In the city of Shefaram, located between Haifa and Nazareth, Arabic children practice their spring theater production. In Hebrew.
At a nearby school on Kibbutz Harduf, Jewish children also practice their spring play, in Arabic.
Eventually, the Arabic students will perform for their Jewish friends, and the Jewish students will perform for their Arabic friends.
The effort is one of many elements that is building a “friendship bridge” between students at two Waldorf schools — one Arabic, one Jewish — in northwest Israel.
“What we are trying to create is a peace culture, which means we’re creating a new space where children are proud and accepting of their own identity, but also recognize and respect all cultures,” said Tally Zahor, a teacher at the Harduf Waldorf School. “We’re creating a place where Arab and Jewish children feel equal.”
Zahor was on a speaking tour Oct. 3 to 7 throughout California with her colleague, Lana Nasrallah, a Christian Arab woman who three years ago helped found Israel’s only Arabic Waldorf School, El Zeitoun, which works with Harduf. They hoped to raise money for their efforts.
The pair spoke about why the Waldorf approach to education is so valuable in Israel, and how over the past three years it has helped promote tolerance, understanding and friendship among the schools’ Arab and Jewish students.
“Every year the relationship between the students gets deeper,” Nasrallah said.
The teachers visited California with help from the Salaam Shalom Education Foundation, a Los Angeles–based group that raises money and provides resources such as a conflict resolution program, for El Zeitoun and Ein Bustan, Israel’s only intercultural Jewish-Arab Waldorf school, of which Zahor helped to found.
Shepha Schneirsohn Vainstein, the co-founder of Salaam Shalom, traveled and spoke with the teachers to audiences at Waldorf schools across the state.
“Waldorf education is flourishing at an unprecedented rate in Israel,” Vainstein said. Twenty years ago, Israel had one Waldorf school with just 13 children. Today, the country has 2,300 students enrolled in 13 elementary and high schools, and 80 kindergartens.
The Waldorf approach was developed by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in 1919. It emphasizes interdisciplinary and experiential learning and the arts. Teachers also have creative autonomy and usually govern schools democratically rather than with a hierarchical management structure.
Vainstein started her foundation to support Waldorf education in Israel after her own daughter attended a Waldorf school in Los Angeles.
She believes the educational approach has the power to heal Israeli children, of whom it is estimated more than a third suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“To live in Israel is to live in a pressure cooker,” Vainstein said. “Waldorf schools make children feel nurtured, safe and de-stressed.”
El Zeitoun, the Arabic Waldorf school, is unique in that the children are Christian, Muslim and Druze, religions that often are segregated from one another.
On top of that interfaith environment, the students learn, play and celebrate holidays with their fellow students at the Jewish Waldorf school nearby.
“Eventually we want to create an integrated high school,” Nasrallah said. “We also want to bring the parents together” more often.
Though El Zeitoun is thriving in Shefaram, the school does not yet have a permanent building and thus is ineligible for funding from the Ministry of Education.
“This tour has really helped us,” Nasrallah said. “People listen to us, they give us a response.”
Zohar and Nasrallah believe Waldorf education, and the complementary conflict resolution programs sponsored by Salaam Shalom Educational Foundation, will be the best way to bring peace to Israel.
“Politics will not give us peace,” Nasrallah said. “Jewish mothers and Arab mothers will, and we want to work for peace, not look for it.”