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(photo credit: LAUREN GELFOND FELDINGER)
Nibal Khouri races down the hallway, waving to friends, between classes in Talmud and the historical geography of Jerusalem.
A long way from her roots as a farmer's daughter in Ibillin, a Galilee Arab village, she rushes past the beit midrash shelves stocked with Torah, Talmud, Shulhan Aruch, prayer books and Jewish literature.
"There is nothing strange about it, in fact it makes me feel special," she says of being one of two Arab master's degree candidate among 500 Jewish students at the Schechter Institute's Graduate School of Advanced Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
Khouri, 39, has always liked feeling like a pioneer. After finishing high school in Haifa in the 1980s, she went on to the University of Haifa, where she majored in geography and Land of Israel studies. "Why not?" she says. "I love this country, I love nature, I love to travel and I wanted to know the history and the country better."
Nobody in her mixed Muslim and Christian village batted an eye, she says. "I grew up in a very open house; there are no fanatics there. We were taught that all people are human beings. If someone respects you, you respect them back."
Since moving to Haifa, she, her husband and two children live in a building populated primarily by Muslim and Christian Arabs. She describes her own family as secular Christian. The lower level of their apartment complex sits atop an Orthodox synagogue. "In Jerusalem you live in a different world than we do in Haifa," she says, shrugging off the three religions under one roof as nothing out of the ordinary.
After university and then studying special education, Khouri went on to teach geography and also teaches a general studies class in the special education track in high schools in her native Ibillin and the Muslim town of Fureidis, near Zichron Ya'acov.
It was there she says that an Education Ministry official contacted her about a job opening in Shelah, a ministry program which offers courses, seminars and field trips on the country's environment and history.
Shelah is offered in both Arab and Jewish public schools, says Khouri, adding, "What and how I teach has nothing to do with who the students are." For 10 years she has been teaching at a Muslim high school, she says.
"We don't get into politics. But when I'm at a Jewish site, Ramat Hanadiv for example, I teach my students about Baron Rothschild [who is buried there] and how he succeeded in helping the Jewish community. If I'm at a Muslim tomb, say at Geva Carmel near Fureidis, I will explain that there was an Arab village there named Jaba that was destroyed when the State of Israel was established. In either case, they just listen."
But, she says, after all the long years of studying and teaching geography, she still feels she doesn't know enough, for her own good or for the good of her students.
"I feel like I don't know the history of the Jews and the history of the country. I want to know the truth," she says. "It helps me as a citizen and as a tour guide. I also live among the Jews; I need to know them better."
And as her children are older, eight and 11, she says it was a good time to go back to school. Last year she started flipping through Histadrut brochures for continuing education and discovered one for the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, affiliated with the Masorti (Conservative) Movement.
"I saw it was focused on Judaism," she says. "If I'm going to study something, I should go to the source. They also have history and Jerusalem geography, and that's as far as I looked - I was convinced."
After talking to professors at Schechter, who convinced her it was a safe, pluralistic environment in which to learn during hours that worked around her job, she was given the phone number of a student from Haifa. "I met Gabi [Dagan] and he explained that it's not a fanatic place and everyone was respectful," says Khouri. "I didn't even check the other places out."
IT IS RARE but not unheard of for an Arab to pursue intense Jewish studies. At Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, for example, there are no Arabs working toward a master's in Jewish studies, but there are two Arab undergraduates in the Jewish studies and Jewish philosophy program and six others studying Jewish history.
Hebrew University dean of students Bili Shapira says "it's not popular, but it happens. A few years ago there was a group from the South Lebanon Army. Now we have one or two in Jewish history; maybe others in language, history and archeology."
No universities keep records of students by religion or ethnicity, so no official tallies exist.
Interfaith programs beyond the universities - such as the Interfaith Encounter Association, where Jews, Muslims and Christians jointly study each other's religions and cultures - are relatively small but have far more Arab participants than at the university level.
"Few Arabs study humanities in Israel for practical reasons - they can't get jobs if they study humanities. Also, there are few scholarships for Arabs to study Judaism at the university level," says Rabbi Ron Kronish, head of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, an umbrella of dozens of Christian, Muslim and Jewish organizations involved in interfaith activity. "Arabs in Israel tend to live very separate lives than Jews. The ongoing conflict has led to more and more separation rather than integration or normalization."
