Have you ever heard of a school named for the biblical figure Hagar? Until last Shabbat afternoon, we hadn’t either. Now though, we’ll never be able to forget it.
This past Shabbat afternoon, our shul had the unlikely privilege of hosting Amal Alhjooj, who hails from a Bedouin family in the Negev, and Hagit Damri, a Ben Gurion U alum, who settled in Beer Sheva. Together they founded a school named for Hagar, an academically excellent, bi-lingual school in which equal numbers of Jewish and Arab kids learn and play together, and also learn about one another even as they are encouraged to fully embrace their own religious identities. A school that’s spawned an entire community of Jewish and Arab parents and grandparents who enjoy hikes and other outings together, who have, in a very organic way, established a model of mutual respect and cooperation. A school that’s growing by the year. Maybe it was because we’ve become so overloaded with bad news and hopelessness, or maybe simply because our two guests were painting a picture of the way our deepest intuitions tell us the world should be, but a lot of us were crying through our smiles as we listened, enraptured.
Part of it was also the stories that they told. Amal told us about her first bus ride in Montreal, to where she had come to do graduate work in the field of community development at McGill University. She spoke English, but the bus driver whose assistance she need, spoke only French. Frustrated and anxious, she then heard a woman a few rows behind her speaking Hebrew to her child. And for the first time in Amal’s life, Hebrew was not the language of the “other”, but a language she shared with the Jewish people. The language of someone whom she could turn to for help. Weeks later, in early September, Amal called her father back in their Bedouin village in a panic. She had just discovered that her graduate advisor was Jewish, and was worried that this would adversely affect the advisor’s feelings toward her. “Take an apple and some honey”, her father told her, “knock on her door and say Shana Tova”. Amal did. Her advisor received the gift, and began to cry. And lifetimes of walls came crumbling down.
Hagit recalled the time that she and her family took a wrong turn during a vacation in northern Israel, and found themselves in the middle of an Arab village. Nervous, she and her husband rolled up the windows in the car, and began to strategize with each other in English, employing that time-honored, but invariably futile tactic for “not scaring the children”. Hagit’s young son, a student at the Hagar School, said, “Mom, roll down the windows and ask for directions. Why are you afraid?” And they did. And sure enough they found friendly faces on the outside. “We adults learn from the kids”, Hagit observed.
Yes, there’s a long long way to go. And the dream of regional peace in the Middle East, peace for Israel and the Jewish people, still appears to be quite distant, and still faces obstacles that no one seems to know how to scale. But as we learned last Shabbat, there are dreamers out there. Dreamers who are also builders. Dreamers who have already accomplished the inconceivable, and who are just getting started.
And we cried through our smiles.
You can learn more about the Hagar school at www.hajar.org.il