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A basic reason for coming to volunteer at the Mar Elias Schools at this particular time was to coordinate the date of a wedding in a family here with the graduation of our granddaughter and grandson in Florida.  When we first came to volunteer in November of 2011, we met Salha Edress very close to when we arrived.  We were invited, along with our friend Joan Deming, to go to the home of a high school counselor, Emon, in Akka (Acco, Acre) with Salha, a Hebrew teacher at the high school.  This began a friendship with Salha that has deepened over the several times we have volunteered.  The time we were here for a year, we would go with her to the college where her daughter was studying, north of the Sea of Galilee.  She preferred not to drive that distance alone.  Because of this we became part of her large family and enjoyed spending time with them, at times going to their fields where they grow many fresh vegetable and olives and enjoying a time of olive picking with them.  One of my favorite pictures is of Salha’s mom picking olives with love and care.

Salha's mother

Ruba’s family are Muslim.  Weddings are a multiday event.  Her wedding will start on April 2nd and the final day will be on April 6th.  Much time has been spent preparing for this event including the signing of a contract, part of the Muslim wedding ceremony.  Pictured below, the bride, Ruba, and the groom, Mohamed.

We were picked up and taken to Salha’s home where the contract signing would take place. I was taken into the front room where the men were gathering and Jane was ushered around to the back of the home to a large room where the women were gathering.  The first thing that happens for the men shortly after each new person entering the room sits down a person comes by offering a drink of very strong coffee in a small cup.  You take the cup, swallow all of it and return the cup to the person pouring the coffee — it is strong.  The men sit around talking, sometimes quite animated.

After a short time, I was taken to the back where the women were gathered so I could take some pictures.

Contract signing:  We arrived to the home of Salha Edress, Ruba’s mother, and Jane was taken around to the back of the house where the women were gathered and I was ushered into the front room where the men were gathered.  In both areas the circle kept expanding as more and more people came to join in this happy occasion.  What followed then was the contract signing, Ruba first and then Mohamed.  First an explanation of the contract and then signing, many pages.

Next, the action was back in the room with the men.  First, Ruba’s father signs the contract and then the groom signs the contract along with the payment of 50 NIS (New Israeli Shekels), it’s cheaper to get married than it is to get divorced!!

Finally, after the signing, the bride and groom join together in the  room where the women were gathered.


Warning: this is a long blog, many photographs.

From our room in the guest house, we look west toward Haifa and Mount Carmel.  Mount Carmel stands for a range of mountains that run southeasterly from Haifa and the Mountain by that name.  From our room or often, on the roof of the guest house, I can set up my tripod and take pictures of the sunset and, if the sky is clear, of the full moon, end of February and beginning of March, and of the moonset over Haifa.  I have provided some of those images below.




Sunset, Mt Carmel in the distance


Sunset, Mt Carmel in distance; twin towers Hebrew University




Moonset over Haifa, in distance.


Haifa at Night


Full Moon, March 2, 2018


stormy day, school grounds


Day after full moon, craters shown on top right of moon




sunset, Mt Carmel in distance


Sunset, Mt Carmel


Haifa, lights in the distance, at night

Events:  Muslim Wedding Preparation, Contract Signing; Visit to Hula Valley with the Gifted and Talented Program.

One of the basic reasons for returning as volunteers through the Pilgrim of Ibillin at this particular time of the year is the marriage of the daughter of one of our closest friends Salha Edress.  We have already participated in two events in which many people were preparing food for the many guests invited to the wedding.   For a Muslim wedding, in addition to the signing of a contract before the dates of the wedding, the wedding event is spread over several days.  The wedding of Ruba Edress will take place beginning April 2nd and culminating on April 6th.  The contract signing took place on March 8th at Ruba’s home.

Preparations:  We were invited by Salha to come to her house to see and participate in the preparation of food for Ruba’s wedding events.  The first event for us was on February 7th when her friends spent the day cleaning dishes and utensils for use for the different meals that would be served, and making and freezing raw kibbeh.



Mixing ground meat with bulgur wheat, minced onions, and middle eastern spices

At the end of all of this work, men and women gathered for a sumptuous meal.