However, Kronish added, "We have found in interreligious dialogues, seminars, conferences and workshops that there is great interest on the part of Arab religious leaders, educators, women and young people to learn about Jewish history and Judaism. One has to create the right ambiance for this kind of learning. Once people get to know each other as individuals, then there is more interest in learning about their traditions and cultures, not in the abstract, but in the context of new and important interpersonal relations."
FOR KHOURI, her interfaith studies began in July, during the Second Lebanon War. Asked if she was scared on her first day at a Jewish school, she raises her eyebrows: "Scared? No. Not at all. I don't care. We are all the same; all in the same situation."
Khouri got a ride to Schechter with Dagan, who also lives in Haifa. The first weeks were tense because of the war, and the students from the North shared stories of scrambling to their safe rooms when Katyushas were falling. Sometimes on the two-hour drive they also talked about Jewish philosophy.
Two weeks into the semester, Khouri, Dagan and another student from the North came to Jerusalem for some quiet study away from the turbulence in the North. Khouri's cellphone rang that morning. Her son was on the line, shaken by a missile that had fallen nearby. A couple of days later, Ibillin went into mourning after a resident was killed by a Katyusha while at work in neighboring Kiryat Ata.
But Khouri kept coming to Jerusalem for her studies.
"I'm proud to study the religion of the other," she says. "You have to know people to love them. Every person in Israel needs to study the other religions and history of the other peoples. It will help bring peace."
When she started teaching in Fureidis, she says the Muslim students didn't know anything about Christianity. "The only thing they had was this stigma, that Christians were unbelievers. Arabs have stigmas against Jews, too - they think all religious Jews are extremists and racists and it's not true.
"Christians learn in school about Judaism and Islam, and I know every school is different. But it really seems that most Jews and Muslims don't really know about each other and each other's religion," she says, explaining that the more information she can gather about communities and their histories, the better she can teach her students.
"It's important not to infringe on the students' religion, not to criticize their religion or their beliefs," she says. "But they are open to listening about others."
While on a recent field trip on the Golan Heights with Muslim and Christian Arabs, Khouri started thinking about a class she takes at Schechter on the history of the Second Temple. "Did you know the Jews were here before the Arabs?" Khouri reports telling a Muslim teacher from the North.
"He said: 'Really?' He accepted my explanation. Arab students, too, don't know that Jews were here for so long; they think they only came from Europe or after 1948."
Her Israeli and Jewish history and geography lessons have never yielded an angry or critical response from her students, she says. "Life is more normal in Haifa. We may not really know each other, but we live together, work together, have stores next to each other. Everyone gets along."
A spokesman for the Schechter Institute says that she is also accepted by the Jewish student body and described by classmates and teachers as "very popular."
Khouri laughs and smiles a lot and says that's just her personality. She laughs as she races down the hallways between classes, so as not to miss anything, and smiles even when she's dropping from exhaustion. She's particularly tired juggling graduate school and her work as a teacher, tour guide and mother. She has two more years to go before she finishes her degree.
Her mind is full with homework for her classes in Talmud, Genesis, the First and Second Temple periods and the history of the establishment of the State of Israel.
"Talmud was the big surprise," she says. "I didn't know what it was, how they study, what they study. I think its helpful to know, because every religion interprets a sentence or a word in a different way, according to its tradition. I'm getting to see how the Jews approach language and study. Hopefully I can understand them better from this."
She is especially focused on her two term papers. The first is on the geographical history of Jerusalem from the First Temple period to the Byzantine period; her second is a comparative study of how tour guides teach about the Golan.
"I am looking at the differences in historical, geographical and environmental material between Jewish and Arab and secular and religious tour guides," she says. "I love the Golan and it's going to be interesting to see what messages different communities bring to it."
Khouri is so enthusiastic about what she is doing and why, that she hopes the inspiration will spread. "I wish everyone here would have the same ideology as I do - never to judge a person because of his religion or background. If they did, there would have been peace a long time ago."