A Lesson About Death

Entering Re'ut, a private school in Jerusalem, one hears happy music - jazz with a sprinkling of Hasidic motifs. The tune, played by musicians with large, colorful skullcaps in on stage in the small auditorium, certainly seemed to bear out the almost "freak-fringe" image of this liberal-religious school.

However, the happy-go-lucky atmosphere at the school is overshadowed by the news that its founder and principal, Aryeh Geiger, will soon be retiring. He has cancer.

Geiger's appearance is misleading: He seems to be the picture of health. Surrounded by students and teachers, listening to and openly enjoying the music, he seemed to not have a care in the world. This is not denial. Geiger, a veteran, respected educator who is in the advanced, terminal stage of the disease, decided to share his medical prognosis with his students and to prepare them for his farewell. Nonetheless, no one tiptoes through the hallways, and students continue to pop into "Aryeh's office" for a chat.

Yet, with Geiger coming to Re'ut for only a few hours a day and with the appointment of a new administration, outside observers can easily understand that this high school and its 260 students (from grades 7 to 12) are going through a rough period. One evening during Hanukkah, Geiger assembled the parents of students, friends of the school and representatives of the Jerusalem Education Administration for a candle-lighting ceremony, which was also attended by Re'ut's contributors. This was one of several meetings he initiated with students, teachers, alumni and parents of potential registrants in order to share thoughts about his condition and the school's future.

What troubles Geiger most these days is the survival of his life's work and its spin-offs, including the soup kitchen operated by students, the training institute for teachers and principals, and the Meytarim association, which has 14 member schools committed to Re'ut's principles. As a private school, most of Re'ut's budget comes from donations, not parents. At the Hanukkah gathering, the donors promised the parents that they would contribute $1 million annually over the next five years. Nonetheless, the future of the school, which was cast in the image of its founder and principal, is still uncertain.

Pluralistic religious school

The complete candor about his medical condition is typical of Geiger, who defines Re'ut as a pluralistic religious school and says it is perfectly natural to share his battle with others. No one asked the students whether they wanted to tackle "this matter" of death. However, he says, "What if the process of saying goodbye is an opportunity to speak with children about things we do not usually discuss? Thanks to my condition, we have conducted conversations about whether there is life after death, optimism, dealing with pain."

Geiger's educational approach continually changes and adapts, reflecting his personal experiences. He started out as a teacher with the national religious school system, but over the years, he became one of the harshest critics of Israel's education system and adopted alternatives. Trained as a clinical psychologist, he has a very personal relationship with some of his students, who drop by his office whenever they want to discuss their problems. For his part, however, he "has demands that are sine qua non," comments one mother.

Geiger admits he was not a top student. His parents were traditional Jews from Safed, and as a child, he moved with them to the United States, where he attended an Orthodox school. At age 15, he abandoned religion and returned to Israel. He went through several high schools, and after graduating he was inducted into the Israel Defense Forces as part of a unit affiliated with the socialist-Zionist Hashomer Hatzair movement. After his military service, he became Orthodox and began studying social work. He subsequently traveled to the U.S., where he completed a doctorate in clinical psychology, specializing in work with juvenile drug addicts.

Accidental educator

He entered education by accident, when Professor Alice Shalvi, founder of the Pelech Experimental High School for Girls, invited him to teach at her school. There, he became hooked on education. In the late 1980s, he established the Dror School, which started the liberal stream in Israel's religious school system; over the years, this movement became associated with ultra-Orthodox Zionism. He founded Re'ut in 1999, leaving Dror and its more than 100 students in the wake of an ideological dispute with the school's network. He considered this the climax of his disgust with the nonstop focus on the "length of skirts and the size of kippot." Meanwhile, he began developing political views that were very different from those of the national-religious school system.

The search for spiritual identity is one of the most prominent features at Re'ut. The school day begins with prayer services, meditation and Tai Chi, and the student body consists of religious and secular Jews. Re'ut's students come from middle- and upper-class homes, the Beta Israel Ethiopian community and Russian immigrant families, and also includes teens with special needs. Only 40 percent of the students pay full tuition.

Geiger says the school has retained its "pluralistic-religious" label because it does not want to deter conventional religious communities. One of Re'ut's priorities is its morning prayer services, where attendance is compulsory "out of commitment to the community - but we don't check to see who is praying and who isn't."

Geiger totally opposes the Israeli school system's approach of placing the focus on the child: He calls this a "selfish capitalist perception that sacrifices the concept of a value-based education." Like at other open schools, the students take part in decisions, interviews of potential teachers and students, organization of ceremonies and voluntary projects. However, emphasis is placed on the relationship with the surrounding community: The students operate Re'ut's soup kitchen, distributing hot meals to other Jerusalem schools and the needy. Geiger believes that there is a contradiction between value-based and achievement-based educations. He is completely against matriculation exams and the emphasis on scholastic excellence: "Matriculation exams are bad for the student's health. They are a utilitarian tool whose purpose is merely to screen candidates, and they provide a minimum of intellectual stimulation. There is a negative correlation between mental health, happiness, development of skills and intellectual depth, and academic attainments."

That is why he founded Ometz Chinuchi, an organization of 500 principals who have developed their own ethics code and want to free themselves from the teachers' unions. He believes Ometz Chinuchi can generate a change; however, teachers' salaries must first be raised. Next week, it will ask the court for a restraining order against the Education Ministry, which is currently negotiating with the teachers' unions.

"I have worked in education field for 30 years, and I loved every moment of it," he says. "I learned a lot, experienced various processes and arrived at the banal conclusion that what children need the most is love. Our education system has almost completely divested itself of love; there is no longer any real connection between student and teacher, between youth and adults. Instead, we see alienation and the attrition of teachers and principals. I visit many schools and see many good people with a fine intuition for teaching, for communicating with children, but the system is all clogged up. I also see children who are looking for this connection, but it is so hard for people to find the way, even to talk about the absence of a connection."