Food ready, people to come


Ingredients for a meal: raw kibbeh topped with a mixture mostly of ground beef with some rice and pine nuts (darker dish on left and right) and finally with yogurt, and of course, pita bread.


take one of the raw kibbeh, crush the kibbeh on your plate, put some of the mixture of ground beef, some rice and pine nuts (not pictured) on top and finally put some yogurt on top, and enjoy

The second preparation event took place on March 3rd.  Two of the items being prepared today used a lot of dough.  When we arrived, a great quantity of dough was being prepared.


This dough was used to make two kinds of mezze, small dishes served in the middle east before dinner (our experience is that after mezzo, there is no room for dinner).

One kind of mezze is made with a small piece of round dough, flattened, and on which is placed and olive and then some cheese with the olive.  It is rolled into  ball, dropped into a liquid and then rolled in sesame seeds.



Jane helped with the final task on these delicious middle eastern treats.


One other dish was being made, some dough rolled flat and filled with a mix of lebne, parsley, and za’atar.



Finally, another kind of kibbeh was being made.  For this, as you will see, a small amount of a mixture of ground meat, burgul, and spices, was formed into an open container shape into which ground meat and pine nuts was placed, the meat container was carefully closed and the resulting mezze item placed in a container for freezing.


More pictures showing the preparation.


And some of the other participants at the preparation


One more event: a visit to the Hula Valley with the Gifted and Outstanding Student program. The Ministry of Education offers a program throughout the state of Israel for nurturing gifted and outstanding students.  Students in the third grade are tested and evaluated for general scholastic ability/general level of intelligence; for artistic talent; and talent in sports.  Students in grades 4 through 9 are eligible to participate in the program.  The Gifted and Outstanding Student program at the Mar Elias Schools welcomes students from Ibillin, Shaab, Sachnin, Basmet Tabo’n, and Kawkab.  There are 170 students in the program that meets on Thursday afternoons and all day on Friday (the Mar Elias elementary school does not meet on Friday).

Jane and I share birdwatching with the director of the Gifted and Outstanding Student Program, Enaya, so she invited us to go with them on a day long trip to Hula Valley.  Hula Valley is noted as a stopping place for birds on their migrations in the spring and the fall between Europe and Africa.   While we knew that this is not a major time for migration, we still hoped to see some birds not present in our daily living circumstances,  we were not disappointed.


Some initial photos


First critter, a swamp hyrax


Swamp Hyrax

Large Catfish


Next a turtle


An animal with which we were not familiar: a Coypu


And finally some birds: Eurasian Coot


Black Winged Stilt






Teal, showdown, this is my place to rest!



Sunday, February 25, 2018, at the Melkite Catholic Church in Ibillin,


we celebrated the first Sunday in lent.  It was also a special service to commemorate the Second Council of Nicaea (AD 787 in Nicaea, present day Iznik, Turkey).  According to the article in Wikipedia, it is “recognized as the last of the seven ecumenical councils by the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.  In addition, it is also recognized by the Old Catholics and others.

“Old Catholic Church “term originally used from the 1850s by groups which had separated from the Roman Catholic Church over certain doctrines primarily concerned with papal authority.  These churches are not in full communion with  the Roman Catholic Church.  Member churches of the Union of Utrecht of the Old Catholic Churches are in full communion with the Anglican Communion, and some are members of the World Council of Churches.” Wikipedia under Old Catholic Church.

The purpose of the council was “to restore the use and veneration of icons (or, holy images), which had been suppressed by imperial edict inside the Byzantine Empire during the reign of Leo III (717-741).  “In the early 8th century AD, iconoclasm, a movement opposed to the veneration of icons, gained acceptance in the Byzantine court. In 726, despite the protests of St. Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople, Emperor Leo III (who had forced the emperor to abdicate and himself assumed the throne in 717 immediately before the great siege) issued his first edict against the veneration of images and their exhibition in public places.” (Wikepdia, John of Damascus)  “All agree that John of Damascus undertook a spirited defence of holy images in three separate publications. The earliest of these works, his “Apologetic Treatises against those Decrying the Holy Images”, secured his reputation. He not only attacked the Byzantine emperor, but adopted a simplified style that allowed the controversy to be followed by the common people, stirring rebellion among the iconoclasts. Decades after his death, John’s writings would play an important role during the Second Council of Nicaea (787), which convened to settle the icon dispute.”(same Wikepdia article)

“Many Protestants follow the French reformer John Calvin in rejecting the canons of the council for what they believe was the promotion of idolatry. He rejected the distinction between veneration (douleia, proskynesis) and adoration (latreia) as unbiblical “sophistry” and condemns even the decorative use of images.[8]  . . . .  Calvin does not engage the apologetic arguments of John of Damascus or Theodore the Studite, apparently because he is unaware of them.” (Council of Nicaea Wikipedia article)

