Acknowledging differences from a young age: Dialogue and Identity partners with even more schools

06/12/2021

On Monday, November 22, 2021, sixth grade students from Yitzchak Navon TALI-Geulim School in Jerusalem hosted sixth grade students from Terra Sancta School in Ramla. The students spent the day participating in joint study, socializing and sports activities. This encounter marked the first of four to be held over the upcoming school year, with the Ramla school scheduled to host the next session.

Nurit Carmeli, a sixth grade teacher at TALI-Geulim, opened the day’s activities with great excitement, accompanied by music, dancing and a presentation prepared by the students. “Our school believes in connecting people from different places; we learn to respect one another, and we learn about different cultures. As such, when we were invited to participate in this important Dialogue and Identity project, we immediately agreed. To us, it seemed very natural and intriguing,” said the students at the opening reception, with their remarks translated into Arabic. “We realized that our school was chosen to be the first school in Jerusalem to participate in this important program, and we are excited to be the ones hosting you today. We are already looking forward to being hosted by you and getting to know your city and school.”

After this, the students were divided into two groups, with each group containing students from both schools. They then participated in icebreaker activities, wrote their names in both languages, and asked each other questions. During the break, students engaged in playground activities, including a ball game and tug-of-war, with the students divided into two groups – the girls from both schools against the boys from both schools, something which very much helped to break down barriers between the students.

“The TALI-Geulim School is proud to host this exciting and important encounter, an encounter whose sole purpose is to open and enlighten hearts,” said Dana Gershon, head of school. “We live in a diverse society that includes individuals from different cultures and with different identities. We are so often held captive by our preconceived notions, or worse, by our lack of real knowledge. The reality in Israel faces us with challenges regarding everything connected to Jewish-Arab relations. Our job at this school is to talk openly and understand the complexity, and most importantly, to not make generalizations. It will soon be December, the month in which Hanukkah and Christmas are celebrated. Jerusalem will be filled with colorful lights from the Hanukkah candles and Christmas trees, reminding us how diverse this city is and how similar we are. I bless us all that we try to increase the light wherever we may go. When we look inwards at ourselves, may we see light and feel warmth that we can spread without fear to the world. May we always remember that we were all created in the image of the same God and that we all have a place under the sun.”

The excitement was also evident among staff members facilitating the program. “So far, it’s been amazing, delightful and moving. I participated in the Dialogue and Identity program 11 years ago as a student. Today’s session brings me back then, to those memories, and I now understand more clearly the goals of this program: To bring students together and expose them to other identities. They’re having a wonderful time and really going along with it,” said Samira Emsis, a science teacher at Terra Sancta, who facilitates the encounters on behalf of her school. “At first there was some tension and they sat separately, but this passed and as the day progressed, they got to know one another and even introduced each other to their friends. I expect and hope that over the upcoming year, they will develop and this will change something in them, in their way of thinking, in their behavior, and in their expectations for the future. When we get back to school, we’ll talk about the encounter, how it was for them, how they felt and what they anticipate for future encounters. I hope for the best, and based on what I see today, I think it will be great.”

Jennifer Hayu, a sixth grade teacher at Terra Sancta, is also an alumnus of a parallel program facilitating peer encounters between Jewish and Arab students: “It’s important to continue this tradition. It’s important to expose youth to different religions, to different worlds, to people with whom we also have common ground. We are, after all, the same thing – we are all human beings, the only difference perhaps being our faith or the traditions we practice at home. But at the end of the day, we are human beings and we are equals. It’s important to me that the students understand that what is shown on the news is different from reality. It’s important to understand how things really are so that they will talk to each other, be exposed to one another. I loved the game where we were asked to talk about things we all like; we saw students answer with the same hobbies, the same names of football players – and that shows how much we have in common. In my opinion, this is an excellent program.”

One of the challenges that arose was the language barrier. The students were initially apprehensive that they would perhaps not understand each other, but the facilitating staff said that they were assisting the students in overcoming this issue. “In the very first training session for the teachers, we were told that it’s important that the Arabic language be heard; this is the reason there is simultaneous translation, language is a very important tool,” said Galit Weizman, a teacher at TALI-Geulim. “When I wanted to translate the opening remarks from Hebrew to Arabic, one of the students from my school said that there is no need to translate because they understand Hebrew, but I explained to him that it’s important that the Jewish students also hear the Arabic language,” Samira added.

Also accompanying the encounter was Yossi Kastel, father of TALI-Geulim student Nevo and himself a former participant in an encounter program between Jewish and Arab youth back when he was a student at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem High School. “It’s important to encourage familiarity between Jews and Arabs, to educate our children from a young age to get to know the other because then, the roots go even deeper; if you know the other, you can break stigmas. I believe that a peer encounter between children at this age will follow them throughout their lives. It’s important to get to know your neighbor. This was an important experience for me when I was a student and I’m glad that my son is experiencing it now, as well. “

The students completed their first session by sharing the feelings and fears with which they had begun the day, as well as insights they had reached following the four-hour encounter. “This morning, I was nervous to meet kids who are not exactly like us, but after we met them, I was happy to see that they are very much like us,” said a student from TALI-Geulim. “I was so afraid that they wouldn’t accept me because I’m Arab, but now that I have met everyone, everything is fine,” added a student from Terra Sancta.

Thanks to a prestigious grant received last year from the European Union, the Dialogue and Identity  program has expanded and 38 schools throughout Israel currently participate in the program – half of them Jewish public schools run by the TALI school network, and half of them Christian schools who joined the program under the auspices of The Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue, with new cities joining the program this year, including Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Akko. Presently, over 1,000 students – Jewish, Christian and Muslim – will benefit from an encounter with their peers and learn to know and respect one another and the similarities and differences between them. The program, founded 15 years ago, is a joint initiative of the TALI Education Fund, one of the leading and most influential organizations working for Jewish renewal in the Israeli school system, and the Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue, a unique interreligious organization which promotes an inclusive society for members of all religious, ethnic and national groups.

As part of the program, students together take classes about tolerance, respect, and appreciation for other traditions. Throughout the program, which is held during the school year, students visit in their respective schools and learn about each other’s holidays, lifecycle events, and sacred texts. They also hold joint visits to houses of prayer – synagogues, mosques and churches.

“The educational vision of the Dialogue and Identity program is to build a better and more just Israeli society that is aware of the many differences between its constituents, that can create direct and complex channels of dialogue, and that sees diversity as a blessing. We are happy about the program’s expansion and its entry into Jerusalem, and we hope that the students of both schools will benefit from the encounter,” said Eva Halahmi, TALI co-director of the Dialogue and Identity program.

Read more about TALI here.

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