How your donations are being spent on school scholarships in the Holy Land, the refurbishment of school buildings in the Holy Land, teacher training in the Holy Land and supporting pupils from Holy Land families where there is financial hardship.
Schools – an important area for the Church in the Holy Land. A visit to the boys’ school and the girls’ school in Jerusalem’s Old City.
‘Non scholae, sed vitae discimus’ – ‘we learn, not for school but for life’. In fact, Seneca, who lived at the same time as Jesus, originally said this the other way round – i.e. ‘we learn, not for life but for school’ – thereby expressing his criticism of schools at that time. Nowadays pupils are occasionally reminded of the motto “Non scholae,sed victae discimus ” when they transfer to secondary school, as school should not be an end in itself. Generations of students have been motivated to study by this modified quotation of Seneca’s. We learn at school and sometimes school is a nuisance but we are learning for life – our life! Visiting both of the schools run by the Franciscans in Jerusalem’s Old City, this Latin motto is nowhere to be seen, but wherever you go you sense how particularly important a good education is to young Palestinians, given the situation they currently live in, and how eagerly and cheerfully the pupils accept this.
In the mid 14th century the friars of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land began developing their apostolic effectiveness in what is today Palestine and Israel, a task specifically given to them by Pope Clement VI. There had not been a Bishop there since the victory of Islam over the Crusaders at the end of the 13th century and it was not until 1847 that a resident Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem was re-established. To start with the Franciscans were simply to protect and look after the Holy Shrines of Christianity but before long pastoral care was added to their list of duties – simply sticking to only looking after old places of pilgrimage was not possible. The Church of the Holy Land is the only one which was not founded by converting people to Christianity – it has always been there as the original Church since the time of Jesus. Together with the parishes, schools were amongst the most important institutions when it came to consolidating orderly, self-reliant, Christian community life in the Holy Land.
The first Franciscan schools were founded in around 1550, initially in Bethlehem and then in Jerusalem and Nazareth and were thereby the first schools in the entire region. Many foreign languages were taught in these schools and many are still taught today. Italian and French, as the languages of the Franciscans’ native lands, Turkish and English, as the official languages of the region’s long-time rulers and of course Arabic, as the children’s native language. From the beginning, as well as teaching, providing the children with meals proved to be a great challenge and one which could only be met with the help of generous benefactors from all over the world. Ever since the apostle Paul in his Letter to the Corinthians established the practice of taking a collection in Jerusalem’s original Church, the Church of the Holy Land has been dependent on the outside world for support.
Schools for girls were only established later
The Franciscans eventually founded the first girls’ school in the 1840s. The one in Jerusalem’s Old City was established in the old Pilgrims’ house next to the Jaffa Gate in 1848, and what is now the school library housed the first official residence of the Latin Patriarch Jospeh Valerga from his re-establishment in 1847.
When the State of Israel was founded in 1948, the Old City of Jerusalem still came under Jordanian jurisdiction and for this reason schools still work to a Jordanian-style syllabus to this day, even after the Israelis captured East Jerusalem in 1967 during what became known as the Six-Day War. School years are thus divided into three stages. The first stage takes place at primary school from the first to the sixth school year, with children of between four and ten years of age. The middle stage, which like the primary school stage is compulsory, runs from the seventh to the eleventh year of school and the final two-year stage leads to graduation which either qualifies the student for university or, if a more technical path is followed, leads to higher-level vocational training.
The schools run by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land in a certain sense provide children and young people with a home between the ages of four and eighteen. Without the closeness of the schools in the Old City of Jerusalem to the Saint Salvador Church and to the traditionally strong Scout Association and the Young Christian Workers Movement, which also have modest meeting rooms in the Old City, the sense of cohesion within the Roman Catholic parish community would be much more difficult to achieve.
Visiting the boys and girls during a typical school day
Entering the boys’ school and the girls’ school in Jerusalem’s Old City (which is otherwise somewhat dirty and where refuse collection and street- cleaning take place rather less than often) the complete simplicity of the furnishings and the prevailing sense of cleanliness and order comes as a pleasant surprise. The classrooms are rather overcrowded and there are no sports halls in the way we understand the term, but therefore during break-times the children jump around in the inner courtyards which convey an astonishing sense of security despite the close proximity to the bazaar and passing traffic. Children and young people can also play here after lessons have finished and on days when there is no school, as play-areas for children are very limited due to the cramped nature of the Old City. Due to the difficult political situation the atmosphere in the Old City is not exactly inviting either. From the roof of the girls’ school it is possible to look out into a large inner courtyard which is completely filthy and which the residents appear to have been using as a rubbish dump for years. If the local authorities fail to take vigorous action in disputed territories like this then eyesores such as this remain – in places which would actually offer a great space for a secure recreation park and playground. Unfortunately the Israeli authorities obviously have no interest in tidying the place up. In addition there is another phenomenon which is symptomatic of the situation. From time to time the Palestinian Muslims cause a commotion and generally get worked up in and around the area of the Temple Mount which they regard as their territory and the center of their proclaimed capital city Jerusalem. This occurs when something has happened that does not suit them and they want to stir up public opinion against the Israeli authorities. Passions run high and are often very vocal which generates the charged atmosphere in the Old City which, when it comes down to it, is less dangerous than European observers perceive it be. On such days even the traditional Friday procession of the Stations of the Cross in the Via Dolorosa is sometimes canceled and there is a clear increase in the number of police present.
The boys’ school with the impressive sounding official name of Terra Sancta Boys’ School has about 380 pupils of which 70% are Christians and the remaining 30% Muslims. This compares with 20% Muslims at the girls’ school which also has 380 pupils in total. The proportion of children that are Muslims does still mean that schools are closed on Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, as well as on Sunday. Muslim children are also taught about their own religion by teachers who specialize in that subject. Boys and girls are taught in separate classes for school years 1 to 10 but there are mixed-sex classes in the final two years for organizational and cost reasons. In the girls’ school a new wing has been set up in order to help special-needs children in one-to-one lessons. Specialist external teachers have been employed for this and have to be paid extra money.
Each of the schools employs around 30 teachers plus care staff and administrators. The starting salary for a teacher after at least 4 years at university is 3200 NIS (New Israeli Shekels) per month which when converted is less than 700 Euros. Even with additional qualifications and more years of service salaries barely rise above 5000 NIS per month.
‘We learn, not for school but for life’
In keeping with the former character of the schools as parish schools most of the children come from Jerusalem’s Old City or, if not from there, then from the Palestinian east-side of the city. A few set out on the long, arduous route to school from the West Bank, from Bethlehem for example, and a few of the teachers come from the West Bank too. Every day they have to pass through checkpoints into Israel and in order to do that they obtain travel permits valid in each case for 3 months. Sometimes, however, the border crossings are arbitrarily closed, and not always for justifiable reasons. This is one more source of friction in a school day that simply cannot be separated from the political situation of the region.
“We learn, not for school but for life”. Sister Frida, the Head Teacher of the girls’ school, was born in Bethlehem, and accompanying her through the school and into the classrooms you meet girls dressed in school uniform who, whatever the syllabus may be, make it clear with their happy, open expressions that they like to learn and like coming to this school. School uniform for both girls and boys is dark-blue with a white polo-shirt for warmer days, and a grey sports kit. Sister Frida, whose Order ‘The Sisters of St Joseph of the Apparition’ also looks after two other of the schools run by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, proudly emphasizes the fact that the checked skirt worn with the blue pullover, or the corresponding pinafore dress, is standard throughout all of their schools. So in fact the pupils can be recognized on their way to school or in the early afternoon as they make their way home. Many of the children are collected by their parents at the New Gate, the entry gate into the Christian sector of the City.
The boys’ school, which at the time of the founding of the State of Israel lay outside the Old City wall and where today a beautiful strip of green land runs along the side on the wall, is now in roughly the same position, still bordering the Wall but now inside of it. Father Simon, a Franciscan and the school’s Head Teacher, is himself a child of the Old City of Jerusalem. He has known from childhood the poverty of Palestinian families who are to a large extent politically isolated and who constantly have to worry about how to feed and clothe their children and about their futures. Like Sister Frida, Father Simon is best able to judge which family is not in a position to afford the school fees of 2500 NIS per year with the help of a long-serving local assistant. Significantly more than half of the families are dependent on financial support which starts with paying their rent and extends to school fees for the children. Father Simon immediately adds that in any case the costs would actually be around 9200 NIS per child if they were calculated so as to cover all expenses. Therefore the treasurer of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, who basically has to rely on benefactors, is forever having to step in to meet the total costs. Financially speaking things can get very tight when it comes to the teachers’ monthly payroll. Building renovations have to wait. Nevertheless Father Simon has started to tackle the modernization of the toilet block, as the old Turkish-style ‘squatting’ toilets dated from the time when the boys’ school transferred to this site. Prices and wages are significantly lower than in Western Europe. For 53000 NIS, including new plumbing, there are now gleaming new toilets and washbasins everywhere you look. It is the same story with the desks, as those which could no longer be repaired, or rather ‘patched up’, have been replaced one by one at the cost of 350 NIS per desk – which we in the West would consider a complete gift. The wing for special-needs girls has only recently been built with the help of Spanish donors.
Christian schools as a central place for rapprochement and dialogue
The Franciscan schools in the Holy Land are attended by Roman Catholic children from the parishes but also by children from other Christian denominations, the Greek Orthodox Church for example. Depending on the location of the individual school (for there are over 20 schools and colleges which the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land looks after) a corresponding proportion of Muslim children also attend. This openness is only superficially to do with to the need to use the available capacity to its full. If Christian and Muslim children have learned together and played together for many years at school and even become friends then they will later be in considerably less of a hurry to publicly feud with each other or throw stones at one another. In this way the schools have an important contribution to make to social learning. The wall between Israel and Palestine is a sad reality that creates obstacles for the Palestinians on a daily basis. In addition there is a psychological wall which needs to be overcome before there can ever be a stable and just peace in the Middle East. In daily life together in the schools at least, something crucial is being learned in terms of the Christian – Muslim dialogue and democratic ‘ conflict resolution’. This is vital, not least for the Christian girls who in addition to the ‘fencing off’ of Israelis also have to deal with taking a stance against Islam, as the lack of equality between men and women is still deeply rooted in Islamic culture. The dress code, which all of the girls’ parents have to accept, stipulates a uniform without the hijab. And, after having had to study Turkish as a foreign language in previous years, a conscious step has been taken to teach Hebrew to young people in Christian schools, a clear indication of the change in the way many Palestinians see themselves – they are prepared to come to terms with the political conditions in the State of Israel but without giving up their wish for their own sovereign Palestinian state.
Aid is necessary to support the cause and can be put to good use.
The charitable organization of the Custody of the Holy Land coordinates the allocation of donations in close connection with the International Custodian of the Holy Land (an officer of the Franciscan Order) and his executive committee. Donations are transferred to the charity’s bank accounts with the reason for payment given as ‘schools’. In one instance this may be the urgent payment of teachers’ salaries, in another, it may be the essential procurement of computers or sports equipment. As far as possible benefactors are kept informed about how their donations are being spent with further information and photos. Along with the Holy Shrines which the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land looks after, the parishes and the social and charitable institutions now have an established place in the Franciscans area of work and their charitable organization in the Holy Land. An investment in the education of Palestinian children is in addition an important contribution to peace in the Middle East, which is something many people no longer dare to hope for. Meeting these children who seem to have taken to their hearts the motto “We learn, not for school but for life”, without ever having studied Latin, can give us new hope again.
The Franciscans, the families and their children, who are more likely to be able to stay in their Palestinian home with the help of donations from the outside world, thank you in advance for your interest and your help.
Father Robert Jauch, OFM Jerusalem