TALI- Bridging the religious divide

After 26 years at the helm, Eitan Chikli leaves the thriving TALI school network that promotes pluralistic Judaism

Dr. Eitan Chikli served as director general of the TALI Education Fund for 26 years (photo credit: ITAI NADAV)
Dr. Eitan Chikli served as director general of the TALI Education Fund for 26 years
(photo credit: ITAI NADAV)
About 45 years ago, a group of North American immigrants looked for a suitable school for their kids. Neither the national religious nor secular state school systems offered the values they sought to educate their children towards, so they started their own.

The first TALI (a Hebrew acronym for Enhanced Jewish Studies) school opened alongside their Conservative synagogue in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood. The parents were highly involved, and every school day began with prayers. Other American-born parents began to send their kids there, then native Israelis joined. The model worked, and within a decade 10 such school frameworks were operating around the country.

“By then they realized that there are simply not enough Conservative and Reform Jews in Israel for more schools like this,” says Dr. Eitan Chikli, who recently stepped down as the Susan and Scott Shay Director General of the TALI Education Fund after 26 years. Dr. Peri Sinclair, who has been the TALI deputy director in the last three years, has stepped in as the new Director General.

“The direction of the TALI schools has changed over the years,” Chikli tells The Jerusalem Report. “I reached TALI in 1994 and quickly realized that forcing kids to wear a kippah [skullcap] does not speak to most Israelis. Prayers stopped becoming mandatory and the schools adopted a more liberal lifestyle. This was seen as a risk, but increasingly more schools and parents turned to us. TALI’s message has evolved over the years – now its mission is to reconcile the Israeli Jew with his or her spiritual and cultural heritage. We talk about Jewish values and their emphases, giving these aspects of Judaism the honor they deserve.” From fewer than 15 schools when he started, the TALI network now encompasses close to 120 schools and 220 nurseries catering for some 65,000 children. More than 10 percent of Jewish elementary schools have adopted the program.

Yet the TALI network still represents a type of Judaism unfamiliar to many Israelis. The TALI vision goes beyond the Judaism of the students’ ancestors, Chikli explains. Rather, it strives to nurture a forward-looking, tolerant, embracing and friendly Judaism.

“The behavior of some religious people turns the secular away and even causes revulsion,” he notes. “Secular Israelis have found a way to belong to Israel without being religious, while acknowledging the link to the past through the Tanach [Bible]. Judaism can be related to as culture, values, Hebrew language … not just religion. Let’s not forget that the roots of Zionism lay partly in people who left religion or tried to form a new type of Judaism – the ‘new Jew’ or the ‘Hebrew.’” Over the years, the TALI Education Fund has developed into a leading and influential Jewish renewal organization in Israel, published reams of educational materials and dozens of textbooks, and trained thousands of educators. Chikli sees the network’s future challenges as expanding circles outside schools to pre-military preparatory schools, youth movements and adult audiences.

The TALI school system has been a success story for soft power, but is it having a real effect on Israeli society?

“As educators, our role is to influence long-term processes in Israeli society,” says Chikli, who holds a Masters of Public Administration from Harvard and whose Doctoral dissertation at the Jewish Theological Seminary examined the TALI system. “It’s not easy to measure the influence, but more than 10% of the secular elementary schools are connected to TALI, 200 school principals have been through our courses and at the end of the day, I have no doubt that the new official program of the Ministry of Education – Jew and Israeli Culture – has been highly inspired by the TALI curriculum developed ten years before.

“I remember one school principal who came to us about 15 years ago. She was a tough, aggressive blonde woman who unabashedly presented herself as a kind of anti-Semite allergic to religion. But she had been asked to put more Jewish content into the school curriculum, acquiesced and came to hear some lectures. At first she played the part of the negative troublemaker, but in time she dropped all her objections. After two years she asked if she could send her husband to study. Now she learns the weekly portion and lights candles on Friday nights. They say they have navigated the gap between religious and secular.” He takes umbrage at the binary viewpoint of religion in Israel, saying the choice is wider than religious or secular. “All the sociological surveys point to Jewish Israeli society with 20 percent at each extreme and 60% in the ‘forgotten center.’ Yet the school system is divided into two – it’s either/or, and doesn’t provide for both. Apathy is the biggest enemy.” “We have been partially successful [in closing the gap], but too many secular Israelis still distrust the religious, while the Orthodox world views pluralistic Judaism with contempt. Extremists on both sides don’t want to speak to us – they treat us like traitors cooperating with the enemy. They won’t read this article.” One of TALI’s outreach programs, Halleli (a Hebrew acronym for Invitation to Study Israeli Judaism) helps principals and teachers to expand pluralistic Jewish education throughout the secular public school system, culminating with a study trip to North America where participants encounter the diversity of Jewish institutions there.

