Written by Sherri Frank Weintrop and Shira Berkowitz
We made it to Jerusalem! The morning started as all mornings start in Israel with an amazing Israeli breakfast. Our first meeting was with the Shalom Hartman Institute an Israeli think tank that we support. We learned about a unique program to create systematic change through the education system. The program is called Min HaBe’erot: Jewish-Arab Education Toward a Shared Society. Jews and Arabs generally don’t go to same school even though they live in the same neighborhoods. The program brings superintendents, principals, and teachers – Christian, Jews and Muslim – together to study Talmud, the New Testament, and Koran. They bring their traditions to the table to debate and discuss. There are 102 schools in this program and 120 educators are the participants. They meet weekly on a regional basis. The program is building long-term change on a large-scale basis to create a more tolerant and multicultural Israeli society. The program is designed to show similarities and differences but not to show rosy pictures. Discussion centers on how to change and accommodate for the 21st century. Next step is to get the schools together with students. Ad hoc, that’s already happening. True pioneers that participate.
Next, we visited East Jerusalem with “The Joint” or JDC – the largest Jewish humanitarian organization, working in 70 countries to uplift lives and strengthen communities, and we specifically were provided a tour of East Jerusalem by JDC-ELKA, their Institute for Leadership and Governance, working to bring Israeli leaders together to achieve sustainable impact across all sectors of the country.
While looking out on Jerusalem, we were provided a historical impact lesson that explored the lack of development/ infrastructure prior to 2014 in which the city’s basic needs such as garbage disposal, education, road development, welfare, and basic services were not built or met.
The JDC became involved as an expert in leadership engagement, through managing qualitative research with municipal leadership and community input to assist in determining implementing infrastructure and community development recommendations to make these socioeconomic disparities more equitable. There are 22 projects are currently being implemented. Our group experienced “placemaking” projects at the Central Library like gardens, bee-keeping structures, and seating in parks led by urban planners with a high volume of community engagement. Today, we see more people taking entrepreneurial steps to assist their communities, going to nearby universities by way of learning Hebrew, and financial independence.
In 2018, the Israeli government allocated 2.1mil ₪ to further the regional impact being contributed by private investors, in which the JDC oversees as part of the strategic investment. One example of how they are allocating funds is ensuring the government mandate that the Hebrew language courses provided to residents are high quality, adapted for Arab cultures, and taught predominately by community members keeping jobs and growth within the region.
Our next stop was JAFI-Jewish agency for Israel, which is our largest global investment each year from our annual campaign. JAFI just voted on a new strategic process with new leadership, since Sharansky retired in 2019. New mission statement: A secure, diverse and thriving Jewish people united by heritage and by our commitment to Israel the homeland of the Jewish people and all its citizens. With offices all around world and a $380 million year annual budget it is the largest Jewish NGO in the world. For past 10 years, there have been consistently about 34,000 Olim (people making Aliyah) each year. Each week approximately 434 of Olim are rescued from religious persecution.
Big initiatives or JAFI is the shlichim program. There are 332 shlichim in 384 communities. St. Louis has four. JAFI is piloting an evaluation process to see effectiveness of the program. Is Israeli engagement working through this program? Unintended benefit is shlishim are coming back to Israel having learned how Jews live and practice Judaism outside Israel. We offered to be a pilot city. Another program is Ofek, an at risk youth-pre-army academy for Druze and Arabs, helping them to aspire to be leaders in the army.
We then met a young Arab man, Omar, who participated in an amazing technology program called Net@-Omar. In ninth grade, his school offered this program for Jewish Israeli students along with Arab students to meet after school to learn programming. He was the only Arab student to sign up for the program. It was very hard and his Arab friends disowned him. He spoke no Hebrew or English and for almost a year had to communicate with very few words and lots of hand movements. Huge success story. He is truly a hero and is now a spokesman for the program, which is now very successful. Today, Omar owns his own technology company, Compass Academy, teaching Arab students technology to lift them up and have hope for a better life. Currently, two girls in his school are working on an app that is up for award. Truly inspiring.
Our final visit of the day was to Hand in Hand’s Jerusalem campus, which goes from pre-kindergarten to 12. Today, it is Israel’s largest bilingual Hebrew/Arabic school and the country’s only integrated Arab/Jewish high school. Almost 700 students. They are out of space so they’re building a brand-new high school on campus, which will open in 2021. Despite increasing polarization in the country, Hand in Hand’s waiting list grows longer each year with the names of families who believe in our model.
All six schools across the country have waiting lists. Continually get calls to open up new schools throughout the country but not enough bandwidth.
The huge takeaway from today’s meetings was hope! We met real heroes who at great risk to their safety dream for a better-shared society and are real change agents. The change can be very, very slow and daunting, but change is happening and progress is being made.