In the News

The Oregonian
April 4, 2010
Israeli Youth Spread Message of Peace with Portland Peers

The teens and tweens joking and laughing in the dining room at the YMCA's Camp Collins Saturday afternoon looked like any other damp-haired Oregon kids in their faded jeans, scruffy hoodies and muddy shoes. 

Unless you knew half of them were visiting from Israel, you wouldn't think something unusual was taking place over turkey-and-cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. At nearly every table, Israeli Arabs sat beside Jewish schoolmates -- pairings that would be unusual in their highly segregated home country.

Which is why 21 youths -- 15 girls and six  boys primarily in middle-school grades -- are spending roughly two weeks  in the Portland area spreading a message of peace. They come from a school in Jerusalem that aims to integrate two groups violently opposed. 

The Camp Collins visitors, who spent the morning and afternoon on a challenge course in rainy woods unlike any in Israel, attend a school operated by the Hand in Hand Center,  a program started 13  years ago by Portland native Lee Gordon.

Gordon's goal, shared with co-founder Amin Khalaf, was to create a good school that would draw the attention of parents, a bilingual school where Arabs and Jews would learn together. Along the way, the founders hope kids will come to understand their cultural and religious differences and perhaps someday help make peace in a troubled part of the world. 

Gordon, 53, grew up in Portland but studied in Israel as a teenager and returned there for graduate school. He earned a master's degree in social work from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem  and lived in the country for 20  years. Now he serves as the program's fundraiser and lives in Portland with his wife and two younger children. A third child is in college. 

Though the four Hand in Hand schools are public schools -- viewed like charter schools here, Gordon says -- students there pay about $1,500 to attend. The Israeli government gives some money, but other funds come from private donors.

The Israeli students have spent a week with host families from the Metropolitan Learning Center, where Gordon's middle son goes to school. The visitors have made friends, shared their experience, spoken with students in lower grades and answered all sorts of questions about what it's like to live in a society fiercely divided. 

Two years ago, when the school moved locations, the words "Death to Arabs" appeared on a nearby building. Eighth-grader Mais Ershied, 13, an Arab student, was horrified. So were her Jewish classmates and friends. 

The students say they think the majority of Israelis disapprove of the integrated school, but few people have reacted the way the person who painted the words on the building did. 

The history of both groups is taught in the school, Gordon says, but just because the students are led to empathize with one another, it doesn't mean they always see eye to eye. 

Outside school, some students say they do a lot of explaining. Arian Shermak, a 15-year-old  ninth-grader who describes herself as an Israeli-American Jew, has been at the Hand in Hand school for two years. 

"People say 'Why do you do it?' and 'You're stupid to do it,'" she says. "But after we discuss it, they say, 'OK, that's cool.'" 

Arab student Amira Hossin, a 16-year-old 11th-grader,  has been at Hand in Hand since pre-school and will be in the first graduating class next year. The school has shaped her outlook, she says. 

As a small child, she saw no difference between herself and her Jewish classmates except for language. As a ninth-grader, she fully understood the deep differences between their cultures. By then, however, she saw her Jewish peers not as potential enemies, but close friends from school. 

The future may be the judge of the school's success, yet Gordon is convinced the program has made a difference in the lives of students and their families. He cites as example the bar mitzvah recently of one Jewish student. Eleven Arab school friends attended. 

"If I say my goal is peace in the Middle East, that sounds a little Utopian, but dialogue is important in and of itself at any moment," Gordon says. "People might say it's naive, it's a drop in the bucket. There's a point to saying that, but that leads to cynicism. This is an antidote to cynicism. Anybody can say there'll never be peace, just go buy a big-screen TV and forget it. One of my goals is to instill in kids the idea that things can be better." 

The Israeli students depart for their homeland Thursday.

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