Here, observant Jews in skullcaps sat beside men and women of Ethiopian descent, who sat next to Arab men in leather jackets and keffiyahs, with secular Jews and Muslim women in headscarves mixed in. And all of them were there to discuss grassroots change in education.
This was the annual weekend seminar hosted by Hila, an Israeli organization for equality in education based in Tel Aviv.
The seminar participants came from the communities in which Hila works to advocate for student and parent rights in education through establishing community centers and a hotline, running publications, holding parent meetings, and providing legal counsel and aid.
The weekend consisted of lectures, panels, workshops, and private consultations that focused on the bagrut (matriculation) exams, a growing problem in Israel.
According to the Adva Center, only 46.1% of Israeli students pass the bagrut exams, and of these, only 39.5% of the students pass at the level required for college or university admission.
The speakers outlined the necessary subjects and scope for the exams to qualify for higher education, information that schools do not always provide for students or parents.
But just as important as the programming, was the interactions between the participants. The different groups learned about each other’s current projects and challenges and exchanged ideas for development and solutions.
As Ahmed Massawe, a Hila board member, commented: "It really warms the heart that we meet in this forum and rise above this issue and understand that Jews and Arabs all have this same problem. We are in the same position, we agree with one another…
"I hope that this weekend we will take something home with us and try and move forward to improve our communities. I am very proud that I succeeded in being one of the people in the organization Hila and I enjoy every moment that I learn from them and can try to help others.
"I hope that this organization, that this group of people continues to build, to meet up, and to help one another."
The weekend was a success. Participants exchanged contact information, arranged for visits to one another’s centers, and set future meetings. The participants may have been pushed to Israel’s margins, living in development towns or villages with few resources, but they are strong.
As Ahmed stated, “We (Arabs and Jews) need to stand in solidarity to receive what we deserve. What we deserve is what we are supposed to receive. And if we haven’t received it, then we need to work to get it.”
And working they are.