Berkeleys Rebecca Bardach builds bilingual schools for Jews and Arabs in Israel

“When you raise children in the middle of a war zone, how do you make sure that they do not hate every person who is from the other side?”

Berkeley native Rebecca Bardach posed that question to an audience of 60 at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley last week.

Rebecca Bardach photo/sara weissman

“This is the dilemma that many Jewish and Arab parents in Israel grapple with,” she added.

Bardach, a Tehiyah Day School graduate who has lived in Israel since 1998, was back in her hometown on June 3 to speak about Hand in Hand, an organization that creates bilingual, joint Jewish and Arab schools. She was joined by colleague Mohamad Marzouk, who grew up in an Arab village in Israel.

After first coming to Hand in Hand when it was time for each of them to send their children to school, Bardach and Marzouk are now both senior staff members at the Jerusalem-based organization. Bardach is director of resource development and strategy and Marzouk directs the community department.

Hand in Hand has five schools (Jerusalem, the Galilee, Wadi Ara, Jaffa and Haifa) that serve 1,200 Jewish and Arab students. In September, it will open a sixth school in Kfar Saba. Students learn Hebrew and Arabic from teachers who are native speakers and study Jewish, Muslim and Christian traditions.

When conflicts arise in Israel, teachers facilitate open discussions and try to teach students how to communicate effectively and respectfully when they disagree. The organization also arranges activities for parents and other adults, encouraging a sense of community and creating a joint Jewish-Arab support system for each school.

Mohamad Marzouk (center) and Rebecca Bardach present a Hand in Hand poster to Rabbi Menachem Creditor in Berkeley. photo/sara weissman

In their talk, Bardach and Marzouk noted that Hand in Hand has seen great success, with full classrooms and lengthy waiting lists. But the organization has also experienced adversity. Last November, for example, vandals started a fire in the first-grade classrooms of the Jerusalem school and scrawled anti-Arab graffiti on the walls.

Hand in Hand and school officials decided the best response was simply to continue their work, the speakers explained. The school put up signs around campus that read, “We refuse to be enemies,” and teachers greeted their students the next morning. 

And it worked. Classes continued, teachers and staff held open discussions with parents and students, and, following the attack, the school experienced an outpouring of support — even from President Barack Obama. He invited Bardach and two students to help light the menorah at the White House’s annual Hanukkah party last December.

Bardach, daughter of Netivot Shalom couple Gene and Nancy Bardach, credits her education for her career at Hand in Hand. She said that her time at Tehiyah Day School, which her parents helped start in Berkeley in 1979, and her participation in Berkeley Midrasha, among other Jewish programs, profoundly influenced her.

“These programs were very formative in terms of leadership and social action,” she said. “[I learned] to contribute to your community and to always pursue justice, and that has informed every single choice I’ve ever made.”

Married with three children, Bardach has worked for more than 17 years in migration, development and foreign aid. She spent 13 years with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a tenure that included, among other things, spearheading the agency’s tsunami relief effort in Sri Lanka and directing a program that fosters cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians in health and welfare. She also directed refugee assistance programs in Hungary and Bosnia before moving to Israel.

She and Marzouk were invited to speak by Netivot Shalom’s adult b’nai mitzvah class. As a collaborative mitzvah project, the class of 11 women decided to raise $5,000 to fund five scholarships at Hand in Hand schools. At the June 3 event, an anonymous donor gave $2,000, Rabbi Menachem Creditor announced, so the women are well on their way to their goal.

Creditor, who used to sing in a Jewish a capella group with Bardach, said he was moved during her talk.

“Rebecca really grew up in this community,” he said. “She’s changed my life in so many ways. I want to amplify this cause in any way I can.”

Congregants were equally inspired by the presentation, and some are looking for ways to incorporate Hand in Hand’s mission in Berkeley.

“I think the logical next step, in addition to continuing the connection [with Hand in Hand], is for us to also build the dialogue, bending the arc toward justice in the Palestinian and Jewish communities here,” said Anne March, a member of the adult b’nai mitzvah class. “We have to be part of the process, not just contributing financially.”

Sara Weissman
Sara Weissman

Sara Weissman is the editor in chief of New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine, and a former J. intern who graduated from U.C. Berkeley. She can be reached at [email protected].