After the morning recess is over, the fourth-grade students of the Israeli Arab city of Umm al-Fahm's Kahawish elementary school file into their 11am class where they are greeted by their Hebrew teacher Ital Levy, the only Jewish teacher at the school.
Levy, an Afula resident with 12 years of teaching experience, practices an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle. For the last three years, she has been teaching Hebrew at three different schools in Umm al-Fahm, following a career change.
"I asked my rabbi about this," she says, her head covering conspicuous among the various Muslim hijabs visible in the teacher's lounge. "He responded that I 'should begin (working) and God will help,' and that is what persuaded me to do it. I felt it was the right thing," she says about her unusual position.
Two years into her new job, she was offered the position of principal at a new school in Afula, but she refused.
Levy came to be a teacher in the Arab city following a personal crisis.
"One day while surfing the web I came across a wanted ad for Hebrew-speaking teachers at schools in the Arab sector," she says. "I realized it was something I was unfamiliar with and that it was an entirely different angle of education."
Shortly afterward, Levy found herself at a job interview in the town of Jat, northeast of Netanya. They were taken aback when they saw that she was a clearly very religious woman and asked her a few times whether she understood that the job was in Umm al-Fahm. But she was undeterred, "I have no doubt that I did the right thing."
News of her hiring caused a stir among the other teachers at the school and she was told that it would be strange for her, but her fellow educators soon expressed their support.
The school principal explained that parents were a little uneasy at first. "Some asked why it had to be a religious teacher… But they did not cause her any problems. They were impressed by the concern she showed for the students. Every time a student missed school, Ital would call the parents to clarify the reason of the absence."
Sometimes, after terror attacks, the pupils would ask questions and it was somewhat awkward. But she earned their trust and the children hold her in high esteem now. "She is a very good teacher," says one student. "previously, we didn’t know Hebrew well and now we know it very well."
Many of Levy's friends and family also expressed surprise upon hearing where she works. "It raises eyebrows," she says. "My mother was a bit concerned, but she was also sure that I would be alright. There is something about me that makes for closing gaps and building bridges between people. It is a part of me," she says.
Levy does not disregard what she calls "harsh stigmas about the Arab sector, especially this place. Let's put it on the table: Umm al-Fahm and terrorism go hand in hand in the Israeli consciousness and it is entirely mistaken. Many people ask me if I travel with a weapon or with an escort (for security); they ask me what I did in the military and if I am sure that I will be okay. Yes, I am doing fine here. I don’t need an army escort and I am free to go anywhere here. I travel in the city with my car, buy clothing and visit friends."
Her students ask her questions, mainly about religion. Levy looks like a religious woman and the students notice. They ask her if she prays daily, which God she believes in, whether she can say "Allahu akbar" (God is great in Arabic), how do Jews pray, what a synagogue looks like, what are the black straps that Orthodox men wrap around their arms during morning prayers, why she covers her hair, why is Jerusalem important to Jews like it is for Muslims and, "why do Haredim hate Arabs more than other Jews do?"
Despite the positive feedback Levy has experienced, sometimes the harsh reality hits home. In July 2017 three terrorists from Umm al-Fahm killed two Israeli Druze policemen at the Temple Mount complex in Jerusalem. The prime minister ordered that the mourning tent set up for the attackers who were killed be disassembled.
When the school year began in September, some of the students were upset at seeing her. She discovered that some of them were present when the police came to take down the mourning tent and the children witnessed the confrontation between residents and the police.
"I thought it would be an opportunity to break the stigma and to have a productive conversation about the complex situation, and after a few days I brought up the topic and said that I wanted to talk about how I felt, that they did not accept me and that I understood that it was hard for them because of the difficult experience and that they view me as representative of the people involved," Levy says.
"I invited them to talk about it and to tell how they experienced it. It was a productive dialogue and it was resolved. Later, we went to Mini-Israel together, and they managed to speak to the instructor in Hebrew. I completed the school year with this class and I even came to their graduation ceremony, during the month of Ramadan, in a hall in the middle of Umm al-Fahm. I came because it was important for me to be part of their special day."
Levy is a graduate of Oranim College and intends to continue teaching in Umm al-Fahm next year as well. Despite efforts by the Education Ministry to increase the number of Jewish teachers in the Arab sector, progress has been slow. "We believe that one who speaks the language fluently should be the one teaching it," said Mai Aro, director of the language department at the Abraham Fund.
Aro directs a program aimed at increasing Hebrew language studies among Arab students through Jewish teachers. However, only 22 such teachers teach at 33 Arab sector schools as of yet.
"Arab teachers should be teaching Arabic in Jewish schools and Jewish teachers should teach Hebrew in Arab schools. It is only natural and proper. The teachers teach language as well as culture and that is how its done around the world… it is a start," Aro says.
In 2015, shortly after becoming education minister, Naftali Bennett announced a new program aimed at strengthening the Hebrew language among Arab pupils. However, recently released data casts doubt on the efficiency and success of the program and more than a third of Arab students tested were found lacking in their Hebrew skills.
591 teachers took part in the project and 32% of them said that the quality of their teaching material was insufficient and that they themselves suffer from not enough hours on the job.
"We must distinguish between the spoken language and grammar," says Levy. "Grammar is indeed taught at a high level but the ability to speak the language remains lacking. If students' complete grade six without experiencing spoken Hebrew, their ability to master the language is severely hindered."
The lack of exposure to spoken Hebrew means that the children are at a disadvantage with regards to learning the language. "They can learn and read books, but it is not the same as mingling with the Jewish population and being exposed to the language," said Qabha Mahajneh, a school administrator.
Arab educators admit that more spoken Hebrew practice is necessary. "If Jewish teachers are interested let them come," says Levy. "I believe that the benefit is mutual because you get to explore a world that is physically so close but mentally remote. I want to remain here, I received other offers, but I turned them down."