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Mennonite originated schools in Holy Land remain a strong witness


Palmer Becker’s students in the Pastoral Care and Conflict Resolution course at Bethlehem Bible College. (l-r) Mirna Zeineh, Grace Al-Zoughbi, Palmer Becker, Rula Haddad, Yusef Ijha, Manal Zarrouk, Nader Jarayseh

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September 4, 2009
- Palmer Becker

Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont. — Three schools with Mennonite roots continue to have a powerful influence in the conflicted Palestine/Israel region – and around the world. More than 100 students received graduating diplomas from these schools this year.

“After the 1967 war, my parents sent me to the Mennonite school in Hebron,” said Jonathan Esawi, a graduate of Hebron Christian School. Esawi is now a pastor and an instructor at Bethlehem Bible College. “I lived in the boarding section for three years. At the school I was introduced to the Bible and to my personal faith in Jesus.”

Other notable graduates include Dr. Mohammed Shadid, who served as Director of the Palestine National Fund and is author of The United States and the Palestinian; Dr. Walid Sharif is Principal of an international school in Bonn, Germany and editor of The Arab Gulf States and Japan.

In 1954, twin sisters Ida and Ada Stoltzfus – originally of Elverson, Pa., opened a Mennonite school in Hebron – about 20 miles south of Jerusalem. They first established a home for orphans and impoverished children from surrounding villages. Alain Epp Weaver of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) wrote in Salt and Sign, Mennonite Central Committee in Palestine, 1949-1999, “what Ida and Ada Stolzfus did in Hebron, Palestine in 1954, was education on the frontier.” The orphanage soon became accredited as a primary school. Students were supported by funds from MCC’s sponsorship program.

“The irrepressible twins ran the school with great gusto,” writes Weaver in Salt and Sign. “They bandaged cuts, made beds, coordinated the teaching staff, told Bible stories at daily chapels and took the children to church and Sunday school in nearby Bethlehem.”

Hebron – an unlikely location for a Christian school – is mostly known as a place of conflict between newly arrived Israeli settlers and the long-term local Muslim population, who consider Hebron a holy city. Resistance to Christianity is very high in Hebron. I am told that there is not a single resident Christian in Hebron nor any Christian congregation in this city of 200,000 – despite the long term presence of Christian schools.

However, Hebron Christian School continues to radiate a positive witness in the community and beyond. More than 1200 students have graduated since its inception. The alumni are scattered throughout the Holy Land and the world, serving as teachers, pastors, business people and diplomats.

Greg Doolittle, the current principal, said that the Hebron Christian School is still often referred to as “The Mennonite School.” Three hundred and thirty students were enrolled this year, with 40 6th graders completing their studies at the school.

Five acres of land have been purchased with the goal of building a new campus. It has taken three years to obtain a building permit.

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In 1962 MCC workers opened Hope Mennonite School in a spacious building originally intended to be a hospital in Beit Jala, a sister village to Bethlehem. This school gained a wide and positive reputation for its emphasis on commerce, ethics and peace.

In 2009, more than 100 students attended the preparatory school, with 28 graduating. More than 600 Palestinian youth have received their high school diplomas from Hope.

I discovered that Hope School alumni can be closer than one might think. Conversing with a labourer in the garden at Bethlehem Bible College, I mentioned my friendship with David Osborne, currently an instructor at Hesston College. “David Osborne!” exclaimed the man. “He was my headmaster [at Hope]. He was the best!”

Hope School is now under the administration of the Arab Charitable Society of Beit Jala, but local taxi drivers still know it as “The Mennonite School.” Salomon Nour, who has served as principal for 30 years, continues to identify himself as a Mennonite.

* * *

In 1979, a third school, Bethlehem Bible College (BBC), was begun in a classroom of Hope School. Dr. Bishara Awad – who was the first Palestinian headmaster of Hope school – is passionate about training workers for Christian ministry. Awad – a graduate of Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno, Calif, – his wife Selwa, and his brother, Alex and wife Brenda, have been key to the formation of BBC.

BBC is a non-denominational school with about 70 students at its Bethlehem campus and another 70 at its extension site in the Galilee area. Students from various evangelical as well as Greek Orthodox and Catholic backgrounds come to train as teachers, pastors, counsellors, youth directors, media workers and tour guides. Many have gone on to pursue advanced degrees in order to better serve their local communities.

Perhaps the closest thing to a Mennonite school in the Middle East, BBC maintains a strong emphasis on themes important to Mennonite Christians, such as Bible study, Christian service and peace. It is accredited through the Middle East Association of Theological Education and the Palestinian Council of Higher Education.

Palmer Becker is a retired pastor from Kitchener, Ont. who served as a visiting lecturer at Bethlehem Bible College from January to June, 2009. His wife, Ardys, served as assistant to the librarian. In the spring of 2010, the Palmer Becker will leave for another assignment that will take him to Vietnam, Hong Kong, Macau, and South Korea. Contributions in support of this assignment can be sent to Mennonite Church Canada, designated for “Palmer Becker.”

Dr. Bishara Awad will visit Southern Ontario in early November, 2009. For schedule details, contact Palmer Becker via email,, or call 519 576-2090.

Sidebar: President of Bethlehem Bible School to visit

Ontario Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont. — Mennonite church workers in Ontario have invited Dr. Bishara Awad, President of Bethlehem Bible School, to visit. He will speak in Kitchener-Waterloo on Nov. 8, on the theme, “Building Bridges, Not Walls” at Rockway Collegiate Institute. On Nov. 11, he will present to students and faculty at Conrad Grebel University College.

“We are seeking to train and prepare Christian servant-leaders for the churches and society within an Arab context,” reports Awad. “We want them to model Christ centeredness, Godly humility, biblical wholeness, creative mercy and justice in their jobs and ministries as life-long learners.”

On June 12, 2009, Bethlehem Bible College celebrated 30 years of ministry. Forty-one students proudly walked across the stage to receive their bachelor degrees in Church Ministries, Media Ministries or Tour Guide Ministries. Board members from England, Canada and the United States gathered to celebrate with them.

Awad is keenly aware that Christians are leaving their homeland due to the ongoing complex political and religious forces. But Awad remains hopeful. “Through Bethlehem Bible College we are keeping Christianity alive in the land of the Bible.”