Lee recalls Hand in Hand's stormy, improbable beginning.
In February 1998, before any of the Hand in Hand schools had yet opened, co-founder Amin Khalaf and I held our first community outreach event in the Galilee region of northern Israel. We were recruiting families for the school scheduled to open in their community the following fall. We decided to hold the event in one of the small Arab towns in the area — partly to see whether Jewish parents would overcome any fears they had about going into an Arab community at night.
Amin and I had put a lot of energy into this: We hired two young actresses, one Arab and one Jewish, for a dramatic bilingual presentation. We invited all of the mayors from the region. We sent invitations to hundreds of people in the area.
The event was scheduled to start at 8:30 p.m.
The night turned quite ominous, with lots of rain, lightning and thunder. At 8:35 p.m., there were only seven people in the room, which was adjacent to the mayor's office. Being an eternal optimist, I remember thinking, “Well, it is a stormy night, and that is why so few people will attend. We'll just have to schedule another event in two weeks' time."
But by 8:55 p.m., there were 150 people crowded into the room. We presented our vision of Hand in Hand and why we believed establishing an integrated school was important for their community and for the country. The actresses made their dramatic presentation in Hebrew and Arabic, and people engaged in a lively discussion.
At 11 p.m., not one person had left. The mayor of Misgav, a Jewish town, stood up. “You know," he said, "a large group of Jewish and Arab adults have been sitting for over two hours and having a heated, but civil and productive, discussion about issues that are close to our hearts. That in and of itself is a huge accomplishment, because Jews and Arabs don’t generally sit together and talk. Let us take this energy created here tonight and make the idea of building a school a reality."
At that moment I became certain that we would have a school. It was February, and not a single family had yet enrolled their children. We did not have a physical building to house the school. But I knew we had crossed a certain barrier, a certain threshold, and that we would succeed.
We still had many hurdles yet to cross — and we still do. But that one magical moment stands out strong in my memory. The excitement of people from communities in conflict for so long joining forces to pursue a common interest: the education of their children, their children's peaceful future. That is the true power of Hand in Hand.