This point hits close to home for Gottlieb and her husband Alon, who was never able to learn Arabic in school. Like many Jewish Israelis, Alon served as a soldier in the army. There, he picked up humiliating Arabic commands and curses: Hands Up. Show me your identity card. Stop, or I’ll shoot.
For years, his proficiency was limited to just that. The realization left him angry and ashamed.
Their children should learn the language as a tool for friendship rather than hostility, they thought. It pushed the Gottliebs to join the kindergarten.
However, some common ground between both speakers is set without any effort. Arabic and Hebrew come from the same linguistic family and several words are similar, if not the same. The ‘Ein Bustan’ is just one example. It means ‘fountain in the garden’ in both languages and “emphasizes how close they are to each other,” explained Shlomian. It’s the reason why they chose the name for the kindergarten.
Still, Waldorf Education emphasizes nature, seasons, art and music, pointed out Gottlieb.
“All can be enjoyed without language.”
The founders of Ein Bustan saw the Waldorf method as an approach well-suited to their mission of peace and coexistence. Elements are integrated into every aspect of the kindergarten.
“Waldorf leads the imaginations of the kids to be free and not feed kids to our way of looking at the universe,” said Shlomian, who has trained in the London Waldorf Teacher Training Seminar. The dolls in the kindergarten, for example, have no features, stimulating the child’s creativity. With everything filled in, “the kids have no space to imagine.”
Cotton puppets and acorns replace plastic toys. A television set is exchanged for a wooden doll theater. Children paint, make bread from scratch, and cut vegetables for their lunch.
“It’s very aesthetic and natural,” said Shlomian.
The approach is based on the anthroposophical philosophy of Rudolf Steiner. The first Waldorf school opened in Germany in 1919 and more than 900 schools in 83 countries exist today. Israel alone has 13 elementary schools, 4 high schools and about 100 kindergartens.
The system stresses the correlation between a child’s stage in development and what they should learn in school. Talk of news and politics remain absent in the classroom. Religion becomes more of a cultural expression and dogma is kept out.
On Eid al-Adha, parents joined the children and teachers to celebrate the Muslim festival following the pilgrimage to the holy site of Mecca. A model of the Ka’ba stood in the center of the room. Imitating the pilgrims, the children had draped themselves in white and circled the black cube. Parents brought food and everyone sang songs in Arabic.
Eid al-Fitr, Pesach (Passover), and Christmas are among the other holidays celebrated together in the classroom.
“We don’t say ‘Pesach is for Jews’ or ‘Eid is for Arabs,’” said teacher Yael Levin. “We say, ‘Here is Pesach or here is Eid.’”
In Waldorf, holidays are stripped to their core meaning. Hanukkah is seen as a celebration of light and Eid-al-Fitr a time for giving. The themes are universal.
Yet, some holidays prove more difficult. What is known as ‘Independence Day’ for Jews is known as al-Naqba or ‘the catastrophe’ for Arabs. Ein Bustan chooses not to observe either of them.
At this age, politics are not relevant, said Levin.
The Waldorf approach ultimately carries out the mission of kindergarten. Communities in Brazil and South Africa have also used it to link the cultures of polarized groups. “Waldorf takes human kind and looks at it as something holistic,” explains Shlomian. It supplies the bridge between cultures that Ein Bustan strives to build.
Disappointment with the Israeli education
system remained with Amir Shlomian years after he left it.When his son Avshalom
grew old enough to begin kindergarten, there was no doubt that he would join a Waldorf school. But Shlomian felt that this wasn’t enough.
“I never met an Arab before the age of 20,” he said. Schools continue to remain segregated throughout Israel to this day.
Thoughts for founding Ein Bustan surfaced in 2004.
He shared his initiative with two local kindergarten teachers. Both jumped on project when it remained nothing but a vision. “They were very pioneering,” said Shlomian. Together, they began planning how the classes would work.
Arab and Jewish parents were invited for an information meeting early on. As more families expressed interest in the kindergarten, ideas began to materialize.
They collected donations from friends and rented a structure in the Bedouin village of Hilf. Throughout the summer, parents and the community worked together to renovate it.
Volunteers plastered and painted the walls of the classroom. A local carpenter and parents built the furniture. Friends donated tiles for the bathroom.
There was an “outpour of support, donations and help,” said Gottlieb.
Ein Bustan opened its doors in September of 2005 to fourteen students from the towns of Kiryat Tivon, Bosmat Tabun, and Hilf.
But, the kindergarten did not come without obstacles.
Some locals opposed the effort. The sentiments stemmed from deep-rooted hate and fear of the other side.
Gottlieb described how other parents in the area would criticize her decision to enroll her son Yotam. They said she was putting him amidst “violent” Arab children.
