Arab shares lessons from the ‘other Israel’

Arab shares lessons from the ‘other Israel’

A Bedouin ‘top teacher’ visits area as part of education prize

Musa Abu-Kaf discusses his work in a Negev school with community members at the JCC of Central NJ. 
Musa Abu-Kaf discusses his work in a Negev school with community members at the JCC of Central NJ. 

Ever since he began teaching in his home community of Segev Shalom 24 years ago, Musa Abu-Kaf has sought to build bridges between the Bedouin students in his charge and Jewish children in nearby Be’er Sheva, and to increase their concern for their shared environment.

Now the science and environment program he developed over the past five years has succeeded so well there are plans to have it replicated in schools around the country. And his efforts have won special recognition for Abu-Kaf. He is one of six outstanding teachers selected out of 2,000 nominees from across Israel and named a “Moreh Shel HaMedinah,” a top teacher of the country.

This month, with sponsorship by the Jewish Agency for Israel and plane tickets from El Al, the six teachers were brought to the United States to share their views and exchange ideas with communities here. Abu-Kaf came to the Greater MetroWest area for five days last week.

He visited two schools — the upper and lower schools of Golda Och Academy in West Orange, where he discussed techniques with math and science teachers, and the Philips Academy Charter School in Newark — which astounded him with its excellence in the heart of a troubled city.

“There is nothing to compare with this in Israel — even in the Jewish schools,” Abu-Kaf said.

He participated in an interfaith gathering at Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell that included Turkish Muslims, Catholics, and Methodists.

One of his longest exchanges was during his visit with the Israel Arab Study group of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, held at the JCC of Central NJ in Scotch Plains.

There were also some up-close connections with local families. He was hosted for the first two nights by Jim and Kayla Paul of Summit, and then for the next three by Robert Kuchner of Westfield, chair of the federation’s Israel and Overseas Committee, and his wife, Phyllis Bernstein. Bernstein, together with the Pauls, leads the Israel Arab Study Group. She is also a member of the Jewish Federations of North America's Social Venture Fund.

Abu-Kaf speaks very little English, so he was assisted by translators — among them Moshe Levi, the federation’s new shaliah, and Randi Brokman, Israel and Overseas associate with GMW.

At the JCC, Abu-Kaf said there is much he’d like to see change in the Bedouin culture — including the lack of emphasis on education and the oppression of women. As a teenager, he and two friends left home and went to live in northern Israel where there was a better Arab school they could attend. He earned a degree at a teacher training college, and returned home to the Negev.

Having seen his sisters forced to leave school and get married in their early teens, Abu-Kaf is adamant that his five daughters — along with his two sons — will have the chance to get educated and pursue careers. One of his daughters was the first Bedouin girl to study art at Ben-Gurion University. Things are improving for girls, he said. “In fact, now more of the girls are finishing high school than the boys,” he said.

Speaking to teachers at Golda Och Academy, he spelled out how he takes his fourth- and fifth-graders out into the desert, to observe for themselves the interaction between the elements.

While language was a barrier, Kayla Paul said meeting Abu-Kaf had proved “absolutely fascinating.”

“Musa’s story is an inspiration,” said Bernstein. “The recognition he has won shows that when Bedouin take positive action on their own behalf, when exposed to a decent education, they can perform brilliantly by any Israeli standard. His efforts will advance the Bedouin population in the Negev and show that education is a tool and a means to gain income.”

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