As we participate in the Melkite Catholic Church in Ibillin and its iconostasis and icons on the walls, the Greek Orthodox Church also in Ibillin, and its iconostasis and icons on the walls, and take visitors to the Church of the Sermon on the Mount on the campus of the Mar Elias Schools and its magnificent iconostasis and the icons of the sermon on the mount on the overhang of the balcony in the sanctuary, we become aware of a major difference between protestant churches and eastern churches.  As I have conversations with Bishara, a member of the Obeid family, with his PhD from the Catholic Universities in Rome on Arab theologians from the 11th and 12th centuries, I become aware of my lack of knowledge of the rich history and tradition of the Eastern Churches.  Since Paul traveled westward and his letters are included in the New Testament, we are more familiar with western churches and their development.

Tonight, we also celebrated the anniversary of the elevation of Abuna Elias Chacour to the position of Archbishop of the Melkite Catholic Church in Akka, Haifa, Nazareth and all the Galilee.  He was first made Archbishop on February 25, 2006.  Badia and others worked hard to prepare a dinner for about 50 people, including fresh whole fish.  Iman bought and brought the fresh fish to the kitchen the morning of the dinner, and Badia cleaned and prepared them for cooking that night.

Guests arrived and were seated

and the first part of dinner began.   The fish were scored (see difference between fish before and after cooking, slashes across the fish) and cooked after dinner began, the cooking taking place on the roof of the guest house using deep fat fryers brought by Iman, the owner of the kiosk across the playground from the elementary school (the guest house is the top floor of the elementary school).

We were able to fry 10 fish at a time.  Iman brought them down and served them after starting the next set of 10 fish.  When I finally had a chance to sit down and eat, the meal as a whole was very good, the fish excellent tender white flesh.

After dinner, the Archbishop spoke

and more pictures followed, below: Victor Rohana, who heads up the middle school, and Elias Abu Ghanima, the director of the high school; and Elias AG and the Archbishop.

The Learning Center (an update).

The Learning Center has been a project for the Pilgrims of Ibillin for several years.  The Bridge Building, so named for the bridge that provides access to the top floor,


has four floors, only one of which has been used for many years.  We (speaking as a board member of the Pilgrims of Ibillin) explored the idea of turning the top three floors into a center where learning, in addition to and, in some cases different from what students learned in the Mar Elias schools, could take place.  A major issue was the cost of refurbishing the rooms in the Bridge Building.  Pilgrims of Ibillin (USA), Desktops for Peace and Ashray (UK) provided the necessary funding and work had began the last time we were here in January of 2016.  The Learning Center opened in the Fall of 2017.  The Director of the Learning Center is Badia Ghabress.  She is helped by Assim, who was the Director of the High School before Elias Abu Ghanima became director in the 2102-2013 school year.

Since the Learning Center began to offer classes, they have offered 13 different math classes, grades 5 through 9, to 99 students; 12 different English classes, grades 1 through 9, to 80 students; a Zumba class, grades 1 through 5, to 6 students; a 3D printing, grades 4 through 6, to 7 students; a correct Arabic writing class, grades 3 through 8, to 20 students (if you look at good Arabic writing, it looks like calligraphy); 7 classes in Hebrew, grades 5 through 9, to 95 students;  a class in Theater, grades 5 through 7, 12 students; a Psychometric preparation course, grades 11 and 12, 25 students (the Psychometric is a test like our S.A.T. test, the score on which has a considerable impact on University admission and standing); remedial teaching, often one on one, grades 2 through 4, 37 students; preparation for the gifted exam, grade 3, 22 students (I will write about the Gifted and Talented Program later in this blog); preparation for math exam, grade 2, 11 students; preparation for math exam, grade 3, 4 students; and a class for learning the Dabka — traditional dance, grades 4 through 9, 10 students.

These class have been offered during the 2017-2018 school year.  Some have completed, others in progress, and other just starting.  More will be offered throughout this year.  Sorry for such detail, but this is a very exciting new happening at the Mar Elias Schools, one that will only grow, we hope.


