Hand in Hand (Yad b’Yad) is a group of Israeli schools where Jewish and Arab students learn together. Its co-founder, Lee Gordon, was in Vancouver last month (photo from Hand in Hand)
Lee Gordon, co-founder of Hand in Hand (Yad b’Yad), a group of Israeli schools where Jewish and Arab students learn together, spoke at Vancouver’s Or Shalom Synagogue and met with members of the community at large last month.
“We are always eager to have more friends and supporters for what Hand in Hand is doing, especially in the current very dark situation in Israel and in Gaza,” Gordon said in an interview with the Independent. “Hand in Hand is a beacon of light in a place where coexistence is not widespread enough.”
Gordon, who first moved to Israel in the 1980s, launched Hand in Hand with Amin Khalaf in 1997. The first classes started in September 1998 with 50 students on two campuses, in Jerusalem and in the Galilee. Today, there are more than 2,000 students, who study in Hebrew and in Arabic, on six campuses throughout Israel.
The bilingual schools were established to combat the threat posed to Israel by growing social alienation and lack of trust between Jewish and Arab citizens. Education, in the view of Hand in Hand’s founders, was – and still is – instrumental in changing this.
Gordon, who lived in Israel for 20 years before returning to the United States, became involved in Jewish-Arab dialogue while pursuing a master’s degree in social work from Hebrew University. Though the university was integrated, he observed, there was not a great deal of interaction between Jewish and Arab students, aside from weekly dialogues in which Gordon and others from the two groups would engage on campus.
While those meetings were clearly a step in the right direction, he felt they were lacking. “Dialogue is superficial. People can have lovely feelings afterwards but don’t see each other again,” said Gordon, who is currently the director of American Friends of Hand in Hand.
Later, when working on a fellowship project through the Mandel Institute, Gordon spent time looking at schools in Israel and analyzing what makes them succeed or fail. In the backdrop was the reality that the school system in Israel is completely segregated, even in mixed communities, such as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
“I started building a rationale for a school being a wonderful venue for bringing Arabs and Jews together, because it is not just for one hour a week. Once students are in school, they are there all day, all week, all year, and have a chance to truly get to know the other,” Gordon said.
Realizing that he needed an Arab partner for his goal of creating an integrated school to reach fruition, Gordon was introduced to Khalaf, an educator whose hope was for his children to grow up feeling as equals in Israeli society.
Hand in Hand was officially registered in spring 1997 and, for a year, Gordon and Khalaf scouted the country, trying to locate an ideal spot to start the school.
“We knew we wanted one in Jerusalem but also wanted a backup,” said Gordon. “We settled on an area in the Galilee where the Jewish and Arab towns are close together.”
When the first schools opened in fall 1998, the primary challenges consisted of hiring teachers, raising funds and recruiting Jewish students.
“We knew Arabs, as the minority, would flock to our schools, it would be seen as a step up for them,” said Gordon. “Jewish parents would be more of a struggle. We wanted our schools to be accredited and not be viewed as boutique, esoteric schools lacking legitimacy.”
Though never without obstacles, as the schools grew each year, it became easier to recruit new parents because Hand in Hand presented an attractive educational possibility – students were learning two languages in a vigorous academic environment, they were happy and the class sizes were smaller.
Even today, Gordon admitted, Hand in Hand still has to work harder to recruit Jewish parents, particularly after the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7.
“This is the worst war of the four since Hand in Hand has been in existence,” he said. “Jewish families often know someone who was killed or taken hostage, and many of the Arab families have relatives in Gaza.”
While there were concerns that Jewish families might withdraw their children from classes following the attacks, that has not happened yet.
“Bringing people together is really the only way there is any hope of this conflict ending because it is not happening on political levels,” Gordon said.
Multiple researchers have shown that there are many benefits from bilingual education, such as more empathy, better academic performance and improved engagement. Beyond those benefits, Jewish and Arab students at the Hand in Hand schools develop close friendships, which start through childhood sleepovers, birthday parties and play dates. Moreover, adults have formed long-lasting bonds with one another.
“Many parents have spoken of how they have been transformed by the experience,” Gordon said.
Hand in Hand schools are public, recognized and overseen by the Israeli Ministry of Education, and open to all parts of the Arab and Jewish populations in Israel. Government funding is supplemented by philanthropy and parents’ fees.
Besides Jerusalem and the Galilee, Hand in Hand operates schools in Haifa, Jaffa, Kfar Saba and Wadi Ara.
For more information about Hand in Hand, visit handinhandk12.org. Canadian residents can make a tax-deductible donation to Hand in Hand through the Jerusalem Foundation of Canada, 1-877-484-1289.
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.