A class of its own

To mark 30 years to the pluralist school network, 'In Jerusalem' met with a second-generation TALI family.

varadi 298 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
varadi 298 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Ariel Varady respects tradition. The 36-year-old French Hill resident works in the knife and scissor business with his father, who worked in the same business with his father before him. So it should come as no surprise that Varady is also passing along the educational tradition he grew up with to his own children. A member of the first class educated from first through 12th grades in the TALI school system, Ariel, together with his wife, Karin, has chosen a TALI education for their children. Daughter Sienna, eight, is a second grader at the original TALI school, the Frenkel School in French Hill, and son Itai will be starting TALI kindergarten in the fall. Baby Natan also has a TALI future planned for him. "Today, it seems that a lot of Israelis don't want to have any part of Judaism," Varady comments. "People have come to see Judaism as all or nothing - either you are very Orthodox or nothing. But TALI showed me that there is a middle ground. While I was growing up in the TALI system, I didn't really appreciate this because it was the norm for me. But after I graduated and met those educated in other systems, I began to see the difference between the education I received concerning Judaism and values and what others learned, or rather didn't learn. We were taught Judaism with tolerance and in a pluralistic atmosphere. I feel I came out a better all-around person with an understanding of the religious world as well as the secular." When Sienna first started school, the Varady family was living in Baka and Sienna was enrolled in the Geulim School. "We were very unhappy with the school and its curriculum," he notes. "There were 35 kids in the class. No Jewish studies. And Sienna was not progressing. We sold our place in Baka and moved to French Hill so Sienna could attend Frenkel. After the first week, it was clear that this is where Sienna belongs. There are only 23 kids in a class. She gets a good Jewish education and she is thriving." Sienna concurs. "I like school," she says. "We pray every morning. I learn about the holidays and study Torah twice a week. I especially like it when I get to be the hazanit for morning prayers. And I also belong to the school gymnastic team. I won three medals in competitions on the beam and parallel bars." The Varadys like the fact that Sienna is learning values along with the three Rs. Frenkel has a community service program in which Sienna works with children in a kindergarten, reading and playing with them. "She is learning that hessed is just as important as math and reading and that is an important lesson in life," Varady says. Today, the Frenkel School is an established institution, located in a modern building. But when he started, things were very different. "When I first began TALI, the school was still in huts on a deserted hilltop," recalls Varady, whose mother made aliya from the US and whose father is Israeli born. "The neighborhood, which was then the middle of nowhere, was populated largely with North American olim. I would say that some 60 percent of my classmates were olim or the children of new olim." It was exactly this background of English-speaking North Americans that gave birth to the TALI school network, which celebrated its 30th anniversary with a ceremony at Ramat Rahel this week. An acronym of the Hebrew "enriched Jewish studies" (tigbur limudei yehadut), TALI, which is sponsored by the TALI Education Fund (a part of the Masorti Movement's Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies), provides pluralistic Jewish studies within the framework of the secular state school system. Established in 1976 with the school in French Hill, TALI has grown to encompass tens of thousands of children in 170 schools from the Galilee to Eilat. "This area of French Hill was built for North American olim," relates Elaine Varady, Ariel's mother, who made aliya in 1969 from New York. "The olim were well educated. Many had studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York [the rabbinical school of the Conservative Movement] and/or were educated in the Solomon Schechter Jewish day schools of the Conservative Movement. They were not satisfied with the education system in Israel. They were not religious or dogmatic enough for the religious school system but wanted more Jewish studies than the secular state schools offered. So they banded together and got approval to start an experimental school with increased Jewish content." The Varady family was not among the original founders - they were recruited by the founders to join the school. "I thought it was important for children to know as much as possible about Jewish identity and history," Elaine explains. "At that point in time, I didn't really know what the future would hold. But I felt that our children would have to bear difficulties because of their Jewishness and they should know who they are and where they came from. They needed to know why they are Jewish and why there is a need for the State of Israel." Elaine and her husband are not religious, "but I grew up with respect for tradition. Children have a right to know what their tradition is. I am big on the idea that you have to know who you are and respect religion. Only then can you make reasonable, informed decisions as to how to lead your life. But I did not want an education system that forced religious observance on the children or the family. That is what is so good about TALI - it provides free choice and respect." All of Ariel's younger siblings attended TALI. "My children are all grown now and they are respectful and tolerant," Elaine continues. "None are Orthodox although my daughter and her family are more traditional, keeping Shabbat and kashrut. I am very pleased with TALI. I feel my children received a great deal of Jewish knowledge - imparted in a tolerant manner. They have had the responsibility to respond to that knowledge concerning what they do or don't do. They understand both the Orthodox and secular worlds. They are not put off or ignorant about Judaism, prayer and holidays. They learned about their Judaism in a positive way. Today, it is not enough to just be an Israeli. You need to know about Judaism as well. This is what TALI gives - a perspective and dimension as to where we are coming from and where we are today, as well as the tools to navigate into the future."