It is hard to believe that on Friday of this week, we will have been here for three weeks.  Our time has been filled with our presence in many English classes, from 9th graders to 12th graders.  In the 12 grade classes we have been helping as the students prepare for the oral part of the English Bagrut exam.  The Bagrut exams are standard exams prepared by and the administration of which is overseen by the state of Israel.  The English Bagrut exam has three parts, reading and understanding, writing, and speaking.  The students have taken the first two parts and the oral part will take place toward the end of April.

The oral part itself has two parts:  the students have to select a topic on which to complete research and write up their findings.  During the oral exam, the examiner can ask the student questions about the project, usually questions like, “what was your project? what research did you do? what did you find?”  The second part includes questions about the student, his/her family/ village/interests, etc.  When we participate in the 12th grade classes, the class is usually broken up into two groups and, if possible, one group goes into a different room and one group stays in the room.  We then proceed to question the students about their projects, asking them to respond with short sentences.  They are supposed to be able to briefly tell the inspector what their project was, what was the basic question they sought an answer to, how they did their research, and what they found.  In addition to the project, in our smaller groups — not that small really — we go around to individual students and begin asking them questions such as: what is your name? How old are you? where do you live? How many brothers/sisters do you have? Are you the oldest/youngest?  Tell me about your village, what you like about it, what you don’t like about it.  Etc.  We will continue to meet with 12 grade classes until the Spring break that begins March 28.  Students do not come back until April 10th, and, we understand most of the seniors will not meet in classes again — more on this later as we find out more about this.

Birthday Celebration

On February 11, 2018, I celebrated my 80th birthday.  Actually the celebration began on February 10 as Elias and Badia Obeid presented me with the birthday cake pictured below.2_12_18-6

It so happens that we had a group of visitors from Germany at the time.  We sat around the dinner table eating dinner and having a conversation.  When Elias brought the cake in and after the people around the table had sung “happy birthday” to me, the visitor next to me said his 70th birthday is tomorrow, February 11th.  Strange coincidence indeed!!

On Monday, we received word that a car was coming for us to bring us to the high school.  This was so we could be there in the teachers’ lounge for the 10:45 to 11:15 break period. As it turns out, Elias AG (Abu Ghanima) had arranged for birthday cakes and another birthday celebration.


Ass’ad Daoud

One of the families that we like to take visitors to meet in the village of Ibillin, is the family of Ass’ad Doud.  We met Ass’ad quite by accident early in our stay as volunteers.  We had attended the Melkite Catholic Church worship service on a Sunday morning with Audrey Porksen, a long time visitor and helper at Mar Elias from England.  After the service, we walked through the center of the village and to the Greek Orthodox Church to see it.  The worship service lasts longer there so we could not go inside.  As we were returning to the center of the village in order to walk down the hill on our return to the guest house, we were attracted by a cross carved into concrete that formed the doorway to a court yard in back of a large house.  As we approached it and were looking at it, a person appeared in the doorway and invited us into the courtyard.  We later learned his name is Majd Daoud.  We were invited to sit down and he brought us some refreshments.  We were introduced to his brother, Ass’ad.  We found out that he is an architect, but an architect also trained in the preservation and restoration of old buildings.  We also were shown the equipment, kept in very good condition, that had been used to press olives for the village and surrounding farmers up until the early 1990s.

Recently, we had a group staying in the guest house whose visit to the guest house was arranged by Rev. John Howard, the Methodist Liaison for the Methodist Church in Britain, who lives in Jerusalem.  As I usually do when we are here, I find out about visitors from Nasreen, the secretary who keeps the record for signups for the guest house, and then contact the leader by email to encourage them to go over to the Daoud home.

On the visit of the Methodist group from Britain, there was great excitement among them as Ass’ad showed them the olive press equipment that features a diesel engine manufactured in and imported from Britain, from a city with which one of the members of the group was very familiar,

Early in our conversations with Ass’ad, we also found out that the Daoud property contained the home in which Mariam Bawardi was born in the late 1840s and lived for the first few years of her life.  Ass’ad had uncovered the foundation of her home and, knowing the shape of the homes in the village in the 1840s, had reconstructed its internal shape and partially rebuilt the roof.   This became even more significant when Pope Francis canonized her on May 17, 2015.  Since we first met Ass’ad, he has further uncovered the courtyard in the back of his property and built a ramp for easy access to and from the Greek Orthodox Church.  This area is now a center for many different religious celebrations.  Before he could do any excavation, Jewish archeologists had to do some excavations just to see what might be under the property.  In fact, they found evidence of a Jewish mikvah, in Judaism, a bath used for ritual immersion to achieve purity in the time of Jesus.  In addition they found evidence of building from the Byzantine Empire and from the crusader times.

