Jewish and Arab Israelis play at Ein Bustan – When the kindergarten opened in September, 2005, there were two distinct groups.The children are pushing wooden wheelbarrows, clambering up the jungle gym, and cuddling floppy dolls. It is a scene you might observe in any ordinary kindergarten.

But listen carefully and you’ll hear the not-so-typical banter of Hebrew and Arabic in one room. Look again, and you’ll notice that the dolls lack features on their faces.

Welcome to Ein Bustan, the first Arab-Jewish Waldorf kindergarten in Israel – or, for that matter, the world.

Here in the small Bedouin village of Hilf, about 15 kilometers (10 miles) southeast of Haifa, eight Jewish children and seven Arab ones are unknowingly making history.

Ahmed is seated in a wheelbarrow, being pushed by Avshalom. “Take me over there,” Ahmed shouts in Hebrew – a language that was foreign to him until a few months ago.

“There are days,” says kindergarten teacher Ola Wadim Zidan, “when these two are inseparable.”

It wasn’t always so.

“When this kindergarten opened in September, 2005, there were two distinct groups,” notes Gidi Heman, the other kindergarten teacher, who, like Zidan, is bilingual.

Heman recalls how the youngsters – aged 3 to 6 – used odds and ends to build ‘homes’. “The Arabic-speaking children built one home, and the Hebrew-speaking children built another home. Neither would allow a member of the other language group to play in their home,” says Heman, describing, in a sense, the overall reality of life in Israel, where Arabs – who make up 20 percent of the population – and Jews may live side by side, but rarely enter each other’s homes.

“We didn’t force anything. Over time, things just changed. Now,” Herman tells ISRAEL21c, with a sweeping gesture that takes in all the children, “there are no groups divided by language – the children all play with each other.

“It’s become completely natural for them,” says Heman, a veteran Waldorf educator who is Jewish, and teaches alongside Zidan, who is Druse.

The kindergarten was formed at the initiative of Amir Shlomian, a peace activist, musician, and educator, who was trained in the London Waldorf Teacher Training Seminar.

The Waldorf educational system is part of the anthroposophic philosophy developed by Austrian scientist Rudolf Steiner. The curriculum is designed to nurture the child’s imagination – that’s why the faces of the dolls at Ein-Bustan are featureless. You won’t find any television or videos here either, but you will find children sewing, baking and planting wheat. There is strict adherence to teaching subjects in a way that is appropriate to the child’s developmental stage – as outlined by Steiner – with heavy emphasis on art and music in a non-competitive setting.

Since the first Waldorf school opened its doors in Germany in 1919, over 800 others have sprouted in some 60 countries. In Israel there are five Waldorf schools, a Waldorf community at Harduf in the Galilee, and dozens of Waldorf pre-schools, many of them in the town of Kiryat Tivon, which has become a magnet for Waldorf education.

It was clear to Shlomian, a resident of Kiryat Tivon, that he would educate his own young son, Avshalom, in a Waldorf framework. But it was a single powerful incident that convinced him of the need for an Arab-Jewish setting.

After spending five years abroad, Shlomian returned to Israel in October, 2000, at the start of the intifada. While driving near his home in the Galilee, he was forced to stop because the road was blocked by a pile of burning tires, ignited by Arabs from a nearby town.

“Other drivers panicked,” he recalls to ISRAEL21c. “I put out the fire, and pushed the tires aside. It wasn’t difficult at all. But others were too frightened and angry to do that. That’s when I realized that I must do something to allay the fears we have about each other.

“I thought to myself: What’s the point of giving my child a Waldorf education if it doesn’t relate to this overwhelming social problem – relations between Arabs and Jews, our fear of ‘the other.'”

Together with Samer Zubidat, a dedicated social worker and community activist in the neighboring Arab village of Bosmat Tab’un, Shlomian attracted other parents, raised funds from private donors and won the approval of the Ministry of Education and the local council. In September 2005, Ein Bustan – which is Arabic for ‘a spring in the garden’ – was opened.

Some parents chose the kindergarten out of ideology. But for most, that was secondary. Rachel and Alon Gottlieb missed the deadline for registering their 4-year old son, Yotam, in the Waldorf kindergarten in Kiryat Tivon, where their older sons had gone. Rachel decided to enroll Yotam in Ein Bustan because she was so impressed with the kindergarten teachers.

Now she is sorry her two other sons didn’t have the opportunity to attend such a kindergarten.

“They’re jealous that their younger brother knows Arabic,” says Gottlieb. “It’s also been enriching for me,” she adds. “This is the first time I’m forming real ties with my Arab neighbors. We, mothers, got together to sew dolls and blankets for the kindergarten; the fathers built benches. There is a wonderful spirit formed when you work together for the good of your children.”

Hisham and Samahir Hilf who live in Bosmat Tab’un were not happy with the local kindergarten their son was attending. “He is very energetic and the staff didn’t seem able to deal with him,” says Samahir.

A friend recommended Ein Bustan. They say that since their child switched kindergartens, he is blossoming. In the meantime, they have come to appreciate the unique qualities of Ein Bustan.

“I think it will only benefit Ahmed to know Hebrew and to be exposed to the traditions of others,” says his father, Hisham. Samahir is delighted that her son will have a male role model in kindergarten teacher Gidi – who cooks and cleans – something he wouldn’t often see in his own community.

There are currently four Jewish-Arab schools in Israel: a veteran one in the mixed community of Neve Shalom, and three others in Jerusalem, Misgav and Wadi Ara – run under the auspices of an organization called Hand in Hand.

Running a dual culture classroom is not without challenges. Teachers at Ein Bustan read stories in both languages, and mark the holidays of both communities. They recently held a Passover Seder, and in the fall, marked Eid Al Fitr, the end of the Ramadan fast.

On Fridays, the children light candles and bake challah in preparation for the Jewish Sabbath, but they also recite a blessing in Arabic, composed by Zidan, that speaks of ‘kneading the dough together, Arab and Jew,’ and of ‘living in peace, with God’s help.’

Not all the differences can be glossed over with a song. Israeli Independence Day is regarded by Palestinians as the ‘Naqba’ – or ‘catastrophe,’ – the day they lost their land. At Ein Bustan, neither day is marked.

“There are differences you just can’t bridge – especially at such a young age,” says Shlomian. Conveniently, perhaps, this is in keeping with Waldorf philosophy, according to which children don’t learn history or geography until they are much older.

“We don’t have all answers,” admits Shlomian. “This is an experiment in progress. But I feel there is something right about it.”

What impact can this admittedly small experiment have? “In Judaism, we say that if you save one life it’s as though you have saved a world. So, if one person raises his children differently, that can have a ripple effect,” says Shlomian, noting that parents in another Beduin village – who have heard about Ein Bustan – have expressed interest in setting up a similar kindergarten in their community.

Ein Bustan already has 20 children signed up for next year. Now, Shlomian and other parents are looking ahead to first grade, working feverishly to set up a school – or at least a classroom within an existing school – that will enable their children, Arabs and Jews, to continue to grow side by side within a Waldorf setting.