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Hand in Hand promotes peace education in Israel

Southwest Portlander's nonprofit builds foundation for Arab-Jewish partnerships
by: Submitted photo Southwest Portland resident Lee Gordon runs the fundraising arm of his Hand in Hand nonprofit organization out of Multnomah Village, helping maintain a network of peace education at four Israeli schools.

MULTNOMAH - From his organization's outpost in Multnomah Village, Lee Gordon is helping bridge a cultural divide a half a world away.

Gordon is the cofounder of Hand in Hand, a nonprofit organization based in Israel whose aim is to create integrated schools for Arab and Jewish children as a way to build partnerships, foster coexistence and help its students overcome the conflict between the two communities.

Gordon, who holds both American and Israeli citizenship, grew up in Southeast Portland and moved to Israel initially when he was 16. For the next two decades, he moved back and forth between the two countries, attending college in California before moving to Israel permanently in the 1980s.

He still visited his parents each year, however, and moved back to Portland 12 years ago, making it home base for Hand in Hand's U.S. fundraising operations.

Gordon has lived in Southwest Portland for 10 years, and his children have attended Wilson High School and Metropolitan Learning Center in Northwest Portland.

Despite the 10,000 miles between Portland and Israel, however, the connection between the two communities is strong.

'What goes on there has a pretty important influence and impact on what goes on (here), even though people don't know (as much) about the internal affairs in Israel,' Gordon said. 'I think Americans don't know enough about the wider world sometimes, and there's sometimes a lot of misconceptions.'

Israel is the focus of world attention for its role in Judaism, Christianity and Islam as well as its political role in the Middle East conflict, its connections with the U.S. government and its high-tech industries, he explained.

Twenty percent of Israelis are Arab, and 80 percent are Jewish, Gordon said, and the dynamic between the two faiths has a strong influence on the country's population.

'There's a real divide between those communities, even though what people mostly hear of is the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in conflict the Israelis; or Iran, who is threatening Israel; or Israel, who is occupying the West Bank and setting up settlements,' he said. 'But the internal divide is really important too and affects day-to-day life in Israel profoundly.

'We attempting to help bridge that divide in a way, and education is a good place to start.'

Gordon founded Hand in Hand in 1997 along with Amin Khalaf, an Israeli Arab educator.

Previously, Gordon had worked on smaller projects to aid in the reconciliation effort, but he was inspired to form more serious partnerships once he began a fellowship as part of his postgraduate studies.

Building the organization from the ground up, Gordon and Khalaf started their original school in Jerusalem in 1998 with 50 enrolled students and have since added three more to their ranks throughout Israel.

Currently, more than 1,000 students are enrolled in Hand in Hand's schools, where they are taught in integrated, bilingual classrooms, and the organization's first class graduated high school last June.

'Those students are able to articulate who they are and how their school has impacted their lives, which I think is also a real sign or testament to the success of the model and what we're trying to do,' Gordon said.

Aside from students' testing results, Gordon said the schools progress can be measured in the interest that's been generated by parents and educators in cities without integrated schools.

He said the organization is working to expand into other communities in the future.

Fifty percent of the schools' budgets are raised privately, and so fundraising remains a constant function of Hand in Hand. To aid in this effort, Gordon said he's had several student volunteers from Wilson High School assist with tasks at the organization's Multnomah Village office, including organizing mailings and performing research and data collection.

'These (tasks) are important for us, because we're raising support here that's really necessary to keep the schools going,' he said.

He added that people who visit Israel can volunteer in Hand in Hand's schools and see the result of their work directly.

Last year, Portlanders were also able to hear about Hand in Hand's educational model when a group of seventh- to ninth-graders participated in a reciprocal exchange with Metropolitan Learning Center.

'This is something that I think can be really inspiring for people from a lot of backgrounds,' Gordon said. 'It's a small project, but it's a real pearl of a project.'

To learn more about Hand in Hand and its volunteer opportunities, visit www.handinhandk12.org or call 503-892-2962.