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by Rachel Thimangu

“Because we can speak, we can lead. And from this small thing, we can make a big difference.”

The words of Kutz, a 14-year-old Arab girl at the Hand-In-Hand School for Jewish, Arab and Christian Children in Jerusalem, resonate as we ride to the airport an our journey home. It’s a brave statement from a teen who hopes to continue breaking down barriers … and it’s a charge for each Rubinite on our trip.

Over our last two days in Israel, we visited and learned from several non-governmental agencies – what Americans call non-profits – the first two are supported by the St. Louis Jewish Federation and United Hatzalah which is near and dear to Pam and Ron Rubins’ hearts.

·       The Max Rayne Hand-In-Hand School, one in a network of six across Israel that educate and integrate more than 2,000 children and teens of all backgrounds;
·       Jerusalem College of Technology, where more than 2,000 Haredi ultra-Orthodox Jews broaden what’s possible for people of their faith by pursuing degrees in engineering, IT, nursing and entrepreneurship;
·       United Hatzalah Organization, which provides free, universal emergency medical services to hundreds of thousands of Israelis, through 5,000 volunteers who ride 650 specially equipped motorcycles, ATVs and electronic bicycles.

In each case, we heard from people who are going against the grain – even within their own families and communities – to work for a better and more unified Israeli future.

The Haredi Jews begin their days with four hours of Torah and Talmud study, which their faith says should be their sole pursuit, before delving into secular classes that should lead to professional careers and a better ability to provide for their families. The men face intense pressure from their peers and parents to stick with only religious learning, as do some of the women for taking time away from traditional domestic tasks. The Haredi study alongside modern Orthodox and secular Jews in the JCT programs.

United Hatzalah, run through a central dispatch center in Jerusalem, responds to more than 1,000 emergency calls throughout Israel every day. Volunteers of all faiths and cultures respond without hesitation to all denominations of Jews, Arabs, Christians and others, in a rare example of teamwork across boundaries.

The stories we heard in both places captivated and inspired us. But the most stark reality hit home at the Hand-In-Hand School. Kutz, along with her 13-year-old Jewish classmate, Rivkah, and their peers take bilingual Arabic and Hebrew classes, go to one another’s birthday parties across cultural boundaries, and take on social issues by forming groups around issues such as feminism and support for Sudanese refugees. Perhaps their biggest challenge, however, comes in the recognition of Israel’s Independence Day.

What the Jewish students celebrate as a great moment that provided their people with a homeland is, for the Arabs, a day of mourning what they see as an incredible catastrophe. While students like Rivkah are joyous, Kutz and others are in tears. While they can’t agree, they learn to empathize.

“We try to put ourselves in each other’s shoes,” Rivkah said. “Even if we disagree, we still can be together.”

School officials and supporters can’t promise that their students will remain connected after graduation, which for Jews will include a mandatory 2+ years of service in the Israeli Defense Forces. But they know the unique school experience will help them to better see and appreciate the other’s lives.

As one administrator said, “We’re not waiting for peace to come together. We’re doing it now – and we’re proving that it’s possible.”

These were powerful and enlightening experiences for our group of weary, yet energized, travelers. We know that when we return to St. Louis, we will be given opportunities to serve our community and projects such as the ones we visited in Israel. After seeing such inspiring examples, we’ll be ready.