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Jewish Journal

Debra Winger explores Jewish/Arab day schools

by Orit Arfa

April 24, 2008 | 6:00 pm

Debra Winger poses with students at the library of the Hand in Hand Max Rayne School in Jerusalem. Photo by Orit Arfa

Students at the Hand in Hand Max Rayne Bilingual School in Jerusalem didn't know they were meeting a celebrity. They weren't born when the films "Officer and a Gentleman" and "Terms of Endearment" garnered Debra Winger her Oscar nominations.

But Winger's tour last month to the Hand in Hand Arab-Jewish day schools was not necessarily meant to move the students, but to enrich her own understanding of pathways for Arab and Jewish co-existence.

"I'd like to think I'm helping, but in the end, it feels selfish -- how much I got out of seeing this and what it did to my heart," the 53-year-old actress told a group of reporters in the library of the school's new Jerusalem campus.

Raised in a secular Jewish household in Cleveland, Winger volunteered on a kibbutz in 1972 and has maintained her connection ever since. In fact, she was introduced to the bilingual schools following a talk at the Jewish Federation in Florida on the occasion of Israel's 60th anniversary.

Speaking to the federation audience, she recalled a "fight" she had with an Arab American friend that was triggered by the Second Lebanon War, which broke out while Winger served as a judge for the Jerusalem Film Festival.

"We couldn't even talk to each other," Winger told The Jewish Journal, recounting the episode. "She would forward me e-mails with newspaper articles for me to read, and I would reply, saying could you please replace 'Zionist occupation' with 'Israel' before you send it to me, and then I'll read it, because I want to hear different opinions, and you have to show some respect."

Eventually the two reconciled and made their private peace.

"I think in a way we have a deeper, richer understanding and more openness," she said.

At first, the audience -- perhaps expecting a more "what-Israel-means-to-me" type speech -- responded with silence to the story. But then Lee Gordon, director of the American Friends of Hand in Hand and the bilingual schools' co-founder, initiated a contagious round of applause. After the talk, he spoke with her about the schools' efforts at promoting dialogue.

Initially, Winger was skeptical of the educational franchise.

"I thought, 'Oh, it's another Jewish school that's inviting a few Arabs, kumbaya, and, you know, it doesn't ultimately work,'" she said.

But she accepted Gordon's invitation and went to Israel with her husband, director and actor Arliss Howard, and their 10-year-old son. Upon touring three of the Hand in Hand schools, Winger's skepticism softened.

"I used to think I could see the face of a peacemaker," she said, "but clearly, I've been wrong way too much. The [students] look like peacemakers to me. They understand the dilemma in a different way."

At one point, Winger stopped two children in the yard, and they admitted they didn't know who she was. They thought she was just some American visitor.

"Do you have any questions for me?" Winger asked.

They stared and smiled.

The students carry on their day as usual in what comes across as a typical elementary school. Teenagers roam the halls in jeans and sneakers, and toddlers storm the yard at recess. At one point, Winger joined the children for folk dancing in the yard.

Several clues hint to the school's uniqueness. Two languages are spoken: Hebrew and Arabic. Some female teachers wear the traditional Muslim hijabs. Universal messages of love and peace taken from the Torah, the Gospels and the Quran, as well as from great Western thinkers, are printed in Hebrew and Arabic on classroom doors.

The Jerusalem student body is equally diverse -- 50 percent Jewish, 40 percent Muslim and 10 percent Christian. The majority of Arabs are Israeli citizens.

A good portion of the classes are taught by an Arab-Jewish team. The school supplements the state curriculum with programs that attend to the dual nature of the school. From fourth grade on, Jews and Arabs study their respective religious traditions independently.

The Jerusalem branch opened 10 years ago, along with the Galilee branch, followed by new schools in Wadi Ara and Beersheva. The new Jerusalem campus testifies to the growth of the school from a small, first-grade class to a full-fledged day school with 450 children. The school is expanding into high school, and this fall will add a 10th-grade class.

Seventh-graders Areen Nashef, a Muslim, and her Jewish best friend, Yael Keinan, both 12 years old, smiled mischievously when they got called out of class to speak with The Journal. This is not the first time they've spoken to the press. Friends since first grade, they often get together outside of school and sleep over at each other's houses.

"I thought Areen was a Jew when we first met," said Yael who has long, dirty-blond hair and a pink paper clip dangling from her earring. "After a few days, she told me she was an Arab, and after that it didn't matter."

Both are proud for breaking stereotypes of the "other."

"I went to my cousin who lives in Taibe, up north," said Areen. "They didn't know that I study at a bilingual school. They study in Arabic and learn Hebrew because you have to communicate. When I told them I study with a Jew, they asked, 'What, they didn't hit you, hurt you?'"

Yael, who describes herself as traditional, has encountered similar suspicions.

"I have a friend who couldn't believe I had an Arab friend. She saw only what she saw on the news," Yael said.

Both thoroughly enjoy their studies.

"It's fun to speak more than one language and also learn another culture," said Yael.

Speaking in Hebrew, the students have much to say about sensitive issues, particularly politics. Areen described wanting "to feel that Jews were hurt by the Nazis." On the same note, Yael recalled visiting Arab villages that fell to the Israeli forces during the War of Independence.

"I don't identify with the Jews or the Palestinians," said Areen. "I just know you have to have two nations. I think you may need a Jewish state, but it shouldn't come at the expense of another people."

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