My ideal is Judaism in the fullest historical sense…Will our school provide Judaism or not? The question of the revival of the language is not the main issue, but the question of Judaism. If we put the study of modern Hebrew literature at the center, as some demand, we will raise Hebrew speakers who are not Jews…We must try to put the study of Aggadah, Halachah, and Medieval Jewish literature at the center, for only thus will our education be truly Jewish education. – Dr. Arthur Biram, 1930
In 1913, Dr. Arthur Biram, a liberal rabbi from Germany, was invited to be the first principal of the Reali School in Haifa, intended as a preparatory high school for the Technion being founded at the same time. Dr. Biram founded the school and continued to lead it for 35 years. The school, while nominally "secular," was unique among the secondary schools during that period in its attempt to take Jewish studies seriously and its attention to questions of Jewish identity. Since university positions in Palestine were sparse at that time, a number of leading scholars of Jewish studies found work upon their arrival in Israel as teachers at the Reali School.
Meanwhile, in 1938, another German liberal rabbi, Dr. Max Elk, founded a school to serve the immigrants from central Europe in Haifa; the school was named for the great rabbi Leo Baeck in 1947. Today, the Leo Baeck School and the Reali School are the two leading contenders for the title of most outstanding high school in Haifa; both of them are well-known and respected on a national level. Leo Baeck remained affiliated with the world Reform movement, employs a number of Reform rabbis, and clearly presents itself as an educational institution dedicated to the Reform approach, even though for many if not most of its students this is not the reason they attend – it is a side effect, tolerated or even appreciated as a "cost" of obtaining an excellent, enlightened, secondary education.
Without such institutional commitment, the Reali School today, Jewishly, looks like most other high schools. Most students have no idea that the motto on their uniforms, chosen by Dr. Biram, "Walk humbly," is part of a verse (Micah 6:8) that continues "…with your God." The eleventh graders at Reali, like the students at many other schools, participate annually in a three day retreat run by the Gesher Foundation, where they encounter students from an Orthodox high school. A concern that has been expressed about these retreats is their asymmetry: they can have the effect of strengthening the sense, among the "secular" kids, that the Orthodox are the authentic, committed Jews, keepers of the flame, while they are just Israelis. To level the playing field, this year the administration of the Reali School planned a preparatory day a few weeks before the seminar, and invited our education center to produce it. Working together with the homeroom teachers and student representatives, we planned a day of simulation activities, text study, a panel of rabbis, and a film – to open up discussion on the many authentic ways of being Jewish, and to stimulate the kids to examine their own Jewishness, and try to articulate its content.
It was a fun project for us, and we were pleased and somewhat surprised by the students' thoughtful engagement; it seemed that many of them really were interested in thinking about these questions, and appreciated the opportunity. In my group, the kids who had to play the roles of Reform and Conservative rabbis really "got it," and made remarkably convincing cases for their positions. Interestingly, in the panel of real rabbis (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and secular-cultural) the one whom I expected to be closest to the students' lives, the secular rabbi, got the lowest ratings; her position somehow wasn't satisfying to them.
Zionism thought it would do an end run around the dilemma of modern Jewish identity by secularizing and nationalizing it, but the plan went awry and here we are still trying to figure out who and what we are.