Mai Azem, a 16-year-old Israeli Arab, had never met an American teenager. Until she joined the “Q School” in Tira, a predominantly Arab city in central Israel, she wouldn’t have been able to have a conversation with one, either.

But thanks to Q Schools, an after-school English language-enrichment program for Arab youth, and an interfaith evening arranged by the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI) recently, she managed to converse with American Jewish students, get to know them, and exchange personal information.

“It’s so cool to find another girl from another culture, another country, who likes the same things as you do and you can talk about them,” said Azem. “We learned about each other and developed an understanding about the others in the group, and we got to know each other better. It was very exciting.”

Azem was one of 120 high school students (80 American Jews and 40 Israeli Muslims) who attended the dinner event at the Mosenson Youth Village, home to AMHSI, a pluralistic, college-preparation, international semester abroad program for high school students. The idea for the event was conceived by AMHSI, which invited students from the Q School in Tira to participate in a dialogue between the teens.

According to Rona Melnik, a senior staff member at AMHSI, the goal of the AMHSI semester-in-Israel program is to expose the foreign students to the fabric of Israeli society and enable them to be active members of Israeli society while they’re in the country.

“We were looking for opportunities to introduce our students to other people of different faiths—Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Bedouin, Druze—and this idea was born,” Melnik said.

Staff and students from AMHSI and Q Schools (L-R back): Madeleine Levin, Giselle Etessami, Pegah Etessami, Orit Rome (AMHSI Co-CEO, far back), Rona Melnik, Dr Dalia Fadila, Mai Azem, Amina Aiad, Shadi Azen (founding teacher at Q Schools), (front) Hamid Fadila and Cody Doll. Photo: Italy Cohen

Held on May 10, which was Mother’s Day, it was a fitting occasion to show that every mother’s child deserves equal education and opportunities for growth and development.

“We created a connection through Jewish National Fund with this incredible woman, Dalia Fadila, who started a chain of schools in 2008 called the Q Schools,” said Melnik. “Her motto is, ‘Today’s reader, tomorrow’s leader.’ Her idea is to expose the Arab minority to English, and she realized that by teaching them English, you can change their reality. So it’s non-political and doesn’t have anything to do with the complicated political dynamics here; it’s just an opportunity to learn English and to create future leaders within the local Arab community.”

This is not the first time the Q Schools program has been involved in such an event. Fadila—a professor of English and provost of the Al-Qasemi Academy, an Arab college of education in Israel—believes this type of event is an essential part of her students’ education.

“Each year, we have a Jewish-Arab program because it’s part of who we are,” Fadila said. “The philosophy of our Q Schools is to enable our kids to grow as optimistic, open-minded, very educated, and independent learning individuals. It’s about knowing ourselves through the other and having an interfaith, cross-cultural interaction, which is part of being a better human being.”

At the start of the evening, Hamid Fadila, one of the school’s first students and also Dalia’s son, spoke on behalf of the Q Schools.

“It’s our very great honor to be here as your guests here and hopefully we’ll have a lot of fun and we’ll discuss a lot of things that we teenagers have in common,” he said. “Q Schools was developed not only to learn English, but also to develop a new generation in the society that we live in.”

Madeleine Levin, a 17-year-old New Yorker, made introductions on behalf of AMHSI.

“We have spent the past four months learning about this country inside and out; everything from King David to this year’s election,” Levin said. “We have traveled everywhere from the Golan in the north all the way to Eilat in the south. We’ve spent nights in Jerusalem and Tzfat, experiencing different Jewish traditions. We’ve gone to Poland to learn about our Jewish roots and the struggles that our grandparents and great-grandparents faced.

She continued, “If you take a second to look around you, you are all sitting in a place full of incredible people—people who, in some ways, could not be more different from you, but, in other ways, could not be more like you. People who speak a different language, practice different religions, live in different places, and have grown up in a completely different culture; but also people who listen to the same music, watch the same movies, play the same sports, and have similar dreams to yours.”

The plan for the evening was to put Muslim and Jewish students in groups around a table and, together with a facilitator, get them to ask each other questions about their lives, their hopes and dreams, their families, their schools, their likes, dislikes, hobbies, and more.

Hamid Fadila said of the evening, “It was a really great opportunity to meet people outside of your lives. When you meet people from outside, you can learn a lot that could be so beneficial to you.”

Levin agrees.

“It breaks down a lot of preconceived ideas for me,” she said. “As a Jewish American, I associated a lot of things with the word or the title ‘Arab,’ and just to sit tonight and have dinner with people my age who are Arab puts everything I had envisioned aside and sheds a whole new light.”

She added, “I learned that I have similar music tastes to some of the people at my table, and while we lead very different lives, there are a lot of basic similarities in both communities. They laugh at the same jokes, they listen to the same music, and they play the same sports that we like to play. At the end of the day, we all find happiness in similar places.”

(L-R) Dr Dalia Fadila, Giselle and Pegah Etessami, and Rona Melnik. Photo: Italy Cohen

Giselle Etessami, 15, of Los Angeles, attended the interfaith event with her mother Pegah, who was visiting her in Israel.

“I feel like we’ve had so many meaningful nights within the group and on the program, and I think this event definitely stands out because it’s the essence of the future of Israel. … We lead different lives as people, but if you go down into your soul, we’re really not that different,” said Giselle.

Pegah said, “When you’re in the States and all you hear are bad things happening between the Arabs and the Jews, it’s so nice to see them all sitting here around a table and having conversations, and there’s nothing other than love and respect going on at these tables.”

Aubrey Isaacs, an educator at AMHSI, hopes such Jewish-Arab dialogue events will become more regular.

“These meetings are very important because they enrich these kids,” he said. “You want them to discover that they’re all the same, but for it to be a truly enriching experience, they also need to explore and respect the differences. If they just walk away and see only what we have in common, they will never learn.”