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“The Bilingual Haifa School — Living Out a Vision of Coexistence"

(Written by Michal Gruber, published on Haipo.co.il, 7.31.22)

Over the past 11 years, the Hand in Hand Haifa community has been living out a vision of true coexistence. Haifa is often considered a prime example of coexistence, but is there a real connection between the Muslim, Christian and Jewish residents of the city?

Nearly every December in Haifa, city residents visit the Germany Colony to buy goods from local merchants [for the Holiday of Holidays Festival]. They also enjoy the central square, which features a cross, a crescent, and a menorah. However, true coexistence means getting to know the other, their culture and language, and not just buying hummus from them.

Jews and Arabs are raising their children together

“The Hand in Hand parents’ community is growing,” said Hand in Hand’s Haifa Community Organizer Rebecca Sullum-Zinger. “It’s a community of Jewish and Arab parents who are raising their children together in a growing educational environment, and creating many opportunities to meet and collaborate in meaningful ways, which don’t only revolve around the kindergarten and school.”

In its eleventh year, the Hand in Hand community includes around 350 members, and has an impressive history of achievements and extensive roster of activities. As always, the community will launch the start of the academic year with special ceremonies and a donation drive to provide school supplies for families in need.

“We see the joint Jewish-Arab community model as playing a really important role in bringing people together, and building trust and equality between Jews and Arabs in the city. We hope that many families will choose to join us, and that other shared communities will see us as a model for shared living that is very real and possible.”

How did it all begin?

The Hand in Hand community was formed around the first preschool, where children learned to speak both Hebrew and Arabic, and celebrated Jewish and Muslim holidays. When the first cohort completed kindergarten, the need arose for a first-grade class.

The municipality sourced a temporary arrangement for the Hand in Hand community. For four years, students attended the Ahmadiya School in the Kababir neighborhood. Each classroom was taught by two teachers, an Arabic-speaker, and a Hebrew-speaker. Over the years, Jewish students not only acquired a new language and Arab friends—some of them even picked up the accent.

The fact that the Arab students learned Hebrew is a little less impressive, as Arab children in Israel begin learning Hebrew at the start of elementary school, and their command of the language immeasurably surpasses the Jewish students’ command of Arabic.

Parents were also pleased that the bilingual track was hosted by a school in the Kababir neighborhood, where Arabic was the language of instruction, which meant the Hand in Hand students could easily integrate. The school building, however, became overcrowded, and could not contain students of both the Ahmadiya school and the bilingual track. The municipality began searching for an alternative solution, since the school building could not meet the needs of the bilingual track.

Dr. Merav Ben Nun was one of the community’s founders. Her son Assaf attends the school and has been part of the bilingual track since preschool. “As someone from Haifa, who was raised and grew up in the city, and decided to build a family here, I was very sad to have never learned Arabic, but I was even sadder that I did not know my Arab neighbors, even over the course of many year,” she explains. “This is a city where children grow up without becoming acquainted with one another, without meeting, and without building trust through multicultural dialogue in both languages. This reality is being transformed by the school that I founded along with my friends.

Today, when I hear my youngest son speak Hebrew and Arabic naturally with his friends, in a non-hierarchal and equal way, I am very proud of him. And I am happy that I succeeded in paving an educational path for him that doesn’t merely offer a challenging and nurturing bilingual educational experience, but also provides a platform where people can be heard, and a variety of views are given space, which allows his—and our—unique identity to be expressed in a mature and consolidated way.”

The Hofit school building

The next solution offered by the municipality was the Hofit School, located on Hinanit Street in the Sha’ar Ha’Aliya neighborhood. The beginning was not easy. Some of the parents and residents held demonstrations against bringing the bilingual track into the school. Meanwhile, parents of students attending the bilingual track were not eager to send their children, grades 1-5, to a school where they felt they were not wanted.

Local parents were uncertain about how the Hand in Hand community, which also celebrates Muslim holidays, might impact the children at the school. Ultimately, students of the bilingual program became part of the school and classes were carried out without issue.

Launching a middle school

This year, the senior cohort of the bilingual program will begin seventh grade. “This year, a seventh-grade class will open, and this will be the foundation of the middle school,” Sullum-Zinger says. “The track will open at the Ironi Aleph School in Kiryat Eliezer, and will include a unique educational program based on bilingual principles, in accordance with the school’s overall vision. This year, the elementary school students will continue at Hofit School, and in September 2023, they will move to their own dedicated school – the Mazor School in Kiryat Eliezer.”

The cooperation between the Ironi Aleph principal, Yafit Cohen, and Hand in Hand’s educational team has succeeded in creating a model that offers students an education led by two teachers – Guy Aloni and Dawashe Odeh, both of whom have extensive experience within the bilingual model.

In addition to being led by two educators, Jewish and Arab, the track offers a deepening of second-language acquisition in both languages, through unique syllabi which are based on advanced pedagogic models, and highlight individual support, dialogue, and a multicultural approach.

“This year, 20 seventh-grade students will attend the bilingual track, and the intention is for this to grow, and for the bilingual elementary school students, Jewish and Arab, to continue their studies until they reach middle school. Simultaneously, we will continue recruiting additional middle school students, and grow our unique model.”

Official recognition by the Ministry of Education for the bilingual school

Recently, the community successfully concluded its campaign for official recognition (in the form of an institutional number) by the Ministry. The Ministry of Education claimed that the number of students attending the bilingual track was too low to warrant an official institutional number. The community claimed there were many more children on waiting lists, whom could not be accommodated due to lack of space in classrooms. This falsely created the impression that there were not enough students. Ultimately, the Ministry of Education informed the community that the Hand in Hand school will receive an independent building in September 2023.

Emotional support for every student

“We have 168 students in grades 1-6,” said the director of the bilingual track at the Hofit School, Geezel Absawy, “Our educational approach places students at the center. We therefore have two teachers in each classroom, and place an emphasis on individual emotional support for each student.

Every student engages in self-reflection regarding his or her progress. Our educational method allows every student to express his or her capabilities, and to strengthen their self-confidence. Some of the learning is carried out through PBL (Project-Based Learning). We also work with PBE (Place-Based Education).

There is an emphasis in the school on becoming familiar with the culture and tradition of both sides. Last year, sixth graders in the bilingual track participated in joint spoken word activities with sixth graders at Hofit, and both groups really enjoyed the unique shared activity.

We are thrilled about our move next year into a dedicated building at the Mazor School in Kiryat Eliezer. This would not have happened without our community, which has supported and helped and encouraged us the whole time, and of course the Ministry of Education and the municipality, which are taking responsibility for bilingual education in Haifa.”


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