It also turns out that Ass’ad was working with Johnny Mansour, a history teacher at the Mar Elias High School, to identify, clean up, and “plaque” a grave of Agha Aqil, a strongman of northern Palestine in the 19th century, under the Ottoman Empire.  He died in 1870 and is buried in Ibillin.  There is a Wikipedia article about him,  It is well worth reading, especially since it is testament to the fact that the land was inhabited, not empty, as often cited by Zionist literature.  Johnny Mansour has done much research on Agha Aqil and is having a plaque made that will identify him and provide some basic information about him and will be place on his grave site.  Elias Obeid drove us to the Muslim cemetery where we found Ass’ad and Johnny along with three others working on a grave site to clean plants away from it, scrape dirt away from openings between stones (so no new plants could grow on the grave), and prepare the grave so cement could be added into the openings, again to prevent new growth of plants and weeds.


Forgiveness Education classes

Two of the  teachers introduced their classes to the story they will be considering in their class on forgiveness, Joseph’s Story.  See and go to the bottom of the page that shows that there is now a curriculum that uses a story about bullying as entry into a discussion with students about forgiveness.  Jane and I worked with the Dr Enright, Joan Deming and some of the English Teachers and picked this story as one that we thought would work well with the ninth graders.  Veronica is the teacher who has taken and developed the program for continuous use in the high school; we are just seeing it again now two years after we first helped to introduce this curriculum using this story.


MEEI Campus Map -- FINALtext.jpg

Using the map above, the window of our room on the top floor (5th) of the Mariam Bawardi Elementary School looks toward the West, toward Haifa and Mt Carmel.  When we go up to the roof where we wash and dry our clothes, we can look South, up the hill.  The hill is covered with olive trees, some very old.  In addition, from time to time, we can see a shepherd with his sheep and goats, however a modern day shepherd complete with his cell phone.


If we look down from our window early in the morning we can see the younger elementary students lining up before entering the school at 8:00 in the morning.  They arrive and begin their vigorous and loud play beginning shortly after 7:00 am..


Looking west is always interesting, cloud formations, sunsets, and rainy days.


Day Off

On Friday, February 16th, we were picked up at 8:30 in the morning by Sabah, a high school math teacher.  She drove us to the Ibillin intersection (a location near Ibillin where there is a large gas station and many different roads intersect).  Here we moved to the car of our friend, Amal, a chemistry teacher at the high school and the teacher who came in the summer of 2015 with 9 students from the high school to participate in the Model UN program at Stony Point, NY, and then to Bound Brook for a few days, and were also joined by Eman, a high school counselor, five of us all together.  Our day was to be spent, first visiting Amal’s parents and other family members in Jaljuliya and then go with two of Amal’s sisters to the old city of Jaffa and also to the port of Tel Aviv.

From the book, Palestine Remembered the information provided below is about the city of Jaljuliya up to 1945,  when its occupants were forced out of their homes by terrorist Zionist forces, and as shown in the table, most of their land usurped, with no compensation to this day.


Amal first drove us around Jaljuliya, pointing first to this home and then another, identifying each home with a brother, sister, aunt, uncle, or cousin.  We then arrived at her parents home.  Her mother and father are similar in age to Jane and me, and they appear in very good health.  We sat briefly in one room and then were ushered into another room set up for breakfast.


Hummus, Tabbouleh, Falafel, Baba Ghanoush, a spinach dish, slices of bread with a za’atar spread on top and underneath folded turkey and topped with a tomato, pita bread (the pita bread at in the markets at home is not to be compared with the pita bread here), plenty of olives, and a large piece of bread spread with za’atar and spinach mix.  After a FULL breakfast, we moved back into the room in which we originally sat and more treats were brought out, and of course, Arabic coffee. Two kinds of breads with special fillings, strawberries, chocolates, ice cream and a tray of fruit and slices of fennel.  We felt that we could not eat any more that day.


On to Jaffa.  We drove into the old city of Jaffa and parked and then began to walk.

From the top of the walk, we could see the port of Tel-Aviv

We walked back down along the port of Jaffa . . .

