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Mother's Day in Israel Brings Together American Jewish Teens and Israeli Arabs

May 20, 2015
Adam H. Brill, Director of Communications
212-879-9305 x222
       By: Darryl Egnal

AMHSI Interfaith p1.jpg

Staff and students from AMHSI and Q Schools (L-R back): Madeleine Levin, Giselle Etessami, Pegah Etessami, Orit Rome (AMHSI Co-CEO, far back), Rona Melnik, Dr Dalia Fadila, Mai Azem, Amina Aiad, Shadi Azen (founding Teacher at Q Schools), (front) Hamid Fadila and Cody Doll.

Mai Azem, a 16-year-old Arab Israeli, had never met an American teenager. And until she joined the Q School in Tira, an Arab city in central Israel, she wouldn’t have been able to have a conversation with one either. 

Thanks to Q Schools, an after-school English-enrichment program for Arab youth, and an interfaith evening arranged by the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI) this past Mother’s Day, she managed to converse with American Jewish students, get to know them, and exchange personal information.

“It’s so cool to find another girl from another culture, another country, who likes the same things as you do and you can talk about them,” said Mai. “We learned about each other and developed an understanding about the others in the group, and we got to know each other better. It was very exciting.”

Mai was one of 120 high school students (80 American Jews and 40 Israeli Muslims) who attended the dinner event at the Mosenson Youth Village, home to AMHSI, a pluralistic, college-prep, international semester abroad program for high school students. The idea for the event was conceived by AMHSI, who invited students from the Q School in Tira to participate in a dialogue between the teens. 

According to Rona Melnik, a senior staff member at AMHSI, the aim of the AMHSI semester-in-Israel program is to expose the foreign students to the fabric of Israeli society and enable them to be active members of Israeli society while they’re in the country.

“We were looking for opportunities to introduce our students to other people of different faiths – Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Bedouin, Druze – and this idea was born,” said Rona.

Held on Mother’s Day – it was a fitting day to show that every mother’s child is the same and deserves equal education and opportunities for growth and development.

“We created a connection through Jewish National Fund with this incredible woman, Dalia Fadila, who started a chain of schools in 2008 called the Q Schools,” Rona said. “Her motto is, ‘Today’s reader, tomorrow’s leader.’ Her idea is to expose the Arab minority to English, and she realized that by teaching them English, you can change their reality. So it’s non-political and doesn’t have anything to do with the complicated political dynamics here; it’s just an opportunity to learn English and to create future leaders within the local Arab community.”

This is not the first time Q Schools have been involved in such an event. Dr. Dalia Fadila, a professor of English, believes this type of event is an essential part of her students’ education.

“Each year, we have a Jewish-Arab program because it’s part of who we are. The philosophy of our Q Schools is to enable our kids to grow as optimistic, open-minded, very educated, and independent learning individuals. It’s about knowing ourselves through the other and having an interfaith, cross-cultural interaction, which is part of being a better human being,” said Dalia.

At the start of the evening, Hamid Fadila, one of the school’s first students and also Dalia’s son, spoke on behalf of the Q Schools. 

“It’s our very great honor to be here as your guests here and hopefully we’ll have a lot of fun and we’ll discuss a lot of things that we teenagers have in common,” he said. “Q Schools was developed not only to learn English, but also to develop a new generation in the society that we live in.”

New Yorker, Madeleine Levin (17), made introductions on behalf of AMHSI.

“We have spent the past four months learning about this country inside and out; everything from King David to this year’s election,” she said. “We have traveled everywhere from the Golan in the north all the way to Eilat in the south. We’ve spent nights in Jerusalem and Tzfat, experiencing different Jewish traditions. We’ve gone to Poland to learn about our Jewish roots and the struggles that our grandparents and great-grandparents faced. 

“If you take a second to look around you, you are all sitting in a place full of incredible people – people who, in some ways, could not be more different from you, but, in other ways, could not be more like you. People who speak a different language, practice different religions, live in different places, and have grown up in a completely different culture; but also people who listen to the same music, watch the same movies, play the same sports, and have similar dreams to yours,” Madeleine said. 

The plan for the evening was to put Muslim and Jewish students in groups around a table and, together with a facilitator, get them to ask each other questions about their lives, their hopes and dreams, their families, their schools, their likes, dislikes, hobbies, and more.

Asked about his experience of the evening, Hamid said he felt really great about it. 

“We learned about how they live, we told each other about our traditions as Arabs, as Muslims in Israel, and they told us about themselves as Americans, as Jews, living in America,” he said. ”We spoke about living in Israel, and the process that made us who we are today.

“It was a really great opportunity to meet people outside of your lives. When you meet people from outside, you can learn a lot that could be so beneficial to you.”

Madeleine agrees. “It breaks down a lot of preconceived ideas for me. As a Jewish American, I associated a lot of things with the word or the title, ‘Arab,’ and just to sit tonight and have dinner with people my age who are Arab puts everything I had envisioned aside and sheds a whole new light.

“I learned that I have similar music tastes to some of the people at my table and while we lead very different lives, there are a lot of basic similarities in both communities. They laugh at the same jokes, they listen to the same music, and they play the same sports that we like to play. At the end of the day, we all find happiness in similar places,” she said.

Giselle Etessami (15) from Los Angeles brought her mother Pegah, who was visiting her in Israel, to the interfaith event to give her mother a taste of this life-changing experience.

AMHSI Interfaith event p2.jpg“I feel like we’ve had so many meaningful nights within the group and on the program, and I think this event definitely stands out because it’s the essence of the future of Israel,” said Giselle. “If these groups come together, find commonalities, and show respect and love towards each other, it would be great. We lead different lives as people, but if you go down into your soul, we’re really not that different.”

Her mother Pegah appreciated sharing in this very special experience.

“I had no idea that there are such programs happening to integrate the two cultures and the two religions,” she said.

“When you’re in the States and all you hear are bad things happening between the Arabs and the Jews, it’s so nice to see them all sitting here around a table and having conversations, and there’s nothing other than love and respect going on at these tables. It’s really nice to see that this is also possible.”

And through this dialogue, Giselle has discovered how one experience can make the reality look so different.

“My perspectives have changed so quickly and I need to take a second and reassess my lens on the situation. But honestly, I think what I’d say to the people back home is, ‘What you think you see is not always the reality of it, and the way to get the reality is to actually involve yourself.’ I wouldn’t tell anyone my perspective because that would be biased and I’m speaking out against bias, but I would say, ‘Before you form an opinion, get as many perspectives as possible.’”

Aubrey Isaacs, an educator at AMHSI, hopes these dialogues will become more regular so that the students can benefit fully from the opportunities.

“These meetings are very important because they enrich these kids,” he said. “You want them to discover that they’re all the same, but for it to be a truly enriching experience, they also need to explore and respect the differences. If they just walk away and see only what we have in common, they will never learn.”

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JEWISH NATIONAL FUND (JNF) began in 1901 as a dream and vision to reestablish a homeland in Israel for Jewish people everywhere. Jews the world over collected coins in iconic JNF Blue Boxes, purchasing land and planting trees until ultimately, their dream of a Jewish homeland was a reality. JNF gives all generations of Jews a unique voice in building a prosperous future for the land of Israel and its people.

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JNF is a registered 501(c)(3) organization and United Nations NGO, which continuously earns top ratings from charity overseers.

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