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
“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
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
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
“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.”
“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
“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.”