Photos by David Stuck
Lior Witow and his fellow students didn’t waste any time as they got right to the heart of the matter in their discussion with Mamoun and Efaf Asady.
“Will peace come?” the eighth-grader asked the Israeli Arab couple, who were visiting Baltimore last week for a lunchtime session at Krieger Schechter Day School.
“Sure, there can be peace, but there must be two sides [involved in decision making], not one,” replied Mamoun Asady. “The Israeli Arab minority likes peace more than any other minority. If tension or war happens, we suffer. But if there is ease, we’re happy, twice as happy because it influences our lives.”
The Asadys, who live in the Galilean village of Deir al-Asad, came to the United States as part of an educational program that introduces them to Jewish day school students and promotes better communication, understanding and, ultimately, peace between Arabs and Israelis.
The Krieger Schechter students came prepared with questions about life in Deir al-Asad, and Asady responded to each question with thoughtful consideration. Middle school director Shelley Hendler said she was gratified by the students’ contributions.
“It’s unbelievable. I didn’t touch any of these questions,” she said. “This was totally organic.”
Asady told the students that he is a strong supporter of Israel but stressed he is against the occupation of territories he considers as belonging to a future Palestinian state.
“I consider myself an Israeli Arab,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me to call Israel a Jewish state. What I want is a democracy and to be treated like a human being. I want Arabs to be treated with respect and have equal access to good services, schools and living conditions.”
Though he is in favor of a two-state solution, Asady said he does not plan to move out of his village to go to a Palestinian state.
“I was born there and have had roots there for 500 years,” said Asady. “I have no other place. I have my country, land and ancestors. I breathe the air and drink the water. I feel part of the land.”
He wanted students to understand the importance of communication in setting the groundwork for peace.
“Language is the key to the heart,” he said. “Even just saying good morning to someone [in his or her native language] means so much.”
In addition to the luncheon and question-and-answer session, the week’s activities included art, dance, cooking and storytelling with the Asadys. This was the second year the Asadys came to Baltimore, and this time they also met with students at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, Charles E. Smith Day School in Rockville, Community Day School in Pittsburgh and Kellman Brown Academy in Voorhees, N.J.
The program came about from a chance meeting between Dr. Desmond Kaplan, a Baltimore psychiatrist and parent of two KSDS alumni, and Mamoun Asady, a retired Hebrew and Arabic teacher. While visiting Israel three years ago, Kaplan, a native of South Africa who lived in Israel for 15 years prior to moving to Baltimore, decided he wanted to learn Arabic.
“I felt that people weren’t speaking each other’s languages, and that was a problem,” he said.
Kaplan was referred to Asady, who agreed to teach him to speak as much Arabic as possible over the course of the educator’s two-week visit in Israel. In the brief time the men spent together, they formed a strong friendship, and when Kaplan agreed to fly standby to Baltimore in exchange for a free ticket back to Israel, he decided to give the ticket to Asady so he and his wife could come to the U.S.
When the Asadys arrived in Baltimore the first time, Kaplan showed them the sights and brought them to KSDS to speak with the children.
“When the kids met Mamoun, it was electric,” recalled Kaplan. “It was like meeting the enemy and seeing he wasn’t bad.”
The visit last year proved so valuable that when KSDS eighth-graders took their annual trip to Israel, a special stop was made in Deir al-Asad to visit the couple. Kaplan was determined to bring the Asadys back to Baltimore again this year.
Though Kaplan and his fiancee, Jill Seidman, were happy to host the couple in Baltimore, there were other expenses to consider. With help from Paul Schneider, the former headmaster of KSDS, Kaplan was led to Janet Berg and Everett Siegel, founders of the Sparks of Change Foundation, which honors their son, Daniel, a KSDS alum who passed away from brain cancer in 2010 when he was just 21.
“We met with them, and on the spot we had the money,” said Kaplan.
When she heard about the project, Berg knew it made sense for the foundation.
“Everything just came together,” she said. “When Daniel was 4 years old and we would ask him what he wanted to do when he grew up, he would say, ‘I want to be a changer, someone who makes a difference.’ ”
Making the situation even more fortuitous was that Jenna Weinberg, a close friend of Daniel from Beth Tfiloh who was on a year-long Dorot Fellowship in Israel, wanted to be involved.
When she was introduced to the Asadys, Weinberg also formed a tight bond with the couple. In fact, Asady refers to Weinberg as “my third daughter.”
“The focus of my fellowship was learning about Israeli Arabs,” said Weinberg. “The Siegels connected me with Paul Schneider and KSDS so that we could expand and strengthen the project.”
This semester, twice a week, Weinberg, 25, takes a three-hour trip from her residence in Jaffa to Deir al-Asad, where she runs an English club for 20 Arab Israeli eighth-graders. The plan is to connect those students with the KSDS students when they visit the village later this spring.
“When I look back at my Jewish upbringing and education and the values of social justice with which I was raised, I never learned anything about the Israeli Arabs and the inequalities they face,” said Weinberg. “I’ve been on many trips to Israel, but I never before saw Israel through the lens of the Israeli Arabs.”
At the end of last week’s Baltimore luncheon, a KSDS teacher asked her students, “What will you tell your parents about the visit from the Asadys?”
“I would say this was a great experience,” answered Jessica Cahn. “Regardless of what happens with politics, people-to-people [communication] is good; it’s healthy.”
Jessica’s twin sister, Sarah, agreed.
“I feel like we got a lot of both sides,” she said. “I’m interested in hearing both sides.”