On Thursday, we joined one of the new English teachers, Izar Taha, in her ninth grade class.  In our initial meeting with the ninth grade classes, we usually take the time to introduce ourselves, give some of our background, and answer any questions the students may have, although we have found that in many cases the students are reluctant to ask questions because they are not very comfortable speaking out loud in English — afraid to make a mistake.  Izar turned this session into a teaching opportunity by taking some of the words that we used to teach vocabulary.  After we would speak and pause, she would translate into Arabic and also write certain words on the writing surface to make sure that the word was understood.  They wondered if we were married,  to which we replied yes, for 54 years. Then they wanted to know how we met.  So we told them that it was in June of 1962 when Jane returned home to Berkeley after spending her first two years of college at Beirut College for Women (now Lebanese American University) and I was working at the First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley as the summer assistant helping with the college students.  We told them that by the end of the summer we were engaged (engagement party held later in Jane’s home), and were married the next year in August and then drove east to live in Chicago for three years while I attended McCormick Seminary and Jane worked at Presbyterian St. Luke’s Hospital.

Fridays are not a day of scheduled classes, but some teachers do meet with classes to give extra help in certain subjects.  It is also the morning of the week when there is a special brunch in the teachers’ lounge.  Mahmoud, one of the teachers, made sure we knew about the brunch to make sure we would be there to join in with the teachers.  It was a very good brunch, with large quantities of schwarma, yogurt, tabbouleh, pita bread, of course, and hummus.

After our brunch we visited the Learning Center again entered by walking over a bridge.


We met the Director, Badia Ghrebis, and later found out that she is the mother of one of the students who participated with the group from Mar Elias that came to the US in 2015 to participate in the Model UN (held at Stony Point conference center) and then came to Bound Brook with the others for a few days before going home.


Badia took us on a tour of the Learning Center.  You enter the Learning Center on the top floor of the center.  There are two more floors below with classroom space, space for teachers to meet one on one with students, and a large room in which a Dabke class was beginning this evening.  Altogether there will be 9 rooms for use by the Learning Center when all of the renovations are complete.  There are 374 students enrolled from the different Mar Elias Schools, preschool through high school.  Currently there are Hebrew, English, Math, Theater classes and private lessons for students with learning disabilities.  One of the larger rooms on the second floor will be used for a Dabke class.

I decided I would walk home a different way than usual so I could take some more pictures to show you more about how the school manages the great amount of traffic it experiences every morning and afternoon.

The first picture is the long drive from a main road in Ibillin up to the entrance to the campus shown in the next image (top right).  Below the entrance image is an image of a fork in the entrance road, the road to the left takes cars and buses up to the large area between the middle school and the Church of the Sermon on the Mount, the road to the right take you down to the area where the buses drop off and pick up the high school students.  The next picture (bottom left) shows you the road to the left going up the hill between the Church of the Sermon of the Mount and Archbishop Chacour’s home. The last picture shows you the open area where middle and elementary student are dropped off and picked up by parents and buses (see below).



One of the reasons we come to the Mar Elias Schools is to help with English classes in the high school.  The seniors have to take many different statewide exams, called Bagrut exams, in the different subject areas.  There are six Bagrut exams required of all Palestinian students, Arabic, Hebrew, English, Math, Civics, and History.  In addition, there are other Bagrut exams depending on the major area in which a student has specialized during grades 10-12. The English Bagrut exam has three parts, examining a students ability to write, to read and understand, and speak.  We help students with the oral part of the exam, which in turn has two parts:  a written project that has to be completed about something of interest to the student (or students if working in group) and about which the student will be asked questions; and then questions of a more personal nature asking about the student’s family, the village in which he/she lives, her/his interests, etc.  Our main effort is to help the students to feel more comfortable talking — many are quite good at reading and answering questions and writing, but speaking tends to be the part of English that is the most difficult.  There are close to 300 seniors, all of whom will be taking the oral part of the English exam in early March.  I am not sure we will be with all of these students, but will be in contact with many as Maisa, the head English teacher, is seeking to arrange that we are in as many of the senior English classes as possible before we leave.  The oral exams begin on Friday, April 20th, we leave on Saturday April 21, late at night.


Pictured above are the high school English teachers, Yasmine who was absent for the group picture, is pictured below,


and of course Jane is not one of the teachers.  Ninth grade classes are very large, most have 40 students in them.  Ninth grade is the first time that many of the students are in the Mar Elias schools as they come from about 35 villages around the Galilee.  Most of them arrive by bus every morning, Monday thru Thursday and Saturday.  Because of the large number of Muslim students, Fridays are not considered regular school days, although many students and teachers are at the school on Friday for extra work.  Ninth grade, as I mentioned earlier is a sorting out time for the students, a time when they show their academic stuff and also when they can begin to form an interest in an area in which to specialize in grades 10 thru 12.  At the end of the 9th grade, each student will select a “major” and then be grouped with others selecting the same major.  In addition, as mentioned earlier, they will be divided into groupings called levels, Level 5 being the students with the highest academic achievement during the ninth grade, Level 4, the next highest, and Level 3, the next and lowest level among the students at the Mar Elias High School.

On Saturday, after taking the picture of the teachers, Jane and I were driven over to the old Muslim Cemetery in Ibillin by our friend Elias Obaid.  At the cemetery was Ass’ad Daoud, Johnny Mansour, and a person who is the fifth or sixth generation relative of a person buried in the cemetery.  Ass’ad Daoud is an architect, but trained specially in preservation and restoration.  Johnny Mansour is a history teacher at Mar Elias High School but more specific to the meeting, he writes about the history of the Palestinian people and the cities of Palestine.  He had written an article about the person buried here, his name is Aqil Agha al-Hasi.  He was born about 1820, lived and ruled mostly in the northern part of Palestine, including mostly in Ibillin, and was buried in this cemetery in 1870.  From a Wikipedia article on him, “Throughout his rule, Aqil remained at least nominally in service to the Ottoman Empire, which paid him for protecting the roads of northern Palestine from Bedouin raids and for maintaining the security of this region.  He also exacted his own tolls on the local population in return for ensuring their security.  His friendly ties with the European governments were partially due to his protection of the local Christian and Jewish communities in Galilee, including protection of Nazareth from the 1860 massacres that occurred in Ottoman Syria.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aqil_Agha

Pictured above:  the grave in the foreground and behind it, a workman to help clean up the grave, the descendent of Aqil Agha, Ass’ad Daoud, and Johnny Mansor; working on digging out and cleaning up the grave; and Aqil Agha’s descendent and Ass’ad Daoud.

Later that day we had plans to go to dinner at the home of Abdalla Sakran, one of the students we had known since the 2012-2013 academic year.  On Saturday, he called and said that one of his father’s best friend’s mother had died, so we could not have dinner at his family’s home — his father and mother would be at the service.  Abdalla said instead that we would go out to eat.  So he picked us up close to 4 pm and we drove off.  I was not sure where we were going.  We left Ibillin and heading on the highway going north.  The next village to the north is Tamra.  It was to Tamra that he was taking us, to his family’s favorite schwarma restaurant.  We start with mezze, a variety of dishes that we would call appetizers, however, where we usually have one or two, mezze here is many dishes, and always very good fresh pita bread.


After dinner, Abdalla took us to Akko for the sunset.


We were not finished yet.  After our stay at Akko, Abdalla informed us that his parents were back in the house and invited us to come and see his parents.  I was especially interested in our conversation with his father about his experience at the Mar Elias High School.  He was in the first graduating class that had matriculated all four years at the high school (when the school opened in 1981, there were students only in 9th and 10 grades, his father was in the 9th grade — 2nd graduation).  His class had recently had a reunion.  His made a comment about Archbishop Chacour that was special — not only has the Archbishop given much to the people of Ibillin, but this gift has spread to all of the Galilee.  One of the images used by the Archbishop as he considered the formation of the high school is that of planting mustard seeds, how extensive now are the seeds that have been planted by the efforts of the Archbishop and those over the years working in the Mar Elias Schools.  Of interest also is that Abdalla has a brother and a sister, all have now also graduated from Mar Elias High School.  Abdalla is the youngest, when he is enrolled in college, all will be enrolled in institutions of higher education, talk about planing mustard seeds!  Since the small beginning of 118 students in grades 9 and 10 in 1981, Mar Elias High School now regularly numbers around 1,100 and graduates around 300 students a year.  The total number of graduates is over 8,000.

Sunday we worshiped at the Melkite Catholic Church in the center of Ibillin.  We talked with the pastor before the service indicating that we would like to participate in the communion service.  He agreed without a question.  We also asked him to express our gratitude to the congregation for their support during the time of Ken’s illness which he did at the end of the service.

After the service we walked through the back roads of Ibillin to the home of Elias and Badia Obaid.  We, of course, had some Arabic coffee, saw their granddaughter Tiana, and then asked Elias to take us past the cemetery so we could see how the efforts to clean up Aqil Agha’s grave site came out.


Upon returning home we received a note via Messenger from Ruba telling us that preparations for her wedding were taking place at her home and asking if we would like to come over.  We said yes, so at about 4 pm we were on our way to her home in Ibillin.  The preparations taking place at this point in time for her April wedding were to clean up all the dishes and put them away for all the meals that would be served during the days of the wedding, April 2 to April 6.  In addition to meals served on nights of April 2nd, and 4th, on April 6th there will be large meal served to all who come to the final night of the wedding.  Pictured below, cleaning and storing silverware; cleaning and readying the large cooking pots; cleaning and storing dishes for all the meals; and finally preparing Kibbeh,

some of which we would eat at tonight!

The kibbeh is made from finely ground lamb or beef, with bulgar (cracked wheat) and onions and middle eastern spices.  It is served raw.  You take one of the pieces of kibbeh, press it down on your plate, top it with generous serving of the dish shown in the lower left corner of the top picture that consist of fried meat mixed into more bulgar and then on top it off with plenty of yogurt.  It was quite good.  In addition, we were served a combination of rice, bulgar, and pine nuts.  And of course pita bread.   At the end Arabic sweets and coffee.  We returned to our room in the guest house stuffed, but very much delighted at having been asked to participate in one part of the preparation for Ruba’s wedding.


Brief digression:  When we were at the school in January of 2016, before suddenly coming home because of Ken’s illness, we helped the English teachers begin a program called Forgiveness Education.  We selected one of many programs that have been developed by Dr. Robert Enright (https://internationalforgiveness.com/team.htm). If you go to the previously listed website, you will see the extent to which Dr. Enright has researched this subject and developed programs that have been implemented in different places in the world.  We set up a seven week program and started helping to teach it in the ninth grade classes.   Dr. Enright and his wife Jacqueline came in the second week of the program.  The timing was just right as we had to leave to come home because of Ken’s illness.  Dr. Enright taught the second lesson and the teachers took over from there.  The program has continued to be taught in the ninth grade classes since.  In July of 2017, three of the teachers plus the Archbishop participated in the Jerusalem Conference set up by Dr. Enright and the Forgiveness Institute (https://internationalforgiveness.com/jerusalem-conference.htm).  The presentation of Archbishop Chacour can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8JfOsRWBeNk&feature=youtu.be.  The presentations of the three teachers can be viewed by going to this link (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TnFUz0KH0T4).

We had previously met and worked with Veronica (in the group picture above, Veronica is the seventh from the right), but had not met Yasmine or Izar.  So it was our great pleasure to rejoin Veronica and meet Yasmine and Izar.  They had planned to begin the teaching of Forgiveness Education after our arrival so we could participate with them.  On this day, we joined Veronica and her ninth grade class as she began teaching the program of forgiveness education.  Since we left in 2016, Veronica has been the teacher to take charge of this program and much more fully develop the way it is taught.  To introduce the concept/theme of forgiveness, she began by handing out a small piece of paper to each student on which she asked the student to name three persons, if possible, who had hurt them and had not apologized for that hurt.  She indicated that she would collect these pieces of paper and put them in an envelope that would be sealed, and that she would not open and look at what they wrote.  At the end of the classes on forgiveness she would return the piece of paper to each student and they could do whatever they felt appropriate.  Then she wrote the word forgiveness on the board and asked the students to tell her situations in which forgiveness was important.  At the end of the class she expressed her delight to us at the extent to which the students participated and provided examples.



Veronica’s class (iPhone, panorama)


On Tuesday, we joined Izar (in the group picture above, second from the right) and her ninth grade class for her introduction to Forgiveness Education.  To introduce the topic, she handed out a sheet of paper to each student on which she had parts of three songs sung by contemporary artists.  She had blanks at certain places in the songs.  She played each song, sung in English, and the students were to fill in the blanks.  The first song was “Hurt” sung by Christina Aguilera; the second song was “In Between” sung by Linkin Park; and the third song was “Apologize” sung by Timbaland. It usually took playing the portion of the song twice for the students to feel that they had correctly filled in the blanks.  Then she went through the songs asking the students to fill in the blanks and discussing each song and how the words of the song expressed feelings and sentiments related to forgiveness.  At the end, she asked them to think about when they had been hurt as part of a larger group, i.e., to begin to get them to think about forgiveness as more than something just between individuals.

We participated in two other classes, one with Nardine (fourth from the right in the teacher picture) and the other with Rana (second from the left).  The usual procedure the first time we meet with a class, unless it is a 12 grade class, is to introduce ourselves, give some of our background including: the fact that we are married, 54 years (question asked in one of the classes because we did not indicate that in our introduction);  number of children and grandchildren; how we met (another question asked in one of the classes);  what we did for work; where we live in the United States (including telling them how cold it is this winter while they are enjoining some pretty warm weather for January); why and how we are here — we ask them if they know about the Pilgrims of Ibillin and tell them more about the work of Pilgrims of Ibillin in supporting Mar Elias.  Then we ask for questions, some of the questions they asked are indicated above.  Some other questions include, what do you like about Israel; about the school; and where have you been in Israel.


Today we joined Yasmine in her ninth grade class for her introduction to her students of the concept/theme of forgiveness.  She also used songs as a way of introducing the concept/theme of forgiveness.  She asked them for songs they thought had this theme and then discussed the songs and why the students thought they reflected this theme.

We next joined Maisa for her 3rd period 10 grade class.  Maisa is the the fourth from the left in the picture of the teachers above.  She is like the department chair of the English teachers.  After briefly introducing ourselves, Maisa split her class into two groups, Jane with one, and me with the other.  In the smaller groups, the exchange of conversation is easier and the students are willing to venture more questions and comments.  We have found that when groups visit the campus and want to go into classes, it is best to break the class into small groups and have one visitor per group of students — conversations take place readily.

We next visited in Adham’s 12 grade 5 point class.  As mentioned earlier 5 point classes are the students with the highest academic achievement.  With this group, again after a brief introduction, we were split into two groups.  In this 12 grade class, our emphasis is to make sure that they are working on their projects for the oral exam and also ask questions of individual students around the circle that are likely to be ones asked when they are actually face to face with the state examiner.   As mentioned earlier, these are questions about their villages, their families, their interests, hobbies.  They are questions basically to see how easily and well students can converse in English.  We emphasize using short sentences.  And in class, when we ask a student a question and he/she begins by turning to a student next to him/her and speaks in Arabic, we remind them that they will be alone with the person examining them.

This should give you an idea of our daily schedule, usually not known in advance, except for the Forgiveness Education classes.