January 24, 2018
This afternoon I visited an amazing school in Jerusalem: The Hand in Hand Centre for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel. The school itself looked special. It is constructed out of Jerusalem Stone and decorated with student artwork. The faculty, children, families and learning experiences were spectacular. I witnessed the coexistence of Israeli Jews and Arabs.
The history of the school was similar to our own school history. Noa, our guide for the afternoon, presented this narrative about the initial days of Hand in Hand: This school was started 20 years ago. It was started by a small group of parents who wanted something different for their children. Something that felt more aligned with their values. Something that over time could change the fabric of the local culture. The chronology of the school and the vision to create something different resonated with the history of Paul Penna DJDS. Yet it was the idea of changing the local culture that really caught me.
Our delegation met with three influencers from the school:a teacher, a principal and a parent. What was so astonishing was to understand the tremendous impact of the school on the mindset of the adults in the building, not just the children. Faculty team teach, so that fluent Arabic and Hebrew speakers are present in the classroom. Through this experience, and with intentional regular facilitation, they are given the opportunity to hear and understand each others’ narrative and find ways to build trust and mutual respect. The faculty talked honestly about their different perspectives on complicated moments in modern Israeli history, and together we discussed how national holidays, days that have such different meanings for different student and faculty groups, are recognized in school. Addressing challenges such as these came down to knowing another – not allowing individuals to get lost in impressions of the masses.
The families and faculty at Hand in Hand represent a tiny segment of the population of Israel. There are long waiting lists, suggesting that there is a desire for this unique educational experience. The school is changing the perspectives of both the Jews and Arabs learning there, and in turn impacting their broader families and communities. People have a safe space for dialogue and developing understanding, and research from graduates demonstrates that their biases are lessened because of the time spent together and the effort put into facilitating authentic conversations and wrestling with hard and paradoxical realities of Israel.
In addition to chronology and early days, are there parallels that can be drawn or lessons that can be learned from the Hand in Hand school? Most definitely yes.
- Seeds of hope for coexistence in Israel are sprinkled throughout the country in the form of 6 outstanding schools. Each student enrolled brings a large circle of influence that spreads the ideas of the school beyond the school walls themselves.
- For many of our families, having their children at Paul Penna DJDS opens their minds and hearts to Jewish life; our scope of influence is much larger than we necessarily see.
- Dialogue, team teaching models and forward thinking education can shift the mindset of students and adults – a mindset that they will carry with them well beyond the doors of the school.
In her most recent book, Braving the Wilderness, Brene Brown teaches the lesson: People are hard to hate up close. Move in. What I witnessed today was this lesson in action. Each person at this school is pushed to look at their own prejudices and narratives and examine them within the context of people they know, rather than a group of nameless people. As humans, when we get to know individuals and their stories, it becomes much harder to make generalizations. Perhaps the place where true coexistence lies is with a generation of young people who have taken the time and been given the tools to know each other and find common ground in authentic human experiences. It is this that will change the fabric of the culture. Wherever efforts are made for this type of authentic experience, one that allows people to truly get to know each other, tremendous things are possible.