In the News

Jewish Review
November 2010
Jewish, Arab Students Talk Friendship
By JENNIFER WILLIS

Portland’s Moishe House hosted two Israeli high school classmates—one Jewish and the other a Christian Arab—the evening of Nov. 15 at an event for young people co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland.

Yael Keinan, 15 and a Jewish Israeli, and Siwar Eid, 16 and an Arab Israeli, were on their last stop of a two-week visit to Californian and Oregon.

The two girls are students at the Jerusalem school of Hand in Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel, co-founded in 1997 by Portlander Lee Gordon, a member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland Governing Board.

Jewish and Arab students at the Hand in Hand school study side by side and forge friendships that defy political and ideological divides.

During their visit, Yael and Siwar spoke with other students, church groups and donors about how their school helps to promote peaceful coexistence between Jewish and Arab Israelis.

“Unfortunately, Arabs and Jews in Israel lead highly segregated lives. That’s especially true in education. There are separate public schools for Jewish and Arab Israelis, and Hand in Hand is trying...to build partnership through education,” according to Gordon. “So Jewish and Arab Israelis come together on a daily basis and study together.”

Since its founding, Hand in Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel has grown from a modest 50 students to more than 900 who attend classes in Jerusalem, Beersheva, Wadi Ara and Galillee.

Gordon hopes that programs like Hand in Hand will speak to the natural idealism of young Americans and inspire them to get involved with what’s happening in Israel.

“There’s a lot of discussion now about how young people—especially young Jews in America—are really not focused on Israel,” said Gordon, who thinks they may be turned off by politics or simply don’t feel a bond with Israel.

“They may have gone on a Birthright trip, but that doesn’t necessarily build a lifelong connection,” he said.

Yael and Siwar have both been surprised by some of the questions they’ve gotten from Americans about life in Israel.

“People always ask us, like, do you have television in Israel?” says Yael, mystified. “A lot of people are just not really familiar with Israel.”

Siwar and Yael are both trilingual and switch easily between Hebrew, Arabic and English—sometimes within the same sentence.

“I think if I would go to an only Jewish school, I wouldn’t know Arabic that good,” says Yael.

Siwar would still learn Hebrew in an Arab school. “Because, you know, it’s a Jewish country,” she says. But she has a definite advantage over students at Arab-only schools: “I get to talk to Jewish people, and they don’t.”

At the Moishe House, questions from the audience ranged from whether the students think Arab Israelis are treated as second-class citizens to interfaith dating and how Yael’s and Siwar’s parents get along.

Asked what else people should know about Hand in Hand, Siwar exclaimed, “That Arabs and Jews can actually learn and live together. Many people don’t understand that. They think it’s weird for an Arab kid to go to a school where he can meet Jewish kids and be their best friends.”

“Our school concentrates more on culture, different cultural backgrounds,” Yael explained, emphasizing that all three religions—Islam, Christianity and Judaism—are taught equally.

The Jerusalem school is small, with about 100 students from seventh to 12th grades.

“We became a family,” Siwar said of her fellow Hand in Hand students.

Hand in Hand offers volunteer opportunities—particularly at its Jerusalem school—for people to learn Arabic and Hebrew and even to earn college credit during an extended stay that can last anywhere from a few months to a full year.

Gordon encourages youth to build direct connections with other groups and individuals in Israel. “The best way to connect young people to Israel is in a way where they feel they’re making an impact and doing something that fits their values.”

He hopes that events such as the visit to Moishe House and volunteer opportunities with Hand in Hand will reach younger people, before they’re invested in careers or families.

“They’re searching for what they want to do with their lives, which is natural. They haven’t really defined their Jewish communal orientation.” He was optimistic that such events would make their Jewish orientation more positive.

In March 2010, a larger group of Hand in Hand students visited Portland—and in March 2011, students from Portland’s Metropolitan Learning Center will travel to Israel on a reciprocal visit, according to Gordon.

“This is a way to expose people to a part of Israel they don’t hear about,” said Gordon. “It’s one of the missions of the federation to be a voice to the broader community, not just the Jewish community.”

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