by Jessica Donath, USC graduate journalism student
At the Neri Bloomfield School of Design and Education in Haifa, a microwave is one of the hot-button issues for students and faculty alike.
“He won’t let us have one because it will be difficult to make sure non-kosher food stays out of the microwave,” says Jonathan Land, the third-year graphic design student’s voice and facial expression caught between restraint and outrage as he describes a diktat from David Alexander, the school’s president.
This type of problem illustrates the tensions between religious and secular Jews in Israel. This level of religious conflict, however, was not on the official agenda when students and faculty met with journalism students from the University of Southern California to discuss how the power of art can facilitate coexistence.
The Neri Bloomfield School of Design and Education was founded in 1971 by WIZO, an international women’s Zionist organization, and is located in this seaside city’s multicultural German Colony. In 1868, German members of the Evangelical Templar order started settling in the area. They believed that doing so would hasten the second coming of Christ.
“I could have not found a better home for it,” says David Alexander, an Orthodox Jew.
The eloquent educator has no trouble introducing nuance into the discussion. He acknowledges the kosher problem but reminds students that he did not want his school, with all its open space, to permanently smell like a cafeteria. This issue, too, like many questions that touch religion, democracy, or land in Israel, is complicated.
Alexander explains that Neri Bloomfield was different than other Israeli arts and design schools because its students are trained to become high school teachers in their field.
For most of the visiting journalism students, Jewish Israelis, from various ethnic and religious backgrounds studying together with Christian and Muslim Arab-Israelis is the distinguishing element. While this fact of life in institutions of higher education in Israel seems normal to the Israeli students and far less exciting than the low student-to-faculty ratio at the school, their USC counterparts have trouble moving past it.
In smaller group sessions, they inquire about the relationship between arts and politics, as well as the potentially transformative experience that studying and creating art together could have for Jewish and Arabic students.
“I don’t think the idea of a transformative experience is exactly what you should be looking for. How we live our lives on a day-to-day basis is enough,” says photography student Eric Judkowitz, after regaining his composure from laughing hard at the question put to him.
For Hady Azaizy, the only Arab-Israeli graphic design student currently enrolled at Neri Bloomfield, there are just not enough Arabs in the four design-oriented departments (architecture, graphic design, photography and documentary film) to turn his education into a deliberate exercise in coexistence. Thirty percent of the school’s total student body are Arab-Israelis, but most of them don’t study toward a degree in one of the creative disciplines. Rather, their focus is in culture and educational management.
“Me and you can be in one room together for four years, and maybe I will learn something about you, and maybe you will learn something about me. But just because I study in a place where there are Jews and Arabs doesn’t mean there will be communication,” he says.
But the school they attend is not a place for loners, adds Itay Eylon, who grew up on a kibbutz. When students criticize very personal works in front of a classroom of their peers, they need to be respectful of the narratives and beliefs that are revealed through art.
Suri Michaeli was looking for openness when she chose a university. The modern Orthodox woman received her primary education at a religious girls school, and she considered more of the same at a small religious arts college. But instead she chose Neri Bloomfield.
“I was looking for a very open place. I didn’t want to be closed-minded. I wanted to have all the experiences that you have here,” she says. Too many topics are taboo in religious schools, she explains while sitting next to Hady, whom she helps to find the right English words to express himself during the group discussion.
For the Neri Bloomfield students, talking about coexistence is far less important than living it.
Jessica Donath is a graduate student in journalism at the University of Southern California. Originally from Frankfurt, Germany, she moved to California in 2009 after spending a year in Prague, Czech Republic, where she studied journalism and political science. She has written and published articles in German and English.
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