Around a bay window in a house on the Annisquam river, a group of Israeli high school students sang a song by Matisyahu, a reggae artist, to a guitar and ukulele.
Those students — half of them Jewish, the other half Arab — visited Gloucester to help, in their own way, people in Israel to “fight no more,” as the song goes.
The students, 10 in all, had spent two weeks in Gloucester as part of a reconciliation program run by the New Hampshire non-profit Friendsforever.org. The students spent those days learning about Jewish and Muslim culture, New England, and serving at places such as the Wellspring House shelter and the Monarch School for special needs children in New Hampshire.
They came to learn how to coexist, and take what they learned back to their homes in Israel.
Daniel Mordechy, 15, strummed through the Matisyahu song. He’s from Haifa, a port city and one of the three largest cities in Israel, second to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
He knows the often cold hostility between Israeli Jews and Arabs, and doesn’t understand it. If they sit down long enough, as the 10 students did, Mordechy said they will find that, Arab or Jew, they want the same things.
Those conversations have to happen, he said, but they don’t happen much in Israel today. Back home, he said, Israeli Jews and Arabs share a long-festering dislike of each other, and the students came to the U.S. to learn, work and prove, the students said, that they could live together and understand each other.
“I came because people don’t know it’s possible,” Mordechy said.
Mordechy and the other students came from two schools, Leo-Baeck, which is Jewish, and the Ein-Mehel Comprehensive School, which is Arab. Both schools participated in the Friendsforever.org program.
They came with two teachers as chaperones, Faud Habiballah, an English teacher at Ein-Mehel, and Naama Nagar, a communications and psychology teacher at Leo-Baeck.
Robert Raiche of Danvers started the program in 1986 after he brought a group of students from Belfast to America during the height of Protestant and Catholic tensions in Northern Ireland. Friendsforever.org continues to bring people over from Belfast, but added an Israel segment in the late 1990s. Since starting, it has brought over 1,000 young people. The program works with schools and other community organizations in those areas.
Director Steve Martineau says the program lets the students learn to make friendships across cultural strains. It puts them together every day for two weeks, and isn’t a vacation. While students are here, they’re speaking before local Rotary clubs and public officials; when the trip ends, they’ll keep meeting for a year, Martineau said.
“We don’t do a lot of ‘Kumbaya’ stuff, we give them a set task and get them to see themselves as part of a larger picture,” Martineau said. “The kids begin to realize they don’t have to wait for adults to make the world a better place; they can do it right now.”
The students, said American chaperone Samantha Rush, had a packed week. They attended a service at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center Mosque in Roxbury, and a service at Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester. They also spent a few days doing team-building activities, and a night with the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe on Cape Cod. And they served for a day at the Wellspring House and a day at the Monarch School. During the week, the students gave presentations at local Rotaries and to the Israeli Consul General for New England.
It wasn’t always easy, said Noam Meir, 15, also of Haifa. The groups speak different languages, and it was a struggle to keep speaking in English so everyone could understand.
“I was amazed to see two people, one Arab and one Jew, ready to help each other,” Meir said, while she watched the students navigate a high-element ropes course.
Merimar Abuleil, 16, sang along with a few other Jewish and Arab girls in that room with the bay window. She comes from Ein-Mehel, a town six miles outside of Nazareth. Abuleil is a student at the Ein-Mehel Comprehensive School.
She said she came to learn and to understand Jewish culture and tradition. To start making peace, she said, she has to understand it. From eating together to working together, she said she learned it over the two weeks.
“I want to change the idea Muslims have about Jews,” Abueil said.
Tom Baker and his wife Sheila housed the 10 students on at their house on King Philip Road, overlooking the Annisquam River. It’s his second time hosting a group, with 10 students from Belfast Ireland having also stayed there last fall. They arrived late in the day on July 3. He remembers that the students seemed tense on their first day, but started working as a unit almost immediately.
“In their country,” Baker said, “they never get a chance to play together and work together, the groups are always separate. This is their first chance.”
Any dividing line, he said, vanished after the first day. He took the students out to Halibut Point and sailing on the Thomas E. Lannon. Some of the students, he said, stood at the bow with their arms to the wind. By the number of pictures the students took, he said he could tell they enjoyed themselves.
He said he remembers when he hosted the group from Belfast, Catholic and Protestant said their parents had strong words for each other. The experience, he said, tells them those things aren’t true.
Their time together, said Khaled Habiballah, 16, of Ein-Mehel, shows that the stigmas Jewish and Arabic Israelis carry around about each other can be replaced with something better. He said he got involved in the trip because he started meeting Jewish Israelis and wanting to understand them. From that understanding, he said, comes peace. He found that while talking with one of the Jewish students.
“We have to understand each other to live in peace,” Habiballah said.
Steven Fletcher can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3455, or email@example.com.