They gathered on the asphalt sidewalk, more than a hundred Jerusalemites in sneakers and sandals, kids on scooters and babies in strollers, all with the aim of walking together.
It was the fifth time that the capital’s Max Rayne Hand in Hand Bilingual School — the oldest and largest member of a nationwide network of Arab-Jewish bilingual schools — was marshaling its community this summer. Each time, participants strolled in Train Track Park, a walking path that bisects the southern section of the city and runs through both Jewish and Arab neighborhoods.
“We needed something that sends out the message of living together, and that the future of Jews and Arabs is in the same place,” said Efrat Meyer, the school’s community organizer and art teacher. “Our message is mostly that we are living together, whether we want it or not.”
In this part of Jerusalem, Jews and Arabs often walk past one another on the popular trail, set along the century-old railroad ties put in place by the Turks during the Ottoman Empire. But given the events of the last two months, Arab residents of Beit Safafa said they feared walking on the path past Rami Levy, a local supermarket that marks the border between their neighborhood and the Jewish ones. Some of the Jewish parents said the same thing, said Meyer.
“It’s a complicated time for us,” she added. “When school’s in session, it’s easy because the kids are protected by our environment. But in the summer, they’re all sitting at home, listening to their own media and that creates a very big dissonance. The parents wanted something that would involve the kids and make them less isolated by the vacation.”
And so began their weekly walks during the month of Ramadan after the nightly meal that the Muslims would eat after a long day of fasting. They skipped last week, during Eid Al Fitr, the three-day festival at the end of Ramadan, although some of the Arab families who were walking said this year’s holiday hadn’t been all that celebratory.
Each time, they were joined by members of the larger community looking to show their support of the school, many wearing white T-shirts emblazoned with the school’s name in Hebrew and Arabic. And their plan is to keep walking, said Meyer, every week, rain or shine, throughout the year to show the city that there is some semblance of coexistence in Jerusalem.
There were, however, far more Jews than Arabs this week.
“My kids are staying inside,” said Suha, one of the Arab parents, with three children at Hand in Hand. “They don’t want to go out, because they don’t know what they may confront.”
The numbers didn’t matter so much in the school’s broader context, said Rebecca Bardach, the school’s director of development.
“Our goal is that everything we do should be 50-50,” she said. “But some events bring more Arabs, and some bring more Jews. Jews tend to like apolitical togetherness, and Arabs like to talk about the issues more. But because we’re a school, we’re together all the time, and it balances out over time.”
That’s much like the delicate balance that is played out every day, for some 300 days of the year.
“We’re an easy sign of coexistence, because we’re a great school,” said Bardach while walking along the path. And when it comes to school, “you have to show up,” she added.
It took time for Hand in Hand to earn a stamp of approval from four of the five municipalities that host Hand in Hand schools, as well as from the Education Ministry, which recognizes the school as a public, government-supported school.
There are details that set Hand in Hand apart from its fellow school systems in Israel: the classes in Arabic and Hebrew, the complicated school calendar that recognizes Jewish, Muslim and Christian holidays, the unique curriculum, and the historical issues and conflicts that rear their heads all the time.
But it may be an example of coexistence in its purest form, and it is steadily growing.
There were 1,065 students in Hand in Hand schools this year and there will be a slight increase next year, with 40 more students in the Jerusalem school and double the previous number of preschool and kindergarten kids in Haifa and Jaffa.
Hand in Hand’s only high school is in Jerusalem, and when it opened in 2011 it was overwhelmingly Arab, mostly because the Jewish students had a host of options when they reached ninth or tenth grade. This coming year will be the first time that the incoming tenth grade will be split evenly, with 50% Jews and 50% Arabs.
Officially known as Hand in Hand — Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel, the organization, which founded its Jerusalem school in 1998, now includes two elementary schools in the Galilee and Kfar Qara, as well as two preschools, in Jaffa and Haifa.
It is a public school, with additional fees paid by the parents for the school’s supplemental core curriculum, two teachers in each classroom and a longer school day. The core funding comes from the Education Ministry and parents’ fees, while outside funders include the Jerusalem Foundation, USAID and other private foundations.
In Haifa, the Hand in Hand preschool is still private, because despite the city’s mixed Arab-Jewish population, the municipality hasn’t come on board yet.
“Hundreds of parents are interested, but the municipality hasn’t approved it,” said Noa Yammer, the school’s communications coordinator. “They keep refusing requests to make it a public school, they say they don’t need it, that Haifa’s schools are mixed.”
Jaffa, on the other hand, which is two-thirds Jewish and one-third Arab, and which includes a large swath of young, upwardly mobile Israeli families who have moved into its gentrified apartment buildings, is “very fertile ground for us,” she said, with a lot of established Arab families as well.
This year, there is a waiting list of 100 families for the Jaffa kindergarten.
Within the next 10 years, Hand in Hand wants to have a total of 10 to 15 schools, creating a movement of Jewish-Arab education in Israel. But it’s not just about the kids’ education. its leaders say; it has to involve the families as well.
“It’s important to engage children,” commented Yammer, “but the whole burden can’t be on them.”
The concept of Hand in Hand isn’t just about mixing populations, she added. It’s about understanding one another’s cultures and lifestyles.
It may be about people like Mimi Pakiya.
Pakiya, a Hand in Hand kindergarten teacher who lives in the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Tsur Baher and took part in the joint walk, was pushing her toddler in a stroller while her other two children ran, walked and complained, tired after a long evening.
She was talking about the terrible sorrow and pain of the current situation, when she remembered that she once participated in an activity in which she role-played a Jewish mother whose son was killed.
“I felt terrible, we cried, and we hugged afterwards,” she said, recalling her Jewish partner in the activity. “You have to put yourself in someone else’s shoes if you want to understand them. You may not want to stay in those shoes, but you have to know where they’re coming from. That’s coexistence.”
And then, with her daughter yammering at her in a mixture of Arabic and Hebrew, Pakiya headed for her car and home, up the sidewalk that marks a seam between her two worlds.