Haifa-Based Group Shows Philadelphia What Arab-Jewish Cooperation Can Look Like

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While many people assume Arabs and Jews can’t get along because of the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, the city of Haifa shows it can be done.

While many people assume Arabs and Jews can’t get along because of the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, the city of Haifa shows it can be done. The northern Israeli port city is also home to Beit Hagefen, a cultural center that provides programs that bring Jews and Arabs together. 
 
The chief executive officer of Beit Hagefen, Asaf Ron, along with two members of its youth program, May Ayoub and Ella Chernyak, were in Philadelphia from Oct. 29 to Nov. 2, where they discussed how the two groups are able to co-exist. They spoke at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr. The group also made appearances at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Jewish Community Services Building in Center City before concluding their trip with Shabbat at Germantown Jewish Centre.  
 
“Sometimes, people will say that it is impossible for Jews and Arabs to live together in Israel — this shows that they’re wrong,” said Rabbi Adam Zeff of GJC, who spent last year on sabbatical in Haifa, where he worked with Beit Hagefen.   
 
According to its website, beit-hagefen.com, “Beit HaGefen is a nonprofit organization that attempts to merge cultures and which strives for the creation of common and equal spaces that encompass the variety of identities and cultures in Haifa in particular and in Israel in general.” 
 
The organization was created 50 years ago as a community center, but didn’t gain much traction until five years ago, when Ron took over. He revitalized it, adding numerous programs, including arts and photography, drum lessons and dialogue and, most importantly, a youth group called Tachlis.
 
“There is an atmosphere of dialogue in Haifa,” Ron told the students at Barrack. “When you hear about things happening in Israel, you don’t read about anything in Haifa. That’s because Haifa is so unique.” 
 
Ron told the Jewish Exponent that unlike Jerusalem, Haifa is free of a “religious burden” because there is no Kotel or Temple Mount. People in Haifa not only get along, but respect each other, he explained. 
 
Ayoub, 16, comes from a mixed family — her mother is Jewish and her father is Arab; Chernyak, 17, is of Russian Jewish descent. Since joining Beit Hagefen, they have become close friends and made many new ones. 
 
The youth group, which started last year, has really made things more fun, the girls told the audience. The teens discuss movies, music and politics and often disagree, but always respect each other. 
“We argue in Tachlis and then after, we don’t forget it, but we accept it,” Chernyak said. 
 
Jeri Zimmerman, director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Center for Israel and Overseas, wishes there were more organizations in Israel like Beit Hagefen.
 
“The young women are quite impressive,” she said. “I think they demonstrate a kind of leadership in what they believe. It was interesting to hear their stories and what they’re trying to accomplish through arts and culture.”
 
Barrack students Lindsay Chevlin, co-president of the Israel Club at the school, and David Treatman, an intern with StandWithUs, helped organize the event. StandWithUs is an international nonprofit organization supporting Israel around the world. 
 
“We saw this as a great opportunity for our school to be able to present different aspects of the conflict in the Middle East and to really bring in a new perspective for all the students who have not been exposed to all of the different perspectives,” Chevlin said.
 
“It’s so important to bring not just different opinions but different ages to our school,” Treatman added. “We have never had an event even remotely like this. These two Israeli teens from different worlds living together in harmony is really a reality that we wanted to bring to our student body.” 
 
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0747  
 

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