Back-to-back openings for Hand in Hand?

Coexistence NGO hopes to open world's first Jewish-Arab high school in capital.

coexistence 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
coexistence 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Straddling the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Beit Safafa and Patt, the new campus of the Max Rayne Hand in Hand School for Bilingual Education, which opened in October, sparkles in the sun. Chattering away in a mixture of Hebrew and Arabic, the students here appear happy and engaged. A Jewish and Arab student walk up to their teacher to ask a question. When she answers in Arabic, the Jewish student probes her for additional information. The largest of Israel's three Jewish-Arab schools, with an enrollment of 410 students pre-kindergarten through ninth grade, school officials hope next year to expand and open the world's first Jewish-Arab high school - a task they admit is fraught with challenges. Popularly known as the Bilingual School, it is administered by two principals, one Jewish and one Arab, and the classes are team-taught by both a Jewish and Arab teacher. Both teachers instruct all subjects together, each in her mother tongue, and students are expected to respond in the language in which a question is asked. Founded 11 years ago by Amin Khalaf and Lee Gordon together with its Galilee branch, the Hand in Hand organization for Jewish-Arab coexistence has since opened two other elementary/middle schools, in Wadi Ara and Beersheba, boasting a total of 829 students in their four schools and even a waiting list. Last year, the organization received a grant to formulate a dual curriculum. While the growth of Hand in Hand's schools reflects the success of its educational model, opening a high school is a challenge of a different order altogether. "I feel a bit like we are going back to the beginning again by starting a high school," says Khalaf with a half smile in the courtyard of the Jerusalem campus. "I have a lot of questions, but don't have all of the answers yet." His sentiments are shared by co-principals Ala Khatib and Dalia Peretz, who understand the complexity of what they hope to achieve, and are determined to iron out the problems. "We need 500 kids to start a high school. Right now we have 14," says Peretz. "We are working with the Education Ministry to get them to waive the requirement." Those 14, who are now in the ninth grade now, are all Arab. Their Jewish counterparts have left to get a head start on integrating into their new middle/high school. Moreover, some of the parents of the Jewish students are skittish about their children continuing with Hand in Hand through high school, says Ira Kerem, from the organization's fundraising department. "It's one thing to send them when they are young, but it's another when they are older," Kerem says. "As opposed to elementary school, there is a possibility of romantic relationships between the kids," Peretz adds. Aside from social challenges, there are also educational ones to be met. The school would like to open specialized tracks for high school, but needs a sufficient student body to justify the cost, Kerem says. They hope to open tracks in sociology, biology and physics. The high school will differ from the elementary school in that specialized classes will be taught separately in the students' native tongue. Other classes might be taught together. Khataf, Khatib and Peretz all emphasized that Hand in Hand's academic standards are quite high - well within Education Ministry norms and an important element in the educational model. Funding such a school is no small task either. Although the school does receive money from the Education Ministry, because there are two of everything - teachers, principals, workbooks - that money is not enough, Kerem adds. "We need to raise $2 million a year to fund Hand in Hand's schools," he says, adding that because of the fundraising concern, the board of directors was leery about opening a new school. Khalaf, however, seems confident that they will open a high school next year. The Hand in Hand coexistence curriculum is different from others, he stresses. "We teach multi-culturalism, not a dominant and subordinate culture, but two equal cultures. We teach two languages equally. And we focus a lot on identity - meeting the other and understanding him. That process actually strengthens one's own identity," he explains. "One of our main programs is about identity. Each year is about a different aspect of identity. We work to sharpen the outline of each person's identity. We do that through a process of learning about other identities starting in first grade," Khatib adds. Instead of having vacation only for national holidays (which only include Jewish holidays and Israeli national days), Hand in Hand's schools have off for the holidays of all three religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They make up the days by shortening the "regular" vacations; instead of two weeks off for Pessah, for example, students are given one week. This year the school also faces the challenge of how to approach the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel. While for Jews the anniversary is cause for celebration, for many in the Arab world it is looked upon as a day of mourning. "It's 60 years since... the establishment of the State of Israel, the Nakba [catastrophe]. The Education Ministry has chosen to stress the accomplishments in the last 60 years," says Peretz. "It is both the pinnacle of happiness and of pain," Khatib adds. "Here, both teachers teach all subjects, they will both teach about independence and about the Nakba," Peretz continues. "It will definitely be a challenge." Visiting a fifth grade class and walking around during recess, the impression is that, despite the challenges, at the elementary level Hand in Hand's educational model is indeed working. While the students did not always answer the question in the language it was asked, everything that was said was understood. The teachers also worked well together. When one of the Jewish teachers misspelled the Arabic word for "hill" on the board, her Arab counterpart corrected her, told her it was a nice try and moved on. Majd, a Christian eighth grader from Pisgat Ze'ev, says he has hung out at all of his Jewish classmates' houses and has slept over at a few of them too. A native speaker of Arabic, his Hebrew is fluent and he says he plans to study accounting and take the matriculation exam in Hebrew. The next step, Khalaf says, is to apply the educational model's accomplishments beyond the school walls. "I was involved in dialogue groups for a long time, conflict resolution. I lived in Neveh Shalom [an Arab-Jewish village] for a year. All of that is nice, but here we are changing reality. The question I ask myself now is: How can we influence wider circles? What can the state learn from Hand in Hand?" Khalaf says.