Israeli students begin TRIUMPH
SIMI VALLEY – Lutof Zreik can recall just one time when he felt judged because of his ethnic and religious background. The 16-year-old Arab Christian, who lives in Israel, remembers playing a soccer game years ago. The teams unintentionally divided into two teams – one side Arabs, the other side Jews. “So one of the Jews said, `It’s a game between terrorists and Jews,”‘ Zreik explained in an e-mail message. “I was very amazed at that time & I didn’t want to argue with him about this, because he didn’t seem like a person who you can argue with.” But overshadowing that painful memory are the many friendships he holds with both Muslim and Jewish students in his school and neighborhood. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORE11 theater productions to see in Southern California this week, Dec. 27-Jan. 2Zreik – along with 15 other Israeli students of Jewish, Muslim and Arab Christian backgrounds – will arrive in Simi Valley today for a two-week program meant to promote peace and cultural understanding among each other. The students were chosen not for their academics, but for their leadership strengths and potential as future leaders of their communities. “We wanted for them to take what they learn here and implement it in Israel,” said Ilan Migdali, a Newbury Park Rotary Club member who has spent the past several years getting the program established. The students have been brought to the United States by the Newbury Park Rotary Club, which committed with members of the Haifa Rotary Club to get Project TRIUMPH – Today’s Revolution is Understanding – Making Peace Happen – off the ground. Organizers hope that by the end of the program, the students will be able to engage in peaceful and respectful dialogue between the represented faiths. The hope is that the students, once they become adults, will be able to distill what they have learned and help cement tolerance and communication in their communities. Each student already has the advantage of living in Haifa, Israel, where religious tensions are relatively low and various ethnic groups live together peacefully. “I want to convey to the American people in L.A. that we live in Haifa in peace and in a good co-existence atmosphere, in spite of the tensions in our region,” Zreik wrote in his e-mail. Through June 18, the teens will participate in educational workshops, team-building projects and leadership activities at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley. They will also visit schools and community groups throughout Ventura County during their stay. Although the program is dear to Migdali, who left Israel in 1982, he said the concept of promoting peace and understanding through youth is not just his. “All parents want to teach their children to do different and better than what we are doing,” he said. The Rotary Club had some problems finding a host city in Israel willing to partner in selecting the right students and helping to send them abroad. Haifa became an ideal choice. The port city is Israel’s third-largest and is a model of tolerance. “It’s an area where Jews and Arabs have lived together for years,” Migdali said. But the relative calm the students live in doesn’t mean prejudices and stereotypes are completely absent. Ifat Gordon, a secular Jew from Haifa who is also participating in TRIUMPH, said most ethnic groups keep to themselves. “In our city, Haifa, we don’t see a lot of hate because the Jewish live in their neighborhood and Arabs in the other side of the city,” she wrote in an e-mail. “We live together and see each other sometimes, but I know there is hate between cultures in our state and it’s obvious.” Gordon said she believes change is already taking place in Haifa and will continue when the teens return to Israel. “It does not matter if you are Arab or Jewish, Muslim or Christian,” she wrote, “& and if we make this change happen in our generation, we can influence the future without war and hate.” Thousand Oaks residents Frances Fujii and her husband Tom Voccola are facilitating the workshops, presentations and activities at Brandeis-Bardin during the two weeks. “This is our first experience with teens and we’re really excited about that,” said Fujii, who with Voccola runs CEO2, a corporate-coaching program. Among the issues Voccola will cover in his workshops will be getting the teens to understand and define their own identities, and getting them to question all beliefs – including their own – in a respectful way. Earlier this year, Voccola surveyed the teens by asking them to identify something positive and something negative about the words Jew, Muslim, Christian, Israeli and Druid. Some of the answers – which he shared with a rabbi, a priest and an imam who have been invited to participate in the program – made their faces turn red. “That’s really where a lot of the conflict comes from, where beliefs of religion get skewed,” he said. But the teens won’t just be sitting in classrooms. Among the volunteers helping out will be a yoga instructor, a creative writing coach, a professional mediator and a documentary film producer. When the two weeks end and the students return to Israel, they will commit to a community service project for one year. The Newbury Park Rotary has also committed to continuing the TRIUMPH program for 10 years. This will guarantee what Midgali said would be “a few hundred leaders that by then will be in their early 20s that can enter politics, can enter the social way of life in Israel and make a difference.”160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!