January 17, 2019

Breaking Boundaries in the U.S. and Israel

By Randa Abbas and Sherri P. Pataki

How do you create greater cross-cultural understanding and challenge negative preconceptions of the “other” between our communities?

This is the question we began to address when we met at an academic conference in Israel almost 10 years ago. Today, our project, “Breaking Boundaries” is creating meaningful, in-depth international dialogue between U.S. and Israeli faculty and students in both middle schools and colleges, in both Arab and Jewish schools in Israel.

In Israel, the participating middle school teachers include Mdalale Azam from Abu Snan and Margie Bendror from Ma’ale Tzvia. In the U.S., it is Ira Pataki from the Sharpsville Area School District in Sharpsville, PA. In Israel, most Arab and Jewish students go to separate schools based on family decisions related to their children’s native language, traditions, holidays, and school proximity.  Whereas the majority population of Israel is Jewish, approximately 20 percent of Israeli citizens are a part of the Arab minority population that includes Muslims, Christians, Druze, and Bedouin, as well as other small minority groups.

Students began Breaking Boundaries by sharing their “hopes and fears” for the project. Using Linoit.com, a free service that enables students to make interactive online posters together, students expressed fear of saying the wrong thing or having difficulty communicating because of language. They expressed hope of making new friends and learning more about other cultures.  One U.S. student wrote in a final reflection on Breaking Boundaries, Countries are afraid of other countries and they shouldn’t be.  When we started this project, the Israeli students were afraid of us, and we were afraid of them, but once we got started we realized we were scared for nothing.”

To create a framework to guide discussion, the students in Breaking Boundaries read the young adult novel, Wonder by R.J. Palacio, about a community struggling with its differences. In one activity, students explained why certain quotes were important to them.  One Israeli student wrote, We can’t just assume things about others, when we don’t even know them, and I go by that, I don’t judge anyone before I get to know him, because I know it’s a wrong thing to do, so I remember my friends, the true ones, for their support, kindness and goodwill, and the memories of them outlast forever.”

At the conclusion of the project, students created poster collages to represent their experience with Breaking Boundaries.  All of the posters were translated and written in Arabic, English, and Hebrew demonstrating mutual respect for each community and their first language.  In a description of their collage, one group of American students wrote, “We … show our flag on the collage and their flag on the collage because they both represent how inside of our countries there are small communities and inside the communities are everyday people just like us.” Another group explained, “There is a silver globe… that represents the fact that even though we are thousands of miles away, we are still connected by our values, our commitment, and our passion to achieve a greater understanding of the world.”

During the pilot year, more than 70 eighth grade students and eight college students actively participated in Breaking Boundaries.  The college mentors included both Arab and Jewish undergraduates from the Arab Academic College and Western Galilee College, and from Westminster College, a small, private liberal arts college in northwestern Pennsylvania where the population is predominantly Christian.

As demonstrated in the writing of students and teacher reflections, the impact of Breaking Boundaries during the first year appears to be broad and deep.  We have also begun to analyze quantitative and qualitative pre- and post-test data for program assessment. One of the middle school teachers in Israel wrote, “The Breaking Boundaries Project offers an opportunity for our small school to meet and mix with schools representing different cultures, and to learn to know each other better. Even within Israel – although geographically (we) are not very far apart – in  terms of knowledge of the other and an understanding of similarities and challenges, we are each quite isolated. … It also indicates our school’s interest and readiness to engage with others, and hopefully offer something positive into the future of Israel.”  

Similarly, as written by one of the Israeli college students participating in Breaking Boundaries and pursuing a degree in education, “Every corner in this big beautiful world we live in, has the potential to become an enjoyable, powerful and natural place for learning. We just need to bring the people together, no matter their religion, location or age. I hope and believe this project will help us all to embrace cultural differences by talking to people from different backgrounds, in Israel and outside of Israel.”    

These words echo our own thoughts as we reach out across our communities and hope to create opportunities for meaningful engagement and greater understanding of the other.  This goal is reflected throughout our research, teaching, and work with students, and is a shared vision we will work towards throughout our professional careers.

In our work together and in our role as educators, we are often reminded of how little our own communities know about one another, and we are sadly reminded of the consequences, both locally and globally, when personal or political decisions are made based on stereotypes or other misconceptions.  Our work to achieve greater understanding of the “other,” particularly between Israeli Arab and Jewish communities and the U.S., includes multiple age groups beginning with 13-year-old children and continuing through the young adults we work with in our own institutions of higher education.

We wish to express our sincere thanks for the support of the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation, the Thomases Family Endowment, and the Frances and Lillian Schermer Trust.  Their support enabled us to develop Breaking Boundaries and will allow us to expand and continue Breaking Boundaries in the current academic year.  We are also extremely grateful for the middle school teachers who shared our vision and co-created Breaking Boundaries with us, and the students on both sides of the ocean who responded enthusiastically and with an open heart to break the boundaries of distance, ethnicity, and misconceptions between our communities.

Dr. Randa Abbas, a 2018 HBI Scholar-in-Residence, is the Vice President and Academic Dean at the Arab Academic College in Haifa and a lecturer at Western Galilee College in Akko, Israel, where she works with Israeli students training to become teachers in Israel.  She was the first Druze woman to receive her Ph.D from Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

Dr. Sherri Pataki is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Psychology Department at Westminster College in New Wilmington, PA where she teaches courses in social psychology, research methods, and peace studies.  

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