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posted: 1/11/2013 5:00 AM

Building hope for collaboration in Israel

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By Susan Drinan

Standing atop Israel's Mount of the Precipice, it's easy to believe that anything is possible. Its sweeping views of the Jezreel Valley, Mount Tabor and other Galilean sights simply inspire awe. As I stood there recently for Nazareth Academic Institute's cornerstone ceremony, I felt hope that someday soon we as an institution might be away from the figurative precipice as we expand into this new space.

As the chairman of the Wheaton-based Nazareth Academic Institute's international board of trustees, I have wondered many times if the college would really survive. It is no exaggeration to say that much of our work has been an act of faith.

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Two years ago, NAI opened the doors at its current rented site in the city of Nazareth. The college had reshaped itself after six years of operation in the small Galilee village of Ibillin. It had transitioned from a branch campus to an independent institution and had grown from its roots in a consortium of parochial schools to more fully embrace its multicultural ideals. NAI is supposed to be the school in Nazareth that will educate everyone, providing higher education for the community's Arab students while welcoming students from around Israel and around the world. It is the only college jointly managed by Israel's Arab (Christian and Muslim) and Jewish citizens.

Despite such a wonderful mission, NAI has received little support from the Israeli government and has had to rely on private donations for its entire existence. The only academic college located in an Arab community, it is also the only one of the seven Galilee colleges that does not receive public funding. The injustice of it still baffles me.

But we hope this cornerstone ceremony marks a turning point. After all, the ceremony itself was made possible by more layers of collaboration than I can count, including the Nazareth municipality, the Israeli minister of the Interior, our local nonprofit organization that manages the campus, a governing council of Christian and Muslim Arab and Jewish academics, the Israeli Council for Higher Education, our international board of trustees and a major donor. This is the cooperative spirit we work to instill in our students, and I hope it is an indication of our future.

And so on Dec. 12 we counted down to 12 seconds past noon. Then a group of representatives made the cornerstone, each of us putting a small shovel of cement into the form. I was proud to be a part of what began as a dream many years ago.

It is just one step in the process, one foundation stone, but it is also a feeling that finally we have been able to build something tangible. That after years of struggle, we have been able to put down a foundation. Suddenly our very existence seems like a permanent reality, on the precipice still, but not teetering on the edge.

In September 2013, 28 students will form the first graduating class of NAI. They are all from Israel's Arab community, and almost all of them are women. It sounds like a very modest achievement, at best, and in some ways it is. But here is a point of perspective: Harvard University, the place that has educated presidents, had only nine students in its first graduating class. Who can say what our small start will eventually become and what our little cornerstone holds for the future?

Just being on the Mount of the Precipice in the Advent season and knowing the significance it holds was, in itself, an awe-inspiring experience. But to know that the future we have worked so hard for will unfold here is almost unimaginable.

• Susan Drinan chairs the board of trustees for Nazareth Academic Institute, a Wheaton-based nonprofit organization. Visit www.nazareth.ac.il for more information.

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