Intriguing sights along the ways:

And we ended up walking along the port of Tel Aviv

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and then stayed there for dinner

Saturday night, February 17th

While at the high school during the day, Sabah asked us if we were free to go to a concert that night.  Her daughter, Aseel, whom we knew from previous stays at the school, suggested to her that we might like the concert.  She was singing as part of the chorus.  We said yes, so at 7 pm we were picked up by Sabah and her husband, Hannah.  We drove to a concert hall in Haifa.  The music was being presented by Karawan, directed by Nabeeh Awwad, whom we knew quite well from our previous stays and from some concerts I helped coordinate between Nabeeh and a large music group from Sweden.  It was a most delightful concert. We couldn’t understand the words, but the music was most enjoyable and as part of the concert, small humorous skits were thrown in between the songs, most of the skits drawing on and  making fun of their own culture.  Until I made the video, I did not notice how much involved the young kid sitting in front of us was, he was conducting along with Nabeeh.


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.”

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 ( 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 (  The presentation of Archbishop Chacour can be seen at  The presentations of the three teachers can be viewed by going to this link (

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.






On Monday, an early good sign, a rainbow spotted by Jane over Mt. Carmel.


After breakfast we walked down to the high school in great anticipation.  The journey to the high school is described and shown in the images that follow:


We exit the elementary school building, walk across the elementary school playground, and go past the old guest house (top floor).


On our left as we walk past the old guest house, is the middle school.


Next we walk down the hill to the area in which students for the elementary and middle school are dropped off and picked up (in the distance is the Church of the Sermon on the Mount).  The area is also used for sport activities.


We leave the large open space to the left and then start down several flights of stairs until we reach the road that goes past the gym (see first image below) and into another open area where students for the high school are dropped off and picked up.


After passing the gym, we turn left down another road.  At the bottom of this road we turn left and there in front of us is the high school (this is the easy part of the trip, the return trip is all uphill!!).  As we neared the bottom of the road to reach the high school, we see an image, or series of images painted along the wall.  You can see it from the angle going down the hill in the series of images above.  Below is the same image taken from a different angle.


Even as we approached the entrance to the high school, we began to see teachers and workers, old friends at the schools, and were greeted warmly by them.  As we walked into the high school, more greetings and then into the teachers’ lounge where the teachers gather before class and “hang out” during the day when they are not in the classroom, even more greetings complete with hugs, Arabic style.

Brief digression — introduction to high school at Mar Elias.

There are 87 teachers at the high school not all of whom are considered full time.  Full time teachers are required to be at the school by 8:00 and stay until 3:00.  Teachers meet with their classes at varying times during the school week, which is Monday — Thursday, and Saturday.  Teachers move from classroom to classroom, students stay in the same class room for most of their classes, except when they have labs.  Graphic arts and computer classes are also in separate classrooms.  The school day for the high school starts at 8:30. Classes are 45 minutes.  So the class schedule is: 8:30-9:15; 9:15-10:00; 10:00-10:45; break 10:45-11:15; 11:20-12:05; 12:05-12:50; 12:50-1:00 break; 1:00-1;45; 1:45-2:30.  For some classes, they meet two periods in a row.  In ninth grade, the students are a heterogeneous mix regarding academic ability.  Ninth grade is a sorting out time for the students concerning their academic abilities and interests.  At the end of their freshman year, the students are grouped in two ways: according to their choice of a subject matter in which they want to specialize; and then according to academic ability into three levels, level 5, highest academic ability; level 4, next highest academic level; and level 3, lowest academic level.  Given that the school is selective in the students admitted, level 3 students are academically competent, but not as competent as their peers at levels 4 and 5.

Maisa Dahbor is the head English teacher, so after greeting her along with the other English teachers we knew, we talked with her about how we could be of most help in the English classes.  We found out that the oral part of the English Bagrut exams will take place in March.  The Bagrut exams are statewide exams in every subject that students take in high school.  There are six Bagrut exams that are required of all students in the Palestinian schools: Arabic, Hebrew, English, Math, Civics, and History.  In addition each student takes Bagrut exams based on their special subject major.  These exams are taken at various times during the senior year.  The seniors have already taken the written and reading parts of the English Bagrut exam.  So we agreed with Maisa that this is one area in which we can be of help, having done some of this with students when we were here before.  So we have been in 9 different classes over the past three days.  Usually the teacher divides the class into two groups, we form into two circles, Jane sitting with one and me with the other.  For the oral exam, there are two parts: one part is focused on questions about the project each senior is to complete on an issue selected by the student   and on which the student has done research and written up his/her findings; a set of questions more personal in nature that the question asks the student, questions like: “tell me about yourself, how old you are, how many brothers/sisters you have, are you the oldest, youngest etc.  There are a whole set of possible questions available online that have been used in the past that the students can obtain and use to practice.  However, the main thing about what we try to do is to get each student to actually use English and speak to us as if we were the questioner for the Bagrut exam.

