Projected coexistence

As the Bilingual School readies to open at its new campus, will area residents' concerns be allayed?

bilingual school 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
bilingual school 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
'It is a flower in a bleeding, fighting city," says Alla Hattib, co-principal of the Max Rayne Hand in Hand School for Bilingual Education, of his school's new campus at the junction of the Pat and Beit Safafa neighborhoods. "It is the biggest [coexistence] project that succeeded in bringing 400 Jews and Arabs to grow up and live together," says Hattib. But coexistence may take on a whole new meaning for the school, as locals have voiced concern about the impending changes the new campus will pose to their neighborhood. Funded by Hand in Hand, a non-profit organization promoting coexistence of Jews and Arabs, the Max Rayne School is the biggest of the three Jewish-Arab schools in Israel. 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. "By the end of second grade the students speak both Hebrew and Arabic fluently, and know the Hebrew and Arab alphabets," says Hattib. The school opened in 1998 with 25 kindergarten students. Two years later, the Education Ministry officially recognized the school, which expects this year to enroll a minimum of 410 students, pre-kindergarten through ninth grade. Students are an even mix of males and females, Arabs and Jews, and the school's Arab population is 20 to 30 percent Christian. Until the third grade, Muslim, Jewish and Christian students study religion together. Starting in the fourth grade they separate, but share their religious insights in monthly meetings. Consisting of a gym, kindergarten, classrooms and auditoriums, the new campus is like a miniature town with many paths and a courtyard at its center. It is named after the recently deceased Jewish businessman Lord Max Rayne, whose foundation's generous donation enabled completion of the nearly $11 million campus. "The school currently runs in temporary accommodations in the former Denmark School Campus and in a few weeks will move to its new and permanent dwelling in the Pat neighborhood," says Jerusalem Municipality spokesman Gideon Schmerling. According to a Max Rayne school administrator, the students will move into the new campus in October, after the High Holidays . Neighbors of the new campus are not as excited as Hand in Hand about the school's opening. "The entrance to my house is three meters from the school's entrance," says Yehoshua Chacham. "I don't need to explain to you what it is every morning to have 400 kids next to you. "They want to take our apartments' parking lot, with 40 spaces for 32 families, during the school day. Well, what about those who are unemployed? What happens when there are parent-teacher conferences?" Chacham adds, "The roads are already packed with drivers going from east to west Jerusalem through Pat, and now tens of more cars will need to pass here every day." Chacham is not alone in his concerns on the matter. Together with the Pat Neighborhood Council, he has sent four letters to Mayor Uri Lupolianski, suggesting the creation of an alternative entrance to the school from the Gilo neighborhood highway (Rehov Dov Yosef). With a parking lot at the end, an alternative road would eliminate noise as well as congestion . Pat Neighborhood Council head Chaim Gershon says he spoke to the Jerusalem Foundation, which is in charge of the construction of the building, but "we have not yet heard of any plans to build a parking lot or access road." If the council does not get an answer soon, warn Gershon and Chacham, it will resort to other means of protest, like staging demonstrations or even blocking the school's entrance. "The fund met with representatives of the neighborhood," says Jerusalem Foundation spokeswoman Liat Rosner, "and among other matters, discussed the issue of parking and access to the school. The fund promised to act together with the municipality's Traffic Department to improve the accessibility to the school." "The question is what is the Traffic Department going to do," Rosner adds, explaining that the foundation was willing to sponsor an access road. Schmerling, however, says an access road is not possible. "The lot on which the bilingual school is located does not border on Rehov Dov Yosef. Separating between it and Dov Yosef are the train tracks that are under the complete responsibility of Israel Railways and there is no possibility to cross it with a new road." In addition, he says, "We do not see any traffic problems in the place except for the congestion conditions that exist in every school in times of drop off and pick up. Even if from a statutory point of view there was an option for arranging an entrance from the artery of Rehov Dov Yosef, the matter would not be advised from a traffic and safety perspective. "A connection from a major highway to a school is not desirable as long as a different option is available. As such, an extension will be built next to the school, and an additional parking lot will be arranged." Physical changes to the neighborhood aren't the only concern. Rabbi Shalom Dov Lifshitz, who heads the anti-missionary group Yad L'Achim, says that Pat is a religious neighborhood, and as such opposes the pluralistic school. "Build it in Rehavia. Build it in an Arab neighborhood," he says, adding, "The Arabs would not permit this." Lifshitz says the school will encourage intermarriage, and that its Jewish students are too young to study with Arabs - he advises waiting until college to encounter and understand Arabs. Such opposition, however, doesn't faze Hattib. "I understand that there was opposition in the beginning, but that it was mainly from a religious group, and from what I understand they were not from the area." Gershon adds, "The building is built now. What can one do?"