Yaffa Shira Grossberg, Teacher, Jerusalem

Jerusalem school teacher YAFFA SHIRA GROSSBERG discusses bridging the cultural
and historic divide between Jews and Arabs. 

No University Could Have Prepared Me for This Work.

I grew up in Albany, New York, and have a BA in linguistics from Barnard College and an MA in special education from Columbia University. During college I could not have imagined working at such a special school. In fact, no university could have prepared me to teach in such a unique place.

I have been at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Jerusalem School for five years now, and I have never felt as enriched as I do while I am working and learning here. I have taught both in the United States and in other schools in Israel, and I have not been more satisfied as a teacher anywhere else. Here at the Hand in Hand school, I feel like a completely new world has been opened to me, and my universe and understanding of it has become so much greater.

In our school, the learning is quite multifaceted and extends in all directions. I was reviewing the hopes and wishes that we as a people (the Jews) express in the liturgy on Rosh Hashanah, and I was not critical or aware enough when I chose the text. I read to the class that there are many who eat a beet at the Rosh Hashanah meal and use the Hebrew name for beet as a play on words meaning "would that all our enemies and those who hate us retreat, and be gone." A Muslim student, Firas, spoke up, angrily: "I don't want to 'be gone!'"

It is clear to everyone here that there are both Jews and Arabs who regularly pray for the demise of the other. Obviously, what happens in our school — the close and genuine friendships between Arab and Jews — is not the reality in which we are living in broader society. The children and the teachers here learn to make distinctions between what is happening within our school community and the conflict outside. They learn to distinguish between people and situations rather than make broad generalizations.

In Israel, "the Jewish state," Arabs are certainly the "other." The Parliament, while democratically chosen and including members from Arab and mixed parties, is the government for the Jewish state. The official language of Israel is Hebrew and the calendar is a Jewish calendar. For generations, the two nations have been and continue to be enemies.

With that background, the Hand in Hand schools were established for the express purpose of educating Jews and Arabs together. With the principles of bilingualism and equality, one of our main goals is to graduate children who can speak, learn, discuss, and appreciate both languages and cultures. We believe communication is the key to peace.

In our school, there is no "other." All of our students, teachers and parents — Arabs  (both Muslim and Christian) and Jews — are equal. Each class is composed of 50 percent Arabs and 50 percent Jews, each class team-taught, and each school administered by co-principals. The students and their families develop friendships across cultural, national, and linguistic boundaries. Right from the start, there are no enemies and no "others." This surely creates long-lasting effects on the situation in this part of the world. We are beginning the only way possible for two groups with such a history. We are beginning with children and with education, ensuring this and future generations will be able to communicate and live side-by-side in peace and security.

Dialogue and discussion of all issues, no matter how painful and difficult, is a major part of our school, both on the staff and classroom levels. My job as an educator is to create an atmosphere where expression of  ideas and even disagreements is encouraged. No one must agree, but everyone must respect and listen.

At the end of my first year here, I wrote in my journal: "These past weeks have been the most difficult in terms of the conflict of the outside reality and how it affects what happens inside school. Last week we commemorated Memorial Day for Israeli soldiers killed in defense of Israel and celebrated Israel's Independence Day. Today we commemorated El Nakbeh (Disaster). They are all very politically, personally, and nationalistically charged days. We as a staff had many workshops, discussions, meetings, and arguments about how the days would be taught, presented, celebrated, and commemorated both in the classroom and at assemblies or field trips. These are the weeks when the conflict is felt the most, but perhaps only to the staff and parents. When I asked my students in the 2nd grade why it might be hard for a Palestinian to participate in a memorial service for Israeli soldiers killed in defense of Israel, they could not think of an appropriate reason.”

Our students are learning about the history and the conflict in age-appropriate ways and, most importantly, how to live in such a difficult situation, how to create a different future. They understand how to distinguish between people who choose violence and those who choose to coexist and live in peace. They are learning to create this reality for themselves. 

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