum provides far richer Jewish studies and access to Jewish traditions and rituals than any conventional state school. But the Leo Baeck Education Center is far more than a school. The campus, with its magnificent view of the mountain and sea, is also the home of the Ohel Avraham synagogue, a community center and is the hub of outreach and social action programs designed for the immigrant population and those at risk from underprivileged homes. On any weekday, the campus buzzes with activity. While kindergarten kids clamber on playground apparatus, pensioners create ceramics in the ground-floor workshop. When the bells ring between classes, high-school students race between buildings that echo with the sound of voices and clattering feet. The Leo Baeck center began as a kindergarten for German immigrant children in a small apartment on Haifa's Rehov Hillel in 1938. Its visionary founder, Dr. Meir Elk, soon expanded it into an elementary and high school whose motto was tolerance, understanding and respect in the spirit of Rabbi Leo Baeck. From 1948 to 1958, the school took upon itself the mammoth task of ingathering Holocaust survivors and immigrants from North Africa. In the 1970s the school expanded its science and humanities faculties under the leadership of Rabbi Robert Samuels. The present high school was built on the French Carmel, and in 1979 the Leo Baeck Community Center was established as a model for community development and outreach. In 1991, the Allan Offman Sports Center of UIA Federations of Canada opened, with three swimming pools, playing fields, a gymnasium, dance studio and sauna and treatment rooms. Rabbi Samuels retired in 1998 and Dan Fesler, himself a graduate of the high school, became the Leo Baeck Education Center's third principal. The Lokey International Academy of Studies, with its magnificent library and study rooms, was opened in 2003, funded by San Francisco businessman Lorry Lokey. None of this could be achieved without the dynamic fund-raising machinery operated by seven, mostly part-time staff who network with supporters and Friends organizations in the US, UK and Europe. Director of the UK desk, Joe Brown, personifies the many facets of the education center. With a British father and American mother, he came to Israel from Teaneck at the age of nine. Brought up in an orthodox family he has a solid background in the principles of Judaism, and made a conscious decision to embrace this pluralistic institution. "The school is not a religious school, but its vision is pluralistic in accordance with Progressive Judaism and aims to provide holistic education," says Brown. The school is partly private with some funding from the ministry of education, and fundraising is targeted at providing scholarships both for excellence and for students in financial need. "We do not aim just for a matriculation certificate - it's a package deal," says Brown, explaining how students at the school are involved in community outreach and taught the spirit of volunteering. It is no coincidence that the center thrives in Haifa, which has a positive track record in coexistence and pluralism. There is a healthy partnership with the municipality, University of Haifa and the Technion, as well as professional organizations and ministries of the interior, immigrant absorption and education. The newest building on the campus is the Lokey International Academy of Jewish Studies, directed by Yael Katz, which offers teacher-training programs, creates Jewish curricula for secular schools, and organizes conferences and workshops. This includes the Carmel Program, a year-long Beth Midrash and university 'living experience' study program for graduates of US and UK high schools. These students return home with credits for the year and continue their mainstream education. The cr me de la cr me of Israeli students at Leo Baeck are selected for a one-year project to promote democracy, pluralism and tolerance. The matnas (community center) at Leo Baeck offers more than hobby classes. Dedicated to breaking the cycle of illiteracy, poverty and deprivation by providing educational opportunities to children and adults at risk, activities also reach out to eleven satellite facilities throughout Haifa. Directed by Yoav Yagol, the matnas has a philosophy of empowering citizens by making education and leisure accessible to all sections of society. Among the satellite facilities are the Beth Yizhak Early Childhood Education and Parenting Center for Ethiopian and other immigrant families, the Clore neighborhood community center funded by the British Foundation, the Kiryat Sprinzak clubhouse and after-school care and learning centers - all accessible for Arab and Jewish at-risk children. Brown explains that when immigrants from disadvantaged families get such a jump-start, they can maximize their resources. He cited a university leadership training program that supported a group of Ethiopian immigrants to graduate from the Technion. Empowering citizens means involving residents of these areas in setting up the programs. Committees formed by residents decide what is needed and where improve the aesthetics of their neighborhood facilities. The hub of the campus is the Ohel Avraham Synagogue, founded in 1978, one of the most active Progressive synagogues in Israel. The Hugo Gryn Outdoor Synagogue and Garden is a tribute to the famous British leader of Reform Judaism, a Holocaust survivor and humanitarian who was committed to teaching young people the ideals of peace, tolerance, social justice and personal example. With its mountainside multi-level buildings, the campus provided a welcome refuge during last summer's Second Lebanon War. Every day, neighborhood children arrived for entertainment and activities in the huge subterranean parking garage - a welcome respite for parents who were surviving the hot summer confined to their homes. In these days of national insecurity, lack of faith in government and dissent among the various denominations of Judaism, the Leo Baeck Education Center is a beacon of light implementing Proverbs XII.4: "Train a child in the way he should go; and when he is old he will not depart from it." As president of the representative body of Jews in Germany after 1933, Rabbi Baeck had many opportunities to escape. He refused, insisting that he would stay so long as there was a minyan (quorum of 10 worshippers) in Germany. In 1943, he was sent to Terezienstadt and survived by helping others, teaching and refusing to lose his sense of dignity. Baeck's beliefs were not swayed by the Holocaust. He maintained that evil was the result of humans using their free will to do the unethical. Rabbi Baeck presented his major philosophy in his book 'The Essence of Judaism.' A liberal modern Jew, for Rabbi Baeck God is real, therefore to follow God was to be ethical, to strike for universal good and maintain the survival of Jews throughout history.