La Salle Professor Robert Vogel Helps Jewish and Arab Students Come Together

Robert Vogel (Courtesy of Robert Vogel)

After the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas, Robert Vogel was contacted by an Israeli nonprofit organization called Debate for Peace. Its executive director, Steven Aiello, wanted the La Salle University professor emeritus to develop a program for Israeli Jewish and Arab high school students to write, discuss and process their experiences during the war.

Aiello knew of Vogel because the professor previously ran the Writers Matter program for American and Israeli students, which had one of the same donors as Debate for Peace.

Vogel said yes. As a Jewish man, he wanted to do something.

“I literally didn’t know what to do. I was making contributions. Humanitarian aid,” he said.

The professor grew up at Congregation Adath Jeshurun, a Conservative synagogue, in Elkins Park. But after moving to Philadelphia’s Art Museum District, he joined Congregation Rodeph Shalom, a Reform synagogue. Vogel remains a member at both institutions, but he says he’s more of a Reform Jew. He likes Rodeph Shalom’s community service projects that help Philadelphia schools and deal with issues such as hunger.

Vogel also sent his two kids, now 48 and 42, to the Akiba Hebrew Academy, now the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. He still sits on the school’s board of trustees today.

“I was never a religious Jew. I was more of a spiritual kind of Jewish person,” he said. “The whole charitable thing of helping others repair the world — that’s very important to me.”

Vogel designed a program with writing assignments and Zoom discussion groups. Debate for Peace, which brings together Jewish and Arab students for Model U.N. conferences, spread the word to students in its network who might be interested.

Now, the group gathers twice a week. There are 12 students. Vogel is doing something.

“We’re opening an opportunity for these students, their voice to be heard, what they’re going through, their feelings and frustrations, to write about it,” he said.

Vogel spent more than 40 years at La Salle. His main role was to train educators. But, as evidenced by his creation of Writers Matter, he also had a passion for developing the writing skills of students.

But a program such as this is not just about skills, according to Vogel. It’s about processing experiences.

“The mental condition and thought processes that these students are experiencing is critical,” Vogel said.

The students involved said the conversations were illuminating.

“I’ve never had this kind of communication with anyone from the other side,” said Maia Assaf, a 15-year-old Jewish student who lives in Herzliya.

Assaf added that it has taught her that “they’re people just like us. What the media or anyone might say is a lie. Not everyone wants war. Not everyone hates one another. There’s this wall put up between us before we get to know each other. Getting to do this has shown me that this wall needs to be broken down.”

Itzhak Peretz, a 16-year-old Jewish student who lives in Sderot, said, “We got things in common. I understand their pain. The student I worked with understood my pain. We both can know what each other feels. We’re both afraid of the other nationality. But we share the same desire for better days.”

Quds Ayoub, a 17-year-old Arab student who lives in Jerusalem, grew up in a school system for Arabs and Jews. In elementary school, her best friend was Jewish. And in this group, she has struck up a friendship with Assaf.

“Ever since I was little, I’m used to looking at them as people,” Ayoub said. “When it comes to movies or perfumes, they’re not the other side. Me and Maya can hate the same movie or love the same singer.”

“I understand that the reality is complicated. This program showed me that it’s really just a miscommunication. The lack of getting to know each other,” she added.

Vogel wants to put together a small book with the members of the group’s writings. He hopes to distribute it on social media and perhaps work with Aiello to get it published.

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