Lessons of a Joint Arab-Jewish Kindergarten — by Amir Shlomian of Maayan Babustan/Ein Bustan

For those of you who have not yet heard the story of the Maayan Babustan/Ein Bustan kindergarten, this is a Waldorf school, a kindergarten that is run in two languages – Arabic and Hebrew. The kindergarten is situated in the Arab village of Hilf, within the municipality of Bosmat Tab’un, 7 minutes drive from the nearby Jewish town of Kiryat Tivon. The kindergarten is attended by 27 Arab and Jewish children, in two age groups. The staff is also comprised of Arabs and Jews: in each class there is a Hebrew speaking teacher and an Arabic speaking teacher. In addition, we are pleased to have two interns, two young Bedouin Arab women who are fulfilling their “Year of Service” by working as assistants in the kindergarten, one in each age group.

We have been through a lot during the past 5 years of activity in the kindergarten: we have learned a great deal – and have become considerably more experienced. We have discovered that it is worthwhile to dare and cross the boundaries that we ourselves have constructed, whether consciously or unconsciously. We have discovered that the possible and the impossible are no more than our interpretations of reality. We have discovered how fruitful questions can be, if only we have sufficient courage to explore them candidly and in depth.

We have deliberated, and are still deliberating, about many difficult questions: how do we tell a story for children speaking two languages? In which language should the teachers speak in different situations? Should we assist the children in overcoming the language and culture gaps so that they can communicate, and if so – in what manner? Should be help them learn to understand the other language? To speak the other language themselves? In the following paragraphs I would like to share with you one of the topics that we are grappling with, from a pedagogic standpoint: the issue of holidays.

Imagine, if you will, a wooden cube, 70 centimeters wide and 90 centimeters tall, wrapped with black cloth and a golden thread, and situated in the middle of the kindergarten. This is a model of the Holy Ka’aba, situated in the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Around the model, candles are set in paper bags full of sand – or in attractive glass jars. The children are dressed in white robes reminiscent of Jalabiyas, and quietly enter the room, circulating around the Ka’aba as they sing quietly in Arabic: boys and girls, Arabs and Jews. Quietly, as they listen to the teacher, who is conducting the ceremony, each in his or her turn lights a candle, and then they remain in a circle, observing the flickering lights.

This, for example, is how we celebrated Eid El Adha in our kindergarten. Eid El Adha is the Holiday of sacrifice, and it is celebrated for four days, following the pilgrimage to Mecca – the “Haj”, which is one of the 5 principal religious pillars of Islam. The religious slaughtering in Menna, near Mecca, is not of interest in our kindergarten, and the principle of charity which is represented by giving 2/3 of the sacrifice to the needy, we represented in a song: “Meen farahna rach nateer, unarani zay el asafeer, hata u la mara ninsa, natof tkfakir”, which in loose translation means: “We will jump for joy and sing like birds, but we will never forget the poor”. Charity is another of the 5 principal religious commandments of Islam.

Up to now I have described the event, with a few explanations. But what about the children? Ostensibly, this is an aesthetic holiday, characterized by quiet attentiveness, delicacy, age-appropriate content, that connects with the child’s deep beliefs and authentic traditions, and accompanied by appropriate songs: a nice holiday. We may assume that for the Arab children this is a very fine holiday indeed – but what are the Jewish children experiencing during these moments? And then again, by way of comparison: what do the Arab children experience during Jewish holiday celebrations such as Hanukka or Shavuot?

Does the beautiful ceremony leave an impression on the child, nourishing his or her soul, while imparting the accompanying values of accepting and listening to the other, reinforcing universal elements and values, and providing tools that will enable the child to be a better human being in the future, as I believe? Or is he or she perhaps receiving an atrocious “salad” of cultures and identities that will provide him or her with infinite complexes as an adult?

The answer, in my opinion, lies in the behavior of the adult that is accompanying the event that is taking place; the teacher who is close by, and the parent who is watching the event and is partner (with varying degrees of consciousness) to the entire process. So what is the parent who is watching the event experiencing? If the parent does not have any fear, and he leads forth without any doubt – clearly that is how the child will experience the event as well, and there is a clear benefit.

It is also possible that in certain instances, the adult will feel a certain inborn anxiety. In this case, it will be an opportunity to take a deep breath and remember why we chose joint education in the first place, and what we stand to gain by overcoming our fears. I have experienced this personally, and I cried as I experienced the power of the catharsis. I understood that at that actual moment I was releasing my soul from an enormous load of negative energy, and I may have possibly freed myself (and perhaps the world at large) from much anger and cruelty. And in fact, that is the crux of the matter.

However, if fear is not released but instead gathers momentum, growing steadily more ingrained, slowly turning into masses of hatred and cruelty – in that case, I believe that I have missed out on an important learning opportunity. However, unfortunately it seems to me that fear is indeed increasing and becoming intransigent, in countless daily incidents: when we listen to the news broadcast, or when we hear second-third and fourth-hand stories about the stranger, the alien, the one who is different.

In our joint kindergarten, we have an opportunity to deal with fears and change reality.

