So far, three things have stood out in Klil Michelson’s mind during his first visit to the United States. One was the coffee (“Very bad,” complained the 17-year-old). Second was the hotel rooms (“Huge and with two double beds, for no reason”).

And then there was the array of questions that he and his five Arab and Jewish peers from Israel fielded from American students while recently visiting schools in Baltimore, Philadelphia and the Washington, D.C., area.

“The American students’ questions were very hard and interesting,” Klil said. “They weren’t rude at all. Not like in Israel, where all of the kids – Jewish and Arab – are rude.”

The high school students, who come from Jewish and Arab communities in the Karmiel-Misgav region, are members of a visiting delegation sponsored by the Baltimore-based Sparks of Change Foundation and organized by the International School of Oranim College of Education in northern Israel. The delegation is led by Dr. Roberta Bell-Kliger, head of the International School.

The students and their two accompanying teachers/chaperones largely paid for their own travel and touring expenses, with costs defrayed by Sparks of Change. This is the program’s second year.

The Arab students are from the Albian Academy High School in the town of Deir al-Asad, while their Jewish peers are from the nearby Misgav High School. They stay with host families while visiting each city here.

The objective of the trip – from Mar. 27 to Apr. 6 — is to promote coexistence, dialogue and fellowship between young Israeli Arabs and Jews who otherwise would likely not have met, while also educating their American counterparts about life in Israel.

“You have to start somewhere,” said Rabbi Paul D. Schneider, a project co-founder and former head of Stevenson’s Krieger Schechter Day School. “This project has the potential to change minds and influence people. It’s the most important thing I do.”

Schneider was among approximately 60 community leaders and members who attended a Mar. 30 reception for the visiting Israelis at the Pikesville residence of Dr. Everett Siegel and Janet Berg, who created the Sparks of Change Foundation in memory of their son, Daniel, who died in 2010 at age 22.

“A girl last year said this changed her life because she never knew an Arab could be so nice,” recalled Berg. “They see we’re all people and can get along while being different. This isn’t political; it’s all about dialogue. From a little spark may burst a flame.”

Dr. Desmond Kaplan, a program co-founder, echoed that sentiment while addressing reception attendees. “Daniel’s spark is spreading throughout the world,” he said. “This is not a public relations exercise to tell you how great Israel is. There are no government contributions to this project.”

Arafat Osman, a teacher/chaperone from an Arab school, was on the trip for the second year. “I left my wife and three children to be here,” he said. “But I come to offer them a good, peaceful future with no discrimination or bullets. I want to contribute to this world, to do peace. A small idea will come true if you want it to.”

The delegation participants undergo a screening process, which includes essay-writing and interview components. Once selected, they attend lectures and training seminars about history, group dynamics and public speaking.

While touring the region, they met with students at KSDS, the Park School of Baltimore, Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville and the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring. In addition, they attended services at Stevenson’s Chizuk Amuno Synagogue on Saturday and Union Baptist Church in Baltimore on Sunday.

Klil said he particularly enjoyed visiting KSDS, but noted that an exchange with a student there became a bit heated when Klil said he believes Israel should become a non-sectarian state for Arabs and Jews. (That view was not shared by the other Jewish members of the delegation, and Klil admitted that his stance might change after serving in the Israel Defense Forces next year.)

“Our country needs to be more liberal and less religious,” said Klil, who is Jewish. “I feel more comfortable walking in an Arab village than a dati [religious Jewish] neighborhood in Jerusalem. I can’t even take public transportation on Shabbat.

“We should not be a Jewish country, but a country without religion. [Arabs] will not accept a Jewish state, but they will accept a democratic state. There are radical cases, but most Arabs just want to live in peace.”

He said getting to know his Arab peers on this trip was a highly rewarding experience. “When we talk between us, it’s just like my friends at my Jewish school,” Klil said. “You talk about your life, your interests — everything.”

He said he wanted to participate in the program because “I felt it’s important to come here and [clear up] the wrong impressions of the situation [in Israel]. The media only shows the negative side. We might not agree on everything, but we agree on tolerance.”

His fellow traveler, Shadi Darawshi, an Arab Muslim, said he spent much of the trip chatting about soccer and ping pong with his new Israeli Jewish friends.

“We all want to change the future of Israel and are tired of how the media shows only wars,” he said. “I don’t believe it’s just a country for Jews but for Arabs and Jews together. Right now, we don’t live together. All people are the same to me, and I want to live in peace with Jewish people.

“The kids here are very smart, but they don’t know how we live in Israel,” said Shadi. “That’s why we’re here, to talk to them and help them understand. We believe in coexistence and want to live together and change the future.”

Today, the delegation is scheduled to visit Kahlil Gibran Memorial and Moroccan Embassy in Washington. On Wednesday, they will tour the nation’s capital before heading to New York City for the flight back home to Israel.

“This is not a little thing; it’s a huge thing,” Bell-Kliger said of the visit. “Never in Israel would these [students] have had the conversation they’ve had here, thanks to the people here. It’s been so intense, so valuable and so important. What we’re doing here will make Israel a much better place.”

For information, visit  sparksofchangefoundation.org/projects/ .

Top Photo: Members of the Israeli Arab and Jewish teen delegation meet with students from Stevenson’s Krieger Schechter Day School.

Bottom Photo: Klil Michelson (right) listens as Dasha Pavluchenkova talks to KSDS students about moving to Israel from her native Russia.

Photos by Ed Bunyan

 

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