Last month, I had the pleasure and privilege of staying two weeks at Kemp Hall (Illinois Wesleyan University). Together with my friend and colleague, Costa Issawy, and 10 of our students, I participated in a program called Friends Forever International (FFI). Started in 1986 by Bob Raiche, Friends Forever aims at bringing youngsters from historically troubled regions, such as Northern Ireland, Israel and Uganda, together and teaching them leadership skills which they can then take to their own communities, to change the world for the better. After introductory meetings at home, the teenagers spend two weeks in Illinois or New Hampshire, and then they return to their home communities to continue working together. Alumni of the program run most of the workshops (e.g., improvisation, communication, preparing and giving speeches) and become mentors for the new participants.
During the two intense, activity-packed weeks that we spent in Bloomington-Normal, our students (five Christian Arabs, five Jews) played, danced, sang, prepared and ate dinner with youngsters at the Boys and Girls Club, spent time and shared stories with the elderly at Westminster Village, sang and danced with members of the Autism Social Group at the public library in Normal, attended prayers at the mosque in Urbana-Champaign and services at the Moses Montefiore synagogue and New Covenant Community in Normal, visited the local Hindu temple, played games at a local game store, and were hosted for dinner by several Rotarians and their families. We also visited four different Rotary clubs and were the guests of mayors Tari Renner and Chris Koos and the city councils of Bloomington and Normal. In pairs, made up of one Arab and one Jewish group member, our students told the Rotarians and the council members their stories of personal growth and involvement in their communities at home.
So what did our pupils, and what did Costa and I, take home from our two weeks’ stay in Illinois, besides all the practical skills and knowledge which we acquired and will use in the community-building phase at home in Haifa? Speaking for myself, I can say that I was highly impressed by the strong sense of community that I witnessed among our American hosts. I’ve always known that community plays a central role in American society, particularly outside the large cities, but it was inspiring to actually see and feel it. What struck me even more was the fascinating variety of Americans who we encountered. My adopted homeland, Israel, is of course also a country of immigrants, with a rich diversity of mother tongues and of religious, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, but somehow you all seem to be more united and confident of your identities than most Israelis who I know, no matter how different your personal (hi)stories and opinions. Seeing and hearing a very diverse group of men and women take the Pledge of Allegiance – at the beginning of each Rotary meeting that we attended – really moved me. To me, it seems that that combination of unity and diversity is what makes America truly great. What moved me more than anything else, though, is the fact that so many people – most of whom have never visited Israel/Palestine – are so concerned about and interested in what is going on here. It always touches me profoundly, and makes me humble and grateful, to see that we are not alone in our search for peace and true coexistence, and that we – Israelis and Palestinians, Christians, Muslims and Jews – have plenty of friends and supporters who have not yet given up on us. Therefore, on behalf of both the Sisters of Nazareth School and the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa, I would like to thank all the people of Bloomington-Normal, the mayors and councils of both towns, all our wonderful hosts and all those who work with Friends Forever International in your communities, for your heartfelt hospitality and for the friendship that you have shown us.