Thursday, June 23, 2016

Teachers in Jerusalem coexistence experiment

Written by  Jessica Steinberg

For the full article go to THE TIMES OF ISRAEL 

Teachers Haifa Alayan and Annie Kurland were standing outside the Jerusalem YMCA, looking at the photography exhibit of the Teachers’ Room Project, a coexistence project founded by organization This Is Jerusalem!

It was a tough day to talk about coexistence, both women admitted.

Yet it’s the most crucial time to think about one another, said Haifa Alayan, who is Muslim and teaches English at an Arab elementary school for girls in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Tor.

“I’m a person who believes that you have to look at things from a different perspective,” said Alayan. “Even before I joined this group, any time there was a chance to do something like this, to open the window, I would do it. I want my students to speak, I want to bring up a new generation.”

Kurland, who is Jewish and teaches drama and math at Keshet, a pluralistic, mixed elementary school of religious and secular children, could have spoken the same words.

The two women were looking at an exhibit of photos displaying their last six months of work with the Teachers’ Room Project, which was sponsored by several organizations, including Hebrew Union College, the Jewish Institute of Religion and Reshut Harabim — the Jerusalem Forum of Jewish Renewal Organizations, as well as the Jerusalem Foundation, New Israel Fund, ROI community and the Municipality’s Department of Education.

Dedicated to the memory of Shira Banki, the 16-year-old Jerusalemite who was killed during last year’s Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade, the Teachers’ Room aims to have this group of teachers spend time together and gain an understanding of each other’s worlds and cultures. They’re then expected to bring those experiences and lessons back to their classrooms.

For many, it wasn’t the first time they were participating in some sort of coexistence organization. Both Kurland and Alayan have taken part in groups in which they met the “other.” Their children have as well.

Yet something about Teachers’ Room was different. The project’s first exercise, back in December, had each teacher map their daily routes, from home to school along with myriad other locations.

Although Alayan lives in the Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa in southern Jerusalem and drives down Hebron Road, a major thoroughfare, to reach the girls’ elementary school in Abu Tor where she teaches, she never crossed paths with Kurland, who lives in the Jewish side of Abu Tor.

That was one memorable revelation.

Another was when each teacher showed photos of their homes, the interiors as well as the exteriors. Alayan couldn’t believe that Kurland lived in the same neighborhood as her students, mostly because none of her students’ homes overlook the verdant valley that is the view from Kurland’s balcony.

“Their houses are all stacked on top of each other, right?” asked Kurland.

When Alayan said she had never seen a house like Annie’s, it felt like a blow, said Kurland.

Another teacher, who is Muslim and wears a head covering, told the group that she had never been to Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market because she feared she wouldn’t be welcome. So Alayan and Kurland planned an outing to the market, with Kurland linking arms with the Muslim woman for the entire time they were there.

“I wanted everyone to know that we were there together,” she said.

There were gatherings where each teacher brought symbols of their religious practice, or photos of their classrooms. Even those meetings created fodder for the thoughtful teachers.

Considering how long Alayan has thought about coexistence and practiced it with her husband and five children ages 9 to 19, she was surprised how little she knew and how foreign certain aspects of Israelis’ lives could feel.

“We met and things happened,” said Kurland. She thought about the maps they made on that first day, and how she and Alayan “have parallel roads, and no way to meet,” she said. “Someone made sure we’d never meet.”

The teachers told stories about places and times when each of them had felt like they didn’t belong. Alayan recalled strolling around Rehavia, the historic Jewish neighborhood where her grandmother used to clean houses, while another teacher told about her soldier daughter in uniform getting attacked in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim.

“We’re always thinking of the ‘other’ as Arab, but there’s all kinds of ‘others,'” she said.

There were moments of discord as well, said the two teachers.

When one of the Arab teachers talked about a recent terrorist incident as an accident, Kurland corrected her, calling it an attack. She thought about how personal connections make a difference when a confrontation occurs.

“Haifa can say something really harsh to me, but I know her,” she said. “Even when she says something tough, and I think she can’t be saying that about me and my soldier son, the fact that I know her changes the discussion. It’s one that’s real and sheds light.”

It was those kinds of insights — and the more measured responses — that brought the organization to select a group teachers for this program.

“They chose us because we’re the passage from the outside into the classroom,” said Kurland. “We have the ability in our classrooms to open their minds and tell them about reality, to show them that it’s not black and white. We can show our students that the reality is very complicated.”

Their students, said the teachers, often have no idea how to process the events that take place around them,

Kurland recalled that when she first brought a program from the Teachers’ Room to her Jewish students, they were surprised to learn that Arabs weren’t just cleaners, as the only Arabs many knew worked on the cleaning staff of the school.

Alayan said that when the Sarona Market shooting attack came up in her classroom, some of the students said what happened “was okay,” while others said it wasn’t.

“I told them that I could have been there too, that it’s a public place,” she said. “That changed their minds a little but they still said ‘they do bad things to us,'” referring to Israeli Jews. “I didn’t go too far with them,” said Alayan.

As teachers, both Alayan and Kurland have similar approaches when it comes to discussing difficult events with their students, agreeing that the subject has to come up in conversation before they can broach the topic.

“I have around 25 kids in each class, and four different classes, but I have to try to get them to discuss it,” said Alayan. “In our school, these issues only get discussed if the teacher wants to, they don’t want us to interfere. But it’s not right to keep it all in, the kids have to let it out. They hear about things all the time.”

Kurland agreed.

“The kids don’t live in a bubble,” she said. “But we wait for them to bring it up and then we talk about it.”

For now, the group is taking the summer off, with plans to bring what they’ve learned back to their students in the fall.

“It’s not just activities,” said Kurland, “but the fact that we’ve met, that we’re a group, and to show ourselves to others out there. There are lots of groups like us, but you don’t always see them. We want people to know that this is happening.”

Video of the week – Israelis greet Muslims for a blessed Ramadan- 


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