Unique school struggles for space, as its founder struggles for life

Aryeh Geiger's Reut, 'a community not a school,' has grown from 130 students to 300 in nine years.

geiger 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
geiger 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Tables are being set in the main corridor of Jerusalem's Reut School. Tablecloths are unfolded and spread, chairs are arranged and small side dishes of humous, tossed salad and pickled carrots are laid out on pretty ceramic plates. On a white board the menu is displayed, written out in erasable red marker. Nearby, a group of about 20 elderly men and women, obviously not students of this middle and high school, stands waiting, bundled up in scarves and winter coats. Some students, carrying books, shout and chat as they pass the elderly group on their way out of school. Others grab aprons and begin working, talking with the elderly as they set up. Three times a week, between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., students at Reut - which calls itself a religious and pluralistic school - run a soup kitchen for people who need a free, hot dinner. Private donors fund the project, and Reut's students, who come from Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and secular families, do all the work, except for the cooking. Reut, the brainchild of Orthodox Rabbi Aryeh Geiger, a clinical psychologist and veteran school principal in his early 50s, offers 35 social-activism projects run by Reut's 300 or so students. Everything is voluntary and the 7th through 12th graders can opt to get involved, or not, in a wide range of projects, including tutoring Ethiopian students, preparing 160 hot and cold lunches daily for needy school children, preparing 400 parcels monthly for needy families, and accompanying handicapped fellow students to physical therapy or the park. Most do get involved, said a ninth-grader named Yuval, because "Reut is a community, not just a school." But the Reut School, which began nine years ago with 130 students, is bracing itself for a major change. Geiger, the innovator and moving force behind its creation, is dying. At the end of last year Geiger notified the students, teachers and parents that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. "But I'm gonna fight it," Geiger reportedly promised, then asked, "Any questions?" Geiger, who appeared healthy and in good spirits as he bustled around Reut this week and last, refrained from an interview with The Jerusalem Post, explaining that he was saving his energies for school matters. Paul Lichtenstein, the deputy principal of the school, who has known Geiger for 30 years, said Reut is Geiger's life. "There were times when you could drive by here at two, three in the morning and there would be a light on in Aryeh's office," he said. "Every day that he is here prolongs his life." Reut's director of development, Ruth Ritterband, who is a graduate of Columbia University and a veteran headmistress of various elite Jewish schools in the US, said her first job interview after immigrating to Israel was at Reut. "After I met Aryeh I knew this was where I wanted to work," she said. "I had a hunch, and I was right." Both Ritterband and Lichtenstein are planning on leaving Reut at the end of the school year. But both are optimistic about Reut's future, with or without Geiger. "I think it is no insult to say that today Reut is larger than Aryeh," Ritterband said. Despite Geiger's uncertain future and the resignations of Lichtenstein and Ritterband, and despite the cramped quarters at the school's present venue - located between the Greek Colony and Old Katamon - registration is up. Space limitations force the school to turn away a large percentage of applicants. For a recent open house, 30 students notified the school they were coming and 50 showed up. From an unscientific examination of the student body, the majority appeared to be Ashkenazi. Parents have organized to put pressure on the Jerusalem Municipality to give Reut the top two floors of the building where it is presently located. The rental contract held by Mifneh, a school for delinquent boys that presently occupies those stories, expires this year. In addition to its social action projects, Reut also runs a training program for school principals and other senior educators from diverse backgrounds. Once a week, for eight hours straight, they come to Reut from all over the country to learn about Geiger's model. "We are not encouraging people to copy what we are doing here," said Tchiya Herman, who runs the training program. "We have educators from settlements and from Tel Aviv, from the Left and the Right, religious and secular. Obviously, each has a unique and very different vision of how they would like to build their school. Rather, we try to help each of them realize their own personal vision." Herman said that while Reut was heavily influenced by the educational theories of Janusz Korczak, especially with regard to empowerment of the students and their involvement in various aspects of running the school - such as meting out punishments or deciding whether ear-piercing for boys will be permitted (it isn't) - Reut is very different from many "democratic" schools. "We make a clear distinction between student and teacher roles," Herman said. "The students have no say in matters of curriculum, of what is learned and what is not. "But we are also careful to protect the human dignity of each and every student. We try to create an atmosphere in which personal success does not come at the expense of one's peers. We teach that creating a friendly environment of mutual support is conducive to the success of everyone." Attendance at prayer is mandatory, prayer is not. On the 10th of Tevet, a fast day, the Post attended the afternoon prayer at Reut. The room was packed. A row of tables separates the boys' and girls' sections. Most of the students did not take prayer books or seem to be praying, but all were respectfully quiet for the duration of the prayers. At the end of the recitation of Avinu Malkenu (Our Father our King), which was led by one of Reut's students, a beautiful tenor voice coming from the back of the room broke through the mumbling of prayers and impatient shifting: "Let this hour be the hour of loving-kindness and a time of favor before You." It was Aryeh Geiger and his singing was infectious. Soon most of the kids were singing along. In a meeting with the Post a few days later, a group of Reut's students was asked what the school would be like without its founder. "It wouldn't be the same," they answered and nervously changed the subject.