May 21, 2018

Milk and Honey

The sun dips behind the trees casting shadows across a green lawn. Students mill about, some sitting on the grass chatting, others studying, heads crouched over laptops.  

A Jewish student stands with her prayer book, facing south towards Jerusalem. She sways as she mouths the words. Beside her, a Muslim student unfurls her prayer mat – south towards Mecca. She bows, kneels and recites her prayers. Side by side, they focus, both taking time out from a busy day to talk to God.

Is this a kind of Shangri-la? Some pie in the sky reverie? No. This is a regular day at Ariel University.   Ariel, however, is unlike any other Israeli university.  It is in the Shomron, also known as Samaria, and to some as the West Bank.

Despite its controversial location and resulting boycotting, it is a success story. Ariel University is now Israel’s eighth university, having received full university status in 2012. It has a student population of 15,000 including Jewish, Arab, Druze and Circassian students. Ariel is proud to have the highest number of Ethiopian students in the country.  The school also has a unique track that integrates highly functioning autistic spectrum students into university studies.

The university is now building Israel’s sixth medical school, the Sheldon and Miriam Adelson School of Medicine.  At the medical school’s ground-breaking ceremony last summer, Minister of Education Naftali Bennett said, “There is a beautiful aspect of coexistence here, since there is activity at Ariel University that serves both the Arab public and the Jewish public.”

We were fortunate to visit Ariel University just last week. It was my first time being at an Israeli university ceremony and we were proud to be there to see our son-in-law receive an award of excellence in his studies.

Having attended university in Canada, I had my own preconceived notions of a university ceremony: solemn, sober, formal.   Yet here I was, sitting in an auditorium crowded with parents and friends of the students.

Decorum? Middle-eastern style: informal and relaxed.

Professors gave speeches about innovations in their programs including speech therapy, nutritional sciences, medical management and physiotherapy. People streamed in and out as like a bus station. Babies babbled.

Photo credit: Arutz Sheva
I could have been at an Israeli high school.  Or an IDF army ceremony - except the award winners had traded in army boots for Naot sandals. One family came wearing t-shirts printed with their daughter’s name – the last time I saw this was at army function.

Right in front of us sat an Arab family. A mom with a head scarf, her husband and son who I assumed would be soon getting an award.

A student spoke and someone from the nursing school sang. (A singing nurse may come in handy on the hospital floor.)

And then the awards! The professors read out the names and the students filed onto stage. They received a certificate and then a huge hug. When it came to the nursing school, the hugs looked like those you see at an airport arrival lounge. Such joy and love from professor to student.

There was shuffling in the row ahead of us and to my surprise, it was the Arab mother who stood up to get an award! My daughter whispered, explaining that Arab students usually favor medical sciences and most of them are women. They work extremely hard and are academically very successful. I clapped, having great respect for this mature female student.

On this beautiful afternoon in a university town called Ariel, many of my assumptions were gently flipped upside down, popping my mind open.

Losing labels and preconceived ideas opens worlds and makes room for a place that is supportive and has a shared vision – like prayers recited in silken sunshine. Our modern land yielding milk and honey.