Today has been a welcome break from the cognitive dissonance created yesterday by visiting Hebron. But it wasn’t a quiet or down day by any means. I woke early and by 8am Roger and I were at the Old City, where he headed to the Damascus Gate to pick up a bus to the Allenby Bridge and Jordan. I have truly enjoyed sharing the time in Israel with him. We were constant companions and together were able to really see how Friends Forever works on the ground in Israel, and we had shared experiences in peace-making that are unlike any other.
So, by 8am, I was on my own. 10 days in Israel and I am comfortable enough that this was not a big deal. I immediately headed to the Jaffa Gate, and into the Old City. My goal was the Western Wall, and the Temple Mount. Non-Muslims can go up to the Temple Mount only 3 hours each morning. So, I got there, and the line was probably 45 minutes long just to clear security. I decided to walk out the south gate – the Dung Gate – and explored the City of David, the Archeological Park, directly to the south of the Old city. I was there early enough that I think I managed to avoid shelling out a few shekels. That is ok. Then I went back to the Old City, and by this time the line was shorter, and I went up to the Temple Mount. It was pretty cool. I would love to see it during afternoon prayer, but that isn’t going to happen.
After that, I made my way back to Center City, and caught a cab to the Max Rayne Hand in Hand School in the Pat neighborhood of Jerusalem, about 10 minutes to the south. This was interesting as I had an Arab taxi driver who did not know the street I was going to, and we ended up navigating via google maps on my iPhone. He asked if I have “Waze” the mapping program everyone uses here , which I do, but since the maps are all in Hebrew, it is kind of useless for me. Ironically, when we got there, he suddenly realized where we were and blurted out “Hand in Hand!” Of course, he did. I toured Hand in Hand with several others, including a lawyer I met on Saturday, a couple from Montreal, and a tour group from a conservative congregation in Los Angeles.
I first learned about Hand in Hand Center for Jewish-Arabic Education around the time of the PCUSA General Assembly last year. Mike Cole told me about it, and I was intrigued by the notion of a bi-lingual Jewish and Arabic school. What people don’t know is that all of the schools in Israel are segregated. There are Jewish schools; there are Arab schools. The Jewish students do not learn Arabic, the Arab students learn Hebrew. Hand in Hand was created by a group of families in the late 1990s, who wanted to build a shared society, and a share community. They started with a pre-kindergarten, and today the Max Rayne School has 600 students, pre-K-12. There are four other campuses, all pre-K, or elementary schools, across Israel, going as far north as Haifa.
At Hand in Hand, the teachers are paired, one Jew/one Arab through 6th grade. Students are split evenly between Jew and Arab. Most of the Jewish students are secular Jews, but not all. Few of the Arab students wear the Hijab, although some of the teachers do. After sixth grade, the teachers are not paired, but half of the junior and senior high teachers are Jewish, half are Arab, and they teach their subject in their own language. The school truly is bilingual. The school also includes Arab Christians, and they teach students about all three religious tradition’s holidays. We talked about the Israeli national holidays, and how they celebrate, as do all Israeli public schools, Independence Day, and Memorial Day. But they also acknowledge the date known by all Palestinian Arabs as the “NakBa,” or “the Catastrophe,” the day commemorated on May 15th, when the Palestinians lost their villages, and lands to the new nation of Israel.
We talked about how they deal with conflict issues, and how the school works to engage students in dialogues. They acknowledge the tensions and conflicts but work to overcome it. Last year was particularly hard, as there were several instances when racist anti-Arab graffiti was sprayed on the wall outside the school. Each time, the students cleaned it up, and worked to show their solidarity. During the war, students, parents, and as many as 250 others engaged in weekly peace marches beginning at the school.
Hand in Hand experienced its worse day – and perhaps its best – in late November, when 3 extremist Jews broke into the school at night, entered a first grade classroom. Sprayed messages of hate on the walls, and set the room on fire (by taking all the books in the room and lighting them on fire). The fire was put out quickly, with only minor damage to that room – and eventually the 3 perpetrators were arrested. BUT the result of this bad day was global press favorable to the mission of Hand in Hand School, reaching as far as the White House, as two of the school’s students were flown to Washington, to light the White House menorah, and meet President Obama.
Another example of the school’s impact is how the neighborhood where it is located has responded to the school. Initially there was a “NIMBY” response to having Arab kids in a predominately Jewish, lower socio-economic neighborhood. But over the year the school has done a lot of outreach to the neighborhood, and after the fire bombing, the neighbors wrote a note saying “We are ashamed of the racism and violence, and are glad you are here.”
We met one of the kids who went to Washington, and spent time talking with them, one a Jew, on an Arab, both about 14 years old. These kids have been in school together since they were four, they socialize together after school, and they can’t think of anywhere else where they would want to go to school. It was refreshing. Hand in Hand is a daily version of Friends Forever. And it is one of the types of programs that desperately need to be allowed to prosper.
Hand in Hand is funded as a public school, and gets about 40% of its funds from the state, parents pay approximately $1500 per year (currently about 6000 NIS), and the rest of their funds come from philanthropy. They hope to have 10 schools in a decade.
After leaving the school, I managed to get a ride back with the tour group on their bus to Central City, where I jumped on the light-rail train to Mt Herzl, and visited Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Center. The museum was powerful, and tells a comprehensive history of the Shoah – or Holocaust. I did not spent a lot of time in the actual exhibits, as time was short, but it was very well done. What I did do, was walk through all of the grounds, and visit all of the memorials spread throughout. It was a worthwhile visit. Already well-versed in the history of the Holocaust, I can’t say I learned a lot, but it was worth the time.
And now, it is 5:40pm and I am in my room, writing an early blog. But the day isn’t over. Tonight, at seven I will walk up the street to Shevet Achim, the Christian community I wrote about a day or two before I left for Israel. I suspect I’ll be there until around 9. Every day is a complete one. I’ll write about what I experience there either tonight or tomorrow.
Tomorrow, I get to do a very touristy thing, one that I have wanted to do since first thinking about going to Israel. I am going to Masada, and to the Dead Sea. After that I just have one more day, before heading back to the US early Thursday morning on a 1am flight. I have loved every minute, but will be ready to be home.