A snapshot of psychologist Noorit Felsenthal-Berger’s first Disability Studies class at Ono Academic College’s Jerusalem campus shows a variety of skin shades, bare heads and religious head coverings.
Undergraduates in this pioneering two-year pilot course simultaneously broke down two barriers: one separating them from fellow students of different ethnicities, faiths and cultures; the other separating them from Israelis with disabilities.
Participants gained the knowledge and hands-on experience necessary to promote inclusion and education in their own communities. In the process, they formed personal bonds with classmates who they may previously have eyed with suspicion or fear.
“All the masks fell away,” one ultra-Orthodox Jewish student told Felsenthal-Berger at the completion of the course in June 2018.
At first she hated sitting at the same table with Muslim and Christian Arabs, modern Orthodox and secular Jews. But the self-described “right-wing settler” found her antagonism quickly “melting” as she listened to an Arab classmate speak with extraordinary compassion and sensitivity about people with disabilities. One by one, her admitted prejudices disappeared.
“To this day I am still in contact with the [Arab] girl from Abu Ghosh who made sure there was a kosher shelf in the refrigerator for me,” she told Felsenthal-Berger. “You provided a place where everyone could connect personally around a common goal … where it wasn’t possible to hate, only to love.”
Theoretical and practical
Felsenthal-Berger was invited to design this unusual course at Ono following many years working privately and in the Jerusalem municipality in the field of disability and inclusion within all segments of the multicultural city.
She’d been a school psychologist at Jerusalem’s Ilanot School for children with severe physical disabilities and worked with autistic children. In addition, she engages in comparative research on disparate groups of women in Israeli society.
She created the Disability Studies program with a theoretical component for the first academic year and an optional practical component for the second year.
About 40 students completed the first part in 2016-17, and 13 went on in the second year to develop community-based group projects that Felsenthal-Berger supervised personally on a rotating basis.
“The projects are an opportunity for students to look outside of themselves and see the inherent humanity that all of us possess, no matter how different that other person may seem on the outside,” she says.
‘It changes you forever’
After starting the course, Rasha Aliyan from the Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa reached out to a young neighbor with disabilities.
“I wanted to be closer to him, to really understand his struggles and how I, and society, could help him and change the way that we look at people with disabilities,” Aliyan recounts.
Aliyan then became a mentor to another Beit Safafa resident she hadn’t met before, a 16-year-old Ilanot student who is blind and has cerebral palsy.
These interactions inspired Aliyan to design her practicum project around partially integrating Ilanot students into Beit Safafa public schools. She got things started by inviting the principal of the neighborhood middle school to visit Ilanot.
“We had tried for years to find ways of inclusion for the Arab students at Ilanot and didn’t succeed,” Felsenthal-Berger tells ISRAEL21c. “Rasha was able to do this. It’s a story of how someone from inside a community can make a change when she has contacts with the both academic world and the educational field. She was able to integrate it all.”
While working to promote disability inclusion and education in her own community, Aliyan befriended Jewish classmates who collaborated with her on the project.
“We all worked well together and learned a lot from each other. In the end, we realized that our differences weren’t so drastic, and we had more in common than we could have ever expected,” she says. “There is just so much there that you didn’t see before. But once you see it, it changes you forever.”
Based on the success of the pilot, the two-year course is now being offered to a new cohort of students starting this academic year. The project in Beit Safafa with Ilanot will be continued and expanded.
“One of the things I learned from the experience is that when people from diverse backgrounds work together to accomplish a meaningful goal, the human connections are very different than when they get together to talk about the things that divide them,” says Felsenthal-Berger.
For more information about the Ono Academic Collage Disability Studies course, contact Felsenthal-Berger at email@example.com
This article was originally published on Israel21c.