Hand in Hand in Israel

Yaffa Grossberg ’91

By Eleonor Botoman ’19

From a young age, Yaffa Grossberg was sure of two things: that she was going to become a teacher and that she was going to live in Israel. “It helped that my grandfather was a principal; my grandmother a teacher; my mother a teacher; my father a teacher, principal, then professor; and my sister a principal. I guess education was in my blood!” she says. After graduating from Barnard with a degree in linguistics, Grossberg moved across the street to Teachers College, where she earned a master’s degree in special education.

Two days after she arrived in Jerusalem, she secured a job at a special education school. “I had a very, very hard first year!” she recalls. “However, I knew that if I quit then, I would never go back into a classroom again.” Grossberg’s determination got her through, and she’s been living in Jerusalem ever since.

In 2002, she was hired by the pioneering Max Rayne Hand In Hand Jerusalem School as an elementary school teacher—though at the time, Grossberg knew “absolutely nothing” about peace education and dialogue among Israeli Arabs and Jews. The School takes a unique approach to inclusive education. Grossberg coteaches with an Arab teacher, and her classes are composed equally of Arab students, both Christians and Muslims, and Jews. Everyone learns in her own language and each other’s, too. (Grossberg learned Arabic through an intensive, language-teaching program.) As a teacher, Grossberg fosters a community of mutual respect and cultural appreciation in an effort to enable future generations of Israeli Jews and Arabs to communicate with each other and live together in more favorable conditions.

After fifteen years at the Jerusalem school, one of six Hand in Hand schools throughout the country, Grossberg has come to understand the importance of Jewish-Arab equality in Israel, seeing this land and history with new eyes. “Peace education, dialogue, and the Max Rayne Hand in Hand School became a labor of love for me! I learned so much from listening, and getting to know, and building with ‘the Other.’ ”

That view is not always so popular in her adopted country. In 2014, right-wing extremists broke into the school, set fire to two first-grade classrooms, and stained the walls with anti-Arab graffiti. “We were overwhelmed with support and love from the people in our community who banded together to declare our continued staunch support of staying together and educating toward peace and acceptance,” she says, describing the community’s response in the aftermath of the attack. Support for the school extended beyond Israel, too, when some of the students were invited to light Hannukkah candles at the White House that year.

No matter what, Grossberg remains committed to constantly learning and engaging with the world around her—and to civic cooperation among Jews and Arabs in Israel.

Latest IssueWinter 2023