I had the opportunity to visit the wonderful town of Haifa and spend a day visiting the “Hand-in-Hand,” bilingual pre-school. As I mentioned in previous blogs, Hand-in-Hand is the unique, multi-cultural school system that seeks to build bridges between the Jewish and Arab communities from earliest childhood. The pre-school in Haifa, which receives no support from the municipal government, started three years ago with 14 children. This year, they opened their doors to an enrollment of over 60, along with an enviable waiting list of over 90 children. Their tuition is significantly more than the seven dollar a day Garderie (pre-school) in Quebec. And yet, parents are turning to the school in droves, committing to make the world a better place while maintaining their own family’s strong and rich identity – Jewish, Muslim, Christian and in Haifa, Bahai.
The city of Haifa is a very special place in Israel. The over 3000 year old city is home to a large port, energy and power production (including two large nuclear reactors), the world famous Technion University, the world Centre of the Bahai religion, a population of close to 300,000 and is often touted as a model of peaceful coexistence between the many faiths that call the city home.
Jews remain in the majority of Haifa, while at the same time the significant Arab population represents a very strong, affluent and important part of the cities life and culture. Jews and Arabs live in the same buildings, work together in the same hospitals and hi-tech companies and have, barring the occasional flare-ups, live in peace with their neighbours.
Why is there a question of where the children will go next school year? Status quo is only as good as today’s current events. It does not represent vison. Nor does it speak to the future. It assumes that if things are good today, they will be good tomorrow. However in the Middle East, we know that the landscape can change on a dime. We have seen this countless times; the most recent example was the Gaza war of last summer. Haifa has not yet granted the permit for the school to open a Kindergarten class for next year. So where will these children go next year is a real issue facing their parents and the dedicated educators every day. Will then enter the general system or will they continue in this unique educational environment?
The Hand-in-Hand school system is controversial. There is the obvious fear of intermarriage between Jews and Arabs and the fear of a confused identity. These same fears, however, exist in every location and in every community. There is no sector that can pat themselves on the back and say they have no-intermarriage with non-Jews in their community. And if they tell you that, they are obviously lying. The truth is, according the Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the overwhelming majority of cases they refer to as “intermarriage,” take place between Jewish men and women from the former Soviet Union whose “Jewish” status is questionable. And in these cases, more often than not, the woman thought she was Jewish to begin with.
I am a strong believer that the ultimate location where values are conveyed and transmitted in the home. When I began teaching 25 years ago, I believed just the opposite. I erroneously thought that my and the school’s influence was stronger than the homes. Now I realize that educators, in addition to imparting information and teaching children how to think, can change children’s lives and influence them in a positive way — but 99% of the time, in the arena of values, home trumps school. If parents want to protect their children from intermarriage, the best way to accomplish this is to create an environment of pride and love of being Jewish and a love for Am Yisrael – the Jewish Nation. No school can ever strip a child of this.
What a school like Hand-in-Hand can accomplish though, is to pave a way for better communication, collaboration and a spirit of true peace in the future.
Status quo is never good. It may save you a headache today but you may suffer a migraine tomorrow. The children of Haifa deserve more than just, “Stats Quo.” We would never accept it in Montreal, why should they?