This week I attended an interfaith dialogue meeting held at the Leo Baeck School in Haifa. We were a small group, convened by the Interfaith Coordinating Council of Israel: one orthodox and three reform rabbis, the Bishop of Nazareth and three other Catholic and Maronite educators. This was our second meeting; our goal is not entirely clear, but it seems to be mostly just getting to know each other and each others' communities and institutions. It always amazes me at such meetings how little we know about each other. In any case, Rabbi Bob Samuels, who retired as headmaster of Leo Baeck three years ago, was host for the day, and together with the present assistant headmaster and a couple of students, presented the school and its philosophy.
I participated in the first class of the Eisendrath Israel Exchange program to Leo Baeck School 40 years ago, when the assistant rabbi of my synagogue in suburban Chicago, Bob Samuels, pushed me to do so. The school was then in an old apartment building in central Haifa; no gym, no auditorium, no laboratories, no cafeteria -- just some crowded classrooms and a dusty courtyard, and an interesting collection of teachers, including several memorable characters who seemed to have been transplanted from Leo Baeck's original world -- prewar Germany. As I was on my way back to Chicago at the end of my semester, Bob Samuels was arriving in Haifa with his family, where he became assistant headmaster to Dr. Max Elk, who had founded the school. Later, Bob succeeded Dr. Elk, and through his energetic and charismatic leadership and fundraising skills transformed the cramped little operation on Hillel Street into a massive campus that today includes a kindergarten, large middle and high schools, and one of the largest community centers in the country -- with an international seminar center/dormitory under construction. The school has made a smooth and highly professional transition to the next generation of leadership with Bob Samuels' retirement, and is today regarded as one of the best high schools in the country in terms of spirit, academic achievement, and extracurricular richness and excellence.
It has been said that for many if not most students, the "Reform Jewishness" of the school is only superficial, and they accept the "Jewish stuff" as just part of the price they have to pay to attend such a fine school. There may be something to that claim, but there is no question that that "Jewish stuff" touches many students in different ways: the school's commitment to programs for social justice, to absorbing immigrants, to Jewish-Arab cooperation and dialogue; the fact that programs on values education (e.g., sex education on the day I happened to be there) take place in the synagogue; the fact that there is an active synagogue, with a young, charismatic rabbi, in the middle of the school; the intellectually lively approach to Jewish studies -- and the success of the "Jewish studies" major as an option...
It is a sad irony that with the return to Israel, much of the vibrancy of Jewish life that characterized the pre-modern Diaspora Jewish community was lost, stifled by the establishment of Judaism as a state religion, snuffed out in the battles between religious and secular orthodoxies. Today, for many Israelis, "religion" is associated with ignorance, corruption, and closed-mindedness. We gained statehood, but lost community in the process. There are precious few examples of creative experimentation, aimed at adapting Jewish communities to the reality of life in a sovereign Jewish state. The kibbutz was such an attempt -- and the orthodox kibbutz a particularly interesting one. And the Leo Baeck School is another: a multidimensional Jewish community a la Mordecai Kaplan -- shul, school, pool -- trying to make Jewish learning and Jewish values and Jewish action an organic whole without sacrificing full participation in modern western culture.
I'm not sure the Bishop took all this in: you need to know so much background in order to understand what Leo Baeck is all about. But I, at least, was impressed.