April 18, 2022

A Look Inside the Only Bilingual, Multicultural School for Arabs and Jews in the Negev

The Hagar community started with a small group of activists and now has 150 families with more than 800 Arab and Jewish members. The Hagar School offers public pre-K, kindergarten, and elementary through sixth grade. Teachers speak both Arabic and Hebrew.

Hagar’s vision and mission is to create a shared society teaching equality for a more peaceful future in Israel. Here, Global Connections lay leader Miriam Seiden talks with Sam Shube, Executive Director of Hagar School.

Miriam: What motivated you to do this work, and what keeps you motivated?
Sam: This may sound surprising but working at Hagar gives me a sense of continuity with the values I grew up with in the American Jewish community. Values are what drives us to make things happen. I remember my father’s small business in Queens, New York. He had pictures of JFK and MLK on the wall. His customers were mainly Blacks and Catholics. He was all about mutual respect and community and he never hid his Jewish identity. Everyone knew he was Jewish and he never let me forget that either. When I see an Arab family at our school observing Ramadan, when I see a Muslim woman wearing the Hijab, I think of the Jewish struggle to maintain our own Jewish identity. I see a reflection of myself. That’s what democracy meant to me growing up and what it means to me now. This is what motivates me to do this work.

Miriam: What have you accomplished at Hagar and what do you hope to accomplish going forward?
Sam: Hagar is a small organization with a huge responsibility. Our job is to keep bilingual education alive in the Negev, an area covering 60 percent of Israel’s territory. Most Jewish donors don’t quite get the Negev and its importance to Israel. Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ does get it and, with its help, we launched a new initiative: The Center for Shared Culture. It includes Israel’s first integrated scout troop, an Arab Jewish choir, major concerts for mixed audiences, and Arab-Jewish holiday celebrations. It was so thrilling to attend our most recent event, a Hebrew Arab poetry jam in the Old City of Be’er Sheva. We had a high-energy full house. I expect this venue to grow here in the Negev. We’re doing a lot of innovative projects, all building on the social capital from our school community’s success.

Miriam: What does the general Israeli population need to know about Hagar?
Sam: Both Arab and Jewish Israelis need to know that multiculturalism does not dilute one’s identity. It strengthens it. Israeli Jews need to know they can visit Bedouin towns like Rahat, Laqia, and Hura to experience a vital part of Israel they never see. People need to know that bilingual education, informal education, and cultural encounters will make Israeli society stronger and more cohesive. The fact that Hagar School exists and prospers in Be’er Sheva makes an important statement: “Israel can and does do better.”

Miriam: What does the Greater MetroWest community need to know?
Sam: You need to know the profound impact your partnership has on us at Hagar. It can be a lonely struggle down in the Negev. Seeing so many Greater MetroWest community members join us in our recent video conference made us feel connected. By providing seed funding for our new shared culture initiative, you’ve taken a chance on something new and innovative. Israel is called “The Start-Up Nation.” I think Greater MetroWest should be called “The Start-Up Federation.”

Miriam: Please share a story or anecdote the world needs to know about Hagar.
Sam: I live on a kibbutz on the Gaza border. When the rockets flew over, I huddled with my 7-year-old in our safe house. I can’t help thinking about what the 7-year-olds on the other side are feeling without safe rooms or missile interceptors. There was a holiday celebration at the school. Arab and Jewish kids were selling books and toys raising money for the kids living in Gaza. It wasn’t political. It was about being humane. The kids made me feel empowered and deeply touched. These are the stories the world needs to hear.

To learn more about Hagar School, visit: https://www.hajar.org.il/en/home/