Melisse Lewine-Boskovich believes that theater has the power to change people's opinions about the world around them. When she works with Jewish and Arab teens from Israel on such projects, she's certain that it has the power to close the gap between cultures torn apart by hatred.
Lewine-Boskovich is the director of Peace Child Israel, a nonprofit group based in Tel Aviv that uses theater to teach understanding and tolerance to Israeli Arabs and Jews while they're still young.
"The use of theater and improv role-playing allows for subconscious material to come to the conscious - material that would not come through clear when sitting and talking," said Lewine-Boskovich, a Philadelphia native who has returned to the area with a group of 14- to 16-year-olds from PCI.
While in town from Jan. 15 to Jan. 24, the young actors have a busy schedule: They will be performing their original play, "On the Other Side," five times, culminating in a Jan 20. show at the Congregation Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia.
In the play - featuring seven Jews and 11 Arabs - a small problem in the fictional country of "Aden" snowballs into a major catastrophe, and the city is split apart by a wall. As years go by, kids are taught that monsters live on the other side, and that they should keep away. In the end, however, the wall is torn down, and one person from each group helps to rebuild the city.
On Jan. 21, the Israeli troupe will join American children on stage at the National Constitution Center to perform two peace anthems - one written by PCI teens in 2000, and another written by artists from Philadelphia.
During their time here, the kids will be staying with host families from Mishkan Shalom, Temple Bnai Ore in Morristown, N.J., and the Betty and Milton Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill, N.J.
Gil Raz, 14, enjoys acting with her Arab counterparts and respects them for joining a program dedicated to peace.
"They are my friends, like any other friends I have," said the resident of Tel Aviv. "I appreciate that they came to this program to talk with us and be honest with us about their feelings. It's hard to do that."
Before starting with Peace Child, Hiba Slaila, a 16-year-old Arab from Jaffa, felt the Jews were the enemy. "I thought they hate Arab people and want to hurt them," she admitted.
After working and studying with Jewish kids, she now realizes the similarities between the two cultures, and the importance of coexistence.
Lewine-Boskovich explained that her goal "is a state of Israel that has better implementation of equal rights between two people. There is discrimination of the Arab sector in Israel. It's never good to have a discriminated minority; it'll [only] blow up."
After working with PCI, creating and acting in plays, Raz said she realizes the challenges of working with people of another culture: "One community thinks this way, one thinks that way, but it's important for us to do that."
Lewine-Boskovich applauded her group's effort, acknowledging that "it's not easy, it's not comfortable. "That's what makes these kids heroes."