School for Arab, Israeli students a shelter of calm coexistence amid geopolitical storm

"We don’t see people as an Arab kid or a Jewish kid, we just see them as friends who are equal," says student at Jerusalem’s Hand in Hand School.

Arab and Jewish high school students on the first day of school (photo credit: COURTESY AMAL MATTAR)
Arab and Jewish high school students on the first day of school
(photo credit: COURTESY AMAL MATTAR)
Walking into Jerusalem’s bilingual Max Rayne Hand in Hand School is akin to entering a portal to another world – where hate, intolerance and elitism are strictly forbidden, and kindness, humanity and selflessness are generously rewarded.
In this world, situated between Beit Safafa and Pat, nearly 700 Arab and Jewish children from pre-kindergarten through high school learn and socialize together under the watchful eyes of teachers and administrators from both communities.
Despite numerous, divisive and radical outside forces from both sides that have attempted to infiltrate this bastion of coexistence with hatred, the Hand in Hand School has proven itself impervious to such hostilities, time and again.
Indeed, it has become a highly successful social and educational paradigm since its doors first opened in 1998.
This was clearly evident on the first day of school Thursday, where Arab and Jewish children as young as five held hands to celebrate their reunion.
“We’re opening the school year with a lot of excitement and a lot of growth in all six of our schools,” said communications director Noa Yammer, moments before a ceremony in the gymnasium welcoming first-graders back from summer vacation.
The Jerusalem school is Hand in Hand’s flagship, with institutions in the Galilee, Haifa, Jaffa, Wadi Ara and Kfar Saba serving 1,550 students.
Noting the sweeping views of Beit Safafa, Yammer said that despite the school’s unique environment, it is important to not insulate the children from the outside world.
“There aren’t walls separating us from the rest of the world,” she said. “We are not creating a bubble or an insulated environment that is disconnected from the outside. We really want to see what’s happening out there, take it in, talk about it, and put it on the table.”
Moreover, Yammer said, one of the school’s primary objectives is to positively impact the outside world.
“This year we really want to continue to grow within our education and development,” she said, noting that roughly 60 percent of students are Arab and 40 percent are Jews.
The expansive school, which is funded by the Jerusalem Foundation, was started by Jewish and Arab parents whose kids were in a preschool together, then separated when they entered first grade.
“They said, ‘We don’t want to separate our children, we want them to grow up together,’” explained Yammer. “‘We want them to see the challenges that come with growing up together, and to learn each other’s languages and cultures, and create a real sense of a shared identity, while still empowering their own identities.’” That first class had 20 children, who graduated in 2011, she said.
Asked how the school dealt with a 2014 arson attack perpetrated by Jewish extremists from the radical group Lehava, Yammer said the vandalism, which made international headlines, was discussed based on the students’ ages and comprehension.
“We explained that there are some bad people who do bad things – not because they are Jewish or Arab, but because they don’t like what we do,” she said. “But we feel very strongly that this is important.”
Sarah Sheikh, a 17-year-old senior from Abu Tor, who has been enrolled in the school since the first grade, said she agrees.
“I like that this school is different than any other school in the country because it has Jews and Arabs here, which is really unique,” she said.
“It’s also good that we get to see both sides here, and listen to each story, which gives us another point of view that not everybody sees outside the school. It really helps us to live in this country in a more peaceful way.”
Sheikh noted that she has never experienced tension with Jewish students at Hand in Hand.
“In this school, we don’t really feel the tension that’s happening outside,” she explained. “We don’t see people as an Arab kid or a Jewish kid, we just see them as friends who are equal.”
Outside the school’s walls, however, is a different story, Sheikh conceded.
“I have a lot of friends who are not really supportive, because they don’t understand the point of the school,” she said. “When they hear that I’m in a school that has Jews and Arabs, they think: ‘Oh, you’re a Jew now. You’re one of them.’” What those outsiders fail to understand, Sheikh added, is that “when you come here, you don’t erase your identity.”
“You just build it, and it becomes stronger here,” she said. “I have cousins and friends that don’t see the side I see in Jews; they see the soldiers and those things, but I see people who are just like us – regular people.”
Alumnus Adan Kinani, 19, now a student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on Mount Scopus who leads a coexistence program between Arab and Jewish students there, said her education at Hand in Hand helped her to look beyond socially reinforced stereotypes.
“We learned how to live with each other,” she said. “It’s a way of life, and you wake up and know you can’t judge someone for his religion, gender, or whatever. You don’t think about it here.”
Echoing Sheikh’s sentiments, Kinani noted that studying and socializing with Jews in no way mitigates her identity as a Muslim, but rather empowers it.
“You get to know your own religion and your own community, with the other community,” she said. “You learn Hebrew and Arabic in the first grade, and I don’t think about if a friend is Jewish or Arab.”
Math teacher and community organizer, Aharon Gefen, who has two children enrolled at Hand in Hand, said the lessons the school imparts go well beyond the classroom.
“I think it’s very important to emphasize that this school is not just about the children,” he said. “It’s a school that has an ideology of bringing Jews and Arabs together, and that means that the parents also have to take an active role, myself included.”
Indeed, noting that he knew few Arabs before becoming involved with the school, Gefen said the experience has had a profound impact on his thinking about the greater Arab community.
“I remember the first time my wife and I did a tour with the principal here, and we thought it was so beautiful, but when we went outside we saw two Arabs walking by us speaking Arabic, and I remember clenching a little bit because when I used to hear Arabic I became frightened.”
“Now,” he continued, “I don’t feel that way at all. If I see a person wearing a hijab, it’s just a person, and I talk to them and get to know them.”