Two new parts of the Mar Elias campus.  On Wednesday, I visited the Learning Center and the Fitness Center.  Both of these centers are in existence through the efforts of the Pilgrims of Ibillin, the nonprofit US organization through whom Jane and I volunteer.  We are also members of the Board of Directors of the Pilgrims of Ibillin.

The Learning Center is accessed off to the left of the large open space shown below.



The image below shows the whole campus from the elementary school on the right to the Church of the Sermon on the Mount on the left.  As mentioned in the previous blog, the image in front is the high school.  The building with one story in red, to the left of the high school, is the building whose top three stories were renovated to become the learning center.


Upon entering the building you see the acknowledgement of the groups whose support made possible the renovation of this building to make it a magnificent place, now known as the Learning Center — MEII.



A computer class in the learning center.  There are 8 rooms in the three stories of the learning center, one of which has still to be renovated and will become two rooms once renovated.  There are over 200 student who come at least once a week for additional learning opportunities.  In addition, in two of the rooms, smaller spaces are provided for one on one help for student with learning disabilities.

Walking back up to the guest house after taking a picture of he high school, I saw that the fitness center was open, another project of the Pilgrims of Ibillin (see


I walked in and was shown around the facility.  It is well equipped with weights and exercise machines including two ellipticals, so I will be able to get some exercise using these machines.


I walked back up all of those steps and the other hills and returned to the guest house in time for a beautiful sunset over Mt Carmel.


and even a little bit later, the full moon.


It has been a little more than two year since we were last in Ibillin at the Mar Elias schools. We are returning at this particular time so we can spend three months as volunteers, during which time the wedding of Ruba, the daughter of Salha, one of our closest friends, will take place, and also so we can return in time to be with our granddaughter, Paulina, and our grandson, Justin, as they graduate from college and high school respectively.

We were many days packing and finally finished the day before departure, except for a few last items not planned to be packed until the morning of the day we were to leave.
We are able to leave our house this time for three months because we have Jon Adams house sitting for us. In the past our son, Eric, and his partner, Nick, were living in our house. Jon is a senior at Kane University in New Jersey and the son of a teacher at Middlesex High School whom Jane knew when she taught there. He is also active with the youth in our Presbyterian Church.

Steve Yacik picked us up shortly before 12 noon and we were on our way to the airport in plenty of time to go through the extra long lines for checking in and then another security check in at the gate for our flight, as is the practice for flights to Israel.
After a long flight without much sleep, we arrived safely in Tel Aviv.  The security check in had long lines so it took us almost an hour to get through that and then pick up our luggage and go out to meet the person sent to drive us to Ibillin and the guest house at the Mar Elias Schools.  Nazeh was holding a sign that said Mar Elias on it, so I quickly found him and we were soon loaded into his car and on our way.  I asked how long it would take to get to Ibillin. He did not understand English so I pointed to my watch and said Ibillin.  He quickly brought up WAZE and it showed we would arrive at 12:35, about a two hour drive.  He drove along at a very good pace and I kept looking at the WAZE and our predicted arrival time — it kept getting earlier and earlier.  We finally arrived just about 12 noon.  We had help from Bishara,  one of the workers at the schools, getting our luggage out of the car, into the elevator, and up to the 4th floor and then into our room, the one we have stayed in since our first time here in November of 2011.

Introduction to Ibillin and Mar Elias.

Ibillin is located in the North of Israel about 15 miles east of Haifa, the same distance from Akko and also from Nazareth. Akko to the northwest and Nazareth to the southeast of Ibillin. Ibillin is located in the beginning of the mountainous region called the Galilee and is just where mountains begin. From our windows, looking west, we can see Haifa and Mt Carmel. Mt Carmel is part of a mountain range that runs southeast from Haifa.


The campus of the Mar Elias Educational Institutions is laid out in the diagram as shown below:

MEEI Campus Map -- FINALtext.jpg

Here is what it looks like from the air:


Building #9 is the Mariam Bawardi Elementary School and the top floor is the guest house. The guest house has 15 rooms, however, for most purposes use is made of the 11 rooms that enter into a large area used for meetings and for serving meals. There is also a kitchen where Badia, the cook, holds forth on excellent meals.