However, doubts and fears also plagued those who were involved in Ein Bustan.
“I kept answering questions of parents who already signed up and wanted reassurance,” said Shlomian. “It’s very easy to hesitate. The biggest challenge was in our own souls.”
For many parents, the kindergarten is a way of giving their children a chance they never had.
“Meeting with Arab kids, mixing with them-- it’s something that gets inside the brain,” explained parent Shai Epstein. “For me, it’s something [that is] already lost.”
Epstein grew up in Haifa, 10 miles northwest of the kindergarten. The city has a mixed population of Arabs and Jews. They walk the same streets, but go to separate schools and live in separate neighborhoods—a typical scenario in much of Israel. It was an unwritten rule not to sell homes to Arabs, recalled Epstein.
“[Often] we’re educated [at home] and [in] society to fear what is different from us.”
Even though he believes in mixing and hopes for coexistence, Epstein feels uncomfortable when entering an Arab home. The reaction is wired in him—a reaction he never wants Maayan to experience.
Epstein saw Ein Bustan as an opportunity for his son to connect with Arab culture. He hopes interaction with the Arabic-speaking community will be natural for him.
But the impact of the kindergarten goes beyond the children.
Fatimah Zbidat struggles to break up a fight between her twins after picking them up from Ein Bustan. “I had to live with the feeling that [Jews] are afraid of us or don’t like us. I didn’t feel wanted,” recalled Zbidat, a resident of the Bedouin village of Bosmat Tabun. “[But], how can I judge you, if I don’t know you?”
Through the kindergarten, Arab and Jewish parents also meet on a regular basis. Paths often cross when dropping and picking up their kids. They join in to celebrate holidays and attend after school meetings. Parents end up learning the culture alongside their children.
“Now I have the chance to know them better, to talk, to [hear] their opinions—it’s wonderful,” said Zbidat. “They’re friends to me.” The parents do activities with and without their children inside and outside Ein Bustan.
The spirit of the kindergarten spills over into the larger community as well.
In April, Ein Bustan hosted a concert in Kiryat Tiv’on featuring Israeli musician Yair Dalal to publicize and raise money for the school. Children, parents, and teachers attended alongside many others from the area. Dalal, a peace activist and supporter of the kindergarten, plucked his oud to a crowd of more than a hundred. People moved to the rhythm and clapped with the beat as the vocalist of Dalal’s trio sang a popular Hebrew song in Arabic.
“The event was an anomaly when seen within the context of the normal social and cultural reality in Israel,” noted Gottlieb, who attended with two of her children. A meeting like this between Arabs and Jews doesn’t happen often.
The kindergarten “awakens a feeling of optimism and hope,” she said. It is a “microcosm of how things could be.”
Shlomian hopesintegrated schools will expand throughout Israel. “I think our influence can help the system work better.”
Today, four other Arab-Jewish schools exist in the country. The mixed community of Neve Shalom established one in the 1980s. Three others in Jerusalem, Misgav and Wadi Ara are run by the non-profit organization Hand-in-Hand.
As word of Ein Bustan spreads across the country, other schools have expressed interest in adopting its approach. “Hearts are opening to the idea,” said Shlomian. He received a phone call from a Waldorf teacher in central Israel requesting songs in Arabic. A kindergarten in Jaffa hopes to start an Arab-Jewish Waldorf kindergarten of its own.
Parents and community members also have been working to establish a mixed first grade class at an existing Waldorf school in Kiryat Tiv’on.
Still, the overwhelming majority of schools in Israel remain segregated. Relations between Arabs and Jews are often adverse or nonexistent. The political air is frigid and chances for peace at the moment look bleak.
But coexistence between both people cannot be forced from above by diplomats or treaties, said Rachel Gottlieb.
“If there will be some kind of peace [one day],” said Shai Epstein, “it needs to start in education...it must start with the kids.”
As the school day winds down, the children play outside in the sun as they wait for their parents. Wheat in the garden bends with each gust of wind. Then, without warning, it begins to rain. Children scream and laugh. While some run for cover, others stop to embrace it. One student pulls out an umbrella as her soaked peers nearby join her underneath it. The sun remains shining throughout.
While discussing the mission of the kindergarten, Amir Shlomian cited The Prophet by Lebanese-American writer Khalil Gibran. The book is a compilation of poetic essays discussing issues of life and the human condition. In one chapter, “the prophet” is asked to speak about children. “I [always] try to remember this when talking about education,” said Shlomian. With this preface, he paraphrased lines from the poem:
The [children] are not you and they’re only coming through you.
They’re visitors in your house and you should never try to make them as yourselves.
They are the arrow and you are the bow.