The new building that will soon house the Arab-Jewish bilingual school Hand in Hand sticks out against the rest of the houses in the Pat neighborhood in Jerusalem. The roomy halls and spacious lawns are not very characteristic of the nearby streets. Neither is the multicultural atmosphere which many of the religious Jewish neighbors don't care for.
The building's opening ceremony yesterday revealed an impressive structure, with small gardens with olive trees that will accommodate outdoor classes once the building opens its doors to the school's 400 primary and junior high students. The institution is still waiting for some final permits from the municipality.
The Jerusalem Fund had raised the NIS 40 million needed to fund the new building from German, Austrian, Swiss, British and other European donors.
Many people from Pat are not very happy about the school. Some say their objections have nothing to do with the fact that it's a Jewish-Arab school. They cite the lengthy construction and the traffic-related problems they will have to contend with every morning. Others object on cultural grounds.
"It's a mixed school and it doesn't sit well with a religious neighborhood," one of the residents told Haaretz, requesting anonymity. "If this were a normal school then there'd be no problem. The same goes for a yeshiva, of course. It's the mixing between Jews and Arabs that's the problem. The rest pales in comparison."
Another woman echoes this sentiment. "The Arabs have their own villages. That's where they should go study. Not here in the middle of a Jewish neighborhood," she said. "I've got nothing against Arabs, but why do they have to go to school with Jews? It will only lead to assimilation that will begin at an even earlier age because of this school."
A third neighbor, Mariana Kuman, said she didn't mind the school. "The Arabs from Beit Safafa are here all the time anyway. They come to hang around here on Saturday nights. They also come here on holidays and they don't bother anyone. It's not like there aren't any Jewish troublemakers.
Hand in Hand's management says there are people from outside the neighborhood who are trying to persuade the residents to oppose the school.
The Hand in Hand organization has two other bilingual schools, one in Gush Misgav and one in Kfar Kara, in addition to the one at Pat, which is co-managed by principals Dalia Peretz and Ala Khatib. The organization also has two kindergartens in Be'er Sheva.
In keeping with the Jerusalem school's bilingual identity, Arab and Jewish teachers are equally represented. When the Jewish teacher reads a story, her Arab colleague translates into Arabic. The next day, it will be the Arab teacher to tell the story in Arabic, and the Jewish teacher's turn to translate into Hebrew.
When addressing the teachers and their schoolmates, some students switch effortlessly between Arabic in Hebrew, depending on the person they are addressing.
The next step for the Jerusalem school will be to open a high school division. Currently, however, the school only has 14 students in the 9th grade, all of whom are Arab. Their Jewish counterparts have all left in favor of more traditional institutions.
The elementary school division, by contrast, is much more popular. Each grade has two classes with 30 students. "We try to keep the balance between boys and girls and Jews and Arabs," says Khatib. "It's harder than populating Noah's Ark."
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