So how do we choose which holidays to celebrate in the Ein Bustan kindergarten? Any (Israeli) educator with minimal experience is aware of the fact that the Hebrew calendar is full of holidays and festivals. So full that at times it is difficult to find a few weeks that are free of holidays and vacations, enabling us find and develop a routine. We might remember that one of the significant forces that Waldorf education is aware of and seeks to work with is that of periodic rhythms: a regular daily routine, a weekly routine, monthly and yearly events. The weekly routine is disrupted when the quantity of holidays goes beyond a certain limit. It’s clear that if we choose to celebrate all of the holidays, both Jewish and Arab, we will find ourselves celebrating all of the time, and we will not see the forest for the trees. * (*The inability to see the big picture, since we are immersed in the details).

We felt obligated, therefore, to take a courageous step – screening which holidays to celebrate and which would not be celebrated. Independence Day, for example, is a very difficult day for the kindergarten child’s perception, from it’s very character. How can a child of kindergarten age relate to Independence? During the years in which the date for Eid El Adha coincided with Hannuka, we celebrated a “festival of light” in the kindergarten. We sang songs in both languages, and the recurring motif was “light”. Once we celebrated with a spiral of candles, a ceremony that is influenced by European Waldorf practices** (**similar to the custom of Advent circles).

On another occasion we went on a lamplight procession throughout the village – knocking on neighbor’s doors and distributing holiday gifts, a custom influenced by the Moslem custom of calling people and inviting them to prayer. We continually seek universal common ground, doing our best to down-play militant narratives, and seeking to find the ideal way to glorify the ability to listen to beauty and nature. This attention to the underlying voices of beauty and nature is like planting a seed that will enhance the adult person’s ability for prayer and meditation.

When we considered which holidays we would like to invite the parents to participate in, we decided to choose one Moslem holiday and one Jewish holiday. This year we celebrated Eid El Fitr, the holiday marking the end of the Ramadan fast, with a traditional meal in the kindergarten. The Jewish holiday picked for joint celebration is Tu Bishvat, which we will celebrate outdoors, amongst the trees. Other holidays: Eid El Adha, Janukka, Eid Milad Ah-Nabi, Pesach and Mother’s Day (an important day in Arab society) and Shavuot, will all be marked with more modest celebrations in the kindergarten.

What, then, about the child’s identity? Is there a danger that the child will develop a number of identities? Or a confused identity? Perhaps the multitude of holidays does not serve him or her at all? My answer to these questions is reinforced from year to year from our experience: a person has one identity, like a cup that is filled by what you pour into it. If a child lives with meager spirituality and culture – these will form his or her identity. And if he or she experiences the richness of a number of languages, cultures and lifestyles – these will form the child’s identity.

If parents direct their lives with confidence and courage in dealing with the challenges they confront – it is likely that these qualities will fill their child’s cup of identity. However, if he or she is exposed to confusion and denial, or worse – unresolved fear and anger- in this case, the child may expect to confront enormous challenges in his or her adult life, since these qualities are absorbed by the soul and fill his or her cup of identity. The cup can be boring or alternately varied and colorful, like a fine cocktail, identity can be clear or confused, national (or nationalist) or cosmopolitan – all depending on the nature of the ingredients that were poured into it. Multiplicity of identities? This is a very rare mental illness that belongs to the field of schizophrenia, and I do not know enough to talk about it (and it is not our concern here) but I sincerely doubt that a common gene is related to the matter.

Before closing, I’d like to mention a personal lesson that I myself learned in the course of my encounters with the other religious culture. Stemming from a wish for equality and attentiveness to the other, I thought that it was appropriate to examine the Moslem holidays like I do the Jewish ones. Since Judaism as I live it is based on a yearly cycle of holidays, I assumed that each culture expressed itself through holidays. But to my surprise (and it took me a while to understand this) holidays are not necessarily the primary expression of (Moslem) culture.

In this case, there are relatively few Moslem holidays, and they are not counted among the five essential tenets or Pillars of Islam, two of which we have encountered- charity (“Zakat”, or giving of alms, specifically during Ramadan) and the “Haj “(Pilgrimage to Mecca). The three additional pillars or duties are “Salat” (prayers), fasting and the Shahada (profession of faith). And what of the holidays, then? They are important in their own right, of course, but they do not form the pillars of the Islamic culture. This is an important lesson that I have learned, that I am glad to have received. Attentiveness and being open to another are not trivial, but when there is a true ability to listen it is possible that you will hear sounds that you don’t expect. Positive? Negative? Beautiful? Ugly? Different.

This has become quite long, and I have not yet told you about our Kabbalat Shabbat-Jumah – a small and moving weekly ceremony that takes place in our kindergarten at the week’s end every Thursday , nor have we discussed our hopes and plans for the future, nor the daily challenge to work in two languages…We certainly have not touched the question of our vision: where do we see ourselves in the less immediate future? Inshallah (with God’s help) I’ll write more of these matters in the future.

Translation from Hebrew: Rachel Gottlieb

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