People of books

Last week I went to a library dedication ceremony. Those words sound so normal when I write them but what I attended was something uniquely Israeli.

The ceremony took place in the Reali high-school in Haifa. During the evening my thoughts ranged from the history of the school, the ceremony itself, the library and the threads of education, books and family that tie them all together.

First some background: approximately 4,000 pupils attend the school’s six branches (kindergarten, elementary schools and a high-school). Each branch has a distinctive character, emphasizing different fields: Arts and Sciences, Science, Nature and the Environment or Leadership and Communication.

The school we all call by its abbreviated name “Reali” is actually named “The Hebrew Reali School in Haifa” and every word in the name is packed with meaning. The school was founded in 1913. The State of Israel had not yet been formally re-established but this did not stop the Jewish community in Palestine from building institutions of education for the next generations.

Yes, there was a thriving Jewish community in Palestine pre-1948 and they were busy building institutions for the future of the Jewish people.

Prior to WW1 it was thought that exact sciences should be taught in German, like in the ‘realschulen’ in Germany. This was disputed within the Jewish community so, they held an assembly which concluded with the decision to establish the HEBREW Reali School in Haifa. Here all the subjects would be taught in Hebrew.

It would be a school like the German schools but in Haifa, not Europe. Studies would be conducted in the language of the Jewish people, not that of the non-Jews.

This was a revolutionary decision. From then onward, the ancient language would become the language of the future; this school would provide the new leaders of the Nation the opportunity to gain practical knowledge and the skills that would enable them to shape their own destiny and that of their people.

Over the years the Reali led the way in implementing educational initiatives and institutions that were later adopted by Israel’s Ministry of Education, such as the establishment of the scout movement, the “Gadna” (para-military youth preparation program), the “National Service“, the “Personal Commitment Program“, the “term paper” (school thesis), the student council, and the teaching of civics, middle eastern studies and additional subjects.

The Reali has over 22 thousand alumnae who hold key positions in Israeli society, among them are 37 Israel Prize laureates, four IDF Chiefs of General Staff and three Supreme Court Justices. 70 military decorations and medals were given to Reali graduates over the years. Reali alumnae are to be found amongst Israel’s best in science, arts, industry, communications and academia.

Back to the ceremony I attended. The library being dedicated was built in memory of a student who had attended the IDF Junior Command Preparatory School. This unique pre-military boarding school was founded in 1953 with the idea of combining the academic excellence of the Reali school with academic and practical courses in Military and Defense Studies. Graduates would be well rounded individuals, thoroughly prepared to take on leadership roles as combat officers in the IDF.

Students at the boarding school take classes with the students at the regular Reali high-school, the two campuses are adjacent and all are considered part of the “Reali family.”

It is one thing to know that the history of the Reali. It is another to be aware that much of Israel’s elite are alumnae. It is an entirely different world to walk in to a room full of these people. Ex-ministers, IDF commanders, leading business people, media personalities… everywhere I looked I saw faces that I would normally only see on TV. They all know each other and they all came together for this ceremony. Many were friends of the student whose memory was being honored. They had studied with him or served with him in the IDF. Some knew his family. Others didn’t know him but came anyway because he was one of their own, part of their circle.

Menachem “Melmel” Reich was the Lieutenant Commander of the Golani Reconnaissance Unit. He was killed in 1983, during the first Lebanon War. The Golani unit is a family in and of itself, not elitist like the Reali but very tight-knit and proud. In other words, Melmel had the extended members of two “families”, both very important in the construction and preservation of the State of Israel, who came to honor his memory.

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How many places, groups or organizations have you come across that tie disconnected individuals together in a bond so tight they can only be described as family? The feeling is difficult to explain to someone who has never experienced it before. Living in Israel has taught me what that looks like.

Melmel was 22 years old when he died. 33 years after his death he still looms large in the memory of his friends. The fact that so many busy people made time to come to the event is a testament to the impression he left on them. It was one of his friends who funded the library that was built in his honor saying: “Melmel always said to me that he wants to live on the Carmel and have his children go to the Reali. He didn’t have a chance to have children. That’s why I want to enrich the tradition of studying at the Reali for other children. That’s why a library seemed an appropriate way to honor him.”

And what a beautiful library! The existing school library was expanded and completely renewed. It’s bright and inviting, well organized, with dedicated areas for computers, private study and even rooms in which meetings or brainstorming sessions can be held without bothering anyone else.

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This might sound like a library dedication that could have happened anywhere else. Someone with enough money to invest can pay to build whatever they want in honor of their friends and any school would be happy to receive such a donation.

True. And yet, as I walked around the library, I was struck by the elements that are uniquely Israeli.

In the entrance of the library there is a wall with the names of the Reali students who were killed in Israel’s wars and by acts of terrorism. The memorial wall is covered in a shocking number of names, especially considering that these were all part of a small circle – friends of current students and teachers, their parents and grandparents. Each individual is a world to their family and friends and here, everyone knows everyone.

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Standing in front of the wall, suddenly it was not the number of names that struck me, not the names of the people I know who jumped out at me… it was the empty space. The space left for new names. The terrible realization that there will be the need for more space. Eventually more names will have to be added. More will be killed in future wars and terror attacks.

How many students do you know who walk around with the realization that maybe, one day, their name will be added to a memorial wall?

Inside the library there is a section filled with blue books about every single student whose name is on the memorial wall. Anyone can read their story, learn about each individual. Books seem an appropriate way to honor the deceased. A very Jewish way to preserve their memory.

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The elements created to honor the memory of the deceased are not something separate, they are part of the whole – given their own special space but not pushed aside.

The children walk past these areas when searching for books or doing their homework in the library. The books about the deceased can be used for research, for school projects. The people discussed are their brothers, their cousins, their uncles… One day it could be their name on the wall, their details in a book and if not theirs – those of their friends and family.

And then there was this: a modest rack displaying a selection of student theses. Behind it, shelves filled with more theses.

img_20161031_140220Where the other displays were memories of the past, here was a glimpse in to the future.

It would be difficult to differentiate between these high-school projects and the theses of university students. Much of the subject matter is way over my head. The title of the project with the blue cover is “Measurement of the universe expansion characteristics by redshifts calculation of emission lines in active galactical nuclei”. Do you know what that means? I don’t.

On the shelf below is a project delving in to the Hamas Charter as it is actually applied. To the left is a project on cultural defense in criminal law. Next to that a project on the intervention of God in war (as described in the bible). Physics, biology, law, history, culture, Middle Eastern studies…  these are the fruits of our frivolous 17 year olds…

I went to a library dedication ceremony. Something very normal that couldn’t have happened quite that way anywhere else in the world.

I worry about the future of our nation, of our country. All Israelis do. What I saw at the library dedication ceremony made me think that maybe things aren’t so bad. The Jewish people are called the People of the Book. It is that one book that taught us to love and cherish all books, to emphasize study and keeping the mind sharp. We are the People of THE Book and a people of books.

I think that as long as we still have books we will be ok. Books and family.


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