Hodaya is 8 years old and her favorite color is pink. She is small for her age, and over her tiny, pale face she wears a green paper surgical mask.
Hodaya would have loved to join the millions of Israeli students who went back to school on September 1, but she couldn’t. That’s because Hodaya is suffering from an aggressive form of bone cancer, and like dozens of other children at Haifa’s Rambam Hospital, she can’t leave the building.
Instead, Hodaya goes to school for a few hours a day inside of the hospital building. And while she doesn’t have the shiny new backpack, the gleaming locker or the pages upon pages of homework that other students in Israel have, she has something that none of them can even dream of: friends from Gaza and the West Bank, who are hospitalized alongside her and learning in the same classroom.
At Rambam, which is the largest medical center in the country’s north and one of Israel’s most renowned, pediatric education follows the same model as it does in hospitals across the country: the Education Ministry oversees curriculum and coursework, and sets mandates for the number of hours each day that hospitalized children must attend class.
But when you have 5-year-olds on dialysis and 11-year-olds undergoing chemotherapy, nothing, not even math homework, is normal. And at Rambam, where on average half of the beds in the pediatric wing are filled by children from Gaza and the West Bank, the banalities of reading, writing and arithmetic become even more surreal.
“We try to make them feel as normal as possible, even though it’s not a normal thing to be hospitalized,” says Ilana Levy, who manages all of the hospital education centers in Haifa, including that of Rambam. “We don’t care where you are from. We have Jews here, Christians, Arabs. We have children from Gaza. During the war, while there was fighting every day, we had children from Gaza sitting next to religious Jews in class. It doesn’t matter. We love all the children here and want to keep their lives as normal as possible.”
Classes at Israel’s hospitals ramped up on the first day of September, just as they did at schools around the country. Classrooms, which are divided by age group, all have an Arab-speaking teacher and a Hebrew-speaking teacher, and several have special assistants like art therapists or volunteers doing their national service. Classes generally run from 8:45 a.m. until 2 p.m., as they do in schoolhouses throughout Israel, but students come and go depending on their treatment schedules and how they are feeling each day.
“They come and they learn, and we really get attached to them,” says Lila Yahiach, one of the teachers in the oncology unit. Yahiach is Muslim, and she shares her classroom with Yehudit Levy, a religious Jew, as well as a Jewish national service volunteer named Hodaya Toledanu (no relation to the patient). Yahiach speaks in Arabic to the Arabic-speaking students, Levy speaks in Hebrew to the Jewish students — but both insist they feel the same connection, and the same responsibility, for everyone in their classroom.
Asked if she believes the students inside of Rambam can sometimes learn more about the outside world than their peers in Jewish-only or Muslim-only schools in the region, Yahiach immediately says yes. “Some of the students come here, and they speak only Arabic, but, it’s like anywhere – they make friends,” she says. “So they also want to learn Hebrew. And they start to, so they can talk with each other. They are kids. Of course they want to talk to each other.”
The ratio of Jewish to Muslim students is always in flux, although hospital officials say it generally sits at an even split. This week, as the school year opens, there are four students from Gaza, all of them hospitalized full-time. Some of them have been at the hospital for years, living there with their families while they undergo intensive treatment. There are 12 students from the Palestinian Authority, including five from Jenin. In the past the hospital also housed a number of Syrian children who were brought across the border for treatment. (The Gaza and PA kids’ treatments are paid for by the Palestinian Authority and they come to the hospital as medical tourists. The education costs are covered by the hospital and the Education Ministry, which stipulates that all kids in Israeli hospitals get schooling regardless of where they live.)
One of those students from the West Bank, Muhammad, is 12 years old. He shares a classroom with Hodaya in the surgery department, and while Hodaya practices writing the Hebrew alphabet with her Hebrew-speaking teacher, he sits alongside his instructor, a Druze teacher named Amtaz Manfor, and together they practice reading and writing English.
“English is the language of the world,” Muhammad, who also wears a mask to protect himself from contamination in the classroom, says. “So I like learning it. And my teacher likes speaking it.”
Manfor, who wears the traditional white veil of Druze women, hugs Muhammad and laughs. “I do like English,” she says. “And he is a good student.”
Also in the classroom are two girls from Gaza, who are gluing multi-colored sequins onto pieces of white paper with Dima Chamra, a Christian Arab who is a trained art therapist.
“It’s stressful here,” she says in English before giving a direction to the girls in Arabic. “The art is really helpful for them. It gives them an outlet. Some of them are here for a very long time.”
Dr. Rafael Beyar, Rambam’s director general, says that inside of a hospital, there is no place for politics.
“This is really a way for us to show that coexistence can happen,” he says of the classrooms in the pediatric wing. “We have Jewish and Muslim kids, Arab kids, kids from Gaza, kids with cancer, kids with kidney diseases, kids that stay here for a very long time. The hospital becomes their home. And whn you live together and you also learn together.”
Rambam has recently undergone a series of massive renovations and reconstructions, including the unveiling of a cutting-edge hybrid parking garage/underground hospital facility that is fully fortified. The shimmering Ruth Rappaport Children’s Hospital, a cheerful, light-filled new pediatric building, had its soft opening this summer. The children interviewed for this story are still being housed in the old building, but Beyar says that once all the pediatric cases have been moved to the new unit, classes will be larger and offer more chances for children from across the region to learn alongside each other and even become friends.
“A life is a life,” Beyar says. “It doesn’t matter where the patient comes from or what his religion or opinions are. We are care for patients, we educate the children who live here at the hospital, and we stay out of political arguments.”