Abigail Klein Leichman
January 26, 2010, Updated September 12, 2012

Just one day “at the circus” leads to remarkable changes in the way Israeli Jewish, Muslim and Christian high school students relate to each other.



Let the games begin: Arab and Jewish children learn to touch and support each other through circus tricks.

It’s not unusual for Jewish students at the progressive Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa to participate in coexistence projects with peers at nearby Arab schools. But all of Penny Arenson’s 10th-graders were taken by surprise when they discovered that swinging from the flying trapeze offered them a whole new way of connecting with kids from a different culture.

In early December, Arenson took her wary group of 35 students to meet an equally wary group of 10th-graders from Lily Khoury’s class at the Baptist School in Nazareth. Their destination was the Israel Circus School in Kfar Yoshua, about halfway between the two schools.

“It was obvious to all of us that their first meeting had to be there, on neutral ground, centered around a fun activity with very little talking,”

Arenson tells ISRAEL21C. Her students are Jewish, while the Baptist School students are mostly Christian and some Muslim Arabs.

Though Israel’s Galilee region is dotted with side-by-side Jewish and Arab villages, the children seldom have contact and generally don’t speak each other’s language.

“All the kids were wearing name tags in English, Hebrew and Arabic. We divided them into four groups, mixing Jews and Arabs, boys and girls, shy kids and outgoing kids,” says Arenson. “Each group did four activities: trapeze, rope climbing, trampoline acrobatics and juggling. At the end, each group put on a performance.”

A change in attitudes

When they returned to school, both Arenson and Khoury found a remarkable change in their students’ attitudes: “At the beginning, a lot of the kids in both our classes were very hesitant about the meeting,” says Arenson. “They don’t know the ‘other side,’ and it’s scary for them. But when we came back, they all said they loved it. Their fears were annihilated. Even if they won’t all be best friends, some of them are already talking on Facebook.”

And that’s after just one session. The Coexistence Circus Project is expected to continue over the course of the entire school year.

“Our success is a matter of the children getting to know one another and respecting one another,” says Hanita Hendelman, project manager of Israel Circus School, which hosts as many school pairings as finances allow.

“Many teachers tell us that prior to coming, especially in the higher grades, there is a lot of bias and fear. At the first meeting, the air is always completely frozen and it’s amazing to see, after one hour of working together – without talking, doing challenging physical things they’ve never done before – suddenly you can feel the air is changing, and there is laughter and joy.”

In the circus, you have to touch each other

Hendelman explains that the circus is an excellent medium for breaching emotional barriers. “It forces you into a situation of working with one another. You need to touch, and you need to support one another. The ‘magic’ will become more solid if the activity goes on for the rest of the year.

Most groups, even at the end of the first day, exchange emails and telephone numbers.”

At subsequent get-togethers, the students will practice their circus skills in preparation for school and public performances. They will also meet for day-long workshops/social sessions at each of their schools in the hope of continuing their budding relationships.

“This way, we can build a future with this project in our school,” says Arenson. “I hope it will break down stereotypes and open horizons.”

She notes that one of her initially-hesitant students recognized a boy from Nazareth as a member of a rival community basketball team. “They sat on the side talking for an hour,” she recounts. “Probably on the basketball court they couldn’t do that.”

Hendelman says that the only obstacle to the program realizing its full potential is its high cost. Endowed by British benefactors Ken Colton and Arthur Pedlar, the Israel Circus School relies on grants from the Jewish Agency for Israel and Israel’s lottery fund, Mifal Hapayis, as well as the Ramsay Foundation of Switzerland.

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