Teachers Karina Ebrani (left), TALI Hod Hasharon School, and Roula Azar (right), the Greek Orthodox School, Ramla, are both facilitators for TALI’s Dialogue and Identity program. They knew it would be a challenging year due to Corona. But they never envisioned that war would pose the greater risk to the fragile dialogue they had built between their students, as missile attacks and violence struck in the heart of their home towns
“It was surreal. All five of us were on Zoom, at the end of May, discussing the final meeting of Dialogue and Identity, when the sirens went off, followed by explosions of intercepted rockets coming out of Gaza. One at a time, we rushed out of the Zoom meeting to be with our families in the ‘secure’ rooms,” remembers Karina.
Two teachers from each school led the program of sixth graders. In TALI Hod Hasharon, Karina works closely with Helen, a devout Muslim and a veteran TALI teacher of Arabic who lives in Jaljulia, an Israeli Arab town not far from Kfar Saba. Roula’s teaching partner is Monica, a Christian Arab from Ramla. The four met extensively over the year to plan all four of the scheduled Zoom meetings, with essential input from Tamer, a facilitator who today lives in Ramallah, and a team of Dialogue and Identity professionals.
Roula, a Christian Arab who was born in Lod and has lived her whole life there, and Karina who lives in Kfar Yona, not far from Netanya, began working together in the summer of 2020. Covid-19 was running rampant in Israel, with most of the country in total lock-down, including all schools. The program took place online for the entirety of the school year. “Zoom definitely created special challenges,” admits Karina.
Roula, a veteran educator in Dialogue and Identity, with a BA in English, an MA in long-distance learning and a diploma in school administration, inaugurated the program between TALI Hod Hasharon and her school in Ramla eight years ago. She knows the importance of physical contact, the hugs and the kisses that happen after a successful encounter; the warm cultural exchange that takes place after visits to the synagogue, mosque and church. “All these elements make up the cornerstone of the program,” explains Roula. But this year taught her patience and the need to persevere. “We can’t give up, especially now. The year, technically was not easy. But all four meetings took place and they were successful.”
This was Karina’s first year with Dialogue and Identity, although she is a veteran TALI teacher and a graduate of the TALI Halleli Educational Leadership Program. “What with Corona and then the war, thank God, we had this connection, even though it was virtual. We live here together. We were all in the bomb shelters together. We need to accept the differences within each of us.”
Roula feels that enlisting younger elementary school age children has been the key to the program’s success. “Over the years, I’ve seen how my students have evolved. How they have influence over their families and friends. There have been a number of cases where TALI families and Greek Orthodox School families have met outside the confines of the program,” she shares proudly.
“As difficult as the year was, all children, without exception, wanted to continue the program and the dialogue,” says Karina. ׳“ Knowledge is power’ and Dialogue and Identity is empowering our children with the self-confidence to tear down their walls of fear.”
The real proof of Roula’s commitment to the program? Both her older children (today aged 15 and 13) are graduates of Dialogue and Identity. “They gained incredible insight and important values that will carry them into their adult lives,” she says.
Roula sums up the challenges and hopes for the future. “We can’t give up and we won’t give in to violence. We need more programs like Dialogue and Identity, for this is where it must all begin: in honest conversations coming from a place of love, respect and the self confidence to be tolerant. I’ve seen this program through tough times and good times. My answer? Double the amount of classrooms engaged in Dialogue and Identity. She adds, “I’m lobbying for an additional class next year in the Greek Orthodox school.”
Dialogue and Identity is a co-existence program established by the TALI Education Fund in 2006, together with the Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue. It operates in 24 schools with 720 students and 72 lead staff. Children study a curriculum of “Three Religions in the Holy Land” in their home schools, then present their own traditions in a series of meetings between the paired TALI and Christian/Muslim schools. Recently, the European Union has awarded Dialogue and Identity a substantial grant to enlarge the program, with the number of participating schools increasing to 40 in 2021-22.