Before visiting the United States, Radn Shalata said she expected a place like Pikesville High to resemble the American schools she’d typically seen “in the movies.”
An Israeli Arab from the northern Israeli city of Sakhnin, Radn, 17, said her expectations were met when touring the school on March 29. “It was [like in the movies],” she said of PHS. “I liked it. The students here are great.”
Radn was among eight Israeli high school students – four Arab and four Jewish – who came to the U.S. recently as part of Galilee Dreamers, a group formerly known as Sparks of Change. The program brings together Arab and Jewish students annually from Israel’s Galilee region for two-week-long trips to destinations across North America and South Africa.
The students – who live in the towns and cities of Karmiel, Sakhnin, Misgav and Deir al-Assad – get acquainted with each other, discover common ground and meet peers from other parts of the world. Meanwhile, their American and South African counterparts learn about life in Israel from the perspectives of young Jews and Arabs, who are accompanied on the trip by a pair of graduate students, two teachers and a group leader.
Radn, who attends the Al-Bashaer School in Sakhnin, described the Galilee Dreamers program as “amazing because it gives [participants] a chance to break down walls between Arabs and Jews.”
Now in its fourth year, Galilee Dreamers is organized and facilitated by Dr. Roberta Bell-Kligler, director of the Oranim International School of Education near Haifa. The program was created in partnership with the Sparks of Change Foundation, which was established in 2016 by Janet Berg, Dr. Everett Siegel, Leigh Siegel, and Mirielle Burgoyne in memory of the late Daniel Joseph Siegel, a 2003 graduate of Krieger Schechter Day School in Pikesville. The primary mission of Galilee Dreamers is to promote peaceful coexistence in Israel.
In addition to PHS, the students visited KSDS, Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, the Park School and Western Tech School of Technology and Environmental Science in Catonsville. The trip’s itinerary from March 23 to April 6 included stops in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
While visiting PHS, the Israeli students met with members of the school’s Multiculturalism Rising Above Difference group. The students who belong MRAD — comprised of 11th and 12th-graders from diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds — prepared a series of questions for their Israeli peers, touching on myriad topics from education to Jewish-Arab relations, and from to Ethiopian Jewry to American fast food options.
PHS 11th-grade student Mehri Hamrokulova, a Muslim and MRAD member, said the visit presented an opportunity to “converse with other teenagers to see how their values differ from mine as an Uzbek girl.”
Israeli Arab student Mahmood Khalaileh said he was surprised by how favorably PHS compared to the Jewish day schools he visited in Philadelphia during the trip.
“These are all schools where people pay a lot of money,” he said. “My expectation was that Pikesville High School [as a public school] would be less privileged. But it’s the same. Public schools in Israel are not as big or fully equipped.”
Mahmood, 16, described the PHS students as friendly and the school’s atmosphere as more relaxed that what he was used to in Israel.
Rachel Ravid, an adult group leader from the Oranim School, said she was also impressed with the environment at PHS.
“I felt so comfortable walking the corridors,” she told students there. “There are such beautiful blackboards. You have been given a lot of space to express your views, and each of you brings your full selves. Lots of compliments to you and your teachers.”
Mehri said that she and her peers at PHS “know they are privileged. We have a practically new school,” referring to the school’s extensive renovations completed in 2016.
Tai Raz, one of the Galilee Dreamers, said she had visited the U.S. in the past, but this was her first trip to Baltimore.
“I love America,” said Tai, an Israeli Jew. “People are nicer here. Each one has their own style.”
PHS student Ferdinand Virtudes informed the Israelis that the school was relatively “diverse for this area.” Tai said that this is not generally the case in Israeli high schools, where Arab and Jewish students usually do not attend the same schools.
“We have 3,000 to 4,000 students in my school, and only four students are Arab,” said Tai. “It’s different in college. There, it is mixed.”
Tai said that there is discrimination against Ethiopian Jews in Israel, and she believes there always will be. “Sometimes, the police discriminate,” she said. “But between [her and her classmates], we don’t discriminate. We all want to live in peace.”
PHS student Savoy Adams asked if there is tension between Israeli Jews and Palestinians, to which Diana Shpits, 16, an Israeli Jew, responded, “They are living in separate villages and cities. We don’t really associate; there’s not much interaction. But we see [Palestinians] in the mall.”
Rabbi Paul D. Schneider, a co-founder of Galilee Dreamers and former head of school at KSDS, admitted that the program’s primary objective — the establishment of peaceful coexistence — is difficult to attain, but that the Galilee region is an ideal place to start.
“When we look at the country, because of where Olanim [International School] is situated and because … there have always been good relations between Jews and Arabs there, there is more support for coexistence,” he said.
In selecting Israeli participants for the program, Rabbi Schneider said the organizers looked for students who speak English and were “supportive of coexistence. They were self-selected. They said, ‘Hineini, I am here.’ ”
In addition, he said the students’ parents wanted their children to participate in the program. “The Jewish and Arab parents have gotten together and celebrated their children and the project,” he said.
Rabbi Schneider said Galilee Dreamers “is growing. The only thing keeping us from growing [more rapidly] is our need for funding.”
For information about Galilee Dreamers, visit http://en.oranim.ac.il/