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Back-to-school party celebrates the ABCs of coexistence

Just before the academic year starts, Arab and Jewish kids have a joint jamboree at Jerusalem’s YMCA

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Working on a giant banner of loving kindness, at the back-to-school celebration in Jerusalem's YMCA on Monday, August 29 (Courtesy Dasee Berkowitz)
Working on a giant banner of loving kindness, at the back-to-school celebration in Jerusalem's YMCA on Monday, August 29 (Courtesy Dasee Berkowitz)

More than 400 Arab and Jewish school-age children and their parents showed up at the YMCA Monday to celebrate coexistence and the start of a new school year.

Kids jumped in a bouncy castle, had their faces painted with letters of the alphabet, and watched a magic show in the afternoon festival held in the grassy front courtyard of central Jerusalem’s YMCA.

The gathering was organized by the YMCA together with local synagogue Kehillat Zion and interfaith youth movement Kids4Peace and sponsored by the Jerusalem Foundation.

“It’s about normalizing the beginning of the school year,” said Dasee Berkowitz, the educational coordinator at Kehillat Zion. “We’re coming together around what we have in common.”

The rounded letters of Arabic were easier to twist into shapes by the balloon sculptor than those of Hebrew or English, Berkowitz noted.

Another corner of activity was devoted to using new school markers to write blessings for one another and create a huge banner painted with the term “loving kindness” in three languages, English, Hebrew and Arabic.

Shaping balloon letters in Arabic, Hebrew and English at a back-to-school celebration (Courtesy Dasee Berkowitz)
Shaping balloon letters in Arabic, Hebrew and English at a back-to-school celebration (Courtesy Dasee Berkowitz)

“We hung it up at the YMCA, facing King David Street, but we’ll take it down and bring it to Kehillat Zion, where we’ll turn it into a cover for our Torah,” said Berkowitz. “It will become the synagogue’s prayer shawl.”

Reflecting on the afternoon’s mingling of the city’s various communities, she said, “There was the sense that this kind of gathering can be normal.”

Arab and Jewish counselors from Kids4Peace took charge of the art activities, working closely with teens from Kehillat Zion’s youth group, Zion-NOAM, a branch of the Masorti Movement’s youth organization.

“They talked about what hesed [loving kindness] means to them,” said Berkowitz. “It was a nice added component.”

Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, of Jerusalems Kehillat Zion Courtesy Kehillat Zion)
Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum of Jerusalem’s Kehillat Zion (Courtesy Kehillat Zion)

Kehillat Zion’s Masorti rabbi, Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, has said that part of her synagogue’s mission is to find a way to help unify the city’s different streams, and the institution has committed itself to holding coexistence events annually on Hannukah and Jerusalem Day.

The congregation, known for its soulful, spirited singing, regularly leads Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat services during the summer season at the city’s First Station complex, where it has also organized evening services of prayers and songs for peace as part of local coexistence events.

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