Coexistence learning at the Strawberry Gan for Jewish and Arab children

Israel coexistence: Young, bilingual and multicultural

GAN TOOT is comprised of seven children from the Western Galilee’s Kibbutz Evron and eight from the neighboring town of Mazra’a. (photo credit: Courtesy)
GAN TOOT is comprised of seven children from the Western Galilee’s Kibbutz Evron and eight from the neighboring town of Mazra’a.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In the Western Galilee, Kibbutz Evron, a stronghold of the socialist kibbutz movement since 1937, a radical new social experiment, the first-ever bilingual gan, Gan Toot, or Strawberry Gan, on a kibbutz for Arab and Jewish children that incorporates kibbutz educational theories, has just finished its first year.
The idea of educating a group of 15 children together – seven from the kibbutz and eight from the neighboring town of Mazra’a, ranging in age from two to three years old – began as the dream of Sagi Shalev, 46, who grew up on the kibbutz and felt compelled to do something to bring closer local Jews and Arabs after his brother Nisan, then 34, a helicopter pilot, was killed during the Second Lebanon War.
The gan grew out of conversations that Shalev and other kibbutz members had with residents of Mazra’a. After three years of intensive fundraising and organizing, Shalev and the steering committee brought the idea of a bilingual gan to kibbutz members, who voted to allow the gan to be established on kibbutz grounds.
Bilingual and multicultural education, Shalev says he believes, must begin at an early age “before it’s too late, and people have already grown up with so much fear of one another.”
After the kibbutz vote (325 out of 420 members voted in favor of its establishment), Shalev said that his two older daughters, aged eight and 11, (his youngest daughter, Eli, now three, attends the gan) told him that they heard so many negative responses from other children about the idea of Jews and Arabs in a gan together that Shalev mused, “If the kibbutz children had been allowed to vote on the gan, they probably would have turned it down.”
Yet the gan finished its first year successfully, according to Shalev, other parents and its educators, with children gaining not only bilingual education but experiencing different cultures. They celebrated holidays together, from Sukkot to Christmas and Ramadan. In fact, on the last day of Ramadan, parents from Mazra’a invited families to join them in breaking the fast.
“My daughter now has friends in Mazra’a, something that would not have happened without the gan,” said Yonathan Bassani, who has been active with building the gan from the start. He said he had no connection with people in Mazra’a before, and thought it was depressing that nothing was shared among neighboring residents. The gan has given children and also the parents the opportunity to meet one another.
Bassani said that the establishment of the gan did not come from a “political or a Left/Right place.” For him, it was simply a way to meet people in the next village. Bassani said that some people on the kibbutz were suspicious at first about how the gan would work but now they are more and more open to the idea and for the coming school year, there is a waiting list.
What also made Gan Toot special, Bassani said, was the fact that parents offered their skills and expertise to bring it to fruition. Bassani offered legal advice; his wife, Anat, an architect, helped plan the renovation of the building that was built in the 1960s and was in disrepair, and other parents, who are contractors, offered their building services.
“We all put in a lot of energy and it was a group effort,” he said.
BEHIND THE scenes, Jacob Talmon, a retired businessman who was born and grew up on Kibbutz Evron, helped plan fundraising efforts for the gan and now serves as chairman of the “Live Together” Foundation. Talmon has dealt with what he called “bureaucratic tangles” in Israel’s Education Ministry. Today, the gan is recognized by the Education Ministry; it is considered private and receives no funding. Talmon said that the gan has also sparked joint projects between the kibbutz and Mazra’a, such as a recent running event on June 15 in which runners came to the village from around the country.
“We might not be able to achieve peace,” Talmon said, “but the gan is one thing he can do to help improve the situation.”
A visit to the gan reveals a warm and inviting kid-friendly space in an idyllic pastoral setting. Inside, the gan is decorated with signs written in both Arabic and Hebrew, sometimes with Hebrew transliteration of the Arabic. The children at the gan speak in a mixture of both languages, said Ranen Awad, one of two of the primary gan teachers, forming bonds while playing, often using the non-verbal communication of children.
Experts say that children who grow up bilingual might develop verbal language skills at a later age, but develop the capacity to absorb new languages easily.
Hanan Falash Abd El Al, who lives in Mazra’a, said that her daughter, Lour, aged two and a half, “throws in Hebrew words when she talks to us in Arabic.” El Al, a tech designer for a hi-tech company in Yokne’am, said that is important for her children to be able to communicate in Hebrew, the language that is all around them, and to do so from an early age, and not just when they start working with Hebrew-speaking colleagues.
The gan runs from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m., and lunch is catered by the kibbutz dining hall, which still operates six days a week during breakfast and lunch. The gan is in the heart of the kibbutz, surrounded by trees and landscaped greenery. Talmon said that he appreciates how the children “can run freely between the trees and grass,” stopping to look at dogs and cats and ants on the path, “something they can’t do in the village of Mazra’a or an inner city.”
Working with Awad are Israela Got and two teaching assistants, one Arabic-speaking and one Hebrew-speaking. The staff also faced the challenges of working as a bilingual team.
“The gan is something I dreamed of,” said Awad, who grew up in the Galilee village of Nahef and now lives with her family in Nahariya.
“I feel wonderful about how well the gan turned out this year,” she said. “We accomplished something very special.”
The gan plans to open again in September, adding three more children to the group. (El Al said that she hoped her four-year-old son will also be able to attend.) Shalev said that he hopes to establish a bilingual school for older children. There are about a dozen bilingual schools in Israel, including six Hand in Hand bilingual, multicultural schools that educate more than 1,000 students in Jerusalem, Haifa, Jaffa and other locations. The closest bilingual primary school is a Hand in Hand school in Misgav, about 30 kilometers away.
“The process of making this gan happen has changed my life and my perspective,” said Shalev.