Schooled in pluralism

A broad-based private school hopes to set a new example for Jewish education.

Imagine a place where people do not judge each other based on their religious or political outlook. Following the turbulent national events of the past summer, this may seem hard to envision. Last week in Ra'anana, one group took a first step. Ra'anana's new pluralistic school, Meitarim, sponsored a highly successful youth forum entitled "Solidarity Following Disengagement: Channeling the Energy of a New Generation towards a Unifying Force." "Israel has recently gone through an immense trauma that essentially divided the country. Now we need to harness the incredible energy that young people displayed during the disengagement to mend our country and build for tomorrow," says Menashe Bar-Tuv, the new school principal. Bar-Tuv says that Meitarim is just the place to lead this movement. "No one else has come forward so far," said one parent. "Where are the other schools? Where are the youth movement leaders? Where is the municipality? Why hasn't this already happened?" The government has sponsored a series of television commercials addressing the dangers of disunity - but it takes grassroots action to make a difference. "The solidarity forum was sorely needed to bring together various youth groups in the city to interact and connect," agrees Meitarim parent Lydia Weitzman. Before the forum, many of the young people from the various youth groups in the city had never met. The meeting officially ended at 10 p.m. - but it was close to midnight when the security guards insisted that conversations between the teenagers must end because they had to lock up for the night. Students from the right-wing Noam youth group were discussing future plans with modern-religious Bnei Akiva members. There were religious scouts talking with non-religious scouts. Adults in attendance overhead the students saying to each other: "This is the first time I've ever been able to talk to you face to face. I saw you [protesting] on the other side of the street [in the lead-up to the disengagement], but we never talked." Any parent of a teenager knows what a monumental moment that must have been. It also explains why Meitarim is a suitable initiator of such a dialogue. "We see ourselves as a bridge. For us, religious pluralism is absolutely natural. Our school is based on a pluralistic ideology and therefore we are most able to bring together kids from all points on the religious spectrum," says Ilana Mushkin, chair of the non-profit organization that runs the school. Meitarim was inaugurated three years ago by a core group of 10 families with a very clear idea about what kind of education they wanted for their children. They lived and breathed the school as it was being created, and their enthusiasm drew in other families. "We're a private school and we're small - not by choice but because we're a start-up. We see ourselves becoming a mainstream school and have a very long-term plan. This is the way education in Israel should be. We want to be a role model for what Jewish education should look like," says Mushkin. Many Israelis want their children to have a broad-based Jewish education, regardless of family practice. They want their kids to think about what it means to be a Jew and why we need our own state. The Meitarim school gives students a chance to question where they fit into the larger picture of Judaism and Israel. Meitarim students are encouraged to accept each other for who they are on the inside rather than how they appear on the outside. The school's message is that you can live in Israel, drive on Shabbat and attend synagogue; or be Shabbat observant yet play co-ed sports. A good education must also be factored in. Mushkin says that this is a given. Students are encouraged to guide their own education under the supervision of the teaching staff. "At Meitarim we feel strongly about academic excellence. Students are expected to attain the highest level that they can achieve. Study as much as you can; achieve as much as you can," she says. The curriculum includes compulsory math according to each student's ability. They must also take two English courses, which is a challenge in a school with many levels of English speakers, from recent arrivals to native Israelis. They also take four courses in Judaic studies and can choose classes ranging from Tanach and Talmud to Judaism and Islam in the past and present or the place of women in Judaism. The students can add a science, art or music class to complete their matriculation (bagrut) courses. The parents acknowledge that implementing a pluralist curriculum is a challenge, but so too is the blending of religious and secular kids into one successful school. "When my wife suggested we look into sending our daughter to Meitarim, I wasn't for it," says Nigel Kersh, a self-described 'glatt secular Jew'; "but after we met the teachers, we were bowled over by their ability to speak to different sides of Jewish issues. We love being Jewish and wanted our daughter to appreciate her Jewish culture." Kersh's daughter, Dana, has blossomed in Meitarim. "She can't wait to go to school in the morning, which shows that there's a lot more that unifies secular and religious kids than separates them," enthuses Kersh. While formally positioned near the other end of the religious spectrum, parent David Greenberg agrees with Kersh. "We've been involved with the school since the very beginning because we believe that people have to make room for other beliefs as well as their own. We didn't push this idea on our children - the opposite, in fact. Our daughter wasn't happy in her school and was looking for something else. She looked around and selected it herself, and she's very happy there." The pluralistic values espoused by the parents and taught by the school are now being used to bring Jewish youths together in mutual respect. As the forum evening wrapped up and the guards turned off the lights, the teenagers were exchanging phone numbers and making plans for a joint project. "The dialogue has started and we want to keep the momentum going," said Michele Kaplan-Green, another of the school's founding members who watched the evening's interaction with great interest. Perhaps, someone suggested, they would all go visit evacuated Gush Katif families who are now living in hotels and other temporary dwellings. Maybe a unified, tolerant society is coming. If so, Meitarim families will definitely be leading the way. Facts and figures < at="" meitarim="" there="" are="" 71="" students="" this="" school="" year.="">*27 Hebrew-speakers are taking English as a second language. *There are 10 English-speaking new immigrants this year. *A daily Orthodox prayer service is well attended as are several alternative services/spiritual gatherings *There is a maximum of 25 students per class. *A significant part of the budget and donations goes toward scholarships so that those who want to attend the school can attend.