About 20 years ago, a group of Jewish and Arab parents whose children had attended the same private nursery school in Jerusalem wanted their children to continue to study together rather than be separated by Israel’s religiously segregated education system. So rather than sending their children to the usual Jewish and Muslim public schools, they started a new school called Hand in Hand.
At first there were fewer than 20 children, all in kindergarten, who studied in a spare room in one of the city’s schools. The school grew along with the children, adding a grade as they got older and bringing in a new group of kindergarteners each autumn. It now welcomes kids up to the 12th grade.
To help build relationships between Arabs and Jews, the nonprofit organization Hand in Hand now runs six schools with more than 1,800 students around the country. It was a winner in the nonprofit category of the WeWork Creator Awards, held in Jerusalem on June 20.
“We are not going to wait until peace comes to live together,” says Noa Yammer, who oversees international engagement for the non-profit organization. “We are just going to do it now.”
Besides six schools (and two more in the planning stages), the organization offers a variety of community programs for children and adults.
“We realized that we can’t just build a shared society through children,” says Yammer. “Adults also need to interact.”
Yammer says that the segregation within Israeli society — which is about 20 percent Arab — takes its toll on the country. It helps fuel the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which made headlines again in May during protests around Israel Independence Day.
But Yammer acknowledges that the intensity of the conflict isn’t going to go away overnight. The anger on each side is too entrenched.
“We live in a violent conflict,” Yammer says. “There’s a reason people are afraid. Our project is not an easy project. It’s actually a really hard thing to do in the conflict we live in, but it’s important.”
Dahlia Peretz, a principal at Hand in Hand starting in 2001, says that the school is designed to help students see past the conflict.
“In our divided society, relationships between Jewish and Arab children can succeed only if parties meet as equals, without any feelings of alienation,” she says. “We created a school where all children feel their languages and cultures have a legitimate place, a school where intercultural exchange can take place despite the unequal balance of power in our society.”
In addition to expanding its network of schools, Hand in Hand is developing a curriculum that any school — regardless of religious affiliation — can use to better educate children about tolerance.
The organization sees a growing interest all over the country, with more than 1,000 children on the waiting lists for the Hand in Hand schools. A win at the Creator Awards could help expand the program.
“This really needs to be a project in every city in Israel,” Yammer says. “We just need more resources so we can say yes to those asking us to come.”
Photo by Craig Stennett