These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

More Than Four Faces of Israel | Part 3

Posted on February 26, 2014 by Sarah Pollack

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From my blog:

SarpoA few weeks ago, an actress came to Pardes to do a kind of skit, stereotyping Four Faces of Israel, or four different people that one will inevitably encounter in Israel. She portrayed the narratives of a Haredi woman, a settler, a kibbutznik and an Arab woman. Somehow, every experience that I have, everyone that I encounter, draws my mind back to that day. The more I think about it, the more I realize that there is so much more to the melting pot that is Israel because of all of the people that don’t fit into the portrayal. I’m on the Social Justice Track at Pardes, a class designed to teach a wide range of text relating to various social justice topics and show students what’s actually going on in Israel. For the first part, we sit in the beit midrash, the house of study, discussing with our hevrutastudy partner. For the second part, we take field trips, talk to tour guides, but more importantly, talk to individuals.

While the people that we have met have been vastly different, one thing echoes from their collective stories — that they’re happy to tell us their story and wish that we tell it to others. I’ve alluded to these individuals in some of my other blogs, but I wanted to dedicate a series to the stories of these people, with whom I’ve crossed paths.

yaffashira-200x272The third story is of a woman named Yaffa Shira Grossberg. She grew up in Albany, New York, and spent much of her formative years in a Schechter Day school. For high school, she transitioned to a Public School education. She went on to Barnard College, where she received her Bachelors of Arts in Linguistics and later went to Columbia University to receive a Masters in Special Education.

While surrounded by Jews who spoke about Israel for her entire life, she doesn’t remember ever hearing that people other than Jews lived in Israel. A teacher by profession, Yaffa Shira looked for a teaching job when she decided to make Aliyah 12 years ago. She began working at Max Rayne Hand in Hand Jerusalem School in Jerusalem for Arabs and Jews. The chain of Yad B’Yad schools were founded as bilingual schools in 1998. Now, there are 5 schools in the country – Jerusalem, Misgav, Kofer Kara, Be’er Sheva, and Haifa – with the hopes of another in Yafo next year. The Jerusalem school started as one classroom within a larger school and the program reached capacity. Two years later, Yad B’Yad was given designated classrooms for consistent use. In 2008, the school moved to it’s current campus situated in the southern part of the city between the Arab community of Beit Safafa and the Jewish neighborhood of Patt.

There are only two homeroom teachers who weren’t born in Israel or Palestine. Yaffa is the only American teacher and there is one Russian born teacher. Additionally, 90% of the students are Israeli citizens. As Yaffa Shira explained to us, each classroom is taught by two teachers – one Israeli and one Arab (especially the history classes). She thinks that the story about what is going on in Israel isn’t just facts. It’s a narrative, it’s personal. Each classroom is also purposely divided in the hopes that the most diversity will exist – equal numbers of girls and boys, equal number of Palestinians and Israelis, a mixture of Christians, Muslims, Russians and Ethiopians. Yaffa says, “The school isn’t just bilingual. It’s binational.” The classes move together as a homeroom and are taught everything together, as one unit. They discuss every topic together and even commemorate Yom HaShoa together.

The Ministry of Education in the State of Israel mandates that every school has to have some type of assembly for Yom Hazikaron – the day commemorating and remembering fallen soldiers in Israel. Within that mandate, the ceremony has to include an Israeli flag, the singing HaTikvah, the Israeli national anthem, and the recitation of Yizkor, the traditional mourning service recited by those who have lost a parent or a close loved one. This is the only day of the year where Arab students and Israeli students are given alternative activities to participate in. Both ceremonies are open to everyone and the school does not require specific students to attend specific ceremonies, but the Israelis go to the Yom Hazikaron ceremony and the Arabs go to the alternative activity.

In Yaffa’s opinion, Israelis and Arabs have very different reasons for attending the school. For the Jews, there are many other options for better or more specific education. There are Israeli art schools, music schools, etc. For Arabs, those don’t exist. If Arabs attend those Israeli schools, they will be the only Arab student, ostracized by social norms. Thus, Israelis send their children to Yad B’Yad for ideological reasons, for the most part. Arabs send their children to Yad B’Yad for the high academic quality of the program. In the younger classes, there is a much more equal demographic. But, slowly, Jews start leaving the school for more specialized options. At that point, the remaining Jews leave because they want to be in a learning environment with like-minded people. “Even if there are only 1 out of 3 Jews in a class, it’s hard for them to stay,” Yaffa explained. So far at Yaffa’s school, there have been three full graduating classes. Most of the Palestinian students who graduate go to college abroad, which doesn’t seem in line after graduating from the Israeli school system. “It’s not just because the language is Hebrew [at the University level] that they don’t feel equal,” said Yaffa.

Yaffa expressed her great praises for the school and the vision that they were trying to cultivate within and outside of the walls of the schools. The floor to ceiling windows that looked out to the mixed neighborhoods that surround the school were purposely placed so that passersby could look in, but also so that students could look out. However, she also noted the faults of the program. Only a certain sector of Israeli society sends their children to Yad B’Yad, the sector that, for the most part, is already open and accepting. The school is preaching to the Israeli Choir, if such a thing exists.

Yaffa told us a story about a Jerusalem Municipality wide ceremony that all schools attended recently. Students from Haredi, Arab, Secular, Israeli, etc schools were all present. A young boy who goes to Yad B’Yad got lost as all of the schools were leaving the ceremony. If you’ve ever been to an assembly at an elementary school, you will understand how plausible this scenario is. When the teachers found the boy, with similarly aged boys from an Arab school, his face was white with fear. After consoling him, the teacher asked, “Why were you so scared?” The boys response was, “Those were real Arabs.” He distinguished the Arab students at Yad B’Yad, his friends, his classmates, from the boys that went to the other school – separating them in his worldview. Ultimately, Yaffa said the school holds create promise and serves as an inspiration although, in practice, it isn’t quite all the way there.

Yaffa ended the tour in the courtyard of the school, surrounded by interfaith murals, a Nativity scene, and flags from almost every country in the world. It was at this point that she told us that none of her children attend Yad B’Yad schools. As a religious Jew, Yaffa wanted her children in religious schools. As a result, “They lost a lot. They’re not aware or accepting enough.”