“I have visited many Jewish schools abroad,” says Chikli. “Jewish education in the Diaspora is essentially religious education, as opposed to its role in Israel. TALI allows multiple components of Jew­ish identity: modern Hebrew is not just a language of prayer but a national language, Judaism is not only religion but also  familiarity with the country’s geography and history, Jewish values, people hood, connection to the Jewish homeland, culture and national service... these aspects hardly exist abroad."

“The interface with overseas Jewish communities is important because we depend on each other. We explain that there are other types of Judaism [besides Orthodox]. Every year we met with Jewish leaders during the week-long tour – many of the peace militants in America are Conservative and Liberal rabbis whose views are based on Jewish values. So Israelis can understand that studying Judaism deeply doesn’t make you necessarily a right-wing militant.” The TALI school curriculum also features four day-long meetings during the school year with Arab Israeli schoolchildren, in a program called Dialogue and Identity. “This program started as an attempt to meet the other, to prepare our students to learn about other cultures,” Chikli explains. “In this way you strengthen your own identity, through the mirror. The aim is not political; it is education through cultural comparison.” “We see it as part of Jewish education – to meet the other, to explain who you are. This goal has been met and has the added value of breaking stereotypes – it’s most noticeable among teachers and principals who have made friendly, deep connections.”

Every success, he says, depends on three components: vision, support and capacities.

The debate over the Education Ministry’s role in shaping Israel’s Jewish identity has been ongoing since its establishment in 1948. While a string of government initiatives has failed, the TALI schools are a rare example of bridging the religious divide.

“Our relationship with the Education Ministry has played a vital role in TALI’s development, and has depended heavily on the minister in power at the time,” says Chikli. “When someone like Naftali Bennett was education minister, we had greater financial support. Zevulun Hammer, Limor Livnat and Shai Piron were also good to us, while the others didn’t interfere with us at all.” He also points out former Knesset Education Committee chairman Rabbi Michael Melchior, who promoted the Integrated Education Law that sanctioned joint educational programs for secular and religious students in semi-private frameworks.

BORN IN Tunisia, Chikli made aliyah from France in 1977 at the age of 19. Now he is married with three children and six grandchildren.

“I came as a student, studied for four years in the army Academic Reserve. After my studies I served in the IDF for five years – I promised myself I’d do a significant military service and study Judaism. I was supposed to be in military intelligence, but ended up as an education officer at the officers’ academy in Har Gilo, attaining the rank of major” This led to an invitation to study at the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem, which trains Conservative rabbis., “I didn’t know what Conservative Judaism was – it didn’t exist in France,” he recalls.

“At first I told them that I didn’t know if I’m a believer,” he admits. “The more I learned the more suspicious I had become about faith and religion.” Yet his studies at Schechter allowed him to formulate his own views, and five years later Chikli was ordained as a Conservative rabbi. He ran a religious educational center in Kibbutz Hanaton for three years before joining TALI in 1994.

“The secret of my resilience at TALI is that I always believed in our mission, and constantly adapted and initiated new programs,” he says.

Chikli recently took on a new challenge, as President of the Universidad Hebraica in Mexico City. For now, he is working from his Modi’in home, holding Zoom meetings every evening from 17:00 to 22:00.

“I can’t go there until at least January because of the coronavirus, so I’ve moved to online management,” he explains. “People there are very scared about getting infected and worry about the poor medical system. The Jews aren’t leaving their homes, the campus is closed, so it’s just the same for me.” The language barrier doesn’t deter him. “My Spanish is good enough to understand most of what’s being said, many Mexican Jews speak Hebrew and most speak English. Ninety percent of Mexican Jewish children study in 13 Jewish schools. The Mexican community is very closed, unlike in North America, so assimilation is less of an issue there.” His mission, he says, will be to strengthen an already strong community and deepen ties with Israeli academic institutions. “I will stand at the head of the only Jewish university in Latin America. It’s a small university whose main function is to support the school system, but also an academic institution. The Mexican education system is under tremendous pressure and the status of teachers there is low – this is the problem of Jewish education systems everywhere in the world. Ultimately, it’s a Zionist mission.”