I have tried thinking of a way to say this that will not sound cliché, but then I remembered that there is a reason that clichés have become such—because they are often true. And one of the truest lessons that I’ve learned from teaching in Jerusalem is that, in vital and precious ways, children are the same everywhere in the world.
To convey how truly astounding this is, let me explain some of the differences between Jerusalem and New York/New Jersey, where my previous experiences with children have taken place. Jerusalem is populated by secular Jews; religious Jews; secular Arabs; religious Arabs; and monks, priests, nuns, etc. from various Christian sects. It is a city where religious, social, and political divisions are always present—sometimes as underlying tension and sometimes as explicit violence—, and almost always there is segregation of neighborhoods between those that are Jewish and those that are Arab. This makes a noticeable impact on schools and children. One way in which it does so is through the largely-segregated schools: Arab or Jewish (with a few exceptions). Another way is through the messages that my Jewish students pick up about their Arab counterparts, through television, the news, their families, their education, etc.
This causes some differences in the beliefs of my Israeli students as compared to my American students, who were largely from areas that are socially liberal and culturally diverse. My Israeli students often have much more closed-off opinions about those from other cultures and religions, and I have frequently been shocked and saddened by some of the comments that come out of their mouths.
Another detail worth mentioning is that my school is in a settlement in East Jerusalem. This means, in the simplest terms, that the United Nations does not recognize this area as land that legally belongs to Israel. It is across the “green line,” the pre-1967 borders of the city. In short, this means that I am teaching students who live in one of the most controversial areas, in one of the most controversial cities, in one of the most controversial countries in the world.
The fact that Jerusalem is so controversial and divided also makes it a dangerous place to live at times. Violence is not uncommon, and the explicit or implicit threat of violence even less so. Children are not oblivious to this, even as they often seamlessly assimilate it into their carefree, young lives.
It is important to understand all of this background, I believe, in order to appreciate what I am going to say next.
My students are funny, kind, crazy, bright, normal children. I use the word normal here to mean that, in many ways both peripheral and deep, my children here are strikingly similar to all the children I have worked with in America. This includes students from upper socioeconomic areas of Manhattan and students from lower socioeconomic areas of Brooklyn and Trenton. Students who are white, Hispanic, black, Jewish, and Christian. Students whose experiences are so divergent from one another that sometimes it seems like they might as well be from different worlds.
How is it possible that when I look at one of my Israeli students, I see reflected in them the same pure, beautiful soul that I saw in one of my American ones?
I don’t concretely know the answer to that, yet it uplifts me and gives me hope nonetheless. It reminds me of one of the most beautiful ideas that I have heard in Judaism—that we are all connected to each other because we are all One. Whether this has to do with God or simply the fact that we are all human beings, I can’t say. But I can say with certainty that this similarity and connection is real, because I see it every day. It gives me hope in our ability to love and accept one another, if only we are willing to open our eyes and see that familiar spark reflected in the eyes of strangers from different countries, different languages, and different religions. I am grateful that my teaching experience in Jerusalem has shown me this, because it is a beautiful and inspiring thing.
I think of some of my third and fourth grade students, the ones whose English level is so low that they can barely speak more than a few words and phrases. Yet, surprisingly and wonderfully, one of the phrases that almost all of them can say and write is I love you.
Diana Tenenbaum is a participant on the Masa Israel Teaching Fellows (MITF) program in Jerusalem. In this, her first blog, she writes about Jerusalem, teaching and the similarities between children all over the world….