Teaching little hearts to care

With all the creative and educational activities at Little Hearts, there is no time to learn prejudices against other children who are different.

Little Hearts kindergarten521 (photo credit: Estera Wieja)
Little Hearts kindergarten521
(photo credit: Estera Wieja)
Of all the coexistence projects and exercises in diversity within Israel, the “Little Hearts” preschool in the center of Jerusalem has to be one of the most unusual. The kindergarten has a broad array of Jewish, Arab and expatriate children, and a staff of teachers reflecting the same mix.
Yet what makes it most unique is that the daycare center was founded by a former PLO commando who is today an evangelical Christian Arab at peace with his Jewish neighbors.
The children at Little Hearts are learning reconciliation and cultural understanding at the tender ages of two to six years old. Many have just started walking and talking. They have a lot of fun together even though they cannot all speak the same language.
The happy little kindergarten is located on the old “seam line” between the ultrareligious Jewish neighborhood of Mea She’arim and the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Voices speaking Hebrew and Arabic rise softly, with German, Finnish and Italian occasionally mixed in. Almost half of the children at the preschool come from international households.
“We teach classes in Hebrew mainly, because we don’t want to confuse the children,” school principal Alexandra Shoshani recently told The Jerusalem Post Christian Edition. “We use English in some activities, and sing songs in Arabic. But these little children sometimes don’t even distinguish between the languages.”
The children come from all backgrounds: Jews, Arabs, Americans, Ethiopians and even a little Asian girl.
This rich diversity is also represented among the teachers. The youngest class is taught by an Israeli Jew and an Arab Christian. Children under age five are taught by a German immigrant while the oldest group is cared for by an Italian-Jewish woman.
The vision for the Little Hearts preschool came out of what is considered to be the oldest city in the world – Jericho.
In 2008, Taysir Abu Saada started a charity called “Seeds of Hope,” to assist needy families in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as well as Israel. Before long, his group opened a daycare center in Jericho, and a kindergarten quickly followed.
“We recognized that the way to provide a better future for the people is to instill hope into their communities by providing basic physical needs,” explained Abu Saada. “By coming alongside them, we establish a working, peaceful community that gives hope where there once was none.”
This is a surprising viewpoint from Abu Saada, who just a few decades ago was no friend of Israel. His story is recounted in his book Once an Arafat Man, which traces how he came to hate Jews and joined the PLO’s military wing.
Born in Gaza into a Palestinian refugee family, Abu Saada lived in the Arab Gulf states and then Jordan, where he became a trained militiaman and fought in the Black September uprising. Later, while living in America, he found the Christian faith and went through a long process of healing, reconciliation and forgiveness.
Today, Abu Saada and his wife, Karen, seek to bring that healing to the younger generations in the Holy Land.
“Seeds of Hope is making great strides to further the cause of understanding between people in each of these communities by putting a face to caring for each other,” notes Karen Abu Saada.
Last year, the couple started the Little Hearts preschool in Jerusalem in an effort to bridge the gap between Palestinians and Israelis, beginning early in life. The parents who send their children there understand and endorse its objectives.
Last month, the children at the preschool had a fun time celebrating Purim together. Although it is a Jewish holiday, every family connected to the school took part, dressing the children up in colorful costumes and enjoying the traditional “Haman’s ears” pastries.
“We celebrate all the Jewish holidays, of course,” Shoshani noted. “But we also keep the Christian holidays, because we know many of the children’s families observe them.”
With all the creative and educational activities at Little Hearts, there is no time to learn prejudices against other children who are different.