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Galilee Diary: Reality

Galilee Diary: Reality

by Marc Rosenstein
(Originally published in Galilee Diary and Ten Minutes of Torah)

Altneuland = Oldnewland: Title of novel published in 1902 by Theodore Herzl, envisioning the Jewish state as a progressive, secular, German-speaking utopia.
Tel Aviv: The title of the Hebrew translation of Altneuland; Tel = mound of ancient ruins; Aviv = springtime.

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We are producing a one-day seminar for 400 10th graders at the Reali High School in Haifa next week, and so I had to meet with the teachers the other day to go over the plans. The kids will be traveling around the Galilee visiting sites and personalities relevant to various value dilemmas facing Israeli society. It was the first time I'd been there in 25 years. The Reali (pronounced "ray-ah-li") has been for nearly a century one of the elite high schools in the country; indeed the last time I was there it was in the context of my Ph.D. research on Israeli education in the pre-state period. I had gone there to examine the archives, but alas, the principal, who was very welcoming, explained to me that some years ago they had had a very efficient buildings-and-grounds director who saw no reason to be storing boxes of musty old papers - so a historical treasure was sent to the landfill.

In a way, the story of the Reali is the story of Israeli culture. At the beginning of the 20th century, when stirrings of renewed Jewish life in Eretz Yisrael were attracting the attention of European Jews, a German Jewish philanthropic fund came up with a plan to upgrade education in the Yishuv (the term for the pre-state Jewish community in Israel).  They sought to establish modern schools and teacher seminaries to replace yeshivah education, in order to modernize what was then a backwater in the Ottoman empire.  The highlight of this plan was to establish a school of technology and engineering, whose graduates would build the new state.  This would require two institutions - a college, and a feeder school, preparing students in the disciplines of math and science (known in German - and later in Hebrew - as the "realistic" subjects, as opposed to the humanities; to today's youth, of course "reality" [also in Hebrew] refers to a form of cheap entertainment for the masses).  The feeder became the Reali School.  The college became the Technion.  But along the way a few interesting things happened:

In 1913, the Reali School was set to open, but it became clear that the founders intended that German would be the language of instruction - how else could we prepare engineers and scientists and architects to compete in the world economy?  Indeed how could we prepare them at all if not in the classic language of science and technology?  (As an undergraduate biochemistry major in the US in the 1960s, German was still the foreign language of choice).  But the "new Jews" of the Yishuv were having none of it, and a strident public debate - and a boycott - ultimately led to Hebrew being set as the language of instruction.  That meant that the first challenge facing the educators was to find and create words for concepts that had never been expressed in Hebrew before (e.g., carbon dioxide; acid; momentum; dicotyledon...). 

In the same year, a young educator was brought over to be headmaster of the Reali School.  Jacob Biram had recently been ordained as a Reform rabbi.  However, no sooner had he gotten settled than the World War broke out, and as a loyal citizen he returned to Germany to serve his obligation in the German army.  After the war he came back to Israel where he became one of the dominant personalities in Israeli education for decades.  The Reali School was a mainstay of the new Israeli secular culture - but Dr. Biram insisted that that culture had to be permeated by traditional texts and values.  The Reali School under his leadership was distinctively more "Jewish" in climate than other parallel institutions.  There is a story that he once met a teacher eating a falafel on the street; when the teacher was summarily fired the next day, it was never known if the firing was because he was eating in the street - or because he wasn't wearing a hat; European civility and Jewish tradition were both part of Dr. Biram's heritage.  Times have changed.

With or without such institutional traditions, I find many teachers today in Israel, like the ones I met the other day, see a central part of their mission - and a huge challenge - in connecting or reconnecting the children of post-modern global Israel with the vision of pioneers like Dr. Biram.

Published: 1/27/2009

Categories: Reform Judaism, Israel
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