From the center of Ibillin, the campus looks like this


The large building in the front with the red roof is the high school (# 5 in the diagram above). It was originally build as a four story building and then two more floors were added to one part of the original building. Behind the high school, looking almost connected to it (not the one with one story in red), is the gym (#4 in the diagram above). Behind that and sticking out to the left is the bridge building (has the one story in red) that has a health center, a guard station, and more recently a renovated top floor that is the new learning center — more about this later. Behind the high school and not visible in this picture is building #6, the library, the Archbishop’s office, his secretary’s office, and a room in which the Archbishop often meets with guests. The building that is directly behind the high school, building #7 is the middle school. This was the original high school. The building furthest to the right, building #9 is the Mariam Bawardi Elementary School. The top floor is the guest house, already described above. Furthest to the left as you look at the picture, building #1 is the Church of the Sermon on the Mount and the Niwano Auditorium (more about his later also). Building #2, Abuna Chacour’s home is hidden behind the tall evergreen trees, between the trees and the church building.

The picture below was taken from the roof on the elementary school looking toward the village center.


As you can see, Ibillin is a village set on many hills. If you can enlarge the image, the Melkite Church steeple (a round dome shaped steeple) is under the lower case “c” in church. The kindergarten is the building behind the word church. The campus itself requires walking on some steep hills especially for anyone walking to the campus up the road indicated on the diagram above that is used for vehicle traffic leaving the campus in the afternoon. However this is the way most of the students who walk to campus from the village enter the school grounds.

A series of images follow that give you an idea of entering on the road shown in the diagram as the one used by traffic in the afternoon to leave the campus and during the day for entering and exiting.


This is the road leading up to the gate where there will usually be a guard. The building directly behind the gate is the building housing the library, Abuna Chacour’s office, his secretary’s office and a room in which he meets with visitors.


Just after going through the gate the road splits: to the right takes you up to the space labeled on the diagram as Middle and Elementary school traffic. As you can see it is quite steep. When we first started volunteering at the school, this was used as the entrance. In the coldest and wettest of days, many cars could not make it up this hill. Now entrance for all traffic at the beginning and end of the school days comes in from the other end of the campus, a much less steep grade. In this set of pictures we will take the right fork and go on up the hill, we will return to the other fork in another blog.


This image takes you to the top of the road. On the right, the orange colored object is the gate that opens to another road taking you to the middle school and the elementary school.


This is the open space at the top of the road in which elementary and middle school parents drop off and pick up their kids. The entrance to this area for morning traffic is from the other end. It is also used for sport classes. At the far end is the Church of the Sermon on the Mount, and in between the trees is the home of Abuna Chacour. The fencing along the right and the gate you will see in the next picture were built because of the rush of youth and children down the hill after school. This provides control of their access to the area for being picked up after school.



This gives you a picture of the road going up to the middle and elementary schools, the fencing and gate to control the rush of students down the hill to the area where parents meet the after school so no student gets run over, as we saw almost happen before the fencing and gate were built. The tall building to the right is the middle school. There is also a kindergarten that meets on the lower floor, the area just behind the trees.


This is the road that goes up to the middle and elementary schools. The building behind the middle school is the old guest house (still used for large crowds) and changing rooms for sports for the middle school students.


On the left, top story is the old guest house, middle story, changing rooms for middle school student sports. On the right is a ramp going up to the entrance to the middle school. In the distance is the Mariam Bawardi elementary school.


This is the original high school, the building of which you can read about in Archbishop Chacour’s book, Blood Brothers. It is now the middle school — 7th and 8th grades.


Loaves and fishes at the base of the steps going up to the old guest house rooms. Only four loaves, because, as the Archbishop says, we are the fifth loaf to be given for the world.


This the Mariam Bawardi elementary school and guest house. You can see five floors and from the back you can see six, the basement floor is the sports floor. Also there is a playground behind the school building. On the far right there is a separate entrance, closed during the school day so the students do not use it. Right inside the door is an elevator. This is the entrance and exit for the guest house. The elevator is for use by teachers, and for guests staying in the guest house on the top floor.

This should give you an idea of some of the campus. After we have walked down to the high school, I will take you on that walk through another series of images.