September 16, 2019

Peace in the Middle East?

Psychotherapist Shepha Schneirsohn Vainstein lives on a ranch in Agoura Hills that also serves as headquarters to the peace-seeking Salaam Shalom Educational Foundation, which she co-founded.

Believing that “the greatest strength and greatest asset in the Middle East are the children,” the foundation helps develop schools that bring together Arab and Jewish children and use the Waldorf teaching method of Austrian philosopher and social thinker Rudolph Steiner. Vainstein was first exposed to the Waldorf method in 1988, and her own children were educated at Highland Hall Waldorf School in Northridge.

In 2005, while escorting her daughter to Israel for a student exchange program, Vainstein encountered a Waldorf community of Arab and Israeli teachers, parents and children working together. “Those in Israel are the real pioneers, not getting hijacked by cynicism and despair; they are truly on the frontline of peace work,” she said. Later that same year, Salaam Shalom Education Foundation (SSEF) was born. Not long after its founding, the foundation was accepted into the Alliance for Middle East Peace, (ALLMEP), a coalition of non-governmental organizations promoting mediation and peace.

Salaam is Arabic for peace, as is shalom in Hebrew, and the foundation hopes that by schooling Jewish and Arab children together, a new generation will grow up sharing a sense of community and tolerance. Using the nonreligious Waldorf method as part of the foundation’s Paths to Peace program provides a universal curriculum that includes community-building and conflict-resolution methods, and cultivates independent thinking and a sense of social responsibility in the children.

Among the foundation’s programs is the Friendship Bridge, a parallel school system that initiates regular meetings between Jewish and Arab children from Harduf Waldorf High School, a Jewish Waldorf school, and El Zeitoun School, the first and only Arab Waldorf school in Israel. Ein Bustan (garden spring), another program, is an integrated Jewish-Arab Waldorf school, which currently offers kindergarten and is building first through eighth grades as well. And the foundation has completed the first of three phases of teacher training for Palestinian teachers in the West Bank.

Waldorf schools are extremely popular in Israel, with more than 2,300 students enrolled in the schools throughout the country, increasing 10 percent annually. A 2003 study showed that 42 percent of all children in Israel suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. The therapeutic environment provided by the method “roots children in a rootless society,” Vainstein explained. Steiner said it simply: “If children don’t laugh during their lesson, it’s a lost lesson.”

As early as kindergarten, children learn to express emotion, rather than physically react. Vainstein believes that, “if you just give a few Waldorf teachers a chance to make peace in the Middle East, they will indeed solve all the problems.” Indeed, this year, 58 percent of the graduates of Harduf Waldorf High School signed up to perform an extra year of volunteer community service to work with homeless, drug-addicted and orphaned Jews and Arabs, compared to the national average of only 2 percent of other high school graduates.

“The shadow of the Holocaust is the imperative for us to do the utmost possible to not dehumanize or vilify the ‘other,’ but rather find ways to work as a society to embrace each other’s humanity,” Vainstein said.

“One of the critical ways of doing this is learning how to communicate with each other.… The other way to do this is through developing a culture where we recognize that each child, Jewish, Muslim and Christian, has gifts